Monday, September 26, 2011

Twitter Teaching

In October, I will be presenting three times at the ECOO (Educational Computing Organization of Ontario) conference. One of my sessions is about creating a positive digital footprint "without putting your foot in it". As part of my preparation work for this workshop, I re-read the OCT (Ontario College of Teachers) Professional Advisory bulletin on the Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media. It's a very serious and grim document, and the tone suggested that educators not use social media. I then read the June 2011 issue of Professionally Speaking and followed their link to see their OCT video. I was much happier with the video and the irony that they were using social media to talk/caution about social media wasn't lost on me.

The tone of this video is a lot more positive to me than the booklet. I was also impressed because I knew one of the featured teachers on the video - Andrew is a teacher-librarian at Joyce Public School in the TDSB. I wanted to reflect in today's blog post about my most recent experiences with Twitter and my students.

I do not allow my students to friend me on Facebook, but I do allow them to follow my Twitter account. Why the difference? Twitter is a micro-blogging site that is most effective when tweets are public, and I chose early on to use my personal Twitter account as a means for professional development and dialogue. The posts I make on Twitter are things I would say in the classroom. Once I began to follow students, and them me, I discovered a couple of things.

1) Twitter is a great place to" teach" real-life lessons in authentic circumstances.

I've conducted lessons using the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada resources for youth and with other tools but the most effective way to reach my students is as they are conducting themselves online. The students were talking about the various boyfriends and girlfriends using Twitter. I sent a tweet reminding them that they were having this conversation publicly and asked them if they were sure they wanted to continue it there. Some laughed it off but I did notice that some started to mention to the others to DM (direct message) each other or take the conversation to MSN.

Some of my students are also a bit cavalier about what they say about others online. One student used a slur against his cousin and another student's complaint about homework veered towards criticizing the teacher. Mentioning to the students - either in person on through a tweet - in a non-judgemental way that they needed to exercise caution in how they phrase things. The common phrase "I'm going to kill so-and-so" takes on larger significance when said online and when I saw that in a tweet, I had to explain that jokes of that sort don't translate well through a computer.

2) Twitter makes collaborative problem solving do-able.

This past weekend, I was going over the library helper application forms. I wanted to make my decision by Monday so I could begin training the new assistants. Two of my students realized that they had forgotten to submit their forms. They tweeted me about their dilemma and I sympathized because the library was closed on Friday for a meeting, I was hard to find, and they had other club meetings after school, but I still wanted to be firm about my Monday decision. Another student recommended scanning the form and emailing it to me - would I accept it on the weekend? I thought that was a really creative compromise and I agreed. The students then shared a flurry of tweets experimenting together. Instead of scanning the paper, they took photos of it with their iPhones and emailed it to me. They checked that I had received it via Twitter.

Another wise and impressive use of Twitter came from a grade 8 student that saw my tweet about the school board summer writing contest. The prize was a laptop and he was really keen to win it. After he sent his entry, he was worried that he had some grammatical errors and tweeted me for revision help. We exchanged a couple of emails tweaking his entry and he re-sent it. Tweets were also used for encouragement and support. Although he didn't win, I was really proud of how he used Twitter to further his writing. I think he liked the public praise via Twitter as well.

Many of the students in my school that use Twitter have more posts logged than I do by far. That's because they use Twitter like an instant messaging tool, such as MSN. Thank goodness Tweet Deck saved me from the flood of tweets that were just meant for a couple of people - inside jokes, questions about homework, and such. In a way, I feel like I'm like the dog Nana in the story Peter Pan: keeping an eye out for the kids and their safety as they explore the wonders of Neverland/Twitterland. I can't stop them completely from making mistakes, but I can bark, or wag my tail, and help them where I can. I'll continue to abide by the OCT's advisory - "maintaining professional boundaries in all forms of communication, technology-related or not, is vital to maintaining the public trust and appropriate professional relationships with students" - and/but I'll continue to use social media because it helps us all learn, teachers and students.

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