Every year schools sit and brainstorm ways to communicate and engage its families. How will we reach out to parents? How will we gather information about their needs or give them a little insight in what we do as educators?
A great way to do that is to host a regular weekly or monthly (or whatever) Twitter conversation. Now, I know that it might not hit the greatest number of people, but it’s another arrow in your quiver of conversational tools to use with your community.
So here’s what you can do in just a few easy steps (please feel free to suggest others in the Comments section below!):
1. Establish a catchy hashtag. The hashtag will serve as the virtual room number for the Twitter conversation. For instance, I occasionally jump onto #aplitchat where, you guessed it, AP Literature and high school English teachers talk about implementing literature and writing strategies into their classrooms. You can use your mascot or your school name to create your hashtag, but make it something easily remembered.
2. Decide on a regular time and day. The success of Twitter chats is all about dependable routine. Don’t over-promise. Decide on, say, a 30-minute time slot once a week or once a month. Heck, you can do it once a quarter if you want, but make it something the community can count on. I think our school is considering a Monday night timeslot, sometime after dinnertime and possible lights out, but before most adults have closed up the fort for the night.
3. Designate a reliable moderator. Choose a person who knows how to keep a conversation going and has some idea of what Twitter is about. As the chat becomes more routine, you can rotate different members of the staff, admin, or even PTA members into this position, but have someone who opens the conversation, asks follow up questions to any comments, and metes out the questions of the chat topic. And speaking of topics…
4. Assign a topic to each chat. This keeps the chat focused and more productive. You’ll get more out of your chat if you don’t leave it all free form. Whether the school’s goal is to engage parents in informal conversation about their age group, surveying parents about elements of their school site, or merely talking about the pop culture of the day, it’s important to give the talk some structure.
5. Create a welcome and introduction post that is concise and models the format of the chat. For instance, if you are hosting a chat on the topic, “What’s Up With Math?” you might have your moderator begin the conversation with something like this:
Welcome to #WMStigers chat! I’m Mary, an 8th gr. Eng teacher. Today, let’s chat re Math: what we like, fear, and how we can support our students.
6. Write questions ahead of time to dole out throughout the chat. For instance, let’s say you have a 30-minute chat scheduled around the topic of “The Different Cultures in Our School.” Every 10 minutes or so (or when the moderator feels there’s the need to inject a new energy into the conversation), a question should be asked of the group following the thread. So you might have developed the following questions ahead of time:
What is the most important tradition that your family observes?
Are there organizations that you know of who come to school to teach students about your culture?
What do you wish the school understood about your family’s culture?
Having said that, don’t be scared to ask follow up questions to people’s comments. There’s a way to indicate what’s being answered to what question. It looks like this:
The moderator might say:
Q1: What books are you reading right now on your own free time?
A parent might respond:
A1: I’m reading a new John Green book with my middle schooler.
Another teacher or parent might ask a follow up question for details:
What book are you both reading?
Notice you don’t designate that the follow up question is addressing the main question the moderator asked. This participant can ask the question so the whole thread can see it, or they can ask the question privately to the parent who responded to Q1.
7. Model how to shorten URLs to share resources. Encourage participants to use programs like Tinyurl.com so that they can share resources efficiently. Sharing one’s expertise is a netiquette-thing, so give them the tools to do so.
8. Welcome publicly participants that trickle into the chat. For instance, as a teacher joins in, have the moderator welcome them so everyone can know they are in the room. Something like:
Hey Mr. Smith, welcome to the room! Your expertise in picture books is most appreciated!
9. Make sure you publicize your chat. Make sure the weekly robocall or email to parents includes the hashtag and topic of the week/month/whatever. Make sure you utilize your PTA for publicizing the conversation or put a regular mention in the district newsletter.
10. Thank everyone for being there at the end of the chat, and remind them of the date, time, and topic of the next chat to come. You might also want to have someone noting who attended so personal invitations and thank yous can go out for next time. A little personalized reaching out behind-the-scenes goes a long way.
11. Get feedback and advice from participants. Take the temperature of those who generally participate to get input for different topics that might resonate with your stakeholders.
12. Post the norms for the chat on your school’s website. That way, you can set standards ahead of time by pointing people to the rules of how to tweet and how to engage clearly online. There are formal and informal rules for this sort of thing, so it’s important to show people that, much like a classroom discussion, there are norms for participating.
Don’t want it all out there for the public to see? Try using Todaysmeet.com and open up a room that you can close soon after the discussion is over. You can also print out the transcript before the room closes so you can collect the information for future follow up.
Do I anticipate a landslide of participation this first semester? Nope. But I believe that if we plug away at it, keep it at a regular time and day, and pull in topics stakeholders are genuinely interested in, it will pick up. I also don’t have expectations in terms of who is participating. I know that Twitter isn’t for every family. But our goal is to reach out to all AND model that we are a forward-thinking, 21st Century school.
What better way to do that than to simply try something new?