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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

Eileen Marquez's picture

I am amazed at this unique approach. I have heard of meeting students at their level and even differentiating instruction, but this idea tops it all. Not only did you meet students through an avenue which they are very adept at, but you incorporated the use of technology as well. As with every new idea, there were a few bumps, but when isn't Armando out of his seat? We all have the students who will despite the activity find a way to get our individual attention, however this seems like a very interesting approach that I will definitely implement in my classroom as well. The students are amazed to learn that teachers know how to twitter or have the FB app on their phones.

Megan Graham's picture

I find myself wondering how classes are running when I am unable to be present. I have not used Twitter, but from hearing your point of view I think it could be a useful tool for student, substitute teachers, and myself. I would also talk with administrators about the allowing Twitter to be viewable in the classroom. How did you go about persuading the administration to allow you to use Twitter in the classroom?

Andrea's picture

I went to a workshop where the textbook are now in a version for ipods. I always thought it would be great to use my students' cell phones as a teaching tool. Even though they are not allowed to have them in class, they do. So I figured use them. I thought about sending them questions that they would have to either research or answer for homework. I haven't done it as yet because of the fear that it could get me in trouble. I think using the technology our students are interested in as a teaching tool is wonderful.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Eileen, I'm so glad you're interested in using Twitter. I've found that it adds great excitement to the classroom.

It allows for "syn-naps" (thanks, Judy Willis) of spontaneous teaching opportunities. For intstance, my classroom subscribes to Awesome Stories and The Quirkles Twitter feed. One is a history primary news footage site and the other is a science site. When a tweet comes in, we decide if it's interesting enough to stop what we're doing and have a new, spontaneous mini-lesson.

We scaffolded first with offline twitter lessons of how to consolidate our thoughts to 140 characters or less (uber-summary, if you will.)

Here is a post I wrote some time ago about how to introduce the concept of Twitter.

Also, here is the original post that also includes some of the exchanges between myself and my students. I hope this also helps illustrate what we were doing even further:

I hope this helps. It can be scary to have this "backchat" going on. But you'll find that we the teachers have more of an adjustment to make than the kids do.

Good luck, and let me know how it's going!


Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

I totally understand your challenge. At first, I needed to very meticulously convince not only my administration, but my district's Director of Technology to allow Twitter to be unblocked on our site.

But there are ways to make the transparency of Twitter less scary for those who don't use it.

1. For one thing, make sure that only people you approve of can have access to your account.

2. Instruct students to set theirs up the same way if they end of opening an account to avoid the inevitable wave of ads and spam.

3.Additionally, let your admin know that while students and parents and other classes might be following your class, that doesn't mean you are following them. That means you have control of the content that appears when it's on the LCD projector. My students follow me, but I generally don't follow my students (except in the above sub day project)

4. Also, remind students that everything's transparent to those who want to see it.

Sometimes you'll get an admin or a teacher who says it's so distracting to have the updates appear as you're teaching, but this "digital notepassing" or "digital backchat" has always been going on in the form of notepassing and whispers. Using Twitter allows you to keep it front and center while also controlling it's level of rigor and content depending on who your class subscribes to.

Good luck, and report back!
-Heather WG

Jeanette C Shorey's picture

What a great idea to use technology that your students think is "cool". I'm sure participation is high and more of your students are on task. I would love to try this in my elementary school music classroom. I'm not sure how it would work, since my students keep their cell phones in their backpacks. My principal is not much of a risk taker when it comes to new ideas.

Amanda Ernst's picture

I think that this idea is absolutely great. As Heather stated though, there are going to be troubles, and most likely students will abuse it, but it is a great way to stay connected to the classroom while you were out. I am not really familiar with Twitter, so I'm not exactly sure how it works. But I think that getting students engaged by using something they think is cool, and maybe even something forbidden in school will make them want to be a part of it.

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