Thursday, May 14, 2009

Best Practices in a Twitter-enhanced High School Classroom

Yesterday concluded our live blogging sessions of Twitter-enhanced classrooms. I hope the folks who caught parts of the feed started to get a feel for what at least the virtual part of this sort of classroom experience looks like. I hope soon to do a series of live broadcasts over Ustream; more on this later.

A few weeks ago I was speaking with a tech coordinator at a big public high school in Baltimore County. I was shocked (real shock / no irony) to learn that his students aren't even allowed to use EMAIL at school. He's forced to circumvent this by allowing SMS and texting via surreptitious cell phones.

This is madness.

And it's yet another reason I'm so proud of the administration of John Carroll -- the schoolhouse I call home -- for being not only reasonable but actually excited about bringing Web 2.0 and social and participatory media into the classroom.

Some teachers remind me that I am lucky -- and indeed that may be true in some ways -- but I really see myself as just an experimenter whose laboratory resources and methods will soon be commonplace, if not seemingly backwards in just a brief amount of time as the realities of the future of the Digital Age catch up with educators and classrooms everywhere. Surely, as I type this note, there are educators who are already using technology to connect their kids to real learning and the global community in ways that by the end of my last paragraph will make my observations seem hopelessly behind-the-curve.

At least I hope so.

But to the thing at hand: maybe three weeks ago or so our tech department lifted the schoolwide block on Twitter. Within minutes I had my students sign up and sign in. We've been running Twitter feeds live in class -- projected on our wall -- ever since.

But it's not just a matter of running the feed. I've also developed several uses for Twitter that either directly or indirectly affect assessment. In fact, more and more I see Twitter as an excellent resource for assessing several of the skills that are fundamental to learning and living such as: the ability to make mistakes and immediately get positive critical feedback; the ability to take part in a communal discussion without the fear/anxiety/boredom/etc of 'being proper' and having to 'stand in line' and 'wait one's turn' -- after all, this ain't 19th century academia we're talking about -- our kids now (and more than ever given the complexity of live interactive networks) are going to be expected to think immediately, on the fly, and with regard to several arguments at once: I'm talking active vs. passive reality here; students also need to develop the ability to question authority and back up one's arguments immediately and in the moment with all of the sources and resources that the Net provides.

It's not that this'll be the first generation to question authority, but they will be the first to do it whilst carrying the whole of the attained knowledge of human civilization on the iPhone on their hip.

And so, here is a short list of some of the best practices for the Twitter-enhanced classroom that I've encountered through daily use and practical application.


1. Vocabulary / Grammar Building -- Imagine you are in a foreign language classroom. Have the students find all of the target language verbs in a selected passage. They will then tweet the verb, its definition, and its morphology and/or grammatical function. You then have a choice: as the Tweets come in, either fix or give hints for students to correct their own work or have students stop after a few minutes and then go back through the feed and correct the work of their peers. For advanced students, you might want them to track the work of their peers live on the feed and make immediate corrections. The advantage: you get to see how and where students make mistakes as they make mistakes. And your students get to understand exactly where they are making mistakes and what kinds of mistakes they are making 'before' they 'turn in' a completed assignment. This way neither you nor the student have to wait until 'the end' to assess work. Twitter = Immediate Formative Assessment.

2. Source/Resource Collection and Evaluation -- Class discussion time: talk about what makes for a good source and what makes for a lousy source. Give examples from the Net. Now, give the students a topic. How about: the plight of the Cherokee Nation in the 20th Century. Have half the class look up online sources; they will keep sending everything they find -- both good AND bad -- into the Twitter feed. The other half of the class will then evaluate the sources as either good or bad and give a short (less than 140 characters) annotation/explanation back to the Twitter feed. After ten minutes or so, switch sides. Now, by the end of class you have an interactive document -- the feed itself, full of hyperlinks and annotations -- with which you can lead a more detailed discussion of what makes for a good vs. a lousy source. Twitter: It Leads to Deeper Discussion and Better Bibliographies.

3. Collaborative Assessment -- Among other duties, I actually find time to teach a handful of Latin classes around here. I've long been frustrated by the fact that students who otherwise would have no problem getting through a passage of text often get caught up by one small section. And it just snowballs. They get so frustrated with a single phrase or even a single word that they just shut down. Twitter puts an end to this. Now, when I give translation tests, I let the students run Twitter in a tab. If they have difficulty, they always have the option to post a question to the feed. I monitor the feed and can either step in and answer or give hints. I also -- and this, I think is the important part -- let the students help each other. In fact, I encourage it. I've long hated the fact that foreign language assessment has so often taken the track of merely evaluating understanding based on adding up the mistakes a student makes. All that tells me is that a student didn't get it. What's far more valuable to me in assessing students is figuring out what exactly it is that they aren't 'getting' in the very moment when they aren't 'getting' it. With Twitter, because it's a communal feed, I know when individual students are having these problems. So, that part of my evaluation is taken care of.

Now, my mission as a foreign language teacher is to help the student 'get' it. So, whether I give the student a little advice or whether a peer does the same doesn't matter so much so long as the advice is accurate and duly given. In effect, I'd rather the students help each other -- in my experience that fosters a much greater bond than if I'm the guy telling folks "You are right" or "You are wrong". As for the worry that students will just totally rely on others to do their work, I've got two realities for you. First, although many students are happy and even excited to help a peer, they just don't have the time during a test to walk them through the whole thing. Secondly, I am reading the whole feed and interacting with it live as well. If I see a slacker on the feed, I deal with them directly via DM's so that a) they get personalized attention, b) they don't get to ride other students' work, and c) though via Twitter, the individual services can be given without the other students even knowing. Twitter = Collaborative Learning and Individualized Learning Together in the Same Place, as they should be.

[Added May 15, 2009: For added bang-for-your-buck, explore uses of hash-tags to create unique student-developed resources. See this post for more about that.]

Regarding Security

Part of the job duty of any teacher is to maintain a safe environment for learning, and that duty extends to Web 2.0.

I am entirely and 100% opposed to blocking sites in high school. Let me be absolutely clear: I am 100% opposed to blocking ANY sites in high school. Rather than treat students (and teachers) as folks who can't be trusted, we need to educate and foster the entire community on both the value and the dangers of the digital realm. Otherwise, we are ignoring a potential problem and sending kids out into the world completely unprepared to deal with the realities of the world.

To be perfectly honest, I think an actual course in Internet Culture will soon be as necessary and as valuable as a good course on health. Kids need to know the benefits of a good diet and they need to know the benefits of good Internet etiquette; they need to know the facts about sex, drugs, gambling, and violence in the real world and they need to know the facts about those matters in the virtual world. In lieu of such a class becoming mandatory in your school, you as the digital classroom teacher will be responsible for teaching Internet safety.

In terms of safety on Twitter, you are in luck. So long as you and your students are vigilant -- meaning you check your 'followers' regularly to block any potential weirdos and you limit 'follows' to the other folks in class -- you really have little to worry about. Yes, your Tweets could be picked up by some aggregator or they could be 'mischievously' posted outside the class feed by a student. But this just goes to demonstrate that nothing posted online should ever really be considered 'private' in the sense of 'hiding it in the back of the closet'. So long as both you and your students understand this, you won't have a problem. In terms of best practices regarding Twitter safety, I recommend students changing user-names on a scheduled basis. This is as easy as changing settings via your Twitter profile. For example, whenever I run live blogs of our class Twitter feeds, afterwards I have the students change their user-names. Takes thirty seconds.


I strongly suggest projecting your class feed via LCD projector. I have mine running all the time. Two advantages: 1) students can take part and follow the feed even if they aren't actively Tweeting... say during a class discussion. Further, as situations arise, I can throw information into a feed -- say during the middle of a lecture -- and students can then research and comment back into the feed; the result with the feed projected is that everybody can follow the interaction, I've found this often sparks even more discussion which is something I encourage even during lectures. Secondly, the projected feed in a way makes using Twitter in class seem so ordinary. It's just a tool. A very very powerful tool, but a tool all the same. As any master craftsman would tell you, part of becoming proficient with your craft is becoming comfortable with your tools. Projecting the feed is a way to enhance this familiarity.

As for whether the feed is distracting, that's sort of relative. I think if there is one thing I need to teach my students -- in this age of variable supergraphics on billboards and buildings, multi-media displays at the grocery store, and bowling alleys that look like something out of Tron -- is how to deal with the visual information that barrages us all the time. This is not to say that I spend all class hyper-stimulating the sensory system. I'm also one of those teachers who likes to take the class on nature walks. But I think it is completely reasonable to expect the students to learn how to deal with the sort of presentation that we ourselves as teachers are experiencing more and more at any quality professional development meeting.


I have no false illusions that my work here is done. Nor do I think that I've even gotten passed the tip of the iceberg. All I've really done is bring social media into my classroom. The rest is a matter of 'what happens next'.

And what happens next? Well, I hope that this post will bring both debate and fresh ideas from all of you. I've been impressed in just the last few months at how rich the discussion of educational technology and the future of education really is. I consider myself neither a scholar of educational technology nor a particular whiz at all of the facets of Web 2.0. What I am is a teacher who believes strongly that the future of education is bound to the future of social and participatory media -- whether it comes in the form of Twitter or any distant and future permutations.


  1. Great post! Really interesting and creative lesson ideas/structure. This post certainly makes me wish I had a 1:1 laptop classroom. At present I have students working on collaborative test prep, but only one of the twelve students has a laptop...makes for a tough dynamic.

  2. I just wrote a lengthy reply which google promptly ate for me.

    In brief, I really agree that students should learn about social technologies. If not, their safety and reputation are at risk when they try to work these things out for themselves later. It's as important as teaching proper grammar and ensuring they know not to get into cars with strangers.

  3. Great post! I'm going to add you to the list on my post. Thank you for providing the details of how you make Twitter work for your students. My district still blocks it, and I'm campaigning to have it unblocked. This post provides one of the strongest cases yet for using social media in the classroom.

  4. Hey NSK....have them look in their can tweet with a phone...

  5. How do you tweet from a phone? Does it cost anything? I am still very new to this, but I am interested to see how I could incorporate this in my classroom next year.

  6. Wonderful article on creating paperless classrooms. I know of a great website which promotes classroom management. This site provides free behaviour tips and resources for teachers, head teachers, lecturers and classroom assistants.

  7. Teaching Paperless:

    You always write passionate thought-provoking work! While I haven't used Twitter, I have used because no login or passwords or anything are needed. When we read paragraphs in our social studies books, the LCD projector has an instant feed of comments about text and additional resources. Our text provides one picture on the Rocky Mountains (nice?!) and our Today's Meet discussion provides countless pictures and resources! Today's Meet may be another alternative to Twitter!

    I also appreciate your "Internet Culture" class. We are in the process of developing six week courses and this idea may be submitted as another idea. You are correct, we have hammered these pitfalls in real life (D.A.R.E.) and now we need to educate students about the virtual pitfalls as more of them "get online".

    Keep up the great work!

  8. Great post, definitely thought-provoking. There are so many amazing things that we have available to us now in the classroom, but they need to be used in the proper ways.

    Teacher's Professional Development

  9. I'm so excited with this post. I really appreciate sharing this great post. Keep up your excellent work.

  10. LOVE it. I know this is an older post, but we are in our 2nd year as a 1:1 program. I really had to fight hard to have Twitter allowed for a week long program. I am hopeful that as staff becomes less afraid of social media, we can actually USE it in our classes.


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