When I started teaching in the early 1990s the use of computers in education was in its infancy. This was a time when floppy disks were actually floppy, building a website was a job for an IT specialist, and ‘social media’ had yet to be invented. In the years that have followed, technology in education (and in wider society) has undergone a revolution. Social media has transformed the ways in which we create personal and professional networks. These days pretty much every classroom in the country has an interactive whiteboard, there are personal computers, laptops and tablets with superfast wifi connections, and schools use email, blogs, social media platforms and ‘VLEs’ (virtual learning environments) to share information with parents and students. The Internet has allowed networks of all kinds to spring up, and for people to ‘meet’ in these virtual spaces. And this has opened up a world of possibilities for teachers working with authors, and authors working with teachers.
The teaching community are often ‘early adopters’ of new technologies, because they are always on the look out for ways to improve their children’s learning (and because they need to keep one step ahead of the kids). There is a growing group of educators using social media as a powerful tool for personal and professional development, and nowhere is this more so than on Twitter. Both teachers and authors have a huge amount to gain from tapping into each other’s networks and learning from each other’s expertise. Authors find it the perfect medium for connecting with readers, and teachers find it the perfect medium for connecting their classes to authors, with all the potential benefits that brings.
Ed Finch (@MrEFinch) is a teacher, active Twitter user, and founder of the ‘Oxford Reading Spree’ conference, where teachers and authors gathered at Larkrise Primary School in Oxford to discuss and celebrate children’s books. Ed describes how in years gone by he used snail mail to share his children’s writing with their favourite author – Jeremy Strong – and how delighted his class were to hear back from him through the post. These days, though, things are much simpler. As Ed says, “the rise of social media – especially Twitter – has made it possible for us to connect with authors quickly and easily”. Ed gives the example of tweeting a poem one of his children had written, inspired by “The Lost Words” by Robert MacFarlane, and tagging the author into the tweet. Within a day, lots of people had seen and ‘liked’ the child’s work, and more importantly MacFarlane had commented on it, picking out a favourite phrase in the child’s poem for Ed to feed back in class.
Other active children’s author Twitter users include the poet A.F. Harrold (@afharrold), Robin Stevens, author of the ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ series (@redbreastedbird), Philip Reeve, author of ‘Mortal Engines’ (@philipreeve1) and S.F Said (@whatSFSaid), author of the children’s book ‘Varjak Paw’. Teachers regularly share their children’s ‘Varjak Paw’ artwork, and poetry and writing inspired by S.F. Said’s writing, and he has hosted ‘chat with the author’ sessions for teachers about his books. Having this kind of direct line is pure gold for children, teachers and authors. It inspires the children by providing an authorial audience for their writing, it helps teachers to motivate their young writers, and it give authors an insight into what it is about their books that strikes a chord with readers. Ed describes how each time an author responds, “I get a little thrill, just as the child does”.
From an author’s perspective, social media has obvious marketing benefits, but it is so much more than that. As an education author, I’ve found Twitter particularly useful for gathering ideas, viewpoints and information to inspire my writing. I can send an #AskTwitter tweet, and within a few hours I will have gathered a range of ideas or suggestions that can feed into my writing. By looking at what teachers talk about, and how they feel about what is happening in their schools, I gain valuable insights into their concerns, interests and needs. Authors and publishers can also share cover images, to get feedback from potential readers before going ahead with a design.
If you’re a children’s author, you can speak to teachers who may recommend your book to their students, and who might decide to buy a class set for their school. There is an active community of school librarians on Twitter as well, many of whom are busy reviewing and recommending books, and of course spending school budgets on them too – @bookloverJo, @librarymice and @Alibrarylady to name just a few. Interestingly, there seems to be an increasing trend for teachers to read children’s books – not just to find texts to use in class, but as a pleasurable experience in its own right. There is much talk on eduTwitter of a ‘golden age of children’s literature’. Anne Thompson (@Alibrarylady) explores this phenomenon in her blog – Why Do Adults Enjoy Reading Children’s Books .
Social media can also help to highlight problematic gaps in what is being published. For instance, the #reflectingrealities hashtag is being used by teachers and authors to highlight the lack of diversity in books, and in children’s publishing in particular. We can use the hashtag to share recommendations within the education community, and also to make plain the need for publishers to publish more books that represent children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Twitter is like going into a huge room, containing all of humanity, and having the ability to tap into the conversations that interest you, and also to start conversations of your own with people on your wavelength. It is not only a powerful force for authors and teachers, but it is also a great way to make new friends, through a shared love of reading and writing. Be warned, though, it is worryingly addictive. So if you’ve got an article to write, or a lesson to plan, before you sign up it’s probably best to finish that first.
About the Author
Sue Cowley is a teacher and author. Her book The Artful Educator (Crownhouse) is full of ideas gathered from her time spent on Twitter. Visit www.suecowley.co.uk to find out more.