Tweeting, yapping, frothing… and teaching (English onomatopoeia)

kapowFor the last ten years or so, delicate birds in English-speaking countries the world over have been complaining about social networking – or to be more precise, about one site in particular. It’s not Facebook that has upset them, or LinkedIn, nor is it Instagram or Tumblr. It’s Twitter that has ruffled their feathers. The reason is simple; they can no longer do one of the things that delicate birds in English-speaking countries most like to do, at least not without everyone expecting them to keep it short and simple and add a couple of hashtags to the message. They can no longer twitter or tweet.

‘Why they had to go with our particular sound is beyond me,’ tweeted Warner Bros. veteran Tweety Bird, in an exclusive interview for Pearson ELT Learning Journeys. ‘Why couldn’t they have called it Oinker or Mooster? The pigs and the cows wouldn’t have minded. They could’ve done with the publicity.’ Meanwhile, groups of birds from other countries have expressed their relief that the site chose to go with English onomatopoeia rather than sound-words from their own languages. ‘Chu-u chu-u!’ chirped a Japanese spokes-bird, visibly relieved, while a Spanish owl in Madrid hooted in to say, ‘It’s bad enough that the pedestrian lights here go pío pío. Frankly, I’m relieved you’re not all pío-ing.’ Continue reading

Teens, teen brains and exam prep

Ian Wood Madrid

Ian Wood’s visit to Spain last week was not only a wonderful opportunity for him to get the message out  about changes to the Cambridge exams.  At our Madrid and Seville events he also did us the added favor of looking at teenagers, teenage brains and exams with this thought-provoking talk:


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mission impossible


The teen brain is a topic which I’ve written about before, and so it was great to be able to follow up his talk with one of my own, Helping students help themselves with assessment.  It focused on implementing technology via the SAMR model to foster a Blended learning approach in exam preparation courses by giving students more autonomy and protagonism.

At the center of both of our talks was an emphasis on the teen learner as a doer actively constructing their own learning in a social context which is relevant to them.  Voice, choice, grouping, creativity and personalization were words that really jumped out at me on slides 18 and 19 of Ian’s presentation, for example.  And when he spoke about using media teens relate to, like texting for practicing writing skills, it really resonated with me as it is also similar to something I’ve been thinking about recently.

I know I speak for both of us when I say we sincerely enjoyed giving these talks and getting a chance to meet and speak to many of the teachers who came out to see us.  Thank you for all the energy and good vibes!

Social Media and how we speak to one another

There was some rightfully worrying news for teachers on the BBC website today.

The UK’s largest teachers’ union, the NASUWT, released the results of a survey which showed that fully one in five of its members have been the targets of “adverse comments” by both pupils and parents on social networking sites.  The nature of the comments was sometimes so severe as to impair the ability of the teachers to do their job adequately.

Amazingly “fewer than half of [the] incidents were reported to the school or the police” leading union officials to call out for “clearer sanctions” against those taking part in such abusive behaviour and “a better system for removing offensive material from websites.”  Certainly you are going to find few people arguing with such measures, not only in light of the serious nature of the behaviour but also because of how commonplace it seems to be.

Still, my concerns go beyond what such punitive, after-the-fact steps will ever be able to remedy.  I worry that social media itself will be further demonized while the root problem, namely how we speak to each other, will continue to be ignored.

Social media and similar online communications tools hold huge potential for learning.  They give students, teachers, parents and institutions the ability to engage openly with one another outside of the physical class space and underscore learning as a social activity in the broader community.  Knowing how to use these tools is becoming vital to the way we interact with one another and solve problems together.

As a language teacher I tried to make clear in my last post that it is not the tools we use to speak to one another, but the content of the conversations and the rules and considerations we take into account when interacting that need to be given centre stage.  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram aren’t going away whether we like it or not.  It is imperative that we give our learners the communications skills they need to have respectful, constructive conversations be they face to face or online.

Punishing behaviour which does not conform to socially established rules is often necessary, but we first need to establish clearly what those rules are.  And in this rapidly changing world that is the kind of conversation that teachers, schools, students and parents need to be having.

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.