Greetings to all! I’m John Mead, a veteran life science teacher, and I’m thrilled to have a chance to share my experiences and insights with the National Geographic Education family.
Having taught since 1990, I have witnessed the growth of social media, and it has fundamentally impacted my professional life in ways I could never have imagined.
Looking back on teaching in the 1990s, almost all teachers were professionally connected with colleagues in their own schools, or with a slightly larger circle if they were regular attendees at regional/national content-area conferences. As a young teacher, I was clearly a product of the times: I had close relationships with local (and older by 15+ years) teachers and a small group I would see yearly at conferences, but the scope of my connections was limited to say the least. The advent of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter changed how I connected to the wider world—especially as a teacher.
Here in 2017, with the growth of social media platforms, my universe of connectedness to people who are valuable to my teaching and my students has grown many fold.
Before I detail my personal growth in this area, let me share with you some great examples of teachers I admire who are impacting the lives of students thanks to their productive use of social media platforms. Perhaps you’ll find some inspiration in their experiences!
By the way, since I am a biology teacher, these tend to be science oriented. As you read this, I encourage you to think about drawing parallels in your own subject area. As I hope you see, broadening your professional horizons via social media can pay off in profound ways!
Recently, National Geographic Education blog readers learned of the great team behind #WorldGeoChat. (Read about it here!) Groups such as these on both Facebook and Twitter are a fantastic way for those of you who are new to professional (as opposed to personal) use of social media. They offer a structured way to see how teachers are interacting with each other—and they are always very welcoming of newcomers. There are such personal learning networks (PLNs) available in all disciplines.
Dipping your toes into such groups will allow you to start connecting with teachers worldwide who can help you—and who you can help as well! Here are a few helpful lists to give you a starter roadmap for exploring such groups.
One of the great social media success stories of the past decade has been the rise of two Texas sisters who meshed a love of biology and art to expand their reach from a single classroom to a worldwide audience of more than 137,000 YouTube subscribers and close to 17 million views of their biology education videos.
They are the Amoeba Sisters! Known online as Petunia (Sarina Peterson) and Pinky (Brianna Rapini), they began to share their video creations in 2013 with the hope of “demystifying science with humor and relevance by creating videos, GIFs, handouts, comics, and more.” Their lighthearted comical (literally!) style resonated with both students and teachers (I started using their videos in my classes in early 2014) and their following mushroomed across the social media universe. They are now followed by very appreciative students and teachers on Facebook (32,000+ followers), Twitter (4300+ followers) and a brand-new Instagram presence.
In addition to the obvious instructional value of their videos (here is their trailer), as their influence has grown, the Amoeba Sisters have made it a second mission to reach out to teachers and encourage them to promote student creation of videos. They present at conferences and ask for student and faculty creators to contact and interact with them on social media because, “after all, creating should make it out the classroom doors.”
Indeed, their creativity has made it out of the classroom and is inspiring students and teachers around the world. Impressively, their social media friends have translated many of their videos into other languages—18 at most recent count! I told Pinky recently that it’s a good thing when you get criticized for your “heavy American accent” as that means you are reaching audiences that transcend not only classroom walls, but national borders! If you are not a biology teacher, I wonder if there is such a niche in your subject area?
Patrick Goff (@BMSscienceteach) is an 8th-grade science teacher in Kentucky. Patrick is a great example of a teacher who started out using Twitter for personal use and by his own admission was unaware that it could offer much to his professional life. As he began to explore #ScienceTwitter, however, he saw that many people were eager to share their research and interests. So, he grew from a listener to a more regular participant.
Once Patrick began to interact and thus learn from others, he started to see potential connections to his classroom. In addition to becoming a respected voice in several regular Twitter chats, Patrick saw that many scientists were willing to share their work with his students. Being inspired by the willingness of scientists to share through Twitter, Patrick began to ask researchers to visit his classes via Skype.
Since he started, Patrick has hosted more than 30 scientists in his Kentucky classroom. A number of these interactions have become chances for his students and the researchers to connect via email and Google docs to get long-distance mentoring for science fair projects. In one case, his students got an in-person visit from a scientist, and in another, an Antarctic researcher enlisted Patrick’s classes to assist in her work with Weddell seals and satellite imagery.
Patrick’s newest project is tapping into his network of scientists to ask them to share what makes their science great. #MyAwesomeScience encourages scientists to create short (less than five-minute) videos explaining what is inspiring about their work. So far, he has more than a dozen participants with others in the pipeline.
Aside from the obvious benefit to his students, Patrick’s experience is one that I have also had. Experts in any field who have an active social media presence are far more likely to reply to your questions on those platforms (especially on Twitter with its 140 character limit) than they would in a more involved email dealing with the same topic. Teachers should be taking advantage of the networking opportunities such a willingness to engage presents.
In addition, a well-developed social media network allows teachers to take advantage of the #HiveMind aspect of social media where your questions can be crowdsourced quickly and efficiently to potentially tens of thousands of capable people.
In my next post, I’ll share with you my own experience, which has taken me from being a “Why would I bother with that Twitter thing?” person to encouraging other teachers to use Twitter and other social media platforms as potentially powerful tools in their educational toolbox!
I’ll let you know that my journey did not start out as you might expect….