Sunday, March 4, 2012

Twitter in the Classroom

Tomorrow I take a leap with my 8th grade students in an attempt to teach them that digital tools are tools and not toys.  We started on Friday with a brief conversation about Twitter--many students smiled, most do not use Twitter, but they know of it.  Those who do use it, do so to keep up with friends or celebrities and athletes.

The lesson coincides with the deployment of a small set of iPads in my classroom.  Acquired through a modest grant that I wrote in September, the lesson is also the first use of the iPad as a tool in my classroom.

I set up a classroom Twitter account @8grwriters last week.  So far, the account is following 40 writers or writing publications.  We also have a modest five followers as of today.

The account is locked into the Twitter app on the iPads.  The students will not receive the password from me--they can only access the account from school, with me, and the in-class iPads. 

When they Tweet they will only place their initials at the end of the tweet to help protect their anonymity, but to also help me manage who asked or said what.  They may also only reply to any incoming tweets or messages only after I see them--I have an administrative iPads and monitor everything going on with the account live as it happens in class, so it is unlikely that something would slip by me.

I knew we would follow writers and try to use Twitter as a way to bring mentors into the classroom, but I was struck with inspiration while at a writing course this weekend.  I am taking Literacy in Bloom which is a 3 credit graduate course offered in conjunction through the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project and Longwood Gardens.

The impulse came from a reading and discussion of an excerpt from David Sobel's Childhood and Nature in which he quotes Brenda Petersen:
In our environmental wars, the emphasis has been on saving species, not becoming them.
Sobel, speaking mainly of elementary school children adds:
If we aspire to developmentally appropriate science education, then the first task is to become animals, to understand them from the inside out, before asking children to study them or save them.
 That gave me pause--we just finished a research paper in my class, but I had been thinking that I want them to continue using research principles in their writing.   The tools and lessons of research are recursive, not isolated lessons--and the ideas flooded into me at once.

Use the Twitter classroom to explore the nature world--to begin to help my students transition from a purely emotional connection to animals to one of a great human responsibility and awareness--see and read what is going on with animals, insects, plants, and natural resources.   And then go back to square one--strive to understand the animal, insect, plant, or natural resource.  Read it, see it live if we can, write about it, and write from its perspective--become the voice of the honeybee or the bluebird or the white-tailed deer.

Add to the conversation online and in our community.

Starting tomorrow I will teach them about the basics of Twitter and the difference between our following writers and our using hashtags to explore our objective of becoming an ally for something in the natural world.

I have generated a list of hashtags for the students to browse and to see what topics catch their interest.  Some examples are #animals,  #animalwelfare,  #deforestation,  #endangered, #environment, #greentweets, #ocean, #organic, #pesticides, #solar, #trees, #wildlife. 

We will explore these hashtags, read the articles, find more information in our library or online, and write journal entries, informative and persuasive drafts, poetry, and then strive to publish our work whether it is through a thoughtful tweet, a blog, the local paper, or other avenues of publication for teens.

The use of a classroom Twitter account provides young people authentic audiences for their words, invites connected learning, and moves the students, their voices, and their writing outside of our four walls and into the boundless classroom of the natural world. My 8th graders are transitioning from an emotional and cognitive connection with the natural world to an ethical and ecological responsibility by the time they graduate from high school.  I am hoping to provide a part of the early steps of that maturity and awareness while developing their writing skills, feeding their need to inquire, and showing them how digital tools are just that, tools, and not primarily tools.

While it may interest an individual teenager to know how Cee Lo Green may be doing today, the world will be a better place if I can also get them interested in how the planet is doing.  It will be really interesting to read their questions and their subsequent essays, but it will be equally as interesting to see what kinds of connections they make, who treats their question seriously and responds, and who follows the work they are about to engage.

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