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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

To get started, you need only one computer in the classroom. It is ideal if you also have an LCD projector because by having everyone see who is posting and when, you eliminate sneaky or inappropriate posts. Your other option is the Twitter Captain that I mention above.

I always have a student post using two characters as their initials. For instance:

Kidd132 JT: How does someone figure out the meaning of the word if they don't know what the prefix means?

wolpertsclass Well, what words do you know that use the prefix? Can you define it backwards?

The JT is a student's initials, so I know who wrote the tweet even if they are adding to a list of tweets throughout the period.

I am not yet having students use their own accounts while class is in session. We are, instead, using one classroom account and everyone contributes using their initials. Because it's on the LCD projector, students can also be involved in elevating word choice and spelling prior to clicking "Update."

Hope this helps clarify!


Nichole Tapia's picture

I have been recently thinking a lot about integrating more technology into my classroom. Though Twitter is a little above the level of my students, I am inspired by your approach to reach students by thinking out of the education box and using something that the students are interested in. Choosing a "forbidden" medium such as Twitter, one that you had to actively seek permission to use makes it that much more intriguing. Many teachers would not even think to try to get rules changed by district officials. I look forward to hearing more about your Twittering. Good work!

Ashley's picture

I think it's so refreshing that you are using new technology in the classroom and that your administration is open to allowing these sites to be unblocked. It seems like everyday another website that I use becomes blocked so hearing that your technology coordinator agreed to unblock twitter has given me hope that ours will eventually come around. I have always thought that teachers should be allowed to use thier best judgement when sharing things on the internet with thier class and that given the opportunity, they would! Thanks for sharing, you've inspired me to seek change in my district as well.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Another experiment we dabbled in last year and will prep more for this year is having a Twitter Captain on our 8th grade DC trip.

Basically, we chose someone who had permission to Twitter while on the trip. Her account was followed by my class back home (I wasn't a chaperone), and her information (user name and password) was given to the chaperones. Only that particular student was allowed to Twitter.

It went well until she made a joke about being left behind during a rain storm at Arlington Cemetary (clearly untrue) but the chaperones felt they needed more comfort with it themselves before using it again.

Before she very apologetically stopped, however, we had glimpses into the laying of the wreath, the bus rides, the museums...It was wonderful.

This year, we all agreed that those students who would like to apply to be Twitter Captain for this DC trip will sit down and have a more formal conversation with me and the chaperones about netiqette, journalistic responsibility, and accountability.

But I'm so glad we jumped in even if a little unprepared. The chaperones see the awesomeness of it, and are pumped to try it again.

I'll let you all know how it goes!
-Heather WG

Ernest Soliz's picture

To think that administration would allow me to use twitter in my classroom would be unheard of in my district. We have currently seen a push for innovation in the school setting but ideas like these are often pushed aside. I think that not only will our students buy into learning, but they will feel more comfortable in the medium in which it is taking place. Maybe it is time for me to make push for alternative ways of reaching our students. Thanks for the info.

Alyse Kinsinger's picture

I have recently graduated from college and have been certified this past May. Because I am so new to the teaching profession my first few years as a teacher will consist of substitute teaching and working on my masters.

This is a wonderful idea for teachers to stay connected while they aren't physically in the classroom, but as a substitute it takes away from my job. I feel like a certified baby-sitter most of the time, but when a teacher actually leaves work were I get to engage the students and actually teach, it gives me the opportunity to get real teaching experience.

I think that this brings up an important issue about substitute teachers; if they can't teach then they shouldn't sub. Many of the school districts in my area hold interviews for perspective substitute teachers and ask specific questions about their teaching methods. In doing so, they are making sure that they are not just hiring a warm body to watch a class, they are hiring a capable teacher who is there to help students succeed and actually teach.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Thanks so much for bringing up this issue, Alyse. I totally see your point. I wish more subs could have your level of desire to use their jobs as opportunities to learn. I would like to think you are in the majority, but with every sub that comes into my classroom with a Nintendo DS or a newspaper under their arm, I know that this can't be true.

If only teachers could count on sub days as valuable time. I actually have a sub I use whenever I can get her that I trust completely. Actually, that was the sub that I used on these Twitter days. You need a relationship with someone you trust to keep order and make sure that the students are on-task despite an exciting experiment going on around them. But the fact is, I rarely get her unless I make arrangements far ahead of time because she is the only one many of us trust.

You bring a whole new perspective, but in reality, I feel that Twitter is a supplement, not a substitute for a sub. It's important for teachers to maintain contact if they can because we cannot afford our days out to be days of leisure for the students.

Thank you again for your POV, and thanks for posting at Edutopia!
-Heather WG

The Guest Teacher - LaRon Carter's picture

Thanks for being such a great teacher, Ms. Heather. Your transparency must be an enormous attribute to your teaching program. This article speaks volumes of possibilities to Twitter uses once a teacher makes it a goal to explore the possibilities. Whenever I tell someone that Twitter has no clear definition of use, it makes it so much more of an entertaining story to include one's like your "Skip the Sub and Teach with Twitter."

I spent the first three years of a two decade career in the classroom as one of the best substitute "guest" teachers that Indianapolis, IN has ever had (chuckles) and I would have loved to been part of the history you're making in K12 education. One day your guest teacher will be able to say I was part of the movement that changed the core of technology in education. Well OK that maybe stretching it a bit, but you get the idea.. right? Congratulations, it's a breakthrough! @K12Live

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

I just want to send the kind words right back at'cha. If you had been my "guest teacher," I would have absolutely trusted you to be on the other end of the Twitter experiment going on. But why don't you join in now?

Open a classroom-only account, that is, one that you don't use personally, but only during classroom hours that is transparent to your classroom. Only you hold the password and your profile is private to anyone but an account that you approve of.

Follow my class @wolpertsclass. We're not on Twitter daily, but when we are, it's a real window into the classroom. My class follows the following websites:

The Quirkles
Awesome Stories
Scholastic Teach

We also follow a few local classrooms and our superintendent who is just dipping her toe into the Twitter pool.

Thank you again for your kind words, and I hope to hear from you again at Edutopia!
-Heather WG

Jessica's picture

I love this idea. As a frequent facebooker and myspacer, twitter is a new world to communicate with students when you are not there. I like that it encourages students to update the teacher through posts which makes them aware of their spelling and context. It can be a great writing tool that uses a technology spin. I also like that it allows the teacher to know what is going on in the classroom even though they are not there. When you are out you always wonder who is in the room and how are the kids. I love this idea and I want to look into it more.

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