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Risky Teacher: The Twitter Debrief

Risky Teacher: The Twitter Debrief

Written by Laurie Roberts
October 22, 2014

If you read last week’s entry, you know that I decided to take on a new risk in my AP Literature classes last Monday: integrating Twitter into my classroom discussion (specifically the student-led discussion known as a Socratic Seminar).

Let me just start by saying that this was not perfect, but it was better than I imagined it would be, and I will definitely do it again.

This was to be our first Socratic Seminar, so I needed to spend some time giving instructions, as I always do, with the added element of explaining how the live tweet portion would work. I also wanted to make sure that I had time for at least two fifteen-minute discussions to happen in the inner circle. I feared that a 52-minute period would make this a challenge (down from 59 minutes last year, since we switched from a 6-period to a 7-period day), but as it turned out, the timing was just fine. It took me about five minutes to explain the protocol for the inner circle (see last week’s entry here) and another five to explain what would be happening in the outer circle.

I have a confession to make: I often put things off until the last minute. It wasn’t until I got to school on Monday morning that I settled on my exact plan for the outer circle. In fact, about 12 minutes before zero hour was to begin, I was finishing up a newly conceived “Socratic Seminar Checklist” that I wanted each student to have. The copy machine gods smiled upon me, and I was able to make 150 copies of my checklist and get back to my room with four minutes to spare. Whew!

As I drove in to work on Monday, I recalled a conversation with my brilliant colleague and friend, Rachel Bear. She suggested to me a few years ago that if Socratic Seminar is a pedagogically effective tool, it shouldn’t have to be graded at all. In other words, if it is creating an atmosphere for authentic and effective discussion–discussion that is giving students a chance to deepen their understanding of the work and preparing them to write about their deepened understanding–then those outcomes should be reason enough for them to participate.

Of course Rachel is right about this . . . but that doesn’t mean I was ready to entirely let go of the graded portion of this discussion. It did mean that I was ready to put the responsibility for keeping track of participation onto my students. Hence the checklist:

Socratic Seminar Checklist

As I said before, I love this checklist. I love that it freed me from the tedious and distracting practice of tallying student participation. I love that it was yet another chance for me to tell students “I trust you. I expect the best from you.” And finally, I loved that it became a handy place for students without smart phones or other devices to write their “tweets.”

When the discussion began in zero hour, I must admit I was pretty anxious. Would they tweet? I am pleased to report that they did indeed tweet. It took a few minutes, of course, but before long, they were tweeting, using our class hashtag (#robertsAP15). They were asking questions, answering questions, and quoting (retweeting) comments that were being made in the inner circle.

Honestly, it was exhilarating. One student from zero hour wrote his tweets on the whiteboard, next to the display of virtual tweets, and in that moment I began to see exactly what I had hoped for: the old and the new techniques were working together–were merging into something that was even better than I had pictured. This whiteboard tweeting continued throughout the day:


displaying virtual and whiteboard tweets

student adding tweets to whiteboard

tweeting with whiteboard and with twitter/tagboard

I also wondered if the tweeting (especially the tweets showing up on the whiteboard) would bring too much distraction to the inner circle. I am pleased to report that this did not seem to be a problem. Of course this is based on my subjective perception, but I felt that the conversation had a typical ebb and flow, in no way stymied by the additional stimuli in the room. On a few occasions someone in the inner circle would actually note a question or comment from the twitter feed and pose it to the inner group for discussion. I found these moments quite satisfying and not at all chaotic.

To pull this off, I made several decisions regarding protocol, and I am almost entirely pleased with how these worked out:

  1. Inner circle members are not allowed to tweet (their devices must be put away).
  2. Outer circle members are not allowed to talk.
  3. Students could tweet using Twitter, writing on the whiteboard, or, if they wanted to avoid going public, they could write three tweets on their Checklists. (I am toying with removing this last option in the future–or at least limiting it. I really want to push them into making their comments in a public forum at some point–whether on Twitter or on our board.)
  4. I projected the tweets on my board throughout the discussion. At first I did this through my Twitter page, which I had open to our class hashtag. This page was slow to refresh, so during my second class I switched to, another platform for displaying tweets connected to a particular hashtag. I liked the look of this platform (you can see the boxes in the pictures above), but I was still frustrated with the delay in updating new tweets. 

I’ll try to wrap up with some final thoughts:

  • The vast majority of my students loved this. When I asked for their feedback they said that they felt the outer circle was suddenly as important as the inner. They loved the various ways of sharing their ideas. They wanted to listen closely to the inner circle, so they had things to tweet. 
  • Several students tweeted early in the day–before coming to my class–about how excited they were about this. One student came in at the beginning of 2nd period with a sad look on his face. He was going to miss the whole class for a dentist’s appointment. I encouraged him to enter the Twitter feed later, if he had a chance, and 20 minutes later his tweets were showing up on our wall. 
  • I did not anticipate how much my colleagues and friends would enjoy our day. Several followed along and a few even engaged in the conversation. Once I assured my students that these weren’t random weirdos, they were actually intrigued by their interest in the conversation (my repeated joke: “they’re weirdos, but not random weirdos. They’re my friends”).
  • Some of the tweets were more silly than serious–clearly going for the laugh rather than thinking deeply. I even had a few selfies enter the feed. Frankly, I could have addressed this issue better beforehand, and in the future I will. But honestly, it was a very small percentage who took this approach, and I want to err on the side of freedom and joy, rather than put very strict, serious limits on them. 

We will be doing this again following our completion of Camus’ The Stranger week after next, and I know that my students are excited, as am I. Undoubtedly it will continue to be a practice that needs some tweaks, and I suspect it might look very different in a year or two, but for now, it is a risk I will gladly take again.

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