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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Got a Sub? Team Teach with Twitter

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.

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