Twitter as a classroom communication tool

I maintain a class blog with my 9th grade students that I use mostly to post homework and announcements, but sometimes I’ll post some additional information about class topics or links that I find interesting or useful.  I have no doubt in my mind that my students spend a significant portion of their free time online; however, the time they DO spend online is not to be wasted checking their English teacher’s blog. They have told me this. I have accepted it as a reality. In conversation with other teachers, I’m met with a certain degree of frustration. People out there tell me that I need to start blogging. So I did; I started blogging. Guess what? My students don’t read the blog! So why am I wasting my time?

In the past few years, many of us in the profession have subscribed to the idea that classroom blogging is essential to reach students in a 21st Century learning community. While I really did believe that this was true and important, I’m starting to wonder how many of my students actually care. “Blogging” isn’t cool to them; at least it’s not cool for my current chemistry of students. They’re online, but they’re playing games, they’re updating their Facebook status, they’re reading Spark Notes, they’re searching for friends on Twitter. They’re not reading blogs just for the fun of it. They’re not even checking their e-mail anymore! If important information needs to come to them, it comes through social networking sites like Facebook or via text message.

So what do we do? Do we throw in the towel and give up on this new technology that we tried so hard to learn? Do we dispute the claims of educational professionals who are telling us that this IS the wave of the future? That we MUST adapt or find ourselves behind? If this is truly the future, then when are my students going to catch up?

Just this past week, I posted an extra credit assignment on my 9th Grade English class blog. My intention was to offer extra credit for everyone, but make information about it available only online. Hey – what a great way to get kids to rise to the occasion! I even gave them some help; I TOLD them it was there. However, out of approximately 75 of my 9th grade students, a mere 4 actually completed the assignment and handed it in on time. A few more gave me some excuses about how they “didn’t know what to do” and asked for some extra time. The other students told me that they didn’t even see it, nor did they care to look.

I asked them an honest question in class, “So what do I need to do to reach out to you guys?”

“Go on Facebook,” One student replied. That was met by a few enthusiastic grins and laughter.

I explained to my students that it is generally uncool for teachers to have Facebook accounts. While I don’t necessarily believe this (I do have a Facebook account that I use to keep in touch with faraway cousins and childhood and college friends) I do believe that it is important for teachers to maintain a very private online persona that protects them from the curious cyber-stalking of their students. On the other hand, Facebook is the primary method of communication that these kids use.

That is, until Twitter started gaining popularity.

Before my school district knew what Twitter was, I was demonstrating it in my senior elective last year. At first the students laughed at me and said, “This is dumb. Why use this when you can just use Facebook.” They told me that Twitter would never take off, that it would never be cool. Well, they were wrong. Twitter is here, and it gains more and more popularity every day. While I don’t think it will do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace, (Who uses MySpace anymore, anyway?) It’s a growing form of technology that more and more students are signing up for and learning. It has become so popular that our District now blocks it with an Internet filter along with sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Students who want to tweet during the day do so from their cellular phones. What’s important about this? They’re using it. They may be using it to share incoherent babble with their buds, but they’re using it nontheless.

I do not “protect my Tweets” as some do. I don’t tweet about anything inappropriate. In fact, most of what I tweet about is education related (minus the occasional rants here and there about Big East College Basketball and Lady GaGa…I am human after all!) In my eyes, there is no reason why I should hide my Twitter identity from my students. Since such a large percentage of our society has an online presence, I’m OK with sharing this one with the general public.  If students want to, they can search for me on Twitter simply by typing in my name.  Some of them have done so and have started “following” me, and I “follow” some of them in return.

I had the idea in class today to post my Twitter URL on the blackboard. It came to me after the discussion I had with my 3rd period class about the lack of traffic on my class blog.  So, I invited kids to “follow me on Twitter” if they knew what that meant. Some did. Some said that they thought it was weird, that they’d never want for me to “follow” them back and see what they’re doing on a day-by-day basis. That actually brought up a good discussion about privacy – I informed them that they should really be “protecting” their Tweets if they don’t want adults seeing what they write. Many of them have started doing that, and I’m glad. It keeps them safe.

I posted my first school-related announcement via Twitter earlier this evening. It was a link to a class blog post regarding a school-wide fundraiser and service project. I don’t know how many of my students will be driven to look at it, but at least I used one more technologically-relevant method to share information with them.

In doing this, I’m trying to get in the habit of posting to Twitter more often. I think it’s OK to continue my fun tweets about Syracuse Basketball – it shows them a side of me that they might not see in class… and it’s a fun side, so who cares? I will, however, make a conscious effort to post the same kinds of things on Twitter that I would have posted on my class blog: links to study guides, music, video, discussion questions, and historical footnotes on the Web. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t. Either way – it’s an easy way for me to use a popular website as a classroom communication tool, and it is not nearly as time consuming as updating a blog that only a few people check.

*Please leave a comment and say hello if you found this post via Twitter.*

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One Response to Twitter as a classroom communication tool

  1. Niki R says:

    I taught HS English, so I get it. I used blackboard with my 9th graders. They do want to be online and they do want to interact; but the don’t want to be online interacting with you.

    So I posted questions that I wanted answered or topics I wanted discussed on blackboard. Then I assigned them the task of posting one question/comment/statement and responding to two others part of their daily homework. I cut off comments at a certain time (with blackboard you can close this automatically so you don’t have to worry about being online at that moment) and I printed out a report of who commented and everyone that “completed” the assignment got their homework points.

    Yes, I didn’t grade on content or quality; just completion of the assignment. My point was to see who was getting it, who wasn’t getting it, start a dialogue and in the process separate the points that I thought should resonate with kids from what was actually resonating with them. So helpful as I could plan lessons around characters or plot on the fly that were actually interesting to the kids (go figure?!). I read through the comments and it was fun to see the kids really get into the books.

    I left things like my class website up…for parents. Because that’s who wants to see what assignments are due and a homework calendar and what’s going on in class.

    Just my .02

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