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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I've always been a multitasker. It frustrated my own teachers at times in that I always needed to be doing two things at once in order to be fully alert. My brain works like riding a bicycle: If I move too slowly, my attention span simply tips over. And during my most recent Edutopia meeting, I was no less occupied.

As I sat in meeting at Skywalker Ranch, listening to some of the greatest minds dedicated to education, my head was also in the classroom. It's true. While I was learning, I was also teaching.

Edutopia's National Advisory Board consists of multiple classroom teachers who are gifted in their craft and inspirational in their innovation. I listened to such educators as Doug Martin, Anthony Armstrong, Kati Delahanty, and Craig Brandenburg. And, all the while, I was helping deliver content and classroom management in my own classroom -- 400 miles away.

Twitter -- a microblogging platform -- allowed me to do it easily.

The Plan

It all began weeks ago as I sat looking down the tunnel that was this upcoming year at some of the months already peppered with conferences, meetings, and what I'm sure will be my own sick days that happen of their own accord. And I thought to myself, "How can I still be a presence in my classroom when I can't be there?"

I could create movies of my own teaching, of course. But that wouldn't be interactive. And it would require my sub to run the technology of the room, and that is its own challenge. So I decided that I would try an experiment -- Twittering with each class period.

Of course, I had a substitute -- a brave soul who stood in my room and supervised, making sure there was actual follow-through and on-task behavior. But in order to answer the questions she could not, I set up a way to be available to my students. Here's how I did it:

  • I picked one Twitter captain per class period. (Thanks, Will Richardson, for coining the term.) These were students with a Twitter account who were willing to follow our class account -- and willing for our class to follow them. In other words, they needed to have an account with the understanding of pure transparency that would be seen by their teacher and fellow students. (This factor definitely weeds out some volunteers.) You, too, can set up a Twitter account for this purpose. You decide.
  • I explained the rules. The Twitter captain was both my voice and the voice of my classroom. They were stationed at the computer, and they knew that if something inappropriate was written, I would assume they wrote it, because they were the only ones allowed to physically Twitter me at this time.
  • The Twitter captain logged on. At the start of my first period, each Twitter Captain opened up an account on one student computer. (My classroom has three eMac computers -- rescued from being recycled through our school district warehouse after our old lab was dissembled.) I petitioned to have Twitter unblocked last year through our technology director so we could use it in the classroom.
  • I logged on from my end and began my interactive Q&A. I asked questions I knew of the students who were in that room at the time, and they asked me questions about the content. When a student had a question, the captain posted it and let me know who had asked.

Bumps in the Road

Was it all miraculously rosy? Of course not. After all, my third-period class seemed to use Twitter as a high tech tattling opportunity.

Brandon's out of his seat and walking around (44 characters). Armando won't stop talking even though Ms. D is telling him to be quiet (75 characters).

I then reminded my class using Twitter's 140-character limit (about a dozen words) that we were using the social-networking platform only for content correspondence and questions. And according to the notes the substitute teacher left for me, the students -- with a grumble -- got back on task.

I think the moment that I'll find most memorable, however, was the tweet I sent down the length of California that proved my teacher antennae was still raised and receiving. Without a tip that it was needed, I told my second-period Twitter captain to tell Christopher to stop talking. She replied with, "How did you know that Christopher was talking?!" I also earned an "OMG!" and a "HaHa" for my efforts. (After all, it doesn't hurt if your students think you're psychic every once and a while.)

An Exciting New Approach

Overall, it was an experiment that sent some important messages:

  • I was still thinking of them and still engaged, and I expected them to be as well.
  • I'm always willing to try something new to keep them learning.
  • Learning doesn't stop on days when I'm not there.
  • My voice can be heard whenever they seek it out.
  • Their own learning needed not to occur solely within the walls of their classroom.

I also shared some of what I was learning as a means to convey my own excitement at being a learner. My classes and I went on a journey, experimented together, and learned together. And, as a result, those days I was gone were not the lost instructional days they might have been. In fact, because I managed to bring in a new and fresh method of content delivery, it may have even been more valuable then an average day.

There's nothing like teaching face-to-face, but if you can't be there, Twitter might be a way to go that's free and easy.

Keep trying new ways to deliver content to your classes. It may not work 100 percent of the time, but sometimes it's your enthusiastic attempt that encourages their continued learning. What technology or new strategy have you been tempted to try in your classroom? Please share with us your recent experiments and ideas.

Comments (37)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Pam's picture

I think this is a great idea to get students involved. This is another way of making learning come alive with the use of interactive technology. Great job!!!

EricJNally's picture

I am a huge advocate of using technology in the classroom. In fact, I often write about it on my own site. Twitter has large potential as a learning tool. However, while your application of this tool is great, I note it only seems conditional to your real-time availability off site.

I have recently returned to being a substitute teacher after taking a year off to earn my masters and certification. In most contexts for my previous substituting assignments, the classroom teachers were in need of substitutes because they were unable to be available during the school day. If I understand correctly, under such circumstances, this Twitter strategy would not be possible. Therefore, while it is a great idea, it might rarely have the chance to be utilized.

Finally, while your title for this article is, "Skip the Sub...", it seems to connote the obsolescence of substitute teachers - though I note you do identify their minor importance to the classroom teacher. I would like to echo the sentiment of Alyse, above, who is also a qualified and devoted substitute, and to further her points by stating the need for a substitute in the classroom even if you are in a situation to use Twitter in the way you suggest. Proximity plays a crucial role in classroom management and behavior monitoring. WIthout the physical proximity of an educator of some sort in the classroom, I cannot see order taking place in such a learning environment. So, "Skipping the sub", or downplaying his/her role does not seem like an effective idea in my opinion.

Lynn Stover's picture

I love this idea. As a kindergarten teacher I will probably not be able to use this, but I know that my 8th grade son would be very much into this type of learning. We need to reach them where they are, and connect. What a way to connect and let them know that we are not as old as they think we are.

Sara P's picture

I am currently into my second year using a smartboard and have so much to learn about it. The thought of adding something else is a bit scary. Reading your twittering experience is quite exciting. I also hate to be out of the classroom. Twittering with the students would provide an excellent connection between my students and I. My only fear is the time it takes to get it going. How much time do you spend getting it up and running? I would be interested to try anything that would engage the students and provide instant feedback to me.

Danielle's picture

I think that using Twitter in class in an awesome idea. I would love to implement some technology that students use at home into my classroom. I think that Twitter is a little over the top for my students now, after all, I am still new to it! I think that it would be a great tool even for classroom discussions that could continue at home or start class for the next day. I have been thinking of other technology to use in my classroom, but many times I am frustrated by the problems that the computers cause me when I do use them. A lot of my students get frustrated and do not want to continue with the computers when they give them problems. I always thought that facebook would be fun to bring into the classroom somehow, but I just don't know how I would do it. It is just a "that would be neat" thought.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

It is my hope that while it may seem impractical now to be tweeting while off campus, the fact is that more and more people are touching base with their life even while being removed from it. While it can be annoying and rude to have people texting while meeting with them one-on-one (and I assume that will never change, for the good of etiquette's evolution) the fact is that while I'm at an educational conference (especially one focused on ed tech) I would hope that our times will change to reflect the efforts we are putting in to both our classroom and our own professional development.

Thank you so much for your comments, and I refer you to my response to Alyse's very valid comments about the value of substitutes in the classroom as a response to your own concerns. No disrespect intended, but there is a reality out there of the quality in sub pools that needs to be addressed sometimes in creative ways.

In the case of this experiment, I reiterate the fact that I used a trusted and great sub in order to participate in this tech attempt, and it was a group effort to see it succeed. I wish all subs were like her or like you.

Take care, and thanks for your comments.

-Heather WG

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

My Interactive Board is 10X harder to master then Twitter. Twitter, on the other hand, is free and easy. Set up your own personal account first and follow some authors or reporters or friends, and see how it works. Remember to keep your profile private to any without authorization, however, or you'll get TONS of spam. Other than that, it's been the most accessible and easy-to-adopt technology I've encountered in a long time.

-Heather WG

Pilar Wyman's picture

a not-quite-so-public educational alternative to Twitter to try with students is Edmodo:

Has anybody here used it?
Same microblogging benefits, but not quite as public, from what I understand.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Hello Pilar,

We're hearing great things about Edmodo. We actually mention it in our recent free publication, Ten Top Tips for Teaching with New Media.

Edutopia community member, Chad Sansing has also mentioned edmodo in recent community posts. You can message him directly through this community.

[quote]a not-quite-so-public educational alternative to Twitter to try with students is Edmodo:

Has anybody here used it?

Same microblogging benefits, but not quite as public, from what I understand.[/quote]

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