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April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

Tweeting the Good News—and Other Ways to Use Social Media

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Every principal has heard stories abut the misuses of social media in school: teens sharing inappropriate photos online, under-the-desk instant messaging, cyberbullying. We've heard fellow principals complain that the increase of tools like blogs and social bookmarking in teens' lives complicates things: School leaders must now decide which tools to give students access to and which to bar from schools. However, if we principals look beyond isolated incidents, we will discover how using social media thoughtfully can increase student learning and help us reach out to our communities.
Along with other leaders at Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, I've begun seizing the potential of social media. I've found using social media helps my teachers and me all do our jobs better. Only a few years ago, Burlington High School didn't allow cell phones in classrooms; in fall 2011, we became the first high school in Massachusetts—and one of the first in the United States—to distribute iPads to all our students.
A major reason we were prepared to adopt iPads throughout the school in a way that benefited learning was that our teachers had formed connections with other experts across the country—through social media. By forming an online professional learning network of educators who were working in classrooms where every student had a web-enabled device, we gained insights into best practices in teaching with iPads. The network has continued to grow and to improve our staff's facility with technology.
But this isn't an article about iPads or technology integration. It's about how my school became willing to look at the social media resources many administrators have written off as a distraction and instead began to use those social media constructively. It's important for leaders to use social media both to model good use for students and to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities to reach out.

Building Digital Citizens

Ultimately, our job in schools has always been to prepare students for what they'll face when they leave our schools and transition to college or the workplace. Most school and district mission statements allude to preparing students to be responsible citizens. But school leaders need to face the fact that we're not teaching responsible citizenship in 2013 if we aren't focusing on digital citizenship and modeling appropriate use of digital resources. The bottom line: Schools cannot teach appropriate use of digital communication tools if we don't allow students access to these tools.
Burlington's students are learning to use social media and technology responsibly by contributing to the school's progress in integrating technology into classrooms. We have a student-run help desk open throughout the school day, with students available to assist teachers and students with technology-related questions. This help desk is a course that students can take for credit. It takes advantage of our students' expertise in using social media resources and prepares students to help their peers and teachers troubleshoot any issues they have with their devices.
Our student technology team keeps a blog that posts reviews of new resources and "how-to" videos that walk people through tools like Facebook pages. This help desk class prepares our students to do the kind of innovative work with technology they'll need in order to perform in the new global economy, as Tony Wagner<FOOTNOTE><NO>1</NO>Wagner, T. (2012). The global achievement gap. New York: Basic Books.</FOOTNOTE> has argued. Five essential practices that Wagner posits as key for education innovation—collaboration, multidisciplinary learning, trial and error, creating, and intrinsic motivation—are at the heart of this course.

Delivering the (Good) News

Social media are having a big influence on the way people and institutions deliver and receive news. Tools like Twitter and Facebook have displaced traditional media as the places where many people get news first. In the last few years, we've seen a revolution in Egypt fueled by a Facebook page and a real-time Twitter feed chronicling Hurricane Sandy. Principals need to start using these resources to share school news.
Principals now have the ability to put out positive news from our schools daily, rather than sit back and wait for the news media to show up. At Burlington High, we harness social media to provide a more transparent look at what's happening within our classrooms. We put out all school news through a blog; Twitter account; and Facebook page. We haven't sent out a print newsletter or press release to the local newspaper in years. Instead, local news outlets stay on top of the happenings at our school by checking our school's social media outlets and following up when a story interests them. We are the source of breaking news from our schools.
This became clear to me last year when I noticed that the Boston Globe has a direct feed from my blog and Twitter account—and those of our superintendent—running on its website. Talk about transparency!
People and groups can harness social media tools to create positive change because these resources connect individuals who share a passion for a particular cause. In the Burlington School District, our shared cause is to highlight as many of the positive happenings in our district as we can, including stories of how we've integrated technology and social media into our schools.
Burlington's students, parents, and teachers enjoy the increased communication that these resources afford our school community. Our school blogs; Twitter accounts (including our school and district hashtags, which enable people to have a voice 24/7); and our school and district Facebook pages keep stakeholders connected.
Recently, these resources allowed us to get additional stakeholder input on our administrator evaluations and school handbook changes. In 2011, when Burlington's shift to using more technology tools began, we were considering lifting our ban on cell phones. We used our reverse 911 system to call all the homes in our district to let people know what we were proposing and let stakeholders weigh in. We took this feedback into account as we changed our policy (to, indeed, lift the ban).
Our Burlington High School and district "Alert" Twitter accounts are reserved for emergencies. Parents and students who follow these accounts can get text messages sent directly to their cell phones without getting a Twitter account. During a few crisis situations, such as when the school received an anonymous written threat in 2009, Burlington parents had instant access to information and a place to have questions answered swiftly. This saved school administrators hours that in the past we would've spent answering phone calls from parents and news media. More important, parents' anxiety was lessened.

Supporting Teachers

The main question many administrators have is, Where do we start? There are a number of sources school administrators can go to to get a handle on steps for getting started with tools and resources like Twitter, RSS (really simple syndication) feeds, and so on. One great place to go is the International Society for Technology in Education's standards for administrators, which provide concrete ways school administrators can show competency in five areas of leadership connected to technology use (visionary leadership, digital age learning culture, excellence in professional practice, systemic improvement, and digital citizenship).
A key starting point is to ensure that teachers no longer look at technology as an add-on, but as integral to their jobs. This requires training and support. One of our first steps was to arrange a whole-staff "tweet up" during one of our professional development days at the beginning of the school year, which gave everyone a firsthand example of how Twitter works.
To get staff members comfortable with a variety of social media tools, Burlington offers teachers formal and informal sessions for learning how to use the resources available to them. The sessions are optional, but teachers can earn professional development points and inservice credits for attending. We offer more than 90 sessions to choose from during the three professional development days we provide teachers just before the school year starts. Typically, we offer a formal, detailed "how-to" session on a topic like Twitter or blogging that gives teachers the basics. We follow up by providing informal times during which teachers can try the tool out with colleagues who've previously used it and talk about best practices.
These informal sessions are some of our most valuable professional development efforts. During our three-day professional development conference at the start of the school year, we dedicate time for teachers to get together and work with social media and other digital resources at their own pace, with our student technology team there for support.
The innovative qualities Tony Wagner says future workers will need have become evident throughout Burlington High since we started using social media tools. Teachers and students now collaborate with other eager learners from anywhere—at any time—accessing and learning with experts in subjects they are passionate about. "Social" media is also learning media.
We principals will never get staff and students to employ social media tools for higher-level learning if we don't use the tools, for basic communication at least. It's simply a step principals need to take.

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