Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Twitter: 140-Character Professional Development and Writing Tool

School’s out (or nearly so) across most of the United States. Remember all those Web sites you decided you’d check out when you had more time? For the next few weeks, the Inbox blog will take on one site a week, talking about how it works, pointing out related sites, and discussing classroom connections. First up, Twitter!

You may not know what Twitter is, but chances are that your students do. Twitter is one of a number of microblogging tools that ask users to tell friends what they’re doing in 140 characters or less. Similar tools include Jaiku, Pownce, and Plurk. On Twitter, each individual message is called a tweet. In order to save characters, the system shortens any URLs that you post automatically using TinyURL.

At first, a list of Twitter messages may seem odd. Here are some of my tweets from the last 24 hours:

  • wondering if there's a way to make two or three of me so that I can multitask more effectively.
  • Just finished Ideas and Announcements. On to the Inbox Blog!!!
  • warming up today's breakfast and getting to work on finalizing Inbox text.
  • @Intellagirl congratulations :)
  • still reading up on twitter for tomorrow's blog.
  • watching Top Gear :D
  • mmmm. 100 Grand Bar.
  • doing research on twitter, second life, facebook, and other web 2.0ish things for tomorrow's inbox.
That list may make you ask, “Why on earth would I want to know everything someone is doing, moment-by-moment, all day long???” That’s the number one first response that I hear from people who see Twitter for the first time. In isolation, a series of tweets can look a bit silly.

Alice J. Robison, who teaches in the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, pointed out a great explanation of how Twitter builds and strengthens social networks yesterday on the TechRhet discussion list. The Wired article “Clive Thompson on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense” Robison points to explains:
It's like proprioception, your body's ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.
Twitter provides a quick read on who’s doing what, but more than that, it allows Twitterers who follow one another to enter into conversations (on Twitter or elsewhere) based on shared interests.

What difference do tools like Twitter make for language arts and composition classrooms? For teachers, Twitter messages can provide a touchstone for where others are in the term. Those grading commiserate. Those on Summer vacation celebrate. Beginning teachers can post challenges and fears and find support and feedback from colleagues who are new and experienced teachers. At conferences, teachers can post messages about the sessions they are attending—and these posts can become a way to discuss presentations while they are going on. Additionally, tweets can expand beyond professional issues to include details on a special night out, daily family activities, texts we explore for fun, and so forth. The discussion can become an Internet teacher’s lounge. It’s a social network tool that can build a professional development community, where everyone has a say in 140 characters.

In the classroom, teachers can use Twitter becomes a writing tool that can accomplish a variety of goals:
  • The discussion on TechRhet yesterday explored how microblogging might be used to teach students about concise messages. By limiting students to 140 characters to make their point, teachers can move students learn ways to cut their messages down to the cleanest expressions of their ideas. Of course, students and teachers must come to some shared decisions about the use of abbreviations for this process to work, but it is a useful tool with a solid purpose. Students are limited to 140 characters because that is all the technology allows.

  • Alice Robison also pointed TechRhet readers to Howard Rheingold’s exploration of Twitter as a backchannel in his Virtual Communities/Social Media class at Berkeley last fall. Rheingold’s Twitter assignment shows how the Twitter can be used as a notetaking and topic exploration tool.

  • Students can explore the genre of TwitLit, explained in a recent LA Times article. After reading some of the example short stories from the article, students can try their hand at composing their own 140-character short stories. You can find additional examples on the TwitLit Feed. Be sure to review the stories and choose those that are appropriate for your students.

  • Take advantage of microblogging’s ability to “give a group of people a sense of itself,” as Clive Thompson states. Ask students to use a Twitter account to post on-going details on their writing or research. As you and students read, you’ll gain a sense students’ progress, notice the kinds of support students need, and find ways to group students based on their interests and strategies. Teacher educators can use Twitter similarly to follow the work of preservice teachers as they observer and student teach in the field.

  • As a follow-up on a literary or research project, students can create Twitter-like exchanges. After reading a novel, for instance, ask students to choose a dialogue from the text and rewrite the exchange using 140-character messages among the characters. Imagine MacBeth and Lady MacBeth discussing their murderous plans in 140-character lines! Try a related activity for a biographical research project, having students imagine the kind of tweets their subjects might post during a normal day. Or branch out for a meeting-of-the-minds exchange, where students take on researched personas and explore a topic they are all interested in.

The Web site offers a lot of possibilities—whether you just use it to keep in touch with colleagues during Summer vacation, to follow the work of students, or to inspire classroom activities. Want to give Twitter a try? Just sign up, and start posting. There’s no coding or special techniques required. You just have to be able to limit yourself to 140 characters for each idea—a feat that is sometimes harder than it sounds!


Traci Gardner said...

If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, I'm tengrrl: https://twitter.com/tengrrl

William Kist said...

Thanks for this post, Traci. I didn't see that you mentioned YouthTwitter which is a supposedly safe version for kids:

It will be interesting to see if Twitter can keep up with the increasaing demand.
Follow me at:

Karen said...

I'm a social media junkie and have been twittering for quite some time. I'm also a special educator. While I would love to incorporate new media into my classroom, our school district has a block on all types of social networking sites, forums, blogs, and wikis, etc.

It's a blanket block via our ISP and I can't even access any of those sites myself during my lunch or prep periods.

(I always crack up when I get the PD offerings each summer and inevitably a course for "Using Blogs and Wikis to
Foster Literacy" is included in mix.) Yeah, right!

To follow me on Twitter I'm http://twitter.com/mrsb (same on all other sites as well)

Anonymous said...

You're right. I completely forgot about YouthTwitter. Thanks for adding that URL.

Anonymous said...

Didn't know about Youth Twitter! Thanks for the heads-up. Traci, thanks for writing this up. Makes for a handy URL to point friends to when they ask me about Twitter.

Olivia said...

I admire what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back but I would assume by all the comments that this is working for you as well.


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