Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Twitter Me This: New Technology in the Language Arts Classroom

My world changed recently: I got an iPhone. I'd been nursing my little Blackberry Pearl for several years. My students were openly expressing concern that I was about to become so tragically unhip that they would not be able to speak with me anymore, when the Pearl died, and I made good on my promise to myself to upgrade to the iPhone. It's been a very exciting two weeks, of downloading apps, learning I can play Farmville from virtually anywhere, and inadvertently prank calling my contact list until I learned how to lock the phone.

This new addition to my household got me thinking about the new ways to communicate that are part of many of our lives now — and definitely part of my students' lives. Texting, Twitter, Facebook statuses, IMing... all of these take up more of teenagers' lives than reading, hand-writing or (I suspect) conversing these days. There's a long, thoughtful debate that can and should be had about whether this is a good thing or not, but for the purposes of this column, let's accept that it's true.

Thus, I wanted to find a way to incorporate this familiar way of communicating into my curriculum. I had first thought of asking my students to pass notes, but I realized that I'm seeing that happen less and less (and their skills at doing so are really deteriorating, I must say. Back in my day, it was a badge of honor to get a note across a room without fuss!). Instead, I'm busting kids for communicating on their cell phones, so I knew I was working in a realm where they would feel comfortable. This was not to advocate for or against tweets, but to give students a way to make a connection between the English curriculum and the way they use words in their daily lives. I decided to create similar but slightly different projects in my 10th and 11th grade English classes.

The Crucible, Once Again Acting As, Well, A Crucible

I've been teaching Arthur Miller's classic play, The Crucible, for a long time, long enough to know much of the script by heart (one of my students asked me, "Did you play Tituba?!" after I recited her "Fly me back to Barbados" monologue from memory last week). It's a great play to use with teenagers, because it presents interesting young adult characters, including a truly complex lead character in Abigail Williams. I didn't want to jettison it from my curriculum, but I felt that my students were not fully connecting with the characters this time around. After we finished the first act, I could tell the kids weren't sold on it, and were having trouble following the characters' various agendas.

I decided that we needed to review, but I wanted something more interesting than a quiz. That wouldn't get them invested in what was driving each character. So, I split them into groups, and asked them to write two pages in tweets, IMs, or texts, as if the characters were the same, but communicating in 2011 instead of the 1600s. They were also asked to set their communications before the first act of the play.

Even I was surprised at how quickly the kids took to this assignment. They had some questions I had not anticipated, mostly around whether everything else was updated or not. I encouraged them to do what they liked, but to keep the essence of the characters the same. Weak, scared Mary Warren shouldn't suddenly become a diva, in other words.

Soon my students were using the classroom computer to create Twitter feeds with names like AbbyGurl and GodLovesLizP, or writing a Facebook chat that began: "Witchy Ladies! Parteeeee in the woods! BYOF! (Bring your own frog!)" They were laughing and talking together, and I didn't have to ask a single group to get to work or get focused.

Even better, I watched as they repeatedly went back into the script for the information they needed: What year was it? Which one was Mercy? What kind of character was Betty? How long before the start of the play had Elizabeth Proctor kicked Abigail out of the house? This project required close reading, for sure.

I also loved how they tried to use the words of today to reflect the language they saw in the play. There's always been some debate about how "authentic" Miller's Puritan phrasings are, and that's a worthwhile discussion, of course. Here, though, my kids were focused on finding equivalents for words like "providence," and "abomination." They chose "stroke of awesome luck" and "So icksome," for those, by the way.

I go back and forth on the merit of creating rubrics, but if I tried this again in the future, I think I'd put one together for the kids beforehand. They got so caught up in having fun with the language, all "LOLing, Abbs!" and "SMH at Rev. Parris!" that they forgot about character. I ended up spending quite a bit of time with each group praising their efforts but pointing out that most of the adults would never swear, or that Tituba simply couldn't be mouthy to Abby.

But it was a fun lesson for the kids, and when we were done? They definitely knew not just the characters' names, but also their motives. Mission accomplished.

In Which I Realize that My Kids Are Too Young to Make a "Wham, Bam!" Joke

The 10th graders have been reading short stories (more on that in a future column), and I decided to try something similar to the lesson above with Langston Hughes' story "Thank You, Ma'am." This wonderful story is about a young man's interaction with a woman he tries to mug. It's short and sweet, and my kids enjoy it, but I worry that they miss the complexity of characterization that Hughes provides (I don't want to ruin it for you, but suffice it to say that the woman doesn't act at all like you might expect).

I decided to ask some of my students to write Twitter feeds or IMs or texts for what happens immediately after the story ends. This again required some finagling because the story is set in the mid-20th century. Other members of the class were asked to write similar pieces, set twenty years in the future, in which the young man involved would be in this mid-30s.

This class wasn't as immediately responsive to the idea, mostly because they didn't know quite what I "wanted" and were afraid of failing. (As an aside, I probably fight no idea more in the first few months of school that this. I find myself saying, "I want you to try your best, and I want you to learn something, and I'm not going to fail you if you've done that" over and over. Oh! The tyranny of grades! But that, too, is another post. End Aside.) Gradually, though, they warmed to the idea, and dug back into the story to find information.

I found that the first group's — the immediately-after group — assignments weren't as interesting as pieces of writing, but they did give the students a chance to recount the plot in a different format. There was lots of "Yo, wait till U hear wat happened 2 me!!! LOLz!" Still, I realized that for a mixed-level class such as this one, this was a good assignment for some students who struggle with reading comprehension.

Meanwhile the second group had a more difficult challenge, but a more exciting one as well. They had to conceive of a situation in which their character would be tweeting or IMing about what had happened 20 years before, and show how that person had changed as a result of the interaction. Their creativity was definitely sparked, and we read IMs based on reading an obituary for the woman, and Facebook chats that started with one of the character's friending the other. It soon became clear to me that sharing these aloud was a way to help my students understand theme, as each took what they saw as the main idea of the story and extrapolated it into the future. I find theme one of the hardest literary concepts to help my students understand, so I am eager to try this method with other works.

The Lincoln-Douglas IMs

These two ideas were simple to implement and highly successful with my students. I think that's because I played to their strengths instead of forcing them to do two new things at once. Using modern communication devices and styles isn't something I want to do all the time, or even most of the time, but I found it to be super-effective in helping my students develop good research and close reading skills.

A few moments reflection reveals that this idea has application across the curriculum, not just in the English classroom. It would work fantastically in Social Studies: a Twitter debate between Lincoln and Douglas? An IM conversation between someone who just witnessed DDay and someone at home in the US? Science would work too — Galileo vs. the Vatican in tweets, or a series of texts between the Curies? Or how about getting even more esoteric, and having the number 1 text explanations of its unique properties? I bet you have even more ideas.

140 Characters to Conclude

Tweets run only to 140 characters, so let me try to sum up my experience with just those:

Kids tweet. Tweets can teach kids. Try it out!

Hey, look at that — 94 characters left. See you next month!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.