Teacher trains with Twitter-based discussions
On students' desks are hand-written notes and copies of "Rebecca," a psychological thriller by Daphne du Maurier.
But instead, the focus of Valerie Williams' ninth-grade English class were often on a different tool: their smartphones.
In recent years, Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy has incorporated social media and other technologies into the classroom, encouraging teachers to allow smartphones as part of their lessons.
In this pre-Advanced Placement English class, students share their thoughts in person and online via Twitter, a social media site where people post their thoughts in 140 characters or less. The result is an interwoven conversation that bounces between the spoken word and virtual "tweets" displayed with a projector on the white board.
Acting as a moderator, Williams paused the discussion to bring attention to an online comment with some poignant insight. Students will often post in full sentences, but also in abbreviated language that shortens words and, in this instance, book character's names.
"I love Giselle's tweet," she said, turning to Giselle Spicer, a 14-year-old who can be outgoing with friends but too shy to speak up in class. "Do you want to read it?"
"You can," said Giselle, briefly protesting, then relenting and reading the tweet.
Across the room, 15-year-old Gabriel Perez Alvarez had absorbed Spicer's thought and then stated his own. The discussion volleyed back and forth between words spoken and online.
Williams added Twitter to class discussions to give students experience with the social media site in an academic setting. She's heard that college professors are now incorporating tweets into their lectures, and as a teacher at a college-prep school, Williams wanted her students to have a similar experience before heading to college.
In recent years, Holy Trinity has put a special focus on educating "digital citizens," a fancy way of describing individuals who know how to conduct themselves online.
A big part of the effort is incorporating online projects or discussions as part of the day-to-day classwork. Teachers want students to build up a positive and smart Internet portfolio, so that when a college admissions counselor Googles their name, a literary discussion or a history project will pop up in the search results.
While Williams is teaching about "Rebecca," the lessons go beyond literature. She wants students to be aware of what they're posting online. Everything can be read by others.
"The kids are learning how to use social media appropriately," said Susan Bearden, the school's director of information technology. "They're learning how what they post on Twitter and other social media sites can be viewed by literally the whole world."
That's something teens don't always grasp. There's some pretty poor social media role models out there, she said, and students may follow in their footsteps without thinking through the consequences.
"That's such an important concept for kids to understand," said Bearden, who's nationally recognized as a leader in using social media in education. "When (students) realize there's a broader audience, I think they really up their game."
Plus, students naturally turn to social media, which has been around as long as these ninth graders can remember. Facebook was founded in 2004, when they were four and five years old, and Twitter in 2006, when they were six and seven.
"This is what appeals to them. They love Facebook, they love Twitter, they love Instagram," Williams said. "Why can't learning be fun?"
There's been another benefit, one Williams' didn't fully anticipate: Twitter has helped give quieter students a voice.
In her classes, she gives points for students who speak up in class, something some teens are reluctant to do. This year, she's noticed that quieter students are more likely to offer their thoughts on Twitter.
"It feels like I can be part of the conversation without having to talk," Spicer said.
And that's helped change the conversation in class. There are more perspectives and more insights to consider. Jamie Perry has noticed that her classmates are less likely to repeat each other's points, but rather offer up their own take.
"It opens up everyone's minds," the 14-year-old said. "It's really fun to hear everyone's ideas, and to compare yours with theirs, and to come up with a solution that you hadn't thought of before."
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