Unlocking the Many Uses of Twitter in the Classroom

Editor’s note: In our second installment on how educators can benefit from Twitter, Eye of the Storm author Kate Messner partners with contributor Dr. L. Robert Furman, author of Instructional Technology Tools: A Professional Development Plan, to share their insight into using Twitter in the classroom.

Q: How does an educator make the case for unlocking Twitter in a classroom?

Kate: I know there are two camps when it comes to the use of social media in schools. One group feels that it’s best to ignore it completely – ban its use and let the kids figure things out on their own at home where it’s not the school’s responsibility. But I think that approach is pretty shortsighted. We don’t put kids alone behind the wheel of a car the minute they turn 16 and say, “Okay, good luck to you with that. You’ll figure it out . . . ” Instead, we offer them a period of time to drive with us – first as passengers and then as drivers under our close supervision. Why should we do anything different when it comes to social media?

Used appropriately (and there are so many great learning opportunities out there), social media in the classroom can serve as a positive model for student social media use at home too. Students who see these positive models at school are more likely to use Facebook or Twitter to organize team study sessions than to harass their classmates.

Rob: It’s more than just Twitter. There are so many things that need to be unlocked in this realm. The problem is that usually the people who are doing the blocking are digital immigrants. They think they’re locking for safety and security; meanwhile, the kids are using this stuff all day long, and they’re asking, “Why are you locking something so silly?” You’re actually making it the demon, whereas the kids who are born into and living this stuff don’t see it as a demon at all.

There’s this fear out there that if you give an inch, students are going to take a mile. But we can’t stop social media. More kids can dance around my firewall than ever, even in elementary schools. Let’s embrace social media but under specific conditions. If you run a good school with the right kind of discipline – if you discipline students properly, which involves a consequence – then abuses of social media won’t be an issue. We haven’t banned recess because kids do stupid things out there. Instead, we try to teach kids right and wrong. We’re doing them a disservice if we’re not taking advantage of these things.

Q: How can educators use Twitter to develop 21st-century learners?

Kate: Twenty-first century learning isn’t about memorizing old facts; it’s about discovering new ones and figuring out how to sort information, make sense of it, and use it. Twitter can help with this by showing students that the world is full of experts. Often, when I take a writing break during the day, I’ll find that a teacher has sent me an @katemessner message from his or her class, asking how I handle revisions or how I use outlines in my writing. It takes me just a minute to respond, and instantly, the kids in that classroom are provided with a real-life model of something their teacher hopes they’ll do in their writing. It’s powerful stuff.

Rob: Twenty-first-century learning has eight or nine components. Let’s look at problem-solving and working creatively. Using Twitter, you can do projects with your kids creating a historical timeline. You can have one group creating a Civil War timeline and another doing a real-time timeline of President Lincoln. Then you’ll see a cross in these two timelines. What happens in these timelines when they link up in Twitter world? It opens it up to a lot of discussion.

Q: We’ve already touched on this, but let’s expand on how Twitter helps develop a learning community that extends beyond the classroom.

Kate: Twitter gives kids a sense that their world extends beyond those classroom walls. When they’re following real-world writers and readers, and real-world scientists and historians, suddenly, that learning feels much more alive, relevant, and immediate.

Rob: Why couldn’t our kids have a dialogue with long-distance students? For instance, one school is doing a project with students in Asia. When the American kids are working on their problem, they’re tweeting using a specific hashtag. Twelve hours later, the kids in Asia wake up, see the hashtag and are able to respond across the time zones. But the experience is only as awesome as teachers make it.

Q: Cite some examples of how Twitter can be used for research – for instance, in a class project or in an author study.

Kate: I’ve seen teachers on Twitter do a great job capitalizing on the international nature of the community there. Even a simple question like “Where do you live and what’s the weather today?” is a great way to help students understand geographic diversity through real people’s lives.

Regarding author studies, it’s funny: When I do author visits at schools and libraries, kids often ask if I’ve always wanted to be an author, and the answer to that question surprises many of them. I didn’t always want to be an author because, in all honesty, I didn’t know that I could have that as a job. I grew up in a small town where nobody wrote books. We never had an author visit our school, and we didn’t have the Internet, so there were no Skype or Twitter connections to be made. Somehow, I never quite put together that authors were regular people like me who loved stories. I always pictured them writing their books far away, in castles on cliffs, maybe. It was after college that I actually started to understand that regular people wrote books, but I think that kids today have much more immediate role models when it comes to reading and writing. Seeing real authors and talking with them online really helps to underscore the point that writing belongs to everyone – that this is something regular people can do if they love words and stories enough.

Rob: Again, it really depends upon your ability to find people. Let’s talk about a booktalk. Let’s say you’re a fourth-grade student and you have to do a book report on The Hunger Games, and author Suzanne Collins happens to be on Twitter. You can say, “I have this question,” and you can get responses. We have never before had such easy access to experts. For kids to be able to get to the Kate Messners of the world, they can contact them via Twitter and say, “Give me a quote for my book report.”

You can also look at this as a free field trip in the age of cost-cutting. Just as teachers go to conferences to meet and discuss with fellow professionals, isn't it nice that students get to talk to professionals as well? Think of the influence on a student’s future.

Q: How can educators use Twitter in developing lesson plans?

Kate: Twitter is fantastic when it comes to gathering resources. Throw out a topic – any topic at all – and somebody on your list of followers will have a whole bunch of online resources that relate to that topic. And the great thing about the Twitter community is that people are not only happy to share; they’re excited to share. Having that “virtual faculty room” makes collecting resources for a project so much easier and faster.

Rob: Minneapolis’ DigMe (digital media) program seamlessly incorporates digital media into the school day. The program is designed to catch the attention of students and increase participation while preparing them to communicate in tomorrow’s digital media. Students are very responsive.

Penn State University Professor Cole Camplese gives us another example. He allows students to interact during class via Twitter. Students use it to float ideas or post observations to which other students respond. The result is that more students participate, and it’s a great venue for shy students. Another way to use Twitter is to ask for recommended books or tools such as hyperlinks with ideas. But remember our research methods are changing, but common courtesy is not. Be sure to thank people who respond.

Q: How can Twitter help educators remain connected to their own students?

Kate: For younger students, Twitter is more about the classroom experience, but some high school and especially college teachers use Twitter as a means of communicating and sharing links with students, as Rob illustrates above. Again, I think creating this positive model of social media use helps kids see how productive a tool it can be.

Rob: Educators can communicate changes to schedules, course content, or venues. They can also use Twitter to communicate reminders about projects or important dates or to send hyperlinks that can augment an area of study. Twitter, in fact, can outright replace email announcements.

A big benefit is that Twitter allows educators to respond quickly and succinctly to questions about assignments and allows them to extend discussions beyond the classroom. Twitter can also simplify grading by allowing students to upload blog posts, Flickr slide shows, videos, and other works in progress. If educators are hesitant to go whole hog, they can just opt to use Twitter for extra credit.

Q: If an educator cannot get clearance for using Twitter in the classroom, what are some alternatives?

Kate: There are a number of “closed” social media formats that do offer some of the benefits of traditional social media. I’d recommend checking out Moodle and Edmodo for starters. But although a closed system may offer administrators a sense of safety, it also means putting up walls that keep out many positive influences too. I think this is an important discussion for school districts to have as they set social media policy. You can’t learn to drive a car in any meaningful way, after all, if you only cruise around a walled-in parking lot all day and never venture out on the roads.

Rob: Like Kate, I think Edmodo is a great place to start. It allows you to create a home base where students can at least start to interact with their classmates outside of the typical brick-and-mortar arena. You can also use free social media website creation tools such as webs.com or spruz.com, both of which can really enhance the classroom.

Q: Share some of your own educational experiences using the power of Twitter.

Kate: On an almost daily basis, I learn something on Twitter. I discover science and history articles that I then file away for future projects. I hear about great new books that I want to read. And I interact with a wide community of teachers, librarians, readers, and writers who teach me every day. It’s that sense of a learning community, I think, that makes Twitter such a great place for educators (and authors!) to be.

Rob: How don’t I use it? As I said last month, it’s my own customized professional learning community; it’s a back channel to conferences and meetings; it’s a resource for immediate poll responses; it’s a research arm. It’s a great tool for disseminating – and gathering – information, and districts are catching on to that fact.

Kate Messner is an award-winning author whose books for kids have been New York Times Notable, Junior Library Guild, IndieBound, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. was the winner of the 2010 E.B. White Read Aloud Award for Older Readers. A middle school teacher for 15 years, Kate earned National Board Certification in 2006. Follow her on Twitter @KateMessner.

Dr. Furman is a guest blogger for
The Huffington Post. Email tips or questions to him at Rob@FurmanR.com, or text him directly at 412-999-0449. Follow him on Twitter @DrFurman.

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