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#sfsreads: Twitter in the Middle School Literacy Classroom

A year or so ago, I had the idea that I wanted to use Twitter for my classes. It was just an idea and I really wasn't sure where to go with it. My goals were simple: I wanted to build engagement and community.

I tried some different things. First, we tweeted for pretend. It was a good way to get our feet wet. We used tools like Twister to make Twitter handles for characters in a book we were reading and Tweeted as if we were them. It was fun, different and engaging.

Finally, we all made our own Twitter handles and started in earnest. We chose a hashtag and started Tweeting questions and responses to each other. At the time, we were reading a great book called Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar. We found him on Twitter and told him about our book discussion. He stopped by a few times and added a lot to our discussion, much to the delight of the students and their nerdy teacher.

As the school year wore on and summer approached, I wanted to keep the momentum going. We invited the whole school to join in our discussions via Twitter. We choose to Tweet with #sfsreads - poignant because my school, Stratford Friends School, is a school for children with reading challenges.

And so, we read. Big kids, smaller kids, teachers, even some moms. Some were better than others, some were more "into" the project. Some asked questions, some gave updates and some shared pictures. It was a gratifying experience for many. In thinking about the benefits to this endeavor, a few things stand out:

Engagement was my goal, and it was certainly achieved. For some students more than others, perhaps, but it was there. They connected with their learning in ways they had not before. One student added pictures of what things in the book Hatchet might have looked like - the hatchet, the plane - evidence that the book had drawn him in. As a result, anyone who read his Tweet was more engaged as well.

Social connectedness matters in our modern world. The back and forth exchange of ideas and lively discussion not only solidified comprehension, but forged relationships. Students and teachers felt part of a community - not just of learners, but of people with similar interests.

Continuous feedback is a good thing to have. In the classroom, we can usually achieve this, but once students leave for the day or the summer, it is harder to provide. The beauty of Tweeting while reading is that it can provide feedback at any time from any place - and not simply from the teacher. Students can provide feedback to each others - which is more meaningful and valuable. 

Space is created to allow student voice to be heard as they make contributions to meaningful discussion and open exchanges of ideas. They are able to feel valued and build confidence, standing up for what they believe in and genuinely listening to the the contributions of others.

Motivation. When I "assign" Twitter for homework, it is always done and always done well. Students crave the outlet of expressing their views and learning from others and so they always, always put their best thinking into the work. Excitement is built - and really good things happen as a result. 

Skill building may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Twitter in the classroom, but the rigid character count, in my opinion, has forced students to think carefully about communication and spelling and supported their precision of language. Students have been known to Tweet and then delete when they realize their first try did not communicate their ideas in an effective way. On top of all that, Tweeting about books has enabled students create a positive digital footprint and learn the rules for on-line communication.

A year later, I am so pleased with the outcome. It is Spring Break and my students are busy reading and Tweeting to each other - the conversation is impressive and I mostly just stand back in awe. Right before break, a really cool thing happened. A student in my class made it very, very clear to me in the fall that he would never join Twitter. Ever. I respected his wishes, even though his contributions in class are always insightful. Knowing that the other students would benefit from his input, I swallowed my disappointment and supported his position. In the weeks prior to break, students read and Tweeted and we talked a little in class. Excitement was building! The student in question kept up with the reading and always added value to the in-class discussions. On the day before break, he came up to me with his Chromebook and said, "So this Twitter thing - can you help me set up an account?" As predicted, he has been adding insight and wisdom to our Spring Break discussion!

Following the success of using Twitter in the middle school literacy classroom, I have been looking for ways to broaden the scope and have experimented with Twitter in other disciplines and age groups. Any cool ideas? Please comment!