Tech in the Classroom

(Published in the Fall 2017 issue of  Independent Teacher)

Like so many teachers, I struggle to cover all of the content I need to get through each year. And nothing derails my lessons faster than a student who has questions about the news or current events. Being a news and political junkie myself, I love these questions, and the conversations they produce are often the most rewarding part of my day. And, being a U.S. History teacher, I find that these conversations happen frequently because so much of the content I cover relates directly to the news that is unfolding across the country and the world every day.

One day, back in November 2015, my students became obsessed with the arcane rules of the Iowa Caucuses; they seemed to have about 700 questions. We had a fantastic and engaging conversation, the kind that teachers live for and that remind us why we got into this business in the first place. The only problem with this wonderful class period was that I did not cover any of the material about the American Revolution I had planned and needed to cover.

It was at that point, with a presidential election year looming, that I knew I needed to devise a better strategy that would allow me to adequately incorporate current events in class, while not torpedoing the time — which I already did not have enough of — to get through the course material. I turned to Twitter to help me solve this problem.

As a novice tweeter, I was not sure what to expect or how this experiment would go. I created a Twitter account for myself that I would use exclusively to communicate with my students about the news. I began by following the Twitter feeds of about 10 different news organizations that represented differing political orientations and areas of coverage; the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC were my first three feeds.

I then signed up to follow some key figures in American government and politics at the time, such as our own representative in the House, our state’s two senators, as well as President Obama and a certain Twitter-obsessed person who would eventually replace him. I got to work retweeting the stories I wanted my students to know about and the differing viewpoints on the same events.

A few days later, after a crash course in Twitter from students and colleagues, I told my students that it was now their responsibility to begin reading what I retweeted. This was easy enough and required little effort on their part because they did not need to create their own Twitter accounts in order to see the things I was tweeting. All they needed was access to the internet on a computer, tablet, or phone to pull up my Twitter page.

Some students “followed” me; many others did not because, as I quickly learned, in the Twitter universe it is profoundly uncool to follow a greater number of people than the number who follow you. One student regretfully informed me that he always read and enjoyed my posts, but he could not follow me because I would mess up this all-important ratio of following to followers! In any case, every student could easily access everything I posted.

To make sure they were paying attention to the stories I was tweeting about, I began giving my students a very short “current events quiz” every Thursday that took up only five minutes or so of class time. Students could complete the quizzes on their phones or laptops because I created them in Google Forms. Using the self-grading “quiz feature” in Google Forms saved me a lot of time because each quiz was instantly graded on submission.

Over the course of a few weeks, I began to notice some interesting and significant changes in the way my students understood and talked about the news. Because it became their responsibility to pay attention to the articles I was posting, they arrived in class each day slightly better informed about what was happening outside of school than they had been before. I also noticed that I was able to get right into the meat of an issue or event, rather than having to spend precious class minutes providing copious background and contextual information.

In addition, some of the conversations that might have begun in class and taken up a lot of time simply migrated to Twitter where they could continue with no time limits (although always limited to 140 characters per tweet).

There were some other unexpected benefits of this project, too. Like many boarding schools, we have a significant population of international students who add invaluable and diverse perspectives to our classroom discussions. About a month into my Twitter experiment, I decided to follow some news outlets from a few of the countries where my students came from — China, South Korea, Ghana, and Japan. When I saw something interesting, I blasted it out for all of my students to take a look at. I learned a lot from this myself, seeing news from countries that are not often covered in detail by major U.S. news organizations. When we talked about these global stories, my international students suddenly became experts on a given topic and were in a position to teach something to their American classmates. This was a welcome reversal of roles for them in our U.S. History class, where it is often the American students who fill in gaps or answer questions for the international students.

A final benefit was my ability to tweet stories related to our schoolwide annual theme of sustainability. Like many schools, we choose a theme each year for our students to consider in various ways and for teachers to incorporate into their classrooms. I looked for stories about climate change, sustainable energy, and environmental conservation to share with my students in order to spark conversations about the school-year theme.

In my opinion, making time in class to facilitate conversations about current events and the news is not frivolous or something that should be pushed aside in order to follow a schedule. If part of my school’s mission is to graduate knowledgeable and well-informed citizens and voters who are able to understand multiple points of view and see links between the past and the present, then what could be more important? While I still struggle to find the perfect formula for how to incorporate the news into my class periods, using Twitter as a classroom tool has brought me much closer to the answer, and I will continue this project.

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