How to Use Twitter in the Classroom Without Actually Using Twitter

Well, I’m finally back to the world of blogging.  I took a trip home to see the family, and then I got sidetracked working on another education-related project which I’ll be blogging about in a future post.  But right now, I wanted to share a little bit about how I plan to use Twitter in my classroom without actually using Twitter. “Impossible,” you say?  Read on.

Many teachers use Twitter in their classrooms already, and they do so in a variety of ways.  Some use it as a simple way of getting messages to their students, while others allow students to tweet questions and thoughts in class, which can be especially useful for engaging quiet students.  I read of a professor in New York who has worked with his university’s IT department to develop a program that sends his history students tweets about what’s going on in history just at the time that he’s getting to that subject in his lectures.  There’s also fake Twitter websites out there that allow students to create very simple tweets without actually getting on Twitter.

But, and you can probably guess this, there’s some limitations and challenges with using Twitter in the ways described above.  First, not all students have Twitter accounts nor do all parents want their children to have Twitter accounts.  Second, (and this includes my school), some schools block Twitter at school and do not allow the use of cell phones in class.  While the professor’s idea is appealing, especially to a history teacher like me, it requires a lot of technological know-how and still is dependent on students having Twitter accounts.  Finally, the fake Twitter websites are subject to certain limitations.  For instance, the one I found wouldn’t allow you to timestamp the tweets or include images like the real Twitter does.

Now, I’m sure we’ve all seen the Facebook worksheets that some teachers use to get to know their students at the start of the year or to have students learn about historical figures by creating a fake Facebook page for the famous person.  There’s actually an online version of this called – you guessed it – Fakebook.  I’ve seen similar worksheets for Twitter as well and even used something similar last year with my AP U.S. students.  My problem with these worksheets or their online equivalents is that they are often one-dimensional and do not allow much in the way of collaboration or more in-depth thinking.  The use of technology and the “fun” factor are great, but it ultimately has to be about content and skill development.  So that still left me trying to come up with some other way to use Twitter in my classroom.  What to do, what to do?

First, I needed a unit in which to embed the assignment.  Often when I think about content first, I can more easily come up a way to incorporate the technology.  You may or may not realize this, but it happens to be the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  I usually don’t spend too much time on this war with my students, but given it’s the anniversary this year, I thought we might do something more with it this year.  Enter Twitter.

Before I go any further with the description, for the actual PDF of the lesson described in this post, click on War of 1812 Twitter Assignment.  Warning: This may seem like a lot of work both for students and in terms of the amount of grading.  However, I teach Advanced Placement students who are more than capable of this work, are very familiar with Twitter, and are also very creative when challenged.  I also will only have around 12 students in my AP U.S. class next year, which makes my grading load lighter.  You could always make the assignment shorter as needed.

Okay, great.  Now where did I leave off?  So I started thinking about what they would need to know about the war – how and why it began, the major events of the war, who was involved with the war, and what consequences the war had for those involved.  Now, it’s here that I’ve seen some assignments in which each student is assigned a figure from the war and the student writes tweets from that person’s perspective about the war.  The students generally work alone or perhaps in pairs, but they are not doing much in the way of collaboration and they generally only learn a lot about the one person they are assigned.  I knew this wasn’t what I wanted to do.  But how to fix this?

Not surprisingly, I decided to have the students work in small groups.  To start with, I gave the students certain dates from the war, some more famous than others.  They had to figure out what happened on each date in the war, so they were getting in a little research, granted of the very easy variety.  Then, they were given a list of people associated with the War of 1812, and they had to create a series of Twitter “conversations” between these people about the war – one mini-conversation for each event from the war.  In total, they were given 18 separate dates and 10 people to research.

What’s the difference?  The difference here is that each student is now learning about multiple people from the war not just a single individual.  They are having to take on the perspectives of those historical people when writing their tweets. What would James Madison think about the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and how does his perspective differ from a Native American’s point of view?  More importantly, what would a conversation about the war between these two individuals be like?  In addition, the students are doing this in small groups, so they are having to communicate with each other as well edit each other’s work.  Because they are limited to 140-characters per tweet, just like the real Twitter, refining their work is a must.

Which technology tool did I use?  Right now, I’ve decided to have the students use a simple Google Document, which allows multiple students to edit the same document simultaneously.  I also gave the students directions as to what their document should look like when complete, which requires them to know how to use Google Docs and computer skills like cutting, pasting, resizing, etc. I could have also had the students create their conversations on a wiki or simple website. It’s really just a matter of choice, and it may change as I think through this more.

So there’s my way of incorporating Twitter into the classroom without actually using Twitter.  It’s still about the content and skill development, but plays on the popularity of Twitter while incorporating the technology available in a 1:1 environment.  It’s not the greatest lesson ever developed, to be sure.  But I think it’s a decent assignment when incorporated among other units of study and uses of the technology.  And I could see this working very similarly in an English class. Students could create Twitter conversations between characters in a novel or between famous authors about their works, etc.

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