A few weeks ago, Gerald Aungst, supervisor of gifted education in the Cheltenham School District, used Twitter to seek advice about online teaching programs for foreign languages. Within five minutes, he had received several suggestions from around the country.
Every Monday night at 7, Meenoo Rami, a high school English teacher at Franklin Learning Center in Philadelphia, moderates a chat on Twitter that draws participants from around the country to discuss topics such as adolescent literacy and banning book reports.
When Kevin Jarrett, a computer teacher at Northfield Community School in Atlantic County, N.J., wanted to teach his kindergarten pupils about farms, he sent out a request on Twitter and soon connected with two farmers who answered his students' questions by video.
The three educators are among a growing number in the Philadelphia region who are using Twitter, the social-networking and micro-blogging service, to enhance their teaching, often on their own time.
"For me, Twitter has been a way to connect with a lot of other educators around the country and even around the world," Aungst said. "It's been a way for me to extend the conversation about education and practice in the classroom beyond my immediate circle of people in my district."
Some educators use Twitter - through which users "tweet" messages limited to 140 characters - to connect their students with the outside world. Others use it to share resources and ideas with other teachers.
For teachers who spend much of their days as the only adult inside classrooms, Twitter - along with other social-networking websites - can provide a unique platform for conversation.
Teachers have traditionally networked through conferences. A drawback from those meetings, said Bill Brannick, principal at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High Schools in Drexel Hill, is that once they are over, the connections often disappear.
"The thing about Twitter is, it is a continuous source of self-directed professional development," Brannick said. He said he often follows up on tweets by having more extensive conversations. "It's almost a gateway to deeper and richer communication and enrichment."
Ann Leaness, a technology teacher at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia, said Twitter had opened her world.
"It's like professional development at your fingertips," Leaness said. "You can learn whatever you want from experts all over the world."
Because Twitter users decide whom they want to "follow," meaning whose tweets they want to read, those who respond are likely to be people who might be able to help.
"For me, it's a curation idea, that it's gone through a human filter," said Mary Beth Hertz, an elementary technology teacher at Alliance for Progress charter school in Philadelphia who is among the moderators of two Twitter chats for educators that take place every Tuesday and draw thousands of participants from around the globe.
"These are people that I trust and people who are in the same field as I am," she said. "They're educators, they know what I'm dealing with, so when I ask them a question, I know this is coming from somebody who understands my point of view and my situation."
Many educators who use Twitter say it takes a little while to figure out how to make the service work for one's needs. The process involves figuring who somebody might want to follow and how to most effectively send out requests or updates, for example.
Renee Hobbs, a professor of communication at Temple University and founder of the Media Education Lab at the university, said that 20 to 25 percent of American K-12 teachers use social media as a way to become part of a professional community, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Education.
Twitter in particular seems to have caught on with many teachers, Hobbs said. Important assets, she said, are Twitter's 140-character limit and "hashtag" function, which allows a user to attach to a message a unique identifier code for anyone interested in a particular topic. "Those two things give it a certain edgy powerfulness that do make it unique," Hobbs said.
Hobbs said Twitter also allows teachers to check in when they only have 45 minutes before their next class, for example.
For Kim Sivick, a coordinator of lower-school technology at Chestnut Hill Academy, Twitter has helped make geography lessons for fourth graders more real by connecting to people around the world, including Uganda and Vietnam.
"What they learn, which is the most powerful piece, is they learn they have a voice and they can be heard," Sivick said. "When a 9-year-old gets a message from someone in Singapore, that's pretty powerful."
"The world becomes a much smaller place," Sivick added. "By the time my students get to fifth grade, they don't think connecting with people around the world is a big deal."
To follow Twitter education chats run by Philadelphia educators, sign on to twitter.com and search for the "hashtag" #engchat, which happens every Monday night at 7 p.m.
On Tuesdays at noon and 7 p.m., go to #edchat.