Storytelling, Discussion, & Analysis: Twitter As a Classroom Tool for Middle School Students

This past week ISTE’s Literacy Special Interest Journal published its third issue. I contributed an article on using twitter for book chats with my eighth grade students. I have cut and pasted the article below to share. To check out the entire journal with lots of great articles that address different technologies and literacy I have pasted a link at the bottom of this post.

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In 140 characters or less, meaningful conversations can occur. In my four years of using Twitter as a personal professional development tool, I have learned from amazing people on Twitter and collaborated with many educators around the world in order to improve my teaching and strengthen my students’ learning. As result of my experience in utilizing this social media tool for professional growth and learning, I knew that there was an opportunity for me to share this technology with my students to empower them as readers, writers, and global citizens.

Twitter is a powerful online social media tool that allows people to engaged in conversations and discuss topics that are relevant to their lives. Ninety eight percent of my students are already using social media and have personal computers, tablets, and or mobile devices. Twitter was a technology tool that some were using socially, in addition to Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. As their teacher, and a person who embraces technology in her classroom, I wanted to show my students how we can utilize Twitter as an educational tool for learning and also promote positive digital citizenship.

It all began when I read a blog post on The Nerdy Book Club blog by young adult author, James Preller in November 2013 on the power of story and how “stories are essential to our lives.”  I was so moved by the blog post, I immediately bought his book Bystander, a fictional story about bullying at a middle school in Long Island.  As a middle school teacher, this topic is pertinent to my teaching and my quest to promote empathy within school culture. As I devoured the book, I realized that I wanted all my students to read Bystander and the power of its story as it relates to our school and culture where bullying is a daily occurrence.  Hence, I assigned Bystander as a required reading for my eighth grade English students for their outside reading requirement.  In addition to reading the book, I wanted to engage my students in authentic discussions about the book and share their responses, connections, and questions about the book.  A huge proponent of Twitter as a professional development tool, I required my students to participate in four Twitter book chats after school hours to address the complex characters and issues raised in the book. Since our lives are so packed with activities, homework and family time, I knew designating a time to a Twitter-based conversation about the book would gain more participants in the outside reading assignment.

My eighth grade students are required to read one outside reading book each quarter and complete an assessment project on the book. My students who are interested in taking Honors classes in High School are required to read two outside reading books each quarter and complete two projects. I offer students a list of recommended titles the beginning of each quarter based on genre (non fiction, graphic novels, memoirs, etc.) or theme (World War II and social injustice texts to align with Social Studies) for students to choose an outside reading book.  Although, bullying is a topic that students are bombarded with in school with special assemblies and Health classes, it was never a topic in our English class readings and discussions. I was so moved by James Preller’s Bystander  and bothered by the covert bullying throughout the school I might see or hear about that I decided that it would be an all grade read for my students. There were a few complaints and groans when I introduced the book as a book about bullying in a middle school. For the most part, the majority of my students enjoyed the book and the Twitter book chat discussions even more.

When I introduced the assignment to my classes I included a reading schedule with set dates for the Twitter chats meetings and a Twitter Permission Letter/ Code of Conduct to be shared with their parents and guardians,  to be signed and returned to me. I organized the Twitter book chats weekly for forty five minutes  for five consecutive weeks to discuss the text, share our thoughts, make connections, and ask questions. I really wanted students to talk with one another about the text, rather than just answer my questions I posted about the book.  The Twitter permission letter to families addressed my intentions and objectives in utilizing Twitter for this assignment. To confirm that parents received and read the letter, I required parents and guardians and my students to sign the letter and return it  to me prior to the first Twitter book chat. Out of ninety-three students, I had over sixty students participating in the Twitter book chats.

The week before our first Twitter book chat I held a meeting after school to introduce Twitter to the students and offer a “how-to” demonstration in setting up a Twitter account and using Twitter. Each student was given a cheat sheet that covered the Dos and Don’ts of Tweeting and explained an anatomy of a Tweet. I recommended students who already had a Twitter account to make a new account specifically for our class project so that I do not have access to their pictures from the weekend parties and other social media sharing they do with their friends. I was clear in reminding students that we were using Twitter for educational purposes and that my own account is for that, I do not share pictures of my family and food or discuss personal matters online.  For me, Twitter is strictly professional and used in a positive manner.

Students used a hashtag to follow the Twitter conversation and be included in the book chat. Google defines a hashtag as “a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic.” Our hashtag was #RMSBystander and with each new book and Twitter chat we included a hashtag that included the book title and “RMS,” the initials of our middle school.  Every time a student tweeted, he or she included the hashtag in their tweet.

Everyone had a voice on Twitter and no one was able to hide during the discussions. During the Twitter book discussions students shared their own stories, made connections, and critically addressed the issue of bullying in our school and society at large.  I was impressed by their honesty and keen awareness.  I did start off the Twitter chat by asking questions for students to respond to throughout the Twitter chat but that always lead to deeper conversations and comments posted by my students responding to one another. The students weren’t just answering the questions that I posed during the Twitter book chat but were also talking with each other in an online environment, supporting and responding to each other’s ideas. I noticed that students who might not talk to each other in class, face to face, were responding to each other online and offering constructive discussions piggy-backing on each other’s ideas. Students learned that a retweet was like a high five, pointing out an insightful comment and students looked forward to me retweeting their comments or looked for one another to retweet in agreement or support. Positive communication was modeled throughout the Twitter discussions.

Student conversations on Twitter weaved in and out of the text with comments and side conversations about our own school. Students admitted that bullying is a huge problem in many schools across across the United States, and our own school is not immune. Social media sometimes becomes a means in which bullying takes place.  But, by facilitating the Twitter chats, I wanted to promote Twitter as a social media tool in a responsible and educational manner.  I was impressed by my students honesty about bullying in our school and shared the archived chat with my school principal and school social worker to highlight the conversations that one teacher and a her students were having about bullying and one book about bullying. My students were excited about the Twitter book discussions and asked for more book discussions online. As one of my students replied at the end of the chat, “This chat allowed me to think of the reading in new ways.”

After the series of Twitter Chats on Bystander, our second Twitter book chat was with the book The Wave by Todd Strasser. Written in 1981, The Wave is based on a true incident that occurred in a high school history class in Palo Alto, California, in 1969. A high school teacher introduces a new “system” into his classroom to promote learning and success and  illustrates how propaganda and peer pressure help Nazism rise in Germany in the 1930s. Students were studying World War II in their Social Studies class and Strasser’s text helps to extend the conversations about injustice and history outside of the classroom. Currently, my students are reading and tweeting about I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Reader’s Edition) by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick. With each of the books read and discussed students make connections and judgements across texts, drawing conclusions, and sharing big ideas that surface from reading and conversing about the text. In our Twitter chats the students are engaged and responding to one another. The Twitter book chats help students monitor comprehension, merge their thinking with new ideas, react to, respond to, and often question the information.

Twitter is one digital media tool that can be used effectively for discussing stories and the powerful impact they have on our lives. Twitter also allows space for students to critically discuss topics that are relevant to their lives and share stories,  images, and other links to meaningful texts that address the same topics.  Twitter helps extend classroom discussions outside the classroom and for students to deepen their thinking through tweeting about reading. Through my experiences using Twitter in the classroom, I have been able to capture the “richness” of conversations and the “complexity of experiences” when sharing stories.


Twitter Resources for Teachers

Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything Twitter

A Teacher’s Guide to Twitter (Edudemic)

50 Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom via TeachHUB

EDUHACKER’s Teaching with Twitter

To read through the entire ISTE Literacy Special Interest Journal (3rd Issue):

I will be leading a webinar on Twitter in the K12 classroom for ISTE on 3/26 at 4 PM PT.  The webinar is free for ISTE members. To register for the webinar click here.

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