The Tech Diaries #2: The Dawn Chorus

First Tweets – Dawn Chorus by karenwithak on Flickr

This is the second in a series of posts detailing my attempts to introduce some technology into my high school classroom. You can read the first post here, where I told the story of how my classroom came to be, and outlined three principles for following a more technological path in helping my learners. Having just read the #eltchat summary from last week, it seems I’m not the only one thinking and doing things like this.

My first principle for introducing technology read as follows:

1. Introduce technology in the classroom that will allow and encourage students to communicate and learn with me outside it.

The reason for this was simple. I get to see each of my high school learners for 50 minutes each week. This is barely enough time to review what we did the week before, let alone get anything done. What I have been wanting to do for a while is extend my reach into the students lives a little more, and give those who want to practice the chance to do a little more in a way that fits into their busy lives (and mine). Twitter gives me exactly this chance.

As a start,  I have used Twitter in lessons to get answers to questions from the entire group. One question asked how we could use Twitter to practice English, the other asked for opinions on a music video. Groups of two or three students worked to construct a tweet and send it to the feed on the IWB. I’d already written a blog post on the potential effects of Twitter on classroom discourseand a lot of the positive things I predicted did indeed come about, such as more student responses, self-nomination (admittedly prompted by the offer of a reward) and answers which showed some development.

I’ve been working hard recently on making the atmosphere in my classroom one in which students want to contribute to a discussion. At my school, shyness, low-levels and a degree of apathy all lead to students not always being keen to put across their point of view. Using Twitter definitely changed that and students were voluntarily contributing things. Furthermore, when asked follow-up questions to their Tweets, students seemed more willing to answer, and explain further the ideas they had tweeted. This echoes a point made by Geoff Thompson about getting students to accept a part in an interaction. He suggests asking a yes/no question followed by a follow-up wh- question (Thompson 1996). Anecdotal evidence here would suggest that an initial idea tweeted plays a similar part in accepting an interaction which can then be developed through further questioning. An additional nice point here is that it gives the teacher a little more time to come up with good follow up questions, which lead the students on through their thinking, and are appropriate for their language level.

I also noticed that students took a lot more care over crafting their tweets than they would with a solely oral answer. Oral activities with my students tend to involve them saying just enough to merit sitting down and shutting up for the rest of the lesson (often just a single word, and rarely anything grammatical). However, with time to think about their answers, they became more complex and much better structured. According to Swain’s output theory (1985) it is more through the use, not reception of language that we are forced to concentrate on the structure. Thus, perhaps, the more students focus on constructing output the better it will be for their development. Another big advantage is that grammatical problems arise before the question is answered, meaning that I can deal with them with a small group of students who need that advice, rather than with the whole class, many of whom will be at too high or low a level for it. This helps me a lot with developing a learner-centred classroom.

There would also seem to be practical advantages to using Twitter in the classroom. One is that it completely obviates the need to take notes. If answers are given in tweet form, the transcript can provide all of the data easily. In addition, tweets can be looked at, picked apart and re-sent if the meaning isn’t clear. Finally, they can be collected and analysed later in a kind of pedagogic corpus, which helps inform what needs to be taught in future lessons. Also, it saves a lot of chalk stains and sore wrists. In class, it makes it a lot easier to refer to what other people say – at no point in my class is everyone listening, so having everthing readable makes sense (this isn’t always a positive for listening skills of course).

At this point I will admit that the activity could equally have been done orally with groups, and answers prepared on paper and then delivered through speech. I don’t know (and it would be interesting to find out) whether it was the preparation time or the medium that really made the difference. Nevertheless, one of the things that I accepted in undertaking this project was that sometimes it would be necessary to use technology in the classroom where it was not strictly needed, in order to show how it worked, and try to encourage students to continue using it outside the classroom. In this respect I’ve had a little bit of success – I now have six or so students who tweet me almost daily, with a few more who enter my weekly extension competitions (link). It’s going to be a long game getting more of them involved, but for now at least, I’m going to keep trying.

I’m already up towards 1,000 words of fairly positive comment here. There have been negatives as well, which I’d like to deal with in a separate post. For now, if you have comments, or any advice, especially if you’re doing something similar, I’d be delighted if you’d leave them below.

Alex

References

Swain, M. (1985). ‘Communicative Competence: Some Roles of Comprehensible Input and Comprehensible Output in its Development’ in Gass, S. & Madden, C. (eds.)  Input and Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Thompson, G. (1997). ‘Training Teachers to ask Questions’. ELT Journal, 51:2, 99-105.

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6 responses to “The Tech Diaries #2: The Dawn Chorus

  1. I’ve used Twitter a lot with writing students in Korea to differing levels of success. Overall, though, it’s been quite rewarding. As with you, I start using many technologies to extend learning outside of the classroom. In my writing classes, Twitter is used for communication as well as very short daily assignments. The real advantage of using Twitter with my group is engagement: one on one, between students, and with the whole class.

    There was more push back a couple years ago than now. Twitter has become better known in Korea in that time and has thus become more acceptable. The rise of smartphones hasn’t hurt either, but this only covers about half of my students. The rest have to post through a computer, which is sometimes a point of contention (having to access a computer for the daily assignments). However, with dozens of computer labs on campus and nearly universal access to computers in the home, this problem doesn’t really have legs.

    Good luck.

    • Hi Dan,

      Thanks very much for your comment.

      I guessed that Twitter must be more popular within universities, but I’ve not heard much about people using it in high schools. Honestly a lot of my students simply don’t have time, and the ones without smart phones barely get to a computer all day. Still, if I can get a couple of tweets out of a few of them, I’ll consider it a job well done.

      I take it your situation means you almost never use it in class?

      Alex

  2. I wasn’t sure if you were at a Korean or International school. I’d imagine that Korean high school students would have very little time for this outside of class.

    Though I’d like to work Twitter in as a backchannel in class, I haven’t done so. It would also be good for voting. The only time I use it in class, though, is to discuss posts made outside of class. Even when I do that, I usually strip out the usernames to avoid undue embarrassment.

    I see that you use 2 different Twitter accounts. I do as well. I have a personal one that students are welcome to join, but I don’t advertise it at the beginning of the semester (I don’t want them to be confused). Then I have an account for each of the 2 types of writing classes I teach. Again, I break these out so students in class A aren’t confused by messages to class B. It has seemed to work well.

    I played with the idea of using hash tags this semester, but I’m afraid that might be too much for the students to handle as it’s not that easy to check on the Twitter site and they don’t tend to use 3rd party clients.

    Each semester brings new insights 🙂

  3. Very true about the new insights!

    With my two accounts, I have a student one and a professional one (which theoretically the students would also be welcome to follow if they wanted). I don’t really use Twitter to keep up with friends or anything else outside of education. Feel free to follow both my accounts, but I shan’t be offended if you unfollow the student one. The chatter with my students is probably not the most enlightening prose 🙂

    Perhaps run in to you at the international conference in October?

  4. Yep, I’ll be there. I’m splitting my time between KAMALL and KOTESOL that weekend. If you’re around Sunday, maybe we meet up.

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