Monthly Archives: October 2013

Exploring Literature by creating Twitter-ature


This post makes a case for composing tweets (yes, you know–Twitter updates) as a method for comprehending, reacting to, and analyzing literature. To some, it may seem like a sacrilege to ask students to convert their understanding of classical lit into informal, often ranting blurbs of 140 characters or less. But trust me: when done right, Tweets will allow students to put literature into context and bring it to a whole new kind of life. I came across this idea a few years ago, and it has worked a fantastic magic in my classroom ever since. I used it to great success with Romeo and Juliet, and this year converted it to use with The Crucible, again, with awesome results. Please feel free to use, enjoy, and employ this strategy!

 Why Tweets?

In the second chapter of literacy expert Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he actually recommends the composing of tweets as a “light” way to get students started with writing. Writing a micro-piece in the length and format of a Twitter update is a non-threatening, familiar, short form that helps kids get their feet wet and ready to approach more complex writing. In my own experience, I’ve found that this lighter writing fare removes the inhibitions or anxieties that come along with more involved writing tasks and lets even struggling students cut more quickly and sharply to the heart of the literature they are reading. Also, the often emotionally charged nature of the genre (let’s face it, people use Twitter to say whatever is on their minds as it is happening) creates an empathy with characters that requires a deep level of comprehension.

 How do I get my kids to write some Twitter-ature?

1. Select an important section of a literary work that students are reading where several major events occur which effect multiple characters. This will be the time span over which students will “tweet.”

2. Inform students that they should pick a character to “tweet” as… they will create an apt username for this character and be the voice of him or her as the section progresses.

3. Teach students the conventions of Twitter, in case they are unfamiliar. (140 characters or less, @ to tweet “at” another user, # to include a tag/category with the tweet)

4. Since the students are embodying characters, not themselves, these faux tweets have to exist outside the world of actual Twitter itself. Decide if you’d like to have your students write tweets on paper or enter them live on the closed-room Twitter-like platform Today’s Meet. Today’s Meet is live and interactive, which you can display on the screen during in-class reading. Writing on paper, while less sparkly, usually yields slightly more thoughtful results. Both have benefits. Either way, I ask for ten tweets total. As students read, they tweet as their characters would. I also ask them to include the page number that inspired each tweet for a richer intellectual exercise and simply for accountability.

5. Share, laugh, ponder, and discuss.

Need a more specific example? Click here to see the activity that I designed for my juniors to complete during and after their reading of Act III of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

 What kinds of things do students write? Does this really work?

The best way I can show you the quality of student writing is by showing you some examples, which I’ll post below. Students are very playful with this kind of activity, but I am also shocked at the details that they notice… In the act that was tweeted below, John Proctor tries to defend his family’s honor in the face of the bloodthirsty courts of Salem and his former lover, Abigail, who is hell-bent on getting his wife accused of witchcraft. The usernames and (#)hashtags are ingenious; referencing even small-but-telling lines like,  “You sweated like a stallion whenever I come near,”  “He plow on Sunday, sir,” and “There might also be a dragon with five legs in my house, but no one has ever seen it!”

Because of this activity, my students know exactly who these characters are and what drives them. Unexpectedly rich, and witty beyond all expectations, character tweets is a perfect classroom activity. Enjoy the examples below from my classroom.

Students tweeting as John Proctor

The Proc: @TheTown This court is senseless and runs on opinion and judgement. There is #NoJustice in these trials! #CourtFail

SweatinStallion: I KNOW I’M NOT A LAWYER JUST READ THE DEPOSITION. #JudgesBeTrippin #annoyed #WifeIsInnocent

Abigail is no child! #demon #laughterduringprayer

Hey guys, who wants to see my pet dragon?! #sarcasm #WifeIsInnocent #PoppetsAreForChildren

JohnDeereProc42: @WhollyMary You’re with God now?!? You traitor!!! I’ll send the Devil upon you all right. #evil #liar #JailParty #NoPlowSunday

FarmerMan26: I confess. I am a #lecher. I am living with a problem. #FinallyFree #ashamed  @ElizabethProctor please tell the truth. #ItsOk

@BigParris thinks he’s all high and mighty. If he wasn’t the minister, nobody would listen to that nerd. #RealMenDon’tGoToHarvard

TheBigProctor: I say God is dead! I hear Lucifer’s boots! #JudgeMe #FreeElizabeth #YouKnowNothing

Student tweeting as Giles Corey

WeirdOldMan80: @MrJudgeD the girls are ACTING again. Someone should put a stop to it before more innocent people are accused. #ThisEndsNow

Student tweeting as Danforth

DanforthJudginU: I didn’t think @OldManGiles had so much rage in him. #ThatEscalatedQuickly #WeWillSeeJustice

Student tweeting as Reverend Hale

W8tedKnowledge: @DanforthTheGreat These girls are clearly lying and you will regret these hangings. What do poppets have to do with the devil anyway? #CareToExplain #WhyCan’tYouSeeTheTruth

A Textbook Case

What is teaching, really, anyway?

This was the question that started to brush my mind last week, when the members of my department and I sat through a sales pitch from a major textbook company unveiling their new set of books, workbooks, and online materials for the high school English classroom. I felt horrified and seduced at the same time–these materials had absolutely everything one would need to stop lesson planning and simply follow the program trajectory. Worry not! Every piece, every student task, every assessment and enrichment tool was carefully engineered to the appropriate rigor, standards, and theme. It was slick. It was interactive. And, it was touted by the representatives as something that could transform our hardworking lives into an easygoing dream. But that’s when I started wondering… if we purchased these materials and I did nothing but deliver them, could I really call it teaching?

Before I could pursue that train of thought, the saleswoman began demonstrating the online component of the textbook, preloaded and constantly updated with video, audio, and tutorials to go with everything and anything my students would be expected to learn. In envisioning my teaching life using these materials, I saw a very simple–albeit somewhat monotonous–alternative to my typical, burstingly generative, yet vastly time-consuming lesson planning norm. But I couldn’t shake the bad feeling that grew with every moment of the presentation. I wondered if I was maybe being unreasonable.

What, exactly, was the matter?

The thing that’s the matter with this type of curriculum is this: I didn’t make it. I have no connection to it. If every single thing my students read, write, and do points back to a perfect fit as a predetermined cog in some grand machinery of education, my value as an educator depreciates.  In a way, following a textbook program to the letter may make my students smarter readers… but only in these clean, perfectly directed situations. Real reading and creating is messy and confused. Being able to balance those points of confusion with curiosity is a real and crucial skill for becoming a generative, creative individual. Looking at these materials, I found myself asking, “Where is the personal power?” A textbook progression cannot respond to students, or urge them to pursue their own passions. A textbook by itself, even the best one, only offers preparation for a culture of query-and-enter-response–one that I would argue is an ill fit for the reality of the culture today’s students have inherited. This culture is a one of create-your-own-idea and open mic. It’s been my mantra this year: students of this age need to create. And as a teacher of this age, I need to create, too. That includes my curriculum.

What do I lose if I let “Textbook, Incorporated” tell me what and how to teach? I lose responsivity. I lose a personal sense of purpose. I lose the power that my love of word and art lends to specific lessons I’ve designed. I lose the opportunity to use the value of my own thought process and insight as a model for a new way to think. 

A canned curriculum will not ever be enough to replace true teaching. Let me put it this way–I don’t having lasting memories of any classroom activity I ever did in a textbook. I remember rich discussions–even arguments, and watching my teacher lead my class through a piece of text or sharing an example of writing. I remember choosing books to study, I remember finding plates of artwork to write about. I remember watching films that made me cry. I remember giving speeches. I remember writing poetry. I remember singing on stage. I remember building the model of a house’s framework. I remember my teacher’s hilarious sweaters and how he would talk about the elements of the periodic table as if they were dear friends.

 If reading out a textbook’s instructions represented the majority of my teaching, I would never have to do… nearly anything, except give feedback on student work and manage my students. But here’s the thing… I have a teaching degree. I know my standards, and I know how to select content and how to design classroom activities that address the standards. I could write a textbook. Therefore, I am a viable textbook alternative. I, too, am interactive, self-updating, and tuned-in to student needs. I, too, am a veritable library of teaching approaches and activities. But most important: I also have the added perk of being a human being who can form meaningful connections with my kids.

I do think that, in some situations, a textbook adoption can improve and guide the curriculum of a program. Of course, teachers who utilize textbooks do not by nature have to default to them all the time, and can work them in as an effective resource. However, in our case, I was very relieved to be a part of a department who gave a respectful yet decisive “no thank you” to the proposed purchase of the textbook set we were offered. In my opinion, no textbook can ever exceed the effectiveness of teacher-designed curriculum, when creative, highly professional educators are designing it for their own classrooms.

The question was “What is teaching?” The answer I came to is “a human expertise, passed on through curiosity and connection.” People are the pathway to learning. Whether we use a textbook or not, we simply cannot just sit at a desk and assign chapters. Our students’ learning lives depend on it.