Teaching in the 21st Century

Traci GardnerTraci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.

Introductory Twitter Chat Activities

posted: 12.11.12 by Traci Gardner

Once you’ve prepared the class to participate in Twitter Chats, what do you talk about? How do you make Twitter Chats fit into what’s happening in the classroom? How do you ensure that the activity is pedagogically effective (and not just a gimmick)?

The key to making Twitter Chats work is choosing assignments and activities that are useful and educationally valuable. Most important, they have to work without complicating students’ lives. If the assignment can be done effectively without using Twitter, don’t shift it to a Twitter Chat.

A good beginning activity is to use a Twitter Chat for backchannel conversations during an event where customary classroom discussion isn’t possible. You’ve probably heard about colleagues using backchannel discussions at conventions. The practice was under scrutiny in October when some questioned whether it was appropriate to discuss presentations from conventions on Twitter. (That practice is an issue for another post.)

The kind of backchannel discussion I am suggesting is not controversial. In fact, it’s a practice that many students already participate in. You have probably been on Facebook or Twitter and seen friends, students, and colleagues bemoaning a bad call during a football game or rejoicing in the judges’ decisions during American Idol. Often these conversations go deeper, with participants discussing what will happen next, why the decisions were made, and so forth. This is the kind of backchannel discussion I suggest you begin with.

There are several benefits to starting here. Many students already have experience with these kinds of discussions. Further, the class has the chance to reflect on the event immediately and collaboratively. Together they can often make deeper and more meaningful connections and observations than they would when working alone. From a logistical standpoint, backchannel Twitter Chats during your class session also have the benefit of time and place—you do not need to find a time outside the class session when everyone is available.

The process for these discussions is rather straightforward. When you show a video or have an extended presentation, ask students to participate in a Twitter Chat where they discuss the event as it is happening. You can ask questions to get them started and encourage students who make thoughtful contributions. The goal is critical thinking and analysis of the video or presentation. If you have an outside speaker, be sure that she knows that students will be participating in a backchannel Twitter Chat. Otherwise, she may believe that they are not paying attention, are bored, or don’t understand. Act as a moderator for any presenter, raising questions from the Twitter Chat for her to respond to, as appropriate.

Once students understand how these backchannel discussions work, you can encourage them to participate in such Twitter Chats during your own lectures and presentations as well. If possible, project the discussion so that everyone can see what is being said. You can respond out loud to any questions or issues you’d like. Be sure to appoint a moderator, someone from the class who can make sure you notice any key comments. Check out 8 Tips for Managing the Twitter Backchannel During Your Presentation for more suggestions, including information on how to set up a moderator for the chat. Also, 5 Ways to Use Twitter to Avoid a Backchannel Disaster is a good resource to consult.

As soon as students are comfortable with these type of backchannel discussions, you can then try Twitter Chats that have their own independent focus, such as a discussion of a specific reading or a related topic. These in-class discussions provide a valuable alternative to traditional class discussions that take place out loud. As I explained in my previous post, they have the benefit of requiring students to write in order to participate, provide a space where everyone can participate, and often support more student-centered conversations.

When you move to in-class discussions via Twitter Chat, be sure that you have the management for the event planned out. Have a comment or two ready to kick off the chat. Ask some open-ended questions to get the discussion going. Participate in the Twitter Chat yourself. Discuss the topic, reply to students, and work to draw out deeper analysis. As the chat nears its end, summarize key points and encourage students to read back over the session and reflect on highlights. Take a look at the fourth step in 5 Steps to Hosting Successful Twitter Chats: Your Ultimate Guide for more advice.

After the event, you can ask students to review the Twitter Chat and share additional thoughts with the class in a later session or in a journal entry. Additionally, students can mine the Twitter Chat comments for ideas that inform essays or other projects that they write later. In this way, the Twitter Chat can become a kind of invention exercise.

Are you tempted to try Twitter Chats with your class? Next week, I’ll share some more activities and resources to help you take the strategy beyond the basics. I’d love to hear your ideas as well. If you have a question or suggestion for using Twitter Chats with students, please leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.



[Photo: Grackle, Mourning Doves, Blue Jay_7369 by Bobolink, on Flickr]

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