Marisa Constantinides Reflects on the 1st year of #ELTchat

#ELTchat, a popular Twitter discussion group and hashtag, just celebrated its first birthday. Organizer Marisa Constantinides reflects on the first year of using twitter as a virtual staffroom for ELT related discussions.

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
Marisa Constantinides

Marisa Constantinides

Marisa Constantinides is a CELTA and DELTA trainer for CELT Athens in Greece. She blogs about language teaching, teacher training, and technology on her popular blog TEFL Matters. Marisa is also one of the cofounders and moderators of #ELTchat, a popular discussion for English language teachers that takes place every Wednesday on Twitter.

Tara Benwell: Thanks for agreeing to be our next TEFL guest, Marisa. Can you describe #ELTchat to us in 140 characters or less?

Marisa Constantinides: For me, #ELTchat is a great meeting and sharing time every week for teachers with passion, generosity and motivation to be the best teacher they can be. I think this is a thought shared by many. Here is what some of the #ELTchat participants said about it when I asked them your question:

@aClilToClimb #ELTchat is brainstorming in a global scale with a dash of fun :)
@SimonGreenall #ELTchat 1 informs me, 2 makes me think, 3 reassures me I’m not out of touch.
@sandymillin #ELTchat is ideas, new friends, inspiration, an adrenalin rush, motivation, new things to think about, a way to share :)
@mkofab #eltchat is learning, sharing, reflecting, a great way to build a PLN, sth to look forward to on Wednesdays and FUN!
@janetbianchini #ELTchat is stimulating, worthwhile, fab CPD, engrossing, fun, fast and furious, friendly, enlightening & essential Wednesday fix!
@DinaDobrou #ELTchat is a powerful hub of passionate educators and head-spinning ideas.

Tara: I love how you put the question out to the community. I actually saw your tweet, and watched the responses emerge instantly. Twitter is a remarkable place to ask a question because of this immediacy. How did the idea of #ELTChat come about, and who did all of the hard work to launch it?

Marisa: Twitter chats are not new. We were inspired by #edchat, a great chat for teachers in mainstream education, but while much of what they talk about is sound pedagogy for any educator, foreign language teaching has certain differences and methodologies which could not be discussed in a general education chat. So the idea was born in various friends’ minds at about the same time. Jason Renshaw (@englishraven), Shelly Terrell (@Shellterrell), myself (@Marisa_C), and I am sure other people must have also thought about it. The plunge was taken when Andy Chaplin (@olafelch) just went ahead and set up the blog and got us to start, perhaps earlier than we had planned, but looking back now, I think it was a good idea to push us. We could have hung about for another six months and missed the opportunity!

Tara: What is your specific role in #ELTChat and how is it useful in your career as a teacher trainer?

Marisa: I am one of the four moderators – Shelly Terrell, Berni Wall (@rliberni), Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto (@barbsaka) and Shaun Wilden (@Shaunwilden) are the other three. Some of the things we have to do as moderators are:
• put up the blog posts inviting topics
• set up a weekly poll for participants to vote for what they want to talk about
• look through the questions and edit/rewrite them to make them clearer
• make announcements
• keep people on track during the chat in case conversation gets sidetracked
• ask leading questions when the conversation seems to be slowing down
• help newcomers who need some guidance
• do the follow up work (see below)

#ELTchat is a great discipline for me, both as a teacher and as a teacher educator. Moderating online conversations is no easy task and it’s a great exercise in striking a fine balance between elicitation and dissemination of information. Teachers who participate have so much to share and I have learnt so much from each and every one of them, that I consider moderating it as a recent but major boost in my own professional development as an ELT professional venturing out into an international community of peers.

Tara: I have learned so much too, and at times have even invited online English learners to respond to a question or share feedback during an #ELTchat. Why do you think Twitter is such a great platform for a weekly discussion about teaching English?

Marisa: I think it’s a great platform because it’s possible to talk or not talk, post an update or a comment when you have something to say or just follow. It’s an easy platform to use and hashtags (#) make it possible to see tweets from people you don’t even follow! That’s a fantastic thing and a great way to meet and follow teachers who tweet interesting comments or links and so expand your personal learning network (PLN). I think, like myself, people who participate also just love the fast interaction and energy which a rich and fast conversation can give you.

Tara: Can you tell us a bit about the people who attend these chats? What is their main motivation for joining?

Marisa: Many of the participants are teachers, teacher trainers, directors of studies, administrators, people who work in publishing. Our chats sometimes attract some of the well-known authors who follow #ELTchat, such as Luke Meddings, Jeremy Harmer and Simon Greenall who may not join every #ELTchat but do join when we talk about topics that are of interest to them.

I think that, apart from all the great ideas that you get just by logging into Twitter during one of the chats, there is a great feeling of community which has developed over time and this community is very open and welcoming to anyone new who jumps into a chat even if we have never met them before. It’s also a highly democratic community. No one’s tweets are considered to be of higher value than anyone else’s and this feeling of openness, acceptance and camaraderie is what draws people to #ELTchat.

Don’t forget that for many of colleagues, this contact may be the only opportunity to connect for whatever reason, distance, isolation, a hostile environment in a staff room… All those feelings are laid aside during a chat and we all come together in a fantastic way. Sure, some conversations will always be better than other conversations. Some topics inspire more than others. But we are all OK with that and accept that each chat can only be as good as the sum total of our experiences and interests.

But apart from all that, and although the topics are serious, there is a great sense of fun and light hearted conversation springs up all the time. It’s fun to take part in #ELTchat! #ELTchat is a joyful event every week.

Tara: What happens after an #ELTChat? Tell us about the summaries and transcripts and how teachers can access all of these goodies away from Twitter.

Marisa: Well, the very first thing we usually have to do at the end of an #ELTchat is to put out a call for a volunteer who would be willing to write the summary of the conversation. Reading tweets is fine, but summaries are so much easier to follow. We have been really lucky to have motivated so many chat participants to write summaries. They usually post them on their blogs and we copy and post them on the #ELTchat blog – this is great for bloggers, because more people get to read their blogs, too. And it has motivated teachers without blogs to start one, which is another great thing!

Then, if Shaun doesn’t beat me to it, I collect the transcript and post it to the wiki we have set up so people who missed the chat can read it and summary writers can collect it for their summaries.

Tara: I find myself going back to those summaries and transcripts time and again, both for chats that I attended, as well as ones that I’ve missed. Has there been any negative feedback related to #ELTChat? If so, how has the team responded?

Marisa: Well, there are people who have even blogged about the fact that 140 characters does not allow conversations to reach any significant depth, and that all these, sometimes unrelated tweets, may confuse rather than clarify or inform. I think this is a very valid criticism, if we’re to see #ELTchat or any other chat as an opportunity to hold well structured debates amongst academics or to develop a line of thought.

Personally, I think these criticisms miss the point of the immediacy and energy of unplanned and spontaneous conversations. #ELTchat is not here to replace blog posts, where you can develop your topic, or research journals or anything like that. Within the limitations of saying something in 140 characters, it’s a great opportunity for people to exchange ideas without being afraid or worried, and to spark off ideas which is what happens when someone else’s tweet reminds you of something or inspires you to add an idea. It’s a great thing for teachers to be able to think on their feet and this kind of conversation is great for that as opposed to the slow, measured style you adopt when you write connected text.

Some teachers complain that it’s too fast for them to be able to participate but most stay and get used to it and keep turning up for their weekly injection of energy!

Tara: It does take a bit of practice. What advice do you have for a teacher who attended one #ELTChat but had trouble keeping up?

Marisa: Lurk! Lurking is good while you new and feeling a bit overwhelmed! We have all been there as Twitter newbies, so don’t worry if it looks confusing at first! If you are going to be lurking, a great way to follow the chat is by going to our tweetchat room and following the stream of tweets there!

I would also advise them not to worry. Even moderators sometimes miss out on some threads! That’s why it’s been great to have more than one moderator in each chat and we do have an absolutely fantastic team. If I miss something, I know for sure that one of the others will pick up that thread and it’s a great team feeling to have so much expertise on your side.

Tara: Yes, it is wonderful that the team is made up of teachers and trainers from different countries and backgrounds. Why is being at an #ELTChat better than just reading the transcripts after? Or is it the same?

Marisa: I think it’s better in the same way it’s best to talk to a friend or group of friends rather than to exchange written notes, or to read what your friends said afterwards. Being a part of this speedy interaction, even though sometimes tweets come down so thick and fast even moderators don’t have enough time to deal with all of them, is a great experience!

Tara: How has #ELTChat evolved since it won the TEFL.net site of the month award in October 2010?

Marisa: We were so chuffed with the TEFL.net site of the month award so early on! I cannot tell you how pleased and proud we all felt!

In the early days of #ELTchat we just used to collect the transcripts; now we get #ELTchat participants to produce these great summaries, which, in my own humble opinion, are worthy of being turned into an e-book of some sort. The #ELTchat Blog is an absolutely formidable resource for any teacher at the moment.

We also used to have more podcasts – Andy was a whiz putting those together – and we really need to go back to reintroducing them, they were so popular! They may not sound like finished radio productions but we need to get back on track with those and I have one lined up for next week!

Jason Renshaw was one of the five original moderators along with Andy Chaplin but they both had to withdraw, Andy due to health reasons, unfortunately, and Jason because he changed his career orientation at some point, as you know, and decided he needed to focus on his new and quite challenging job.

But we were very fortunate to have two new great moderators. Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto was a great addition to the moderation team; so was Shaun Wilden who volunteered to help us set up the #ELTchat Wiki and ended up as one of the moderators.

I think, over time, and since your great award, #ELTchat has become more established and the hashtag is now being used in all important announcements, new blog posts and links. This makes us all very happy and the #ELTchat timeline is alive all day long!

Tara:I’m so glad you mentioned that #ELTchat extends far beyond the Wednesday chats. People in our industry use this hashtag all day long, and I personally think it’s the best one to follow for professional development. #ELTChat just celebrated it’s first birthday! Congratulations! In your most recent blog post you wrote “More than 100,000 tweets have appeared with the #ELTchat hashtag, many of them posted outside #ELTchat times.” Do you think #ELTChat will still be going strong in a few years from now? Will it still be on twitter, or do you think something else will come along?

Marisa: The internet changes so fast that I am not able to predict whether #ELTchat in its present form will keep going for years and years but I can certainly see it developing and expanding over the next two years or so, especially since we are planning to make it more known by organizing a Symposium at the next IATEFL Conference in Glasgow where all moderators will be presenting different talks hoping to involve more ELT teachers in Twitter, to begin with, in #ELTchat of course, and to show them what a great way it is to expand and enrich their PLN with a group of passionate and informed educators who are available 24.7!
ELTchat
Tara: It’s fantastic to hear that #ELTchat will have a voice at the IATEFL conference next year. Twitter and #ELTChat allowed me to know dozens of teachers before I arrived in Brighton last year for IATEFL. I’ll never forget picking up my name tag with @ShellTerrell who advised us all to write our twitter handles beside our names. We came from countries far and wide, and yet, thanks to our virtual staffroom, we traveled in packs as if we’d known each other our whole lives. A special thank you to Marisa and all of the #ELTchat moderating team for giving us a place to go whenever we have an ELT question, suggestion, challenge, or treat to share.

Find out more about ELTchat:
ELTchat Blog
ELTchat Wiki

The moderated #ELTChat takes place for one hour on Twitter on Wednesdays at 12:00 pm London time and 21:00 pm London time. The hashtag is used 24/7 for ELT related discussion. Follow @ELTchat to vote for topics you are interested in. 

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
October 2011 | Filed under Interviews
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.