Life Online

I’m finding it harder and harder to keep track of things online. At the time of writing/typing, I’m running six email accounts, two blogs (this one and the ‘in-progress’ studenttoolkit.co.uk, two twitter accounts and one facebook page.

That’s crazy.

To try and keep myself organised, I’m experimenting with several tools. The hard bit is making sure that whatever I’m doing and wherever I am, I’ve got access to the information I need for any of the above ‘identities’. I’ve had an android tablet for a year and have been very pleased with it, especially using it with three applications which link with web-based versions:

  • Evernote is great for ideas and notes, the tags making it easy to keep work and personal thoughts categorised.
  • Pocket (aka ReadItLater) means I can save information from websites to, well, read it later.
  • Astrid works well as a to-do list, especially when linked to projects stored as plans on Evernote.

I’ve now also given in and bought an android phone, which is more portable and has 3G as well as Wi-Fi. This has been particularly important as my school has still not sorted guest access for staff to use their own devices. It means that between the two I can now access meeting notes, lesson plan ideas and so on wherever I am. Not to mention books, websites, media, my music collection and some games that are far too addictive. But enough – this wasn’t intended to be about the joys of android.

It’s about Twitter.

I’m now making a deliberate effort to ‘favourite’ tweets with useful ideas or links in them, and most are about work. It can be news articles, resources, quotes, teaching ideas, all sorts of things. Some aren’t about teaching at all, as much to my students’ surprise I’m a real person who has a life and hobbies. Like, umm, blogging about teaching. Anyway.

Using favourites on Twitter is quick, automatically synchronised, doesn’t depend on anything being installed (difficult on work computers), and avoids issues with blogs and so on which are often blocked at work. When I get the chance, I read through the favourited tweets, check out the links and think about the ideas. But this kind of reflection is something I could do more formally, and the whole point of my blog is to share reflective practice and see what colleagues think, so here we are. My plan is to, weekly or fortnightly, blog a list of (most of) my favourited tweets. It will include a fast review, what I thought of the links and how I applied the ideas in the classroom. I suppose it’s the same kind of idea as Ed Yong’s ‘missing links‘ posts. But not as good, or as well researched, or as useful. And probably not as regular either.

Starting this weekend. Don’t get too excited.

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Entering the Virtual Staffroom 2/2: Twitter

It was probably from Alom Shaha that I first ‘heard’ the term virtual staffroom to encompass the ways in which Twitter and blogging can help teachers improve their professional practice. I’m not the only person who likes the concept, and there’s some excellent discussion elsewhere about the benefits it can offer. I’ve mentioned some of these ideas in passing before, and I’m not going to try to tell you that you must blog about teaching, or why Twitter will change your (professional) life. But I’ve gained enough from both that I thought it was worth highlighting a few things.

Twitter

If you’re not already on Twitter, your impression of it may be that you have to spend your whole time reading every detail of Stephen Fry’s day. In fact, although I first got into it to let people know about this blog (blame Alom again) I now use it for all kinds of things. I’ve blogged about this before TK but in the context of professional practice it seemed worth revisiting.

I follow lots of teachers, both science specialists and those of other subjects. I follow lots of people involved in science or science communication. These people share ideas and links that I find useful at work – from discussions about the recent (possibly) FTL neutrinos story to classroom management strategies I hadn’t thought of. (I also follow some authors I like, a few media, some atheism/secular tweeters, altmed debunkers and a few random others, which are less useful professionally. Because I am a real person as well as a teacher, despite what my kids may think.)

I started off tweeting mainly work-related stuff, and I hope it still makes up a fair bit of my output. However, it’s a good way to share comments and links to media or websites that aren’t about (science) teaching, but are interesting – religion, liberty, politics often come into these tweets. Conversations about particular topics can get started, which is where Twitter can be a really useful CPD tool, just like teachers gossiping over a coffee about good practicals, ways to structure a lesson or the best ICT tool for a particular job. Using hashtags avoids half of your 140 characters being used with the twitter handles of the other people involved.

Of course, some hashtags are used for planned, organised and moderated conversations, rather than spontaneous chats. #ukedchat is a well-known example of this, although I don’t take part as often as I’d like. I’m more likely to find time for #asechat, the science-teacher-specific version (my summary here) or #SciTeachJC, focussed on discussing academic papers. These can be confusing and busy sessions, but they are certainly a good way to get you thinking about CPD.

So why not try it? Try tweeting each day about a lesson that’s gone particularly well or badly. Give a link to a resource – an iPlayer clip, a concept cartoon, a New Scientist article, an academic paper – that might be useful to colleagues (shortening with bit.ly or similar if needed). Start a hashtag for topics that others might be interested in. Follow people who have interesting things to say, and use their #ff tweets to build up your own ‘personal learning network‘. Twitter is about sharing, so share.

A cautious note to finish on – it’s very easy to forget that Twitter is an open forum. Unless protected, or sent as DMs (direct messages), anyone can read a tweet. They show up on search engines and may be taken out of context. Just as staffroom conversation can be negative and unhelpful – it’s easy for it to turn into a whingefest at the end of a long day, when you’ve really had enough – Twitter can seem like a good way to let it all out. That might be constructive, when colleagues or friends rally round to offer support and suggestions. But it can be easy for complaints or issues with political aspects, which don’t have a resolution, to get passed around and around.

Never tweet anything you would be worried about coming back to you in the staffroom, especially if you’re logged in under your real name. Be cautious about how you phrase criticisms, and never be insulting about pupils or mention anything that could identify them or their class. Remember that students or their parents could follow you, and you might find it useful to check how your school’s social media policy applies to Twitter. I choose to tweet pseudonymously, but I hope never unprofessionally.

As with my previous ‘virtual staffroom’ post, I recommend the relevant posts on the Creative Education blog. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts about uses of, or attitudes to, Twitter I’ve not mentioned.

Entering The Virtual Staffroom 1/2: Blogging

It was probably from Alom Shaha that I first ‘heard’ the term virtual staffroom to encompass the ways in which Twitter and blogging can help teachers improve their professional practice. I’m not the only person who likes the concept, and there’s some excellent discussion elsewhere about the benefits it can offer. I’ve mentioned some of these ideas in passing before, and I’m not going to try to tell you that you must blog about teaching, or why Twitter will change your (professional) life. But I’ve gained enough from both that I thought it was worth highlighting a few things.

Blogging

I started with a blog because I figured it was a shame that other people couldn’t learn from my mistakes – after all I’d made so many of them! Partly it was disappointment with the poor quality of the resources available through Memory4Teachers, which seemed a good idea blighted by poor execution. I’ve seen several benefits:

  • For me blogging provides a sounding board – sometimes it doesn’t even matter if anyone else is reading it. Reflective practice is really important and after training it’s easy to lose the habit of writing out what worked and what didn’t, and why, and how you plan to improve. Have a look at the NQT Bloggers  to see what I mean. And as you gain an audience, comments can really help you with new ideas or different viewpoints. (To any readers who habitually lurk rather than commenting, you have no idea how much it would be appreciated…)
  • Having that audience really encourages me to raise my game with resources, just like students improving their presentation because their friends will see it. Because I don’t produce anything I don’t plan to use at work, I can spend extra time without resenting it so much. I’m not encouraging style over substance, but those few moments probably do help.
  • Actually writing blog posts often gives me new ideas; because of explaining something, or trying to find a good example, I understand it better myself. Making the posts readable encourages me to break the ideas down so they really make sense. This is why writing a paragraph summary of any INSET session is worthwhile, by the way – it makes you focus on what matters and why.
  • As people start to read your blog, it’s hugely encouraging. Just the traffic is nice; WordPress gives you stats, and I’ve carefully never tried to figure out how much is bots. Comments are fantastic feedback, whether positive or with suggestions. Even better are those who tell you that what you’ve written has made them think, given them ideas or solved a problem. If you tweet (see below) then you’ll see people mentioning your blog or thanking you online, which is a huge confidence boost. Getting a mention from some people can have a huge effect; it’s a little pathetic how much I treasure the literally hundreds of hits I got after links from Ben Goldacre and Ed Yong.

If you are going to blog, there’s loads of advice around. There are several teacher-specific aspects you may wish to consider.

  • Stay professional. Everyone grumbles, but don’t say anything in a blog post you would be ashamed to hear a colleague say in public or to read in a newspaper. Never name a student or be specific about a class or colleague. Take care with the language you use to describe bad days or challenging students. If you use photos of resources and/or demonstrations, ensure pupils are not visible. You may wish to check these guidelines on blogging about work or check with a union rep, or ask a member of your SMT. Most policies cover social networking in general rather than blogging in particular. Alternatively…
  • I blog and tweet under a pseudonym. I think of this as working discreetly, rather than secretly – it would not be hard for a determined reader to figure out who I am. It allows me the freedom to blog without it affecting my school, colleagues or myself. (Partly this is because with an unusual surname my students would find the blog on a casual Google search.) This may be particularly important if while blogging you end up discussing how outside issues – perhaps family events or illness – affect your professional practice. Of course I will have to ‘out’ myself if I want to use the blog itself, rather than describing benefits I’ve gained from it, at interview in the future!
  • Think about resource sharing. What you produce could also be shared through the TES or Guardian resource sites, stored locally, linked through Google Docs or sites such as Dropbox, or Slideshare (which allows live presentations to be hosted on your blog). There are lots of possibilities, some of which may mean setting up a blog-specific or pseudonymous account. Plan ahead and be systematic.

As a final thought, I’d strongly recommend the Creative Education blog for lots of ideas, on blogging and other stuff. In particular, the article on Writing Blog Posts has lots of good, sensible advice. I don’t always follow it, but if not I usually regret it.

EDIT: @dannynic has a great blog post on starting a blog with more practical advice, well worth a look.

Part 2: Twitter now online.

Teaching With Blogs 1/5 Students Reading Blogs

I read blogs. There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (click here if you can’t name that adapted quote.) But seriously, I love the fact that people with interesting, challenging and often funny things to say are happy to share that with the world. These people are often experts in their field. In between day jobs – because only a lucky few can make a living by doing it – they give time and attention to writing for free. As a teacher I try to find ways to turn anything I find – fossils from the beach, events in the news, random YouTube videos – into a ‘teachable moment’. So why not make blogs one of theose things?

Why?

Blog writing has some huge advantages over textbooks for enthusing our students.

  • broad – textbooks often (these days almost always) stick to a narrow syllabus.
  • up-to-date – Ed Yong for example tends to be several days, if not weeks, ahead of even the online versions of print media.
  • enthusiastic – blog writers wouldn’t do it for fun if they didn’t have passion for their subjects.
  • expert – during swine flu scares the infectious disease blog Effect Measure was invaluable as the mainstream media veered between mass hysteria and total denial.

In some ways I would see the breadth of science covered in blogs as a double advantage for teaching purposes. Some students will be inspired by the breath of the subject, as revealed by a good science blogger. More prosaically, when reading a blog post students will practise extracting information from a longer article. This is a higher-level skill, one of those L2l things none of us ever thought of teaching before the government told us we should do it. Blogs are often written informally, translating dusty scientific articles into vivid prose. The advantages of being able to include images, videos and links can’t be ignored in their ability to catch a student’s imagination. The comments provide a view of the discussion that should so often accompany science but is so often missed in textbooks and scholarly accounts. The impassioned language and often creative insults isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, as anyone who’s followed the recent dispute between James Delingpole and Simon Singh can attest.)

How?

I’ve found the best way to use blogs is as one of several source materials on a relevant topic, ideally one in the news. You could give students a news topic, perhaps linked to mainstream media versions, then ask them to find blog posts about it. Alternatively, point them a particular blog and ask them to choose one post to review, ideally by commenting.

I have a list on the right which desperately needs updating; perhaps more could be added in the comments? Which you choose will of course depend on which speciality you teach and what you’re hoping the students will get out of it. For biology and great reviews of recent research, Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science is fantastic – I keep meaning to have a proper look at the rest of the blogs hosted by Discover magazine. Bad Science from Ben Goldacre includes his Guardian columns and more. The Quackometer is another blog on pseudoscience, especially alternative medicine claims. ScienceBlogs – which today is focusing on the science of kissing, almost guaranteed to get a student reading avidly – is a portal to all kinds of interesting blogs, despite the recent Pepsigate ‘scandal’. Melanie Windridge blogged about nuclear fusion while on her IoP Schools and Colleges tour. Studnets who immediately claim that ‘this is all too hard for us’ should be directed to Rhys Morgan’s blog.

By considering both the science and the presentation, it is easy to learn lessons about effective science communication. Perhaps they could then write a set of rules or guidelines to apply to their next powerpoint presentation or wiki. If the blog doesn’t have links, it’s easy to find your own explanations of complex ideas online, perhaps using the ‘Simple English’ Wikipedia or equivalent sites. Can they translate or summarise what they’ve learned? Write a series of comprehension questions to be used with the blog post? Give their own responses to ethical issues raised or local implications?

And Then?

Maybe they could produce their own classroom blog – imagine one student a week is assigned to write a blog post about that week’s science lessons, with appropriate images and links. Other students could comment on the work, building on the ideas and suggesting their own interpretations or how they might apply it. I’ve seen more online about using blogs with primary classes but hope to use this, perhaps with my older students to start with, this year. In the shorter term, students could produce a hotlinked document in the style of a blog post. Imagine producing a pdf to be accessed through the school VLE, text and images with key terms expanded by external links. It’s as if we’re enabling students to be independant learners… but now I’m sounding far too consultant-y.

This post was featured in an educational technology blog carnival, hosted by Danny Nicholson at The Whiteboard Blog.