The Birth of an Idea
On October 22, teachers in our district came together on Twitter under the hashtag #mcvsdDebate. We are a county-wide vocational district with five academies, focusing on math, science and communications. Students are academically talented and apply to their school of choice. They must complete an application and take an entrance exam. Our goal was to work with students beyond the classroom walls as they put their thoughts about the Presidential race into writing. We also wanted to teach them how to use social media to learn from students outside their class.
The idea came about when Jon Olsen and Sarah Gross tweeted with their students during the town hall debate, using #HTHSDebate as a hashtag. Michelle Lampinen, a teacher from a sister school in their district, saw the chat and suggested a district-wide hashtag at #MCVSDDebate; Jon and Sarah agreed. The next day, Jon and Michelle discussed the idea and e-mailed an invite to other teachers.
We had less than a week to prepare students for the chat, but we knew it would be worth the effort to bring them together around this event. We introduced some rhetoric vocabulary to our students via a crash course; we reviewed the handout in class and led the students through some preliminary discussion to become comfortable with the terminology. Students in grades 9-12 were then instructed to participate in the chat for thirty minutes or more.
Although Twitter was our primary medium, we gave students options to suit their schedules and comfort level with social media. Our district is fortunate in that all of our students have Internet access at home, but we respect the fact that not all students and parents are comfortable with Twitter. For those who chose not to participate in the live Twitter chat, Michelle created a space at todaysmeet.com/bths, and Sarah and Jon used a private ning. Students who were unable to chat live could write a blog post with their responses after the fact. Students even contributed to a similar hashtag (#bamrom12) with AP students in Virginia and Georgia (connected via teachers we met on Twitter).
A Life of Its Own
What started as a simple idea became a fast-moving dialogue in real time by students throughout and beyond New Jersey's Monmouth County. In the course of the debate, our Twitter discussion generated over 1,500 tweets from 150 unique contributors. District teachers chatted with our students as they addressed President Obama's and Governor Romney's remarks and analyzed their rhetoric. We even had parents, alumni and other teachers contribute!
Students demonstrated an impressive depth of knowledge about politics and rhetoric, despite the lack of lead time. They were respectful of others' ideas and discussed the issues in an analytical manner devoid of personal attacks. As an added benefit, students developed research skills as they found links relevant to the debate with no prompting from their teachers. They tweeted background articles on Pakistan and Syria, as well as fact-checking sites to prove or repudiate statistics that the candidates presented. We have posted an archive of the chat with all the contributions (it's over 130 pages long!). Keep in mind that this document and its comments were compiled over only 90 minutes of debate.
This chat was a huge success. Tweets were flying in so quickly that it was difficult to keep up, especially in the first half of the debate. The feedback so far has been positive. Students value the fact that we embrace 21st century media, and they enjoy hearing different perspectives about the issues. Here are just a few of the tweets we received from students:
- @88Jiang: loved the larger hash tag #MCVSDdebate, I could see so many diff opinions at the same time about one remark
- @shawnsrolovitz: it's not very often that i can say that i had fun doing a homework assignment #thankyou #MCVSDDebate #bamrom12
- @matt213421: Doing this live chat is really helping me to stay focused and watch the entire debate #MCVSDDebate
Additionally, one student approached Michelle on the next day and expressed that her mother was sitting next to her while the student was tweeting. They both remarked that they always thought Twitter was just for people to post "stupid stuff about their day." They were pleasantly surprised to see that the medium can actually be used for learning.
Tweet to #EduElection on Election Day
We are excited to expand on this idea tomorrow, Election Day, on a national scale. Students and school communities nationwide will be discussing the election throughout the day using the #EduElection hashtag on Twitter. Edutopia, the New York Times Learning Network and others are promoting the hashtag for a national educational election conversation. We hope you'll join us! Using social media allows teachers and students to reach beyond the walls of the classroom and make connections across the country and the globe.
After the election, we imagine repeating this with other topics during the year, from current events to literature. It is a project easily put into place by middle school and high school teachers and can be adapted to any topic. (We're also currently using the #MCVSDstorm hashtag to keep in touch while out of school due to Hurricane Sandy.) It is a pleasure for us to work in a district that supports innovation and new ways to keep our students and community involved and connected.
Jonathan Olsen (@jonathanaolsen on Twitter) and Sarah Gross (@thereadingzone on Twitter) contributed to this blog. They team-teach an integrated humanities program to ninth grade students at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. High Technology is ranked the #1 STEM high school in the nation by U.S. News. Jonathan and Sarah are regular contributors to the New York Times Learning Network. Sarah blogs about teaching and YA literature at thereadingzone.