Using Twitter in high school classrooms

One of the best professional experiences I’ve had in a long time happened at my Teaching the iGeneration workshop in Cincinnati this week.

You see, I had the distinct pleasure of working with a super motivated team of teachers from Westfield High School in Westfield, Indiana.  They were remarkable—both as professionals and as people—reminding me of just how much powerful teaching can be when educators enjoy their work AND their peers.

Over the course of our time together, we got to talking about the different ways that Twitter can be used in schools.

Having been a Twitter fan for several years—and recognizing that there is still a lot of skepticism around social media spaces as a tool for schools in the #edusphere—I wanted to pull together some thinking around the role that Twitter can play in classrooms.

Here are three specific ideas shared by high school teachers in my PLN yesterday.

Twitter can be used as a backchannel, encouraging reflection and conversation between kids.

As a guy who needs to speak out loud in order to process information, I love to Tweet during workshops and PD presentations simply because it gives me the chance to interact around ideas without interrupting the people around me who are trying to pay attention.

Twitter serves the same purpose in the classrooms of many teachers—including Business teacher Sarah Bird, who has her students Tweet the Most Valuable Point from every lesson using a shared classroom hashtag.

Think about how valuable that could be—both for teachers and for students.

Not only are you giving students a digital home for interacting around your content that they are likely to return to on their own time, but you are making the immediate and timely feedback that is a characteristic of quality formative assessment possible.

When students can see what other kids are thinking during lessons, their own thinking is challenged.  What’s more, when students can see what other kids are thinking, you’ve created built in opportunities for the kind of pushing and polishing that defines collaborative dialogue and knowledge creation.

Finally, when teachers can see what students are thinking, THEY get immediate feedback about the levels of mastery and misconceptions in their classrooms—which can be used to plan next steps.

Twitter can give students a voice that they haven’t generally had.

Social media spaces are literally changing the way that elections are won and lost—and the way that our politicians operate.  Even Gordon Brown–longtime Prime Minister of the UK—recognized that policy can’t be made without listening to people in social spaces.

The result: Nearly every modern campaign jumps into social media spaces feet first.

Heck, President Obama has gone as far as to start a series of Twitter Town Hall meetings where he answers questions submitted through the microblogging platform.

If we are going to prepare our students to be effective participants in this changing political landscape, shouldn’t we be showing them how to hunt down candidates for elected office in social spaces—both to learn more about positions AND to ask a whole lot of questions?

That’s exactly what Jeremy Reid is teaching his Grade 11 social studies students, who have used a classroom Twitter account to reach out to candidates in local elections.

Think about that for a second, would you?

Traditionally, learning about candidates and their positions was a cumbersome process that few people had the time for.  The result: dismal turnouts for elections and a heaping cheeseload of under-informed voters.

Social media spaces—which are students are drawn to already—have made interacting with politicians and their ideas easier.

That’s a lesson worth learning, y’all—-and a practice worth introducing our students to—if we care about raising educated participants in a democratic society as much as we say that we do.

Twitter can become a place to imagine.

One of the key differences that danah boyd — a Senior Researcher at the Microsoft Research Center who specializes in studies on the ways that digital spaces are changing today’s kids — has noted between Twitter and Facebook is that Twitter can be a more playful place for teens than Facebook.

The social pressures and expectations tied to participation in Facebook are often so high that they act as an inadvertent governor on student interactions.  Twitter, on the other hand, is a more casual space—the equivalent of talking in a room rather than shouting to the world.

That makes Twitter the perfect place to ask students to imagine.

In Tracee Orman’s high school English class, imagining in Twitter means pretending to be characters from the novels that they are studying in class.

“After reading a chapter in a novel,” writes Orman, “I tell them to pretend they are one of the characters from that chapter.

“Then I tell them to pretend that character has internet access (it’s kind of funny to imagine someone like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird’s 1930’s setting to have internet).

“Then, pretend that character has an Android or iPhone (or another smart phone) and is about ready to post a new Tweet on Twitter.

What would they write?”

Talk about a fun way to engage kids in the content that they are studying, huh?

Wouldn’t this kind of imagining fall at the higher ends of Bloom’s Taxonomy?  Wouldn’t it take a sophisticated understanding of a character’s motivations, desires, and personality to be able to accurately Tweet from his/her point of view?

And couldn’t classes have GREAT conversations about characterization as they reflected on the accuracy of the Tweets being shared by their peers?

A logical extension for Orman’s students would be to explore some of the popular Literary Parody Accounts in Twitter — who knew that Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allen Poe were into microblogging?! — to determine how well the fictitious accounts reflected the attitudes and personalities of the real authors.

In the end, using Twitter in high school classrooms makes sense mostly because it is a social space that has already been embraced by today’s teens.  If we want to make our schools relevant, we need to stop turning our backs on the tools and behaviors that our kids care about.

Instead of shunning social spaces as time sinks where kids engage in irresponsible behaviors and embrace mindless tasks, let’s start showing our students how they can use the spaces that they believe in to learn efficiently.

danah boyd says it this way:

Twitter and its ilk aren’t going away, and the answer to responsible use isn’t to shut teens out of public life…

What matters is not whether or not teens are speaking in public, but how we support them as they try to learn how to responsibly navigate the networked public spaces that are central to contemporary life.

She’s got a point, doesn’t she?  Social spaces AREN’T going away — and ignoring them because WE don’t believe in them is an irresponsible practice for educators who want to create student-centered learning environments.

What our kids don’t understand is that there IS a difference between social networking and social learning. There is a difference between making connections and understanding how to leverage the power of connections for learning.

Teachers — who are literally master learners — need to start integrating these kinds of lessons into their classrooms before students will begin using social spaces in the powerful ways that we all know are possible.

 

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Related Radical Reads:

Doubting Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generation

Twitter as a Social Media Starting Point for Principals

Twitter as a Tool for Professional Development

Communicating and Connecting with Social Media

Five Twitter Hashtags that can SAVE School Leaders Time

Twitter Hashtags for Educators