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Plugged In: Giving Every Student a Voice with Twitter

by Julie D. Ramsay
 | Aug 22, 2012
In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning.

One practice that motivates our students today is the opportunity to have their voices heard for an audience larger than just that of their teacher. If you have learners like I do who struggle with the English language, exceptionalities, or the ability to read, it can be a challenge to find a way for them to successfully share their ideas with others. How can we provide a safe learning environment for all of our students where they feel comfortable with sharing their ideas?

I have the answer for you…Twitter. Now, I know that many of you may think that this is a tool solely for following celebrities and what they had to eat for breakfast, but hang in there with me for a minute. Twitter is really about who you connect with on there. If all you connect with are celebrities tweeting out the inane parts of their lives, there isn’t much educational value there. But what if you could connect your students with students from all over the world? Think about it as pen pals that your students can have conversations with and receive responses from almost instantaneously. I think anyone can see the potential learning opportunities there.

Where do we begin?

Let’s start at the beginning. Go to Twitter’s website and create an account with a user name, an email and a password. One thing that I would suggest is that you set up a dedicated account for your class (ours is @RamsaysClass). If you want to connect and build your own personal learning network, you need to set up an alternate account (mine is @JulieDRamsay). Remember that anything that is typed, or tweeted, must be within the 140 characters or less. That includes letters, punctuation, and spaces.

If we want our students’ voices to be heard, there needs to be an audience. Now that you have a class account, you need to find other classes with whom your students can connect. When I first started about four years ago, it took some time to find other classes that were using Twitter. Luckily, some clever educators created a Global Class Twitter wiki where educators can add their information and begin to connect their classes. It’s divided into lower primary and upper primary. There is a nice combination of veteran Twitter teachers and newbie Twitter teachers. And because this is community, you have a built in support group if you come upon any challenges.

Before gaining access to Twitter, my students begin composing tweets on paper. At the end of each day, they hang their paper tweets outside our classroom door. We have a many discussions about what a quality tweet looks like, the content included, our audience and our purpose for tweeting.

To transition to using Twitter, we discuss proper procedures for accessing it. Even though some teachers prefer to have Twitter up on a desktop, the easiest way that I’ve found to mange this within our classroom is a Twitter app that I’ve downloaded onto my smartphone. Because of our discussion, they know that they need to have permission to get it off of my work area. They sit at that table, open up that one app, and compose their tweet. Once finished typing their tweet, they show it to me before we push "send." That way I know everything that is being sent out from our class.

The great thing is that if you have an extremely rigid schedule like I do, this takes up almost no time in the school day. My students usually tweet while class continues. Once done, the student returns to his/her learning activity.

The World at Our Fingertips

When I first started using Twitter for my class, I wanted to provide my students’ parents a window into our daily activities. I wanted to eliminate that old conversation:

Parent: What did you do at school today?
Student: Nothing.

End of conversation.

Now, with Twitter, the parents know what is going on in the classroom. They can also see photos of the different activities throughout the day. (Side note: You must remember to get the proper permissions before you include student writing and photos online. Our district has a release form that every student's parent must sign when they enroll each year.)

What surprised me was the learning that occurred in spite of my limited vision. My students set the expectations of what would be deemed a good tweet. They all agreed that since we have people following us from around the world, some of who do not speak English as a first language, we needed to use conventional English, not “text speak.” Instead of just reporting the events of the school day, they wanted to start posting cross-content brainteasers and questions to see if their parents could answer them. What they didn’t expect were all of the other learners who began answering their questions and asking their own.

For example, one of my students tweeted about some of the simulations we were doing in social studies as we were studying the American Revolution. A class in the U.K. responded by asking, “What’s the American Revolution?”

My students were shocked. “Why wouldn’t they study the American Revolution? It was fought against them.” That led to an in-depth discussion of why they wouldn’t study that part of history. This made my students realize that it was important to look at history from different points of view. After that discussion, my students proceeded to share some of the interesting parts of the American Revolution with their counterparts in the U.K., always remembering our discussion.

The great thing about Twitter is you never know what tweet will lead your students off on an amazing discovery and some really rich learning. With Twitter, every child can find success in sharing his/her thoughts or ideas. It’s only 140 characters. If they struggle with reading, writing, or the English language, they can take the time to find the right words to express their thoughts. It makes word choice very deliberate and meaningful. The exchange above all came about because of a tweet from an ELL student with exceptional needs who struggled to read or write. It impacted the learning of all of the students in both classes as well as any of the other classes who were following our Twitter feed.

Another time, my students were doing a countdown marking time until we had our Innovation Day. A class in Toronto asked us, “What is Innovation Day?” My students attempted to answer their question and then realized that there was just too much to share in 140 characters. So, they came up with the idea of creating a wiki where they could document and share everything that they did on our Innovation Day. It gave their learning a new dimension because they knew it was their responsibility to take photos, shoot video, and embed their projects into a wiki in order to truly teach another class about our Innovation Day.

My learners have done Twitter book reports that have led to book club discussion through Twitter. They’ve discovered new authors through book recommendations from other students. They’ve tried out new tech tools that can enhance their learning. They’ve looked at math problems and solutions from a different perspective. They’ve learned to explain the relevance of every learning activity in which they’ve engaged. And they have all learned about different communities and gained an understanding of the global community and that in spite of our differences, there are a lot of similarities too.

So if your question is “Why would you tweet?,” my response is “Why wouldn’t you tweet?” The learning potential through this tool is immeasurable. Most importantly, it gives every child in your class an opportunity to successfully share their thoughts, ideas, and questions with students from all over the world.

Not bad, for a tool that many have written off as a waste of time, huh?

Want some further information on using Twitter? Check out these resources: Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator, a fifth grade teacher in a student-driven classroom, and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com.

© 2012 Julie D. Ramsay. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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