Teaching students to tweet

Eight years ago today Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and chairman of Twitter, sent this first ever Tweet and things haven’t really been the same since:

Despite initial doubts from just about everyone as to how you could say anything meaningful in 140 characters it’s hard now to imagine the Internet without the famed microblogging site.  A tool which for many did not seem to have a clear use has managed to create its own impressive uber-niche in the communication landscape.  But what is Twitter exactly and is there any way to use it in our classes?

Twitter Skills are 21st Century Skills

To help answer the first question, consider this 2012 article from Glenn Greenwald – certainly one of the most influential and innovative journalists out there today – in which he details a specific instance where he used Twitter to crowdsource his readers to check the veracity of of a suspicious online Op-Ed.  Many saw this as an example of “further evidence … that people’s ability to verify info online is *rubbish*.

But Greenwald saw it differently, because not only was the suspect article quickly exposed by his Twitter followers as a hoax, but:

That happened by virtue of all of the strengths which the Internet uniquely offers, and which traditional journalism precludes: collective analysis, using one’s readers (tens of thousands of people, if not more) to help with research and investigation, instant and mass collaboration with other journalists and experts, an open and transparent analytical and investigative process.

I don’t know about you, but as a teacher hearing things like “collective analysis”, “mass collaboration” and “transparent analytical and investigative process” (all variations on core 21st Century skills) gives me real butterflies in the stomach – and I’m talking about the good kind.

The Backchannel

Nowadays we expect an article, a conference, a lecture or just about any event to come with a conversation, a comment section or a hasthtag.  And we no longer think of this as just background chatter.  The article, lecture or event used to be the end product but now it is the starting point for something even more important – a social conversation about what the publication or event means, what we think about it personally and where we want to take it.

There’s  a name for this – backchanneling.  As language teachers this probably rings a bell, because it is a term which was originally applied to spoken interactions.  During a conversation a speaker receives feedback from his listener in the form of “umms”, “ahs”, “hmms”, “reallys”, “you don’t says” and the like.  Though these interjections may at first seem largely irrelevant, they give the speaker some real clues as to the effect he’s having on his audience.  And if you don’t believe it, try being totally silent as someone relates an anecdote to you on the telephone.  Trust me, it won’t take long before you’ll hear a puzzled voice ask, “Are you still there?”

There are a number of reasons why backchanneling in virtual space via tweets has become a vital modern communication skill that we should begin to focus on with our students.  Firstly, it is no less important than the spoken variety.  If we are going to ask our students to come up with follow-up questions to keep spoken conversations moving why wouldn’t we ask them to practice the same type of skill in their online interactions?  Secondly, it is no less important today as a genre of writing than a formal letter or e-mail, and arguably, because of the ease with which we can publish it online, more empowering and consequential.  And finally, it can easily used by teachers and students to profoundly change classroom dynamics and give learners greater protagonism.

So, how do you get started?  Try TodaysMeet.

First of all I probably wouldn’t start by using Twitter.  While it is possible to set up a private Twitter group for your class there’s a much easier way to practice the fundamentals of backchaneling with your students.  Check out TodaysMeet where you can create a room (like a temporary hashtag) for an hour, a day , a week or even a year.  You then share out the URL, students access it, provide their name and join the conversation.  It’s really that easy.  The space is non-public, “self-destructs” after its time limit and provides you with an easy way to download the transcript to read through later or look at with your students.

And what can you use it for?  Here are 3 quick ideas:

1.  Increase Student Feedback and Interaction

When students are taking in any content, be that a lecture, video or even a reading text, allow them to use their mobile devices to text in their opinions, thoughts or queries.  Often feedback only comes when the teacher asks “Any questions?” but we know all too well that ideas don’t always occur to us at these pre-prescribed moments, and some students tend to dominate class discussion while others avoid the spotlight.  Letting them chime in when they feel like it or without having to speak out loud can help increase both the quality and quantity of interaction in your class.

2. As a Project Space

Working on group projects?  Why not open up a room for each group to share their ideas or any links they think might be useful.  This room can stay open for the length of the project and you can also join in as a teacher providing them with your own insight and tips.

3. To decide on focus for future classes

Monitor the discussions and use them as a springboard for future work in class.  If you think you’re out of ideas you often don’t have to look any further than your own students.  Social networking tools like TodaysMeet or Twitter allow us to gain some real insight into what our students are thinking, what their interests are or what they might be having difficulty with.

Baby Steps!

As always, don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Start out with something short and simple which can be done in a single lesson.  Begin with a discussion on the form, function and appropriate use of these mini-texts.  And end up by sharing and analyzing the transcript together, picking out salient points and useful contributions.  Then decide as a group how you want to use this information to focus future classes.

And most importantly, remember to think of it as not only  a classroom tool but a language skill for today’s world.

Social context, not just tech with teens

A few days ago,  I looked at why it’s important for us not only to teach our teenage students good English, but to do this while stressing higher order 21st Century skills at the same time.  Because adolescents’ brains are undergoing enormous changes in the pre-frontal cortex they are particularly receptive to work done on these social skills which are so vital to their future success as confident individuals who can work well with others.

Today I want to talk about how this impacts on the way we use technology with our learners.  And what I would like to suggest is that the most productive lessons on the use of technology for our teens (and maybe for us as teachers as well) actually have very little to do with technology per se, and a whole lot more with our awareness of  the social context in which we use it.

A particularly interesting model for the evaluation of technology use which was developed by Ruben R. Puentedura in 2011 called the SAMR model might be instructive here.  If you’re interested you can hear him speaking about it in this video, but let’s just quickly deconstruct the acronym to get an idea of what it’s all about.

Puentedura divides uses of technology into those which merely enhance the way you carry out learning tasks and those which truly transform those tasks and the learning process leading to improved outcomes.

Enhancement is represented by the letters S (Substitution) and A (Augmentation) of the acronym.  An example of substituting a technological tool for an existing one might be using a word processor instead of pencil and paper, or sending your teacher your work via e-mail instead of handing it in.  It’s kind of nice, but it brings little new to the table.  Augmentation goes a step further and the student might start to use some of the improved functionality of the word processor to format the document differently, add media or use a spell-checker, for example.  If you notice, what the students are adding to the task in both of these cases are mostly technical elements.

But ultimately I think students can do many of these things on their own.  What really interests me are the M and the R – the ways we can transform learning with technology.  Puentedura identifies these as Modification, where you can significantly re-design a task using technology, and Redefinition, where students are going beyond what was before possible, being empowered to employ the technology to carry out tasks which have never before been undertaken.  Obviously this level of outcome is precisely what we should want our students to aspire to as it impacts not only on their individual development, but ultimately on how innovative our society as a whole can become.

Putting aside what a truly transformative task might look like for a moment ,there does seem to be a great deal of agreement about the kinds of skills that are required to make them work.  In contrast to the almost purely technical skills required to carry out substitutional uses of technology, Transformation, as I read it, can only take place if higher order, 21st Century skills are thrown into the mix.

For Modification and Redefinition to occur we need to have prosumeristically-minded students who are able to collaborate with others, organizing information by applying critical-thinking , sharing it in an appropriate way which will impact positively on continued debate and stimulating future contributions by others.  In short we are asking for nothing less than to have them lend a hand in building up this vast shared construct we call human knowledge.

And this is where the teacher comes in.  When you think about it there is nothing particularly 21st Century about 21st Century Skills.  Were Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity unheard of before 2001?  Of course not, but they have once again been put center-stage by a society which has seen an explosion of internet-based tools which demand a new understanding of these skills in a new context.  And the role of the teacher is to help our students transfer existing analog skills to a new digital and increasingly hyper-linked landscape.  But the trick is to see them more as social than technical aptitudes.

Take a Google doc.  It’s a fantastic tool for pushing our students in this direction – a shared document which lends itself to collaboration, shared insight, group editing and, hopefully, sharing or publishing – the ultimate in empowerment.  But when you open up a document it is still nothing more than a blank page.

Students are likely have the technical know-how to deal with all its bells and whistles, but how many really know how to work productively on a project with their colleagues?  How many have the social skills to undertake a project with that level of organization?  How many are prepared to give or receive criticism or correction from a classmate, turning their mistakes or someone else’s insight into a personal or collective gain?  And how many are aware of the power and risks implicit in pressing the publish button in today’s day and age?

Once again, this is where the teacher comes in.  When teaching with technology we are often under the impression that we need to master the tool.  But what is really true is that we need to help our students master the context in which they will use the tool.

And as teachers we already have these skills, honed over years of experience in getting students to analyze print texts, think of their effect on the target reader, the register and context they are written in.  It is only a question of transferring them to a new and highly public arena where titles pop-up in Google searches, footnotes have morphed into hyperlinks and even URLs can provide context.

In many ways things really haven’t changed all that much.  In forming literate members of society we have always started out with the basics with younger students, gradually increasing not only the linguistic difficulty at which we expect our students to read and express themselves, but also building their awareness of the social complexity into which our cultural artifacts are woven.  Known as “Digital Literacy” this is a logical extension of where our society is going and it obviously impacts very directly on how we need to see our role with our students  (if you need any more proof of this – or practical examples of how to approach teaching it I suggest you check out Digital Literacies by Dudeney, Hockly and Pegrum).

Our teens are moving quickly towards a future where much of their lives will be online.  We know that one of the things which can help them the most at this age is raising their awareness of social behavior, helping them to work together effectively  and empowering them to make their own critiques of the world around them.  If you open up a shared doc with them (or use any other tech tool for that matter) maybe you shouldn’t sweat the tech stuff so much.

Stick first and foremost to what you already know as a teacher – how to foment an understanding of communication in a broader social context.  And see it as an opportunity for a project that’s going to help them ask bigger questions about their future than which tab to click on to get the chat box to come up.  They’ll figure that part out for themselves.  It’s how they use that chat box with their classmates which is going to make the difference.

Teen brains, language and social skills

Anyone who has taught teens or is the parent of a teen will relate perfectly to this TED Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on the adolescent brain.  Apparently, throughout the years our teens’ brains develop they become increasingly more adult-like in their ability to process intellectual information to the point where in later adolescence their brains basically function exactly the same as an adult’s in this regard.  But (surprise, surprise) the pre-frontal cortex, which regulates how we make plans, decisions and relate to each other socially is still undergoing massive changes and anything but fully-formed.

Explain a few things?  Ever wonder why you can have those really cool conversations with teens on art, music, politics, society – just about any topic under the sun – and then realize that these are the same teens who can’t remember to bring their homework to class (not AGAIN!), go through incredible mood-swings (remember how much fun those were?) and can come out with some pretty inappropriate (though admittedly often very amusing) comments at times?

Chalk it all up to the adolescent brain.  And now there’s scientific PROOF for it.  Sounds like a good reason to give up on teens as far as social skills are considered and wait until those brains develop a bit more, right?

Well think again.  According to Blackmore, precisely BECAUSE the pre-frontal cortex is developing so rapidly at this time in our lives it represents a particularly crucial moment for us as teachers to focus on these important cognitive and social skills.  And that makes perfect sense.  The teen brain is pruning itself – eliminating loads of synaptic connections between neurons and strengthening others.  What’s left at the end of this process of cerebral configuration will be their playbook for social interaction, group collaboration, organizing and planning in their adult life.

Now that’s one heck of a responsibility for us.  As language teachers I’m sure you can think of just how integral these skills (often called 21st Century Skills) are in communication.  And it’s important to remind ourselves of this from time to time.  Because teaching a language, or teaching anything for that matter, is not solely, or even primarily, about teaching a subject or about teaching content.  It’s about forming an individual and giving them the tools to fulfill their potential.

This Friday I’ll look at how this affects the way we teach the use of technology to teens.

CLIL & ICT, a perfect marriage

Bilingualism and multilingualism in schools are hot topics in different regions of Spain that are and have been implementing different plans in order to improve students skills, and all of them have chosen CLIL as the most appropiate approach.

CLIL is a challenging and exciting approach developed by David Marsh and his team studies. It aims at a broader objective than just learning a language. It shows us how to use the language to learn and learn to use languages.

I have had the chance to work for several years in a bilingual school that, thanks to its principal and faculty, has achieved great success in implementing this approach and demonstrating how reflection, planning, commitment, passion and profesionalism can make a difference.

During my stay as a teacher there, I actively collaborated introducing ICT in the project and after all these years and experiences I can really confirm that the symbiosis between CLIL and ICT works beautifully! Communicative Competence and Digital Competence is a perfect marriage.

Now, I’m collaborating with the “Marc per al Plurilingüisme a Catalunya”, a very ambitious plan that aims to use the communicative competence of their students as leverage. I have attended some meetings with the people in charge of the plan to set a common framework and It was very interesting to observe that they are not only focused on external exams but on a more profound methodological change.

I delivered this session in Tarragona and in CPR Navalmoral, and It was great to meet and share some of my experiences with such passionate teachers.

As promised to all the teachers attending the sessions, here you have my presentations. Hope you enjoy it, and if you do…don’t hesitate to comment and share it!

Activitict for Christmas

We have reached the end of the first term! It´s time to take break and to take a breath.

But before we go. These days, families use to ask  teachers for nice sites or activities to do with their children during the holidays, so…here you have our proposal.

Design and create some digital toys online with your children, print them, cut and paste and…that´s it! you are ready to play offline with your creations for a truly significant  learning activity.

Here is how you can do it.

Enjoy it and have a Happy Holidays!

To all the Rudolphs around…

I love Christmas. I love the lights. I love the idea behind the commercials.

Christmas is the festival of light, the winter solstice announcing the end of  darkness and the beginning of  sunnier days. So whether we are religious or not, Christmas brings some light to all our lives.

And of all the Christmas stories, my favourite is “Rudolph, the red nosed reindeer”. Rudolph, reminds us that everyone has something special that makes us necessary. And this is a timeless concept.

I have always loved using this story in class.   It allows you to talk about bullying, about helping, about behaving with your peers, about reaching your true potential …Rudolph has no age barriers.

Rudolph was a misfit and someone believed in him and gave him an opportunity.  We all are, or have been, Rudolphs…the question is, can we act like Santa?  Are we able to see beyond our prejudices? Do we give opportunities to all our pupils so they can shine?

So, this is our Christmas present for you. Here you have several resources that you can use if you decide to work with the story of Rudolf in your class. We have prepared several scripts and activities adapted to different stages, from pre-primary to 6th grade. We have also prepared the characters of the story so you can use them as puppets to practice the story

Characters

Script Pre-Primary

Script First Cycle

Script Second Cycle

Script Third Cycle

Colour and describe

TIPS AND TRICKS

  • Remember that “We learn while we use and we use while we learn”.
  • Give them a lot of practice, include the story in your daily routine, explain it “with them”, not “to them”.
  • Practice the story first with your fingers with the whole class, each finger is a character.
  • Practice the story first with flashcards.
  • The class delegate can choose who he wants to be and can choose the rest of the characters.
  • Then, when they have learnt it, let them act it out. Act it out just once a day, if not they can get bored.
  • Let them switch roles, so they will learn the the whole play.
  • After all this practice, they are ready to tell the story. Create the puppets (with the pictures and the ice-cream sticks) or…they can dress-up as reindeer to do it.
  • Let them explain the story to their younger peers, go to other classes.
  • They can create a comic with the story, they can draw the background and place the reindeer pictures in front.

Let´s get real. Real competences for real life.

Last week I attended and participated in the “I Jornadas de Asesoramiento sobre secciones Bilingües”, held in a series of cities around the Castilla-La Mancha region.

On this occasion the workshop was focused on why and how to introduce Inquiry-Based learning in our lessons and how to include media making in the process as an answer to the real competences that our students will need to acquire in their lives. Here is the presentation (and at the end an interview with the organisers). I hope our non-Spanish speakers reading this get the general idea.

 

This region has a growing bilingual project and this was the first conference organized by the Administration. As they explain here, teacher training is going to be a key element in its success.

Leading while being led

In my travels and dealings with teachers around Spain and Portugal one of the hot topics right now, especially in relation to teaching teens, is 21st Century Skills.  And many teachers are asking how we “old dogs” are supposed to be teaching all these “new tricks”?  But could we be getting the question the wrong way around?

Do our digital teens really need new-fangled tricks, or just some old-fashioned wisdom to unlock, organize and make sense of a new information rich world?  As with any generational shift, the new challenges the old, but time-honoured traditions can also temper and put into perspective the most radical technological developments.

This fantastic video by Pearson author Kath Stannett really hits the nail on the head.  21st Century Skills are really timeless core human values of applying logic, sharing, and being open and creative in a new digital landscape.  Our students crave our experience to make sense of a quick moving and chaotic world.  And they have more than a few things to teach us as well!  It is all about “leading while being led.”