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Risky Teacher: To Tweet?

Risky Teacher: To Tweet?

Written by Laurie Roberts
October 21, 2014

Taking risks has never felt like a natural part of my personality. I don’t typically blaze my own trail. I look for the safe, the comfortable, the experiences I can control.

This is as true in my professional life as my personal. However, this risk-averse tendency is often in conflict with another aspect of my character: the desire to improve myself—to improve my craft. This desire manifests in my classroom with my career-long need to create new units and lessons (or, at the very least, to repeatedly revise old ones). One of the greatest challenges and joys of teaching is that no lesson or unit ever feels like it’s done. There is always room for improvement. I have come to believe this is how it should be—that this constant cycle of creation and revision is actually the hallmark of any teacher who is experiencing moments of greatness.

On the other hand, I don’t endorse change simply for the sake of change. I pursue the new when I see the potential for it to be better than the old. This premise is particularly relevant when it comes to using technology in the classroom. I am not interested in using technology just because it’s the latest, coolest thing to do. I want to use technology when it will make my classroom more effective, when it is pedagogically sound, and when it allows me to improve instruction and increase learning.

And so, I come to the Twitter experiment.

On Monday (October 13th), I am going to integrate Twitter into my usual Socratic Seminar method. Simply put, Socratic Seminar is a student-led discussion. Specific protocols exist for the Socratic Seminar, and, like many teachers, I have tweaked this protocol to suit my classroom.

I typically use Socratic Seminar as a discussion protocol at the conclusion of teaching a classroom novel. In my classroom it works like this:

  • The day before the seminar, each student generates a specific number of discussion questions (typically 5). They also answer their own questions in writing (or trade questions with a partner and answer his or her questions).
  • On the day of the seminar I create an inner circle with enough desks for half of my students. As students enter the classroom, I let them decide whether to sit in the circle or outside of the circle (they know that eventually everyone will be in the circle).
  • Before the seminar begins, I review expectations and etiquette (all of which has evolved over the years, and will undoubtedly continue to evolve):
    • participate
    • hand raising is optional (because some students just can’t give it up)
    • speak one at a time
    • look for ways to bring others into the discussion
    • disagree in an agreeable way
    • students outside the circle silently observe, listen, take notes, adding to their previous questions and answers, etc.
  • The inner discussion begins with a volunteer posing a question, and it continues until I call for a rotation from inner to outer (and vice versa, of course).

For more than a year I have contemplated adding a Twitter component to this process. For more than I year I have let my fears of what could go wrong stop me. For more than a year I have been unable to dismiss the idea that my Soc Sem could be better, if I could engage that outer circle in a more authentic, more interactive form of feedback.

(As a sidenote, I know that a lot of teachers have effective ways of engaging that outer circle—often asking them to evaluate the participation of a particular member of the inner circle. If that is working well in your classroom, kudos to you.)

So here is the somewhat-fuzzy, work-in-progress plan for Monday:

  • The inner circle will proceed as usual.
  • The outer circle will still be silent and they will still be able to pursue the kinds of activities they have always pursued. But now they will also “live tweet” the inner circle discussion.
    • I will have my Twitter account projected on the whiteboard, with the feed set to our class hashtag: #robertsAP15
    • Outer circle students will be asked to use their phones or other devices to tweet at least three times.
    • I will offer suggestions for the content of these tweets: quote someone whose comment resonates with you (basically a version of retweeting), quote and add your own idea or your own counter-claim (retweet and edit), ask a follow-up question, answer a question currently being discussed.
    • I will provide eight chromebooks for those who have a twitter account but no smartphone.
      • For those who don’t have (and don’t want) Twitter, I have two options in mind:
      • write your tweets on the whiteboard using a marker
      • write your tweets on sticky notes or your own paper to be turned in to me later. (I see this as an option for those students who sometimes feel intensely reluctant about going public with their writing or their ideas. I like to think this option is one that I can gradually eliminate.)

Call me crazy, but this just might work. Or it might be a horrible, chaotic mess.

Just to up the ante, I have invited my administrators to come watch, as well as a few colleagues. I promise to write a follow-up blog entry, regardless of the outcome. I might even do some live tweeting myself.

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