Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Teaching From Afar: Using Twitter While Absent

By on November 8, 2009

I’ve always been a multi-tasker. It frustrated my own teachers at times in that I always needed to be doing two things at once in order to be fully alert. My brain worked like riding a bicycle: if I only moved slowly, my attention span fell over. And during my most recent Edutopia meeting, I was no less occupied.

As I sat in meeting at Skywalker Ranch listening to some of the greatest minds dedicated to education, my head was also in the classroom. It’s true. While I was learning, I was also teaching.

Edutopia’s National Advisory Council consists of multiple classroom teachers who are gifted in their craft and inspirational in their innovation. I listened to such educators as Doug Martin, Anthony Armstrong, Kati Delahanty, and Craig Brandenburg. And all the while I was helping to deliver content and classroom management in my own classroom, 400 miles away.

Picture 3Twitter allowed me to do it easily. It all began weeks ago as I sat looking down the tunnel that was this upcoming year at some of the months already peppered with conferences, meetings, and what I’m sure will be my own sick days that happen of their own accord. And I thought to myself: how can I still be a presence in my classroom when I can’t be there?

I could create movies of my own teaching, of course. But that wouldn’t be interactive. And it would require my sub to run the technology of the room, and that is it’s own challenge. So I decided that I would try an experiment: Twittering with each class period.

Of course, I had a substitute, a brave soul who stood in my room and supervised, making sure there was actual follow-through and on-task behavior.  But in order to answer the questions she could not, I set up a way to be available to my students.  Here’s how I did it:

1.I picked one “Twitter Captain” per class period (thanks, Will Richardson, for coining the term over Friday’s dinner.) This was a student with a Twitter account who was willing to follow #wolpertsclass. They were also willing for our class to follow them. In other words, they needed to have an account with the understanding of pure transparency that would be seen by their teacher and fellow students. (That weeded out some volunteers, let me tell you.) You can also set up a Twitter account for this purpose. You decide.

2.I explained the rules. The Twitter captain was both my voice and the voice of my classroom. They are stationed at the computer, and they know that if something inappropriate is written, I will assume they wrote it because they are the only ones allowed to physically Twitter to me at this time.

3.The Twitter Captain logged on. At the start of 1st Period, my Twitter Captain opened up their account on one student computer (my classroom has three eMacs rescued from being recycled through our district warehouse after our old lab was dissembled.) I petitioned to have Twitter unblocked last year through our Director of Technology so we could use it in the classroom. See my earlier post here.

4.I logged on from my end and began my interactive Twitter Q & A. I asked questions I knew of the students who were in that room at the time, and they asked me questions about the content. When a student had a question, the captain posted it and let me know who had asked. Picture 5

Was it all miraculously rosy? Of course not. After all, Period 3 seemed to use Twitter as a high-tech tattling opportunity.

Brandon’s out of his seat and walking around. (44 characters)
Armando won’t stop talking even though Ms. D is telling him to be quiet.(75 characters)

I then reminded my class using my 140 character limit that Twitter was for content correspondence and questions.  And according the the sub notes I saw when I returned, the students then got back on task with a grumble.

I think the moment that I’ll find most memorable, however, was the Tweet I sent down the length of California that proved my teacher antennae was still raised and receiving.   Without a tip that it was needed, I told my Period 2 Twitter Captain to tell Christopher to stop talking. She replied with, “How did you know that Christopher was talking?!”  I also earned an “OMG!” and a “HaHa” for my efforts.  (After all, it doesn’t hurt if your students think you’re psychic every once and a while.)

Overall, it was an experiment that sent some important messages:

It sent the message that I was still thinking of them and still engaged, and that I expected them to be as well.

It sent the message that I was always willing to try something new to keep them learning.

It sent the message that learning doesn’t stop on days when I’m not there.

It sent the message that my voice can be heard whenever they seek it out.

It sent the message that their own learning need not to occur solely within the walls of their classroom.

I also shared some of what I was learning as a means to convey my own excitement at being a learner.

Picture 6My classes I went on a journey, experimented together, and learned together. And as a result, those sub days were not the lost instructional days that they might have been. In fact, because I managed to bring in a new, fresh method of content delivery, it may have even been more valuable then our average day.

There’s nothing like teaching face-to-face, but if you can’t be there, Twitter might be a way to go that’s free and easy.

Keep trying new ways to deliver content to your classes. It may not work 100% of time, but sometimes it’s your enthusiastic attempt that encourages their continued learning.

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  1. Kati Delahanty
    November 9, 2009

    I loved meeting you, learning from you, and laughing with you!
    I can’t wait to keep up with your blog. I’ve learned so much already!
    You’re amazing!

  2. Anthony
    November 9, 2009

    I regret not getting the time to sit down with you more while at the ranch. I have a few things I’d like to ask and learn from you with regards to speech and debate, as well as podcasting.

    In the meantime, I look forward to following your blog and twitter posts.

    Keep up the inspiration!

  3. Ina L
    November 11, 2009

    This is so funny and such a great use of technology!

  4. Eric Biederbeck
    November 11, 2009

    Absolutely love this idea as I’ve been out a bit this year and hate missing that much class time. I’m gone again tomorrow (Nov. 12th) and Nov. 13th and I’m using this idea to some extent. My class has a twitter account and my “twitter captains” are using that account and I’m using my normal account to keep in touch

    • tweenteacher
      November 12, 2009

      I want a full report when you get back! Thanks for visiting and commenting on tweenteacher. Hope to hear from you again.
      -Heather WG
      aka Tweenteacher

      • Eric Biederbeck
        November 13, 2009

        Here’s my report:

        Things went very well by using twitter- first time for the kids really so they were learning as we went- didn’t really get the @ reply button but not a big deal as I was able to follow just them as I went. Also, as they were working on math (and playing math games) they weren’t tweeting as much as say I would (but really should I expect that anyhow?) I was able to resolve a couple small discipline issues (had the students come over to the computer so we could “tweet” back and forth about what they “should be doing” Also was able to answer questions for the special ed teacher who was covering my class as well as some general questions from the students (can we use calculators for this exercise for example)

        I was also very pleased with this small bit of ingenuity that the girl in my first period math class did- the laptop froze up on her- so instead of doing nothing or rebooting and making me wonder what was going on- she simply went over to a desktop nearby, fired up twitter and started tweeting again-

        Overall I was very pleased with the process and not only will I be using this when I’m out again but both of my teaching partners are planning on using it too (which will be great for one who is out for a 3 day conferences in December!)

        I highly recommend getting kids involved in something like this- the interest level is high and it really makes you feel like you are still “there”

  5. tweenteacher
    November 13, 2009

    OK, nest step is to involve classes beyond those at your school. Plan “playdates” of sorts so that you have an open window into different classrooms. Also, you might want to consider subscribing your class to things like “The Quirkels” which is a science twitter account, or awesome stories which brings primary news footage of historical events to the classroom with every tweet. You can ignore them as they come in, or you can stop things for a brief, spontaneous mini-lesson to give their brains a little jar.

    Sounds like your first step into Twitter was a success! Thanks so much for sharing. I love that you used it a la Remote Desktop, a way to use it I hadn’t even considered.

    Take care and keep on sharing!
    -Heather Wolpert-Gawron
    aka Tweenteacher

  6. lkm
    December 2, 2009

    I’d sure like to read the Twitter exchange. What’s the account?

  7. BITS
    December 8, 2009

    And would you believe our local school board almost voted to BAN the use of Social Media sites by teachers to communicate with students? I started a massive push back and they went from “Shall Not” to “we discourage” which isn’t saying much.

    The actual reason given by the Superintendent of the District was he felt the administration needed to protect the teachers from potential inappropriate situations with students like somehow sending a text message is going to stop a teacher who sees a student 5 days a week from doing something they shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

    Using Twitter, Blogs, Facebook and of course email I connected with parents that saw the potential for how engaging students in a media they use could provide another vehicle for teaching vs. burning the books which it sounded like the board was wanting to do. Comments like “teachers shouldn’t ‘friend’ their students” or “we can’t monitor Social sites” showed how out of touch the Board and Administration actually is.

  8. Michael Werner
    December 17, 2009

    Hi Heather:

    Wow! Absolutely loved this story!

    Would you mind if we interviewed you and recorded it for podcast at our blog?


    Guessing it wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes and we can work around your schedule.

    You may respond to me directly at mwerner(at)infosourcelearning.com, if you like.


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