Highlighting vocabulary words; underlining passages; drawing stars and smiley faces in the margins—these are the hallmarks of ninth grade English class. Students are encouraged to interact with the text, almost holding a conversation with it, so they can be prepared to comment and discuss. Yet when the teacher prompts her class—“Does anyone have something interesting to share about the reading from last night?”—she is greeted with silence, broken only by light whispers of book pages.
Most of us remember these uncomfortable moments the same way we remember the awkward haircuts and wardrobes that accompanied them. But now, picture a computer screen covered in hashtags and “at” signs—#shakespeare and @3rdperiodenglish. Lively debate and direct quotes continue to fill the threads four hours after school has ended. Students upload pictures of their annotated texts and ask their classmates to help them understand the nuances of iambic pentameter.
This is Chris Bronke’s freshman English class at North High School, a public school in Downers Grove, Illinois. Last August, Bronke realized that in order to “make learning more social,” he would need to utilize the very networks on which his students socialized. Introducing Twitter to his classroom was not an impulsive decision. His mission to engage students more directly was years in the making, though he describes his pedagogical progression that led him toward Twitter as somewhat trial-and-error. When he began teaching 11 years ago, he used text-marking and active reading in his classes because these were the practices that he, himself, had learned while growing up. The trouble with these practices, he found, was that he could never know where in the reading his students were having trouble, and any feedback that he did have for them was delayed until the next day’s class—a problem that eats away at the time left for teachers to dig deeper, forcing them to spend class periods rereading and reiterating.
#bronke3rdhour the stylistic choices on pg 34 add a certain drama to the chapter— Emcn2633 (@emcn2633) April 8, 2014
Then he came across a program called TodaysMeet—a forum reminiscent of AOL messenger, but designed for students and teachers to converse online. This was a move in the right direction he thought, as students began to open up in online discussion and retain those ideas for class the next day. Unfortunately, there were flaws in this operation as well. Students could participate in multiple conversations yet fail to address one another in any meaningful way. Additionally, they could respond to a question many hours after it was posed, leaving the original poster completely unaware. Over time, the lack of a direct response system, as well as an inability to track themes and comments, rendered TodaysMeet less than desirable.
On his own time, meanwhile, Bronke was becoming immersed in social media—using Twitter to interact with other educators and administrators as well as to gather intel for his fantasy football teams. He began to wonder: Could Twitter provide the social and communicative platform that his previous curriculum failed to foster? After clearing the idea with the administration at his school, sending home and retrieving parental permission slips, and setting up a culture of respect and open dialogue in his classroom, Bronke set each of his students up with a Twitter handle. Fortunately, Downers Grove provides its students with school email addresses that use a shorthand code for their names, so Bronke was able to create handles that secured his student’s safety while allowing them to recognize each other online.
@kkun0794 what do you think they symbolize? maybe new hope? #bronke3rdhour— fpet2367 (@fpet2367) May 21, 2014
The only flaws that surfaced this time were technical in nature—requiring him to go over simple do’s and don’ts for using Twitter’s interface.
Within days he found students tweeting at each other multiple times an evening, mentioning and “favoriting” their peers’ thoughts, and providing ample material for classroom discussion. His students were being “more careful and reading more closely,” Bronke noted. Conducting conversations online allowed him to track their comprehension as well. Because most of his students used Twitter for recreational purposes, they could also utilize their experiences in English class and include their class hashtags as they responded to tweets from One Direction and Tim Tebow.
And as an added bonus: Bronke used his already-established education-oriented Twitter handle. This meant that the student comments he retweeted were often retweeted and “favorited” by teachers and scholars who wanted to support their ideas. These students learned that their voice mattered even outside of the classroom setting, and that engaging in real dialogue could be fun and worthwhile.
Janice Schwarze, the associate principal of curriculum and instruction at Downers Grove, notes that Twitter helped to “make instruction more targeted.” She, Bronke, and the other teachers at Downers Grove who will implement social media curricula this year recognize that this is only one tool in their expansive educational toolbox. It could never replace in-class discussion or long form essay writing—skills that students will always need. These educators do, however, believe that using Twitter and other platforms can help students hone other skills that their generation will need for the future. Learning to be concise, engaging in online dialogue about serious and important topics, condensing information, and forming an opinion in real time—these are skills that will only become more important as technology takes deeper root in society.
Really glad I had @MrBronke and #bronke3rdhour by my side last year. This upcoming school year -english, mostly- will be a piece of cake!— ehod0753 (@ehod0753) August 24, 2014
There is a lot of debate about the merits and flaws of using technology in the classroom—some educators call for the end of paper while others cry for no more iPads. But Bronke’s successful experiment raises a different sort of question about how social media might evolve as these students get older. Will they continue to use social media platforms to have serious discussions about literary works or historical accuracies? Might they begin to view Twitter, and other platforms that follow it, as forums for posting not only selfies and memes but well-formed arguments?
A recent Pew report, "Social Media and ‘The Spiral of Silence,’” found that even in an age of rampant communication, people are still hesitant to engage in real intellectual discourse because they fear opposition online, as well as in person. If other teachers follow Bronke’s lead, today’s high school students might be the first generation to master the art of posting respectful, deeply considered ideas in real time—and in 140 characters.