Five Apps for Reducing Isolation and Increasing Connectedness

The principalship, as well as other leadership positions in schools, can be isolating. We typically don’t have a team of our own within a building. Even when part of a district, it can be hard to build a professional community with colleagues; competing for limited resources plus the busyness of our days too often keeps us at a distance.

I recommend five apps that have helped me bridge this divide and foster a sense of connectedness with other educators.

  • Google+ Communities – While I know a lot of educators use Facebook groups for connecting with colleagues, I prefer Communities. It feels less like social media and more like a chat room. You can create categories for organizing posts. Being a part of the Google ecosystem is also helpful for sharing content.
  • email – Whether Gmail, Outlook, or Apple Mail, email is still a tried and true method for connecting with others. What I am referring to here is different than work messages. I use email as an ongoing correspondence with close colleagues: timeless technology for writing back and forth with each other. So…rethink email!
  • Slack – I’ve used this communication tool during educational conferences and for technology discussion boards. I find Slack a cross between email and a discussion board. It takes some getting used to but I do like the interface and feel of it.
  • Tweetbot – This app is my preferred Twitter client. I don’t get all of the ads or suggested tweets like I do with the native application. Twitter chats, direct messages, and lists all help me stay connected with other educators. The only part of Tweetbot I find lacking is the inability for group chats in direct messages.
  • Voxer – I’m not a heavy user of Voxer but I do enjoy the back-and-forth you can have with this walkie-talkie app. Communications can be light, mostly chatting about topics that have nothing to do with school. Other times I am reaching out to a principal regarding a prospective teaching candidate or for problem-solving.

Of course, the best app for reducing isolation and increasing connectedness is the physical presence of others. It’s a big reason why I attend educational conferences and participate in monthly regional school leader meetings. But during the in-between, my personal/professional connections mediated online are the next best thing.

What app or digital tool do you prefer to stay connected with colleagues? Why do you like it? Please share in the comments.

How to Create a Twitter List of Reliable Media Sources

Twitter has been the primary medium for sharing news regarding the presidential election and transition. This social media tool can be effective for gaining multiple perspectives on a topic or cause. The challenge with Twitter is in how to use it so the information you are receiving is reliable. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

My suggestion: Create a Twitter list. You don’t even have to follow people or organizations to put them on a list. Here’s how:

  • Select “lists” within the menu under your Twitter profile picture.

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  • Scroll down and select “Create New List”.


  • Select a hashtag relevant to the topic of interest, such as #WomensMarch. Find people on Twitter who are reporting information and offering commentary (versus simply stating opinions on a topic).

Often journalists and news organizations will have a blue check next to their profile picture. This means they are verified Twitter accounts and have a broader audience on important topics.

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Once you find sources that are reliable for media coverage, select their profile and add them to a new list. You can create a new list when you start looking on Twitter. There is no need to follow them if you prefer not.

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  • Start reading your Twitter list.

The easiest way is to select the list within your Twitter account and read the feed. When posts are retweeted within the feed by those you’ve listed, this can be an opportunity to add more reliable media sources to your list.

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If you read on an tablet or smartphone, I suggest downloading Flipboard to read your Reliable Media Sources list. This free application offers a more visually appealing way to read tweets. You can still access Twitter through Flipboard.

If all of this is too much, you can also simply follow my reliable media sources list. Click here to follow. One caution: Avoid reading these list feeds constantly. News reports can become all consuming, even when the sources are valid. We need to live in the real world so that we have some grounding in reality and be a part of our communities.

In an age where the credibility of the press is openly questioned, it is more important than ever to know how to navigate the information available and decide which sources are most reliable. Fake news does exist. Yet it is up to the reader to determine what sources can be counted upon for facts. A more informed public is the best way to combat misinformation.

Costs and Benefits of Social Media in Education

On more than one occasion I have misplaced my smart phone. My initial response is panic (“What if someone is trying to get a hold of me?”). After this is general acceptance of my disconnectedness. In these opportunities for solitude my mind tends to wander. I cannot check Twitter, Facebook or a Google+ Community, so I seek different forms of cognitive engagement, such as connecting with my family more and attending to the immediate experiences in front of me. With being disconnected, I also find myself reflecting on my experiences and plans for the future. Yes, I miss having the world’s knowledge and diverse communities at my fingertips. But there is a cost to this access.


This lead presents a counter to the promise of the Internet facilitating powerful connections among people. There is little doubt that social media and engaging in global and diverse conversations has brought many benefits to society at large, especially for our younger generation studied extensively by Ito and colleagues (2008). Adolescents can feel empowered when they engage in online communities around areas of interest. They can participate at their preferred depth and frequency, either as an observer and/or a contributor. There are no age limits; perceived and actual levels of expertise and curiosity determine the authority that is attributed to a participant.

The opportunities provided through social media are not only couched in learning. There are also social and emotional advantages to these new connections, also pointed out by Ito and fellow researchers.

“These processes make social status and friendship more explicit and public, providing a broader set of contexts for observing these informal forms of social evaluation and peer-based learning. In other words, it makes peer negotiations visible in new ways, and it provides opportunities to observe and learn about social norms from their peers” (18-19).

It is tempting to paint a largely rosy picture of a highly connected world. Yet as I pointed out, there are trade-offs to being “always on”. danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014), also finds the benefits that youth reap in “networked publics”, extensions that allows them to “extend the pleasure” (4) of their locally-based friendships. While these online spaces allow for the social interaction that adolescents crave, these digital communities can also create new challenges. For example, students will post something that they believe is temporary, yet can stick around for a long time if the recipient chooses to save it.

“Conversations conducted through social media are far from ephemeral; they endure…Alice’s message doesn’t expire when Bob reads it, and Bob can keep that message for decades” (11).

Also of concern is how Internet-mediated relationships can alter in-person interactions. Social scientist Sherry Turkle found that the mere presence of a smartphone at a dinner table keeps people’s conversations at more surface-level topics (2015). Guest’s attention is “split” between the present dialogue and what might be happening online.

I don’t want to come across as a Luddite when I question the efficacy of learning through social media. My many connections via Facebook, Twitter and blogging have brought formally unattainable knowledge to my work and a richer experience to my world. I just wouldn’t want it to monopolize the life I have in front of me.


Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, R., Lange, P. & Robinson, L. (2008). Living and learning with new media. MacArthur Foundation. Chicago, IL.

Turkle, S. (2015). Stop Googling. Let’s talk. The New York Times. Retrieved from

The Art of Visual Notetaking

At my first National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) convention, I found myself surrounded by celebrities – at least in the world of literacy. Franki Sibberson and Troy Hicks were presenting on the topics of technology-enhanced reading. Paul Hankins was seated behind me. Lee Ann Spillane was sitting next to me.

As Franki and Troy presented, I was impressed with my neighbors’ listening skills, considering how connected they are online. Paul was a great conversationalist when we had the chance to talk with a neighbor. Lee Ann had a blank sketchbook out, synthesizing the information through writing and drawing. 

Following her lead, I put my laptop down, shut off Twitter on my tablet, grabbed my stylus and opened up Penultimate on my iPad Air. My first tries were more text than visuals and pretty concrete (click here and here to see my initial attempts). I thought back to how Lee Ann visualized the metaphors evoked in the presentations. My final visual notes better captured my thinking, this time during Steven Layne’s presentation on reading aloud. For example, I drew a road around the phrase “Know where the text is going”.



My visual notes of this topic made it more understandable and memorable for me. Limiting myself to primary colors helped to keep things simple. Visual notetaking allowed me be less of a Twitter transcriptionist and more of a learner – all thanks to where I sat.

What one thing should a student know, understand, or be able to do by the time they leave elementary school?

I don't want to know how many other faces have been pushed into this toy.
I don’t want to know how many other faces have been pushed into this toy.

My daughter and I were in a waiting room today, trying to occupy ourselves while my son was with the dentist.

I browsed through the magazines available and saw the most recent edition of Popular Mechanics. The title for the cover article was “42 Things You Should Know How to Do at Every Age”. This question spurred a bigger question with me, which is the title for this post. Our staff is starting to discuss how to make our portfolio assessment process more coherent across the grade levels and more authentic for our students.

I shared the question out on Instagram, Twitter, a Facebook group, and a Google+ Community. I got zero responses from Twitter and Instagram. No surprise; I have found the bigger the pond, the less likely I am to get a bite. However, three members in the Google+ Community I moderate offered insights worth sharing here.

Think critically and be able to support original ideas with evidence. I think it’s important at that age to demonstrate independent thinking and believe in something that they can passionately argue for with conviction and valid evidence. How they do this should be open to individual choice.

Know how to safely search the Internet for information based on keywords, and evaluate the authenticity and bias of the resources found in order to make an informed decision about what they have learned.

How to problem solve….if something doesn’t go their way and they still need to complete an activity, what could they do to solve their own problem.  (ex.  I don’t have a pencil, I forgot what the HW assignment was, I left my book at school, I don’t have a lunch)

Continue reading “What one thing should a student know, understand, or be able to do by the time they leave elementary school?”

How Do You Participate in a Twitter Chat?

It is Connected Educator Month. One of the most common events happening are chats on Twitter. I have found that there are three levels of participation when engaging in a Twitter chat. In fact, these are the steps that I took, from being introduced to this online tool, to becoming a more connected educator.


This sounds sinister, but it really just means watching tweets go by during a chat. It is actually a great way to become familiar with the process of the moderator(s) posting questions, others responding to the questions, and many learners getting involved in related conversations on the side. Twitter can be very kinetic, and it may take a few chats to get the feel for it. That’s why I like using TweetDeck for these discussions. I can see what is happening within that chat’s hashtag (i.e. #edchat) while still following my home feed, as well as keeping an eye out for any notifications or messages.


Once I felt comfortable talking about a topic for the chat, such as walkthroughs for #educoach, I would start to make my present known in three ways. First, I would reply back to someone’s response to a question, with an affirmation (“Nice idea!”), a retweet, which means sending out their tweet by reposting it on your timeline, or simply favoriting the tweet.


Even though I am now more visibly active in these chats, I sometimes don’t mind just sitting back and reading the stream of thinking, with the occasional acknowledgement. When everyone is talking, who is listening?


At this point, you feel like an equal in terms being able to hang in with the rest of the group. You’ve got your sea legs, so to speak, in that the process of chatting on Twitter fades into the background so you can focus on the discussion at hand. To start, you simply respond to the moderator’s question (“Q1”) with a response (“A1”). If you are not sure what to say, then don’t. Maybe the question was poor, or you lacked background on the specific topic. Twitter chats are not standardized tests; you don’t get penalized for not answering every item. Sometimes, the responses from others will prompt you to reply to them, with a note of agreement or a clarifying question.

Conversation during #irachat
Conversation during #irachat

One of the limitations of Twitter is that the chats rarely run deep. They really aren’t designed to have in-depth conversations. However, Twitter chats are one of the best ways to make new connections because of the structure. The Q1/A1 is an effective protocol for organizing this fast-paced discussion and allowing the participant to multi-task. If you like someone else’s thinking in the chat, because they share interesting ideas and/or they challenge you, you can follow them. Being followed back by someone you followed is very affirming. This can lead to learning partnerships with that person in other online spaces.

The best chats will archive the conversation using tools such as Storify for later review. This is nice in case you couldn’t make the conversation, as they happen in real time. The moderators for these chats usually house their archives on a website, blog, or wiki that serves as their home base.

If you have never participated in a Twitter chat before, consider following these three steps to acclimate yourself to these excellent professional learning opportunities. Pretty soon, you will be moderating a chat yourself! Ah, but that is for another post…

For more information about Twitter in general, check out this recent post by The Two Writing Teachers, or consider taking this free ecourse from Heinemann on using Twitter as an educator.

Twitter for PD? Yes! Twitter to Replace PD? Not so much

I see these types of posts once in a great while and I just shake my head:

To be transparent, the article itself nicely details a process for helping staff become more connected. I suspect the tweet was used to grab attention. Well, you got me, hook, line, and sinker…

I like Twitter. A lot. In fact, I take purposeful breaks from it (see: tech sabbaticals) just so I can clear my head and reflect on all that I have discovered from my personal learning network. It’s an awesome resource because of the number of educators on it, all sharing specific areas of expertise and conversing about best practice. I wish I had Twitter when I was teaching – I would have been so much better than I was.

But Twitter replacing professional development? No. I am surprised that I keep hearing this line. There are just some things that cannot be left to chance.

When moving a building forward in their collective instructional capacities, the only method I have found to have a profound effect on student learning is when everyone is speaking the same language. The proof is in my school. The last three years, we engaged in a reading-writing connection residency. This series of modules and activities have put us all on the same page with respect to the best ways to teach and to help students monitor their learning. This year, we are engaging in specific writing strategies for informative/explanatory texts. No one opts out. Our kids deserve the very best in what we can offer.

This would not happen via Twitter because I believe you would have a hodgepodge of practices implemented at extreme levels of fidelity, with limited ability to have deep conversations with colleagues. Everything shared in this forum is not top notch. In addition, I very much doubt that every educator would engage in professional learning via Twitter at similar levels of depth. Some educators aren’t interested, and we have to respect that.

When a community of learners participates in strong, evidence-based training, it builds trust and raises expectations. It says, “If I am going to implement this in my classroom, I want to see results, both now and in the future.” This only occurs when students get strong, consistent instruction year after year. As John Hattie found in Visible Learning for Teachers (Routledge, 2012), there are five practices that expert teachers use to profoundly effect student learning (pgs 28-32):

  • Identify the most important ways in which to represent the subject that they teach.
  • Create an optimal classroom climate for learning.
  • Monitor learning and provide feedback.
  • Believe that all students can reach the success criteria.
  • Influence surface and deep level outcomes.

While I agree that there needs to ample room for personal learning, it shouldn’t come at the expense of ignoring what the research shows. It’s not fair to kids.

A while back, a teacher on Twitter asked what digital resource is a must for all educators. I replied that the tool doesn’t matter – it is who is on the other end of the connection and the types of conversations that occur that make the difference. This led to more conversation about the power of Twitter, how it connects the world, how you can follow anyone, etc., etc. Preaching to the choir! But what if Twitter went defunct a la Google Reader? Are we versatile enough to apply the concept of connected learning to other tools, such as Google+? If we truly are life long learners, then the answer should be yes.