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Using Twitter in High School Classrooms

By William M. Ferriter — December 13, 2011 5 min read
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Not long ago, I met a super-motivated team of teachers from Westfield High School (Westfield, Ind.) at my Teaching the iGeneration workshop in Cincinnati. They were particularly interested in the different ways that Twitter can be used in schools. To help, I turned to the teachers in my own Twitter network for ideas—and while the examples shared were as diverse as the digital peers that I learn from, they seemed to fall into three broad categories:

Twitter can be used as a backchannel, encouraging reflection and conversation among students.

As a guy who needs to speak out loud in order to process information, I love to tweet during workshops and professional development presentations simply because it gives me the chance to interact with ideas without interrupting the people near 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 hash tag.

Imagine how powerful that could be—for teachers and for students:

• You give students a digital home for interacting around your content—a space that they are likely to return to on their own time.

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

• You can treat the exercise as high-quality formative assessment. When you can see what students are thinking, you have access to immediate feedback about the levels of mastery and misconceptions in your classes—which can be used to plan next steps.

Twitter can help students develop their civic voices.

Social media spaces are changing how elections are won and lost—and how politicians operate. President Obama has initiated a series of Twitter Town Hall meetings where he answers questions submitted through the microblogging platform. 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 feet-first into social media spaces.

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 electoral candidates in social spaces—both to learn more about their positions AND to ask important questions?

That’s exactly what Jeremy Reid is teaching his 11th grade 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, time-consuming process. The result: dismal turnouts for elections and a heaping cheeseload of under-informed voters.

Social media spaces, however, make interacting with politicians and their ideas easier. If we care about preparing students for democratic citizenship as much as we say we do, that’s a practice worth introducing our students to.

Twitter can become a place to imagine.

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 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 use their imaginations.

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 they 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 it take a sophisticated understanding of a character’s motivations, desires, and personality to be able to tweet believably from his or her point of view? And couldn’t classes have great conversations about characterization as they reflect on the believability 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 to determine how well the fictitious accounts reflect the attitudes and personalities of the original 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.

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. If we want to make our schools relevant, we need to stop turning our backs on the tools and behaviors that our kids care the most about.

More importantly, for high school students—who are often deeply passionate about quirky interests yet forced by the constraints of traditional schooling to march through a standardized curriculum devoid of customization—the ability to create opportunities for personalized learning is incredibly valuable.

And that’s exactly what makes Twitter so powerful: Users who are diligent about finding others with shared interests and who are willing to follow links to interact in the spaces beyond their tweets can find deep thinking and rich, meaningful dialogue around the topics that they care about.

The truth, of course, is that most teens in social spaces aren’t creating forums for deep and meaningful conversations on their own. Twitterstreams and Facebook pages are simply homes for casually extending social interactions and relationships with friends beyond school.

I would argue, however, that the only reason teens aren’t using social spaces in more sophisticated ways is that no one has ever modeled that kind of behavior for them.

But what would happen if teachers—who are expert learners—began to demonstrate ways to use the tools and spaces that students care about to master the kinds of skills and behaviors that we know matter?

Couldn’t social networking spaces double as social learning spaces?

That’s got to be a lesson that’s worth teaching to our students.

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