Part I: The Simplicity of Twitter
Twitter is an interesting and powerful Web 2.0 tool. Originally intended as a simple social networking resource, educators have found value in Twitter’s simplicity as well. There is something invigorating and even seductive about engaging the students on ground that is already familiar to them.
At the beginning of this project, my goals were clear. First, find a way to keep my students engaged at a high level with the classic Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth. Second, incorporate a new digital tool for students unfamiliar with Twitter. Third, and perhaps most important, do not get buried in extra work in the process. The first step was research.
We had several colleagues in the building using Twitter regularly. I found they use it for simple things like bell-ringer assignments, exit tickets, and for project or test reminders. There was no real higher-order thinking going on there. So I mined the web reading about other teachers using Twitter in the classroom both at the high school and university levels. It was a mixed bag, but most were simply using it as a method of backchannel communication or as my colleagues were already using it. I wanted something more, something with more depth.
I stumbled on Paul Barnwell’s article in Education Week that decried Twitter as “…a constant source and depository of mindless banter and instant gratification.” Perhaps I was asking too much from a social networking app that is limited to 140 characters. We are regularly warned by our administration to “keep an ear to the ground” for cyberbullying and Twitter-wars. Clearly there were a number of potential pitfalls beyond the usual educational sphere that I would have to contend with.
Through all of my research I noticed a trend. It appears rather commonplace for educators to succumb to the pitfall of the technological silver bullet. “This is the thing which will change education forever,” we cry out. We can all too easily fall victim to the dazzling possibilities and the “bells-and-whistles” of a technology all too easily. We do not always make sure the device or app is serving a pedagogically sound purpose.
I find myself rereading fellow Hershey teacher Brianna Crowley’s blog post on adopting technology for the classroom: Tips for the Technology Cautious Among Us. While I would not call myself technology cautious, I am not the type to just throw technology and apps at my students and lessons and just hope they work. Her suggestions helped to focus my thinking. “…how can technology best enhance what I already do or want to accomplish in my class?”
Thinking, Rethinking and Thinking Some More
I am a planner. I want to know how the technology will work and how it will or might fail. Some of these concerns are basic and mundane. Will our network handle the traffic? Is the app/site compatible with a wide variety of devices as we are in a Bring Your Own Device(BYOD) environment? Can the devices the students have available suitable, or will we need to use a more powerful/robust platform like a laptop? Are there any safety or security issues involved? Then I go an extra step. I imagine myself as the laziest, sneakiest, cheat-happy student and try to wreck the process. Is there a way to game the system to find an unfair advantage? Can I crash it so I don’t have to do the work? Yet I still have not resolved the issue of how to make Twitter into a useful educational tool for higher-order thinking.
Time to Refocus
So this all brings me back to the central problem. I wanted to take a tool the students already use and turn it to educational uses, but that was only half the battle. Could I use Twitter in a way that would require higher order thinking especially analysis? I worried about how the Tweets would lack depth because of the 140 character limit. Can Twitter do what I envision?
Further research provided the idea of using Twitter to have the students respond to quick prompts after a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play. Other teachers used it to have the students tweet as a character in the story. The unit I intended to use Twitter with focuses primarily on characterization so this last idea caught my attention. Tweeting as a character from Macbeth following each scene would incorporate a new digital tool; however, would doing so constitute higher-order thinking? I could not envision a way for myself, let alone a student, to compose a tweet that demonstrated the kind of thinking I wanted. There were other problems that cropped up as I thought through how this would play out in my classroom.
My colleague, Emily Reinert, and I both teach the same level of sophomore English, college preparatory. Between us we have nearly 140 students in five classes. I did not want to have us engage our precious time following a bad idea down the rabbit hole. We needed to work out the logistics of this project as well as making it pedagogically sound. What would be the logistics of grading the tweets? Is there a rubric out there for this kind of assignment or will we have to invent one? What would that rubric look like? What are we qualities are we looking for in a good tweet? Are we going to be grading emoticons and text-speak in English class?
Then still more problems caught my attention. With a little quick math I realized that scoring each and every tweet individually would mean I would be scoring over 2000 tweets! Between Emily and I the total number of tweets would be nearly 3,800! I needed a way to search and organize them. Suddenly, the problems seemed to outnumber the ways forward.
The Value of Tweeting as a Character
I did not want to abandon the idea of the students tweeting as a character. It requires a number of skills I believe strongly that my students need: empathy, attention to detail, and good digital citizenship. The core problem as I saw it was twofold. I needed a way to easily organize the tweets and, far more importantly, engage the students at a higher level. Simply composing the tweets, while falling in the “create” part of Bloom’s Taxonomy, felt too easy. There is little long-term engagement with a tweet. It is by its very nature ephemeral and thus so too is our engagement with it.
My father, a retired educator, is fond of saying, “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” As I did more and more research, and kept thinking back to Barnwell’s article. He wanted to create a curriculum that “instead of simply embracing Web 2.0 tools […] utilizes technology as part of a larger creation process.” That was what I wanted: creation. However, at 140 characters per tweet that would be like trying to build the pyramids with limestone blocks the size of sugar cubes. Tweets were simply too brief to do the job. I think the issue my colleagues around the web had with Twitter is they saw it as the end of the intellectual conversation, that the tweet was the final product of the learning. I needed a way to make the tweets just one step in the process.
I needed something other than just a hammer…