Can Tweeting Help Your Teaching?

Twitter won’t change your life, but it might make your job more fun and a little easier

So, what are you doing? If you’re one of the 3 million people on Twitter, you are likely inclined to tell whoever cares right now, in 140 characters or fewer (or, about the length of this paragraph).
Twitter, on the small chance that you don’t know, is the free micro-blogging service that enables users to post short messages, or Tweets, that are delivered to friends, enemies, family, colleagues — anyone who has subscribed. These are your followers. You may have one, several, or, if you’re Ashton Kutcher, 2 million.

With its enormous popularity, Twitter has invited dopey hyperbole (Time magazine went all in with a recent cover story) and snide cracks (“Who cares that I just ate a tasty corned beef sandwich?”)

But before you write off Twitter as just the latest social media “fad,” take a look at how some clever educators are using it to enrich their classrooms and even forge informal professional networks. (As with any new technology, especially social networks, educators should first find out if their school or district has a policy or guidelines on Twitter before proceeding.)

Christopher Bergeron, a district-level technical coordinator in New Hampshire, says, “Some teachers are more open to collaboration and networking. Those who value personal networks are more excited about the technology even if they are not overly tech-savvy.”

It may be particularly attractive to newer teachers, who are often in search of mentoring and coaching and are likely more comfortable being part of online communities.

By following other educators’ tweets, teachers can keep up with the latest trends, news, and happenings in education, as well as communicate with fellow educators.

“Twitter,” Bergeron says, “is like the ticker at the bottom of CNN — only a ticker populated with information about those people or things you care about, want to learn from, or want to know about.”

By using Twitter’s direct message (private message) feature or the @reply function to publicly reply to another’s tweet, explains Bergeron, “I am able to learn what my counterparts are working on, what is working, what is not working.”

Inside the classroom, Twitter can be used to review lessons and remind students what is going to be covered in class that day or the next. Teachers say tweeting a few quick review questions and some good Web sites add depth to their lessons. In turn, students can tweet their own questions and observations.

“Twitter is a great way to keep your students thinking after class,” says Chris O’Neal, an instructional technology coordinator in Charlottesville, VA. “You can tweet a quick provocative question about a social studies lesson, for example, that will keep their brains active.”

But what about the much-ballyhooed decline of the American attention span? Isn’t Twitter just encouraging students to absorb nothing more than superficial, quick bytes of information? Maybe, but educators are finding ways to use Twitter for just the opposite, helping students crystallize thoughts, focus attention, and make connections that weren’t possible a few years ago.

Teachers like George Mayo in Maryland are enthusiastically employing Twitter to facilitate discussion and collaboration between students in their classrooms and their counterparts in different countries.

Mayo, an eighth-grade English teacher at Silver Spring International Middle School, used Twitter as a platform for a collaborative story written by his students. Using one Twitter account called Many Voices, Mayo invited his students, and students around the world, to add a sentence or two to an ongoing story through Tweets. Soon after, more than 100 students in six different countries had contributed.

“It was fantastic,” says Mayo, “and my students were excited to see kids in as far away as China contribute to the book.”

For the uninitiated, learning how to use Twitter — at least effectively — requires a little start-up time. But once you get the hang of it, says O’Neal, Twitter is an easy, time-friendly way of connecting with other educators and engaging your students. Even the most time-strapped educator — juggling lesson planning, paper grading, and all those other administrative tasks — can commit to reading and writing 140 characters at a time.

“Blogging didn’t really become that widespread among teachers,” says O’Neal, “because, as anyone who has blogged will tell you — it takes a lot of time and effort, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. Twitter can provide many of the same benefits as other social media but much, much faster.”

“Take an X-ray of your classroom and your teaching,” he advises. “Twitter may be able to help. It’s worth finding out.”

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