Twitter Project – Twitter Survey

During the first semester my US History students completed two different Twitter projects.  At the end of the semester I asked them to complete a survey about these projects. The Twitter assignments were similar to the idea I posted on this blog over the summer.

The first question I asked them was:

What is the best academic benefit of using Twitter?

Hearing what my peers think about issues 37%
Learning things I wouldn’t have otherwise 34%
Sharing historical resources 17%
Helping to draw connections between past and present 12%

My students, like most teenagers, enjoyed using Twitter for class, but would likely not use it if I had not introduced it in class. In an effort to dig more into this, I asked the following question:

What would make you use Twitter more?

Easier to see people ‘replying’ to me 31%
Better integration into Facebook 22%
Following more people/orgs who have similar interests to me 19%
Others using it more 19%
Better integration on my mobile device 10%

And then, just out of curiosity, I asked the following:

What ways do you use/follow Twitter?

Web interface (twitter.com) 93%
Tweetdeck 34%
I get emails telling me there’s been an update 10%
App on my mobile device 8%

I also had a couple of open ended questions:
Name one thing on Twitter you’d like to learn more about.
Ideas for 3rd quarter Twitter assignment?

I took these ideas and created our third quarter Twitter assignment.  In this assignment, I also added some appendices to help address the results from above.  For example, I created an appendix that walked students through three ways to see when people replied to them.  They seemed to like the tutorial on how to use a RSS feed email alert to see when people replied to them.

The sample size was 59, or about 90% of my US History students.  I used Google Docs to create a simple form for the students to fill out, it worked great.

When Twitter Attacks

I’ve been pretty pleased (and surprised) by the excitement over a recent article that discusses the use of Twitter in my US History class.  I am especially happy that there has been a healthy debate over the use of Twitter in education.

Part of ‘entrepreneurial teaching’ is engaging with things you do not like (or hate).  That’s what I did with Twitter.  I originally I thought that Twitter was the dumbest, craziest, worthless site on the internet.  I had to put that aside to give this lesson a shot and it has been a great success.  Next time you think the same way about a teaching technique or anything in general, why not try it once?  After all, if you are not trying things outside of your comfort zone / personal bias (like Twitter was for me), you’re never going to improve as a teacher.

I wanted to take a few minutes to elaborate on the article and share some of my lessons learned.

  • Just because a class is using Twitter, does not means that is all the class is doing.  I cannot believe I have to say this, but yes, people actually think that I have jettisoned the entire curriculum for Twitter.  Twitter is a supplement to our already robust curriculum.  Everything I do on Twitter is in addition to what we did last year.
  • Twitter makes learning student directed.  There is no classroom, no textbook, no review guide.  It’s openness forces (allows) students to think on their own and organically apply knowledge.
  • Students become more engaged in history when it is relevant (duh).  Since the students are, on their own, tying current news stories to themes from US History on a regular basis, it is fostering engagement.
  • Applying themes from one era of history to another is critical thinking and critical thinking is a positive.  We know history repeats itself, but do you really know how much?  It only takes a student 140 characters to relate the credit crisis in Massachusetts in the 1780s to an article from today, but that student now has (at the very least) opened the door to a deeper understanding of both events.
  • It doesn’t matter what type of student you are (quiet, loquacious, weak writer, creative, analytical, unfocused), Twitter can engage you.  I’ve seen it.
  • Getting students to think about your course outside of class is always good.
  • Some people will automatically shut off or tune out as soon as they hear the word “Twitter” – I know because I used to be one of them.
  • My Twitter assignment does not “replace” the research paper component of the US History course.  However, for those not participating can opt to do a research paper instead.  Twitter, so far, has tremendously improved my students research skills, making them more information literate.  I see this as adding to, not taking away from (since nothing has changed) the research paper component of the course.  A few mentions in an EdWeek article helps give you a ‘taste’ of my class, but don’t assume you know everything that is going on.
  • Twitter is not a panacea or a plague, but especially if it fits into your own strengths, give it a shot, you may be surprised at the results.

Get to Know Your Students Early

This summer I wrote about seeing your classes as an entrepreneur thinks about his or her target market.  This can be a very powerful tool, especially if it begins during the first week of classes.  With careful thought, and some time, an early exercise can help teachers get to know and foster an open relationship with students.

Last year one of my mentors in the History department gave me a fantastic personal learning questionnaire for each student.  She explained that she gave it to them on the first day of class and created a separate folder to keep it and other documents related to that student.  I am sure that many teachers do something similar.  I ended up using it and found it to be incredibly powerful, but not necessarily in and of itself.  Upon receipt of each form, I sat down and emailed each student to address his or her concerns, hopes, and even outside interests.  This takes a tremendous amount of time, but it helped me learn a lot about the students in my class — my target market.  A sample response would read something like this: “Dear Student, thank you for taking the time to fill out the personal learning questionnaire.  It’s great to hear that you’ve identified yourself as a visual learner.  I intend to provide a variety of resources that will play to this strength.  If you ever create any visuals that you want to share or have any ideas for visuals that the class could create, let me know.  I understand that note taking is something many students do not feel comfortable with.  I never lecture for entire periods, but we do enough note taking to help you become more comfortable with the skill as you prepare for college.  If you find yourself struggling with this, please come see me.  Kudos for making the soccer team this year.  I used to coach soccer and would love to hear from you how the team is doing.”

Not only does this exercise help me learn more about my students, but just as important, it sends a message that student feedback is personally reviewed.  This helped develop a culture of open communication in my classroom that lasted the entire year.  I give class evaluations quarterly and do a few other student reflections.  With the understanding that these are reviewed and counseled on the individual level, I received (in my mind) much more authentic feedback.

Of course I had to do my best to act on the feedback as well.  If a large portion of the class self-reports as visual learners (as the student above), I create (or provide the resources for them to create) tools that support this form of learning.  If I have someone who self-reports as a strong group leader, I give them said opportunities to shine.

Good teachers, like good entrepreneurs learn as much as they can about their target market.  They frequently request feedback and take a genuine interest in improving (or altering) their course to best maximize student learning.

Play to Your Strengths When Teaching

A basic lesson in business classes is the SWOT analysis (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats). A SWOT analysis is frequently part of an entrepreneur’s early planning. The ‘strengths and weaknesses’ part of this device forces entrepreneurs to look internally, while the ‘opportunities and threats’ are external factors. The self-reflective internal piece can help the entrepreneur leverage his or her business’ strengths while working around or improving his or her business’ weaknesses.

If you think about all of the good teachers in your building (or in your own education) you may realize that they come in a variety of stripes: the intellectual teacher, the tough but fair teacher, the passionate teacher, the empathetic teacher, and I could go on and on. The intriguing thing is that while all of these teachers have different methods, they are all considered strong educators.

A million books and articles exist explaining the merits of some type of teacher, often wondering what a world would look like ‘if everyone would teach this way.’ Well, I have a slightly different take on this. I tend to believe that each of different type of ‘successful teachers’ has found a strategy that not only meets students’ needs, but also plays to their own strengths. In fact, I am not sure that a teacher can be successful if they are not leveraging his or her own strengths as much as possible.

To make educators more self-aware, I think that every teacher should build a personal SWOT analysis. We spend so much time worrying about our students strengths and weaknesses that we often forget to consider our own. So the next time you see a book about your hair being on fire or a what makes a good teacher article come across your Twitter PLN, stop and consider if said strategy plays to your strengths. If it does – awesome try it out, if it does not tip your hat to those it does work for and move on.

Why Teachers and Administrators Don’t Get Along

Allow me to generalize for a moment: there seems to be a constant tension, especially in the public school systems, of teachers versus administration.  Often teachers feel stifled by bureaucratic measures or undermined by central office edicts.  Given my belief in the tie between entrepreneurialism and teaching, this is no surprise.

Entrepreneurs are people who reject the corporate culture in order to implement their own vision in their own way.  Corporate bureaucracy drives entrepreneurs mad because when they see problems or opportunities, the process to act on them is often cumbersome and slow (or even more likely: outside of their job description).  Being entrepreneurial means working with a persistent sense of urgency that demands quick action.  It is not difficult for someone thinking entrepreneurially to see the ‘big picture’ and strategize ways to improve a situation.  Working alone, or running a small business, allows entrepreneurial people to make the best use of their skills and somewhat idiosyncratic penchants.

However, so does teaching in your classroom.  That is what makes good teachers entrepreneurial (see Manifesto).  The problem arises, however, when teachers step outside the classroom and become employees of their school and/or district.  This entrepreneurial freedom and penchant becomes a source of tension and frustration.  It is not teachers being obstinate or insubordinate; it is simply teachers manifesting the same characteristics that make them amazing educators.  Imagine being a complete entrepreneur at one moment (in your class) and then having to step out and instantly be part of a bureaucratic machine (say in your staff meeting).  Yet despite these dichotomous realms, teachers are forced (and expected) to shift gears seamlessly.

This may sound like I am coming to a gloomy conclusion.  In fact, I do believe that as long as schools hire good (entrepreneurial) teachers, there will be tension between this cohort and the administration.  I do not see this, however, as a hopeless conclusion.  Rather, I believe these two constituencies can easily improve schools by learning to understand and embrace these differences.  If administrators viewed faculty as a cohort of hundreds of mini-entrepreneurs, they could adjust their approach and even leverage the expertise of this skilled group.

Is Grading Predictably Irrational?

predictably-irrationalI just finished reading Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely.  It’s a pretty good pseudo economics book with a bunch of interesting anecdotes and far fewer, but still meaningful, viable conclusions.  In chapter 4 Ariely discusses the ‘cost of social norms.’  The premise of his argument is that we exist in two realms: social and market.  When we adhere to social norms, we tend to do things (favors say) without placing a dollar amount on the activity.  This can include any instance, really, that does not include an exchange of money, like preparing a Thanksgiving dinner.  This social world exists independent from the market realm.  Once the idea of monetary exchange is imposed, however, the ‘free’ exchange of the social realm slinks away and is replaced with our market mentality.

Ariely notes a variety of examples, including tests of his own, to demonstrate how this theory works in practice.  For example, he describes a daycare that instituted a ‘late fee’ for parents who kept picking up their children late.  Rather than dissuade the parents, it actually increased tardiness.  In fact, it seemed the parents were more concerned with the social norm of being late than the fine.  Once the daycare imposed a monetary or ‘market’ mentality, parents felt that they had the option to be late and no longer were violating social norms.  In another example, he discusses how the AARP could not get many lawyers to offer discounted legal services to its members at $30/hour.  However, when they requested lawyers donate their services for free, thus implying a social exchange as opposed to a market exchange, they had an ‘overwhelming’ response.  In Ariely’s own study he asks participants to complete a series of simple tasks.  In exchange Ariely offered some participants 50 cents, some 5 dollars, and some were simply asked to help out (no monetary reward).  What Ariley found was that those he offered nothing worked just as hard as those offered 5 dollars.  The 50 cent group, on the other hand, completed many less tasks than the others.

Ariely goes on to make a pretty big conclusion about how this should be applied to the educational system at large (dump standardized testing, merit pay, focus on social norms like sense of purpose, pride).  Those issues are just slightly above my pay grade, though, so my immediate thought was does this apply to grading?

How many times did you hear, “is this for a grade” in your classroom last year?  Maybe I am just more sensitive to this teaching juniors (who cannot avoid the thought of those college applications any longer), but I grew really exhausted from that question.  It just seems like implicit in the student’s inquiry is a desire to get more information about the ‘exchange.’  This information then would help him or her make a rational decision to extend more (or less) effort on the activity (much like a rational market actor, no?).

Ariely says that money “is very often the most expensive way to motivate people.  Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective as well.”  I wonder how we could use social norms to engage students intellectually (I’m making a pretty big assumption that the idea of ‘grades’ roughly translates to Ariely’s ‘money’).  Since grades are unavoidable, is this even possible?  So I am thinking about setting up my own little study.  I’d create an assessment and, up-front, say three different things to three different classes: a) it counts as a quiz grade; b) it counts as 3 extra credit points on the next quiz; and c) it’s so you can prove to me how much you know.  According to Ariely’s study, I’d get the most from the students if I said ‘a’ or ‘c’, but much less if I said ‘b’.  What do you think?

Good Teachers Respond to Demand

The other day I dusted off an old copy of Steve Mariotti’s The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business.  As I flipped through the book (of course, with my nascent blog at the front of my mind), a section heading stopped me in my tracks: “HOW ENTREPRENEURS RESPOND TO DEMAND.”  In this section, Mariotti explains the story of Darryl, a young entrepreneur who started a video game rental service some time ago.  At the time, none of the video stores in his Newark neighborhood offered rentals on video games.  As a teenager, though, Darryl knew that option would be very appealing to kids like himself.  So Darryl created a business and, perhaps subconsciously, responded to the ‘demands’ of the market for video game rentals.  The business rewarded Darryl with handsome profits and his customers with an affordable way to play/try different video games.

For teachers, even entrepreneurial ones, sometimes it is easy to be caught up with ‘giving demands’ as opposed to ‘satisfying demands’ (the word demand is somewhat strong, so it may be easier to think of demands as ‘pedagogical demands’).  Sometimes I get caught up ‘giving demands’ to my students only to wonder, in retrospect, if I ‘forced’ them to spend all of their time satisfying my demands without satisfying theirs?  For me this comes as an uneasy feeling deep inside my stomach — I think a feeling that every educator feels at one point or another.

On the other hand, for some assessments/activities a real symbiotic exchange where my pedagogical objectives and my students’ pedagogical needs are both met.  Obviously, these are the exchanges need to be replicated.  Sounds easy writing it down: just teach to meet your curricular objectives and the students’ pedagogical needs.  I understand that in practice this is incredibly difficult.  The reality is that the needs of one class, well really one student, often vary dramatically (and maybe change daily?!).  So while I hope to stay more in tune with my students’ demands, I think the key is to hone in on large ‘demand trends’ among students.  For example, I see hundreds of good teachers on Twitter every day trying to adjust proactively to meet the demands of their students.  Many conversations revolve around the inclusion of social media in the classroom.  We already know that most teachers work a significant amount during summer ‘vacation’, but can you imagine if every single teacher sat down and really brainstormed different ways to respond to his or her students’ pedagogical demands before class started!?

I think a good teacher responds to the demands of his or her classroom everyday in some way.  For many, it is part of that innate entrepreneurial trait to add value, take advantage of opportunity, and satisfy demand.  Others, I think could benefit from professional development that helps them flip their ‘entrepreneurial switch’ in a very similar way that Darryl’s was by his entrepreneurship class in high school.

Scaling Your Lesson Plans

In my last job, I spent a lot of time around venture capitalists.  They often judged our business plan competitions and mentored students.  A frequent question they asked the budding entrepreneurs was be something like, ‘does you plan allow for taking your business to scale?’  In other words, are you constructing a business plan that works only in a bubble or will you be able to expand and grow it?  The merits of ‘bigger is better’ aside, all entrepreneurs want to see their business grow in some regard.  Maybe growth means serving 200 customers a day as opposed to 150 or expanding from just coffee to pastries and coffee, but some form of scaling takes place in every small business.

I feel like this entrepreneurial urge sometimes conflicts with the ultra-serial nature of some entrepreneurs and some teachers.  That spirit pushes us to create, create, create, sometimes at the expense of scaling existing lessons.  I know, for me, that is something I really want to work on.  After all, a good lesson is something that should impact the class not just on that day, but for the rest of the semester … and I do not just mean in coincidental ways, but in planned, measured activities.  Can we take a good lesson and have it affect the entire semester supporting deeper comprehension and fostering critical thought?  I almost would say that, in fact, you cannot achieve deeper comprehension and critical thought without this type of scaled lesson planning.  Looking back on some of my lessons from last year and I definitely missed some great opportunities to ‘scale’ a lesson.  By not considering ‘scaling’ these lessons I effectively kept them in a bubble and my students missed out.

Obviously, this is not something applicable for every lesson.  As I allude to above, I am not espousing something that I am some master at, by any means, but I do strive to reflect this principle.  If I look at my US History curriculum and think of it like a house, most objectives serve as the bricks of the house allowing me to build up, or scale, it into the finest little abode on the street (or so I wish to believe).  Other objectives are like the furniture of the house.  Yes, they are tangential and part of its essence, but the pieces do not necessary build off one another.  In the end, I think we want to make sure that we have a house with furniture as opposed to some furniture with some bricks.

Students Represent a Teacher’s Target Market

When I worked with high school students on their business plans one of the hardest concepts for them to understand was ‘target markets.’  Invariably, a student would choose an extremely broad market like ‘upper and middle class men under 35’ or even ‘the whole world.’  I told them they might have a very small marketing budget, imagine only $25 per month.  Where could you advertise, within your budget that reached the highest percentage of likely customers?  They would not have money to waste reaching people who were not potential customers.  For example, what percentage of people that read the local newspaper is going to purchase your custom urban t-shirt designs?  Would the readers of the local gazette find value in your product?  They slowly began to realize that they really had to know their target market, down to the detail, in order to reach them.

This type of planning is exactly what good teachers do when lesson planning.  I often come up with a great lesson plan and neglect to consider what type of student benefits most from that type of instruction; this is a huge, but common mistake.  I am sure every teacher has made this mistake least once, in fact, many I worked with made it every day.  I do not think that makes me (or them) bad teachers, but it does represent an area for improvement.  The main problem with not considering what type of student our instruction is that we cannot support the student who is not inherently wired to the type of instruction for that day.

This question inherently leads into differentiation.  This is an example of the teacher’s job being much more difficult than the entrepreneur’s is.  In fact, differentiation really turns a teacher into an uberentrepreneur.  The entrepreneur must focus on one target market; the teacher should focus on many different types of learners.  In an ideal world, we differentiate our lessons every day for every learner.  I am going to go out on a limb here and say that teachers who do this everyday, for every lesson are the rare gems of the educational world and not the norm.  For the rest of us, on those days where we choose not to differentiate on all levels, I think simply taking the time (before instruction) to recognize what type of learner would benefit the most from a certain day’s lesson it can help a tremendous amount.

I would even argue for adding a new field to your personal lesson plan template: targeted learner.  This way we could have a record of which classification is receiving the most value added from each lesson.  A quick way to do this would be to use intelligence divisions (analytical, practical, and creative).  This would allow us to look back through our lesson plans and note good (or bad) trends.  We may see that our last five lessons suited only analytical and creative thinkers.  A teacher then may be prompted to add in a lesson targeted to practical thinkers.  Also, by consciously thinking about who benefits most from a lesson beforehand, we can provide additional support to students who struggle with that type of instruction.

As a last aside, this blog entry only really discusses the lesson plan, but I think to be truly effective with identifying your target students, you really need to consider (separately) assessments as well.

Using Twitter as an Opportunity in Class

I recently wrote about being an ‘opportunity aware’ teacher and why I think it’s important in classrooms.  One opportunity that came to me only after the Whipple Hill User Conference in Boston was that of Twitter.  I am a very ‘tech forward’ teacher, but ironically have been a staunch hold out of Facebook and consistent basher of all things Twitter.  Needless to say I am now a Twitter convert (though not Facebook).

So here are some of the Twitter-related opportunities I see (for me personally):

1) all students can now carry cell phones in school
2) we’re going 1-to-1 (macbooks) in 2010-2011
3) students spend an incessant amount of time on their mobile devices and home computers.
4) Twitter offers a unique platform to aggregate different parts of the internet
5) Twitter is simple, instantly gratifying, and can be used from many different interfaces (all important to students).

I am sure that there are more, but this is what came to me at first. So the question became how can I use Twitter to enhance my classroom experience or, if I was an entrepreneur, how do I take advantage of this opportunity to add value for my customer?

Given my excitement over this opportunity, I turned to our first unit in US History. The US History curriculum (non AP) at our school starts with the present day first and then begins with pre-colonial North America.  This approach allows our team to highlight the key historical trends that we will be discussing all year with news stories that are happening today. It provides a nice level of relevancy that the students carry with them throughout the year.  Usually, as a team, we put together a plethora of news stories to make a little primer for the two-week unit.

I currently have two ideas for extending this unit, one short term and one long term.

1) short term: cut back on the number of stories that we ‘give out’ and let the students find them on their own and make brief comments through Twitter.  Use the stories and comments to facilitate our classroom discussion.  Allow, temporarily, to use cell phones (or if they are using a laptop) in class to Tweet thoughts on our discussion as we go along (that maybe we didn’t get to or didn’t want to say out loud).

2) long term: request that every student for each chapter highlight one (two?) of the key themes and then find current events stories addressing that theme.  After finding the stories they obviously have to tweet about them with a comment.  Once a month we can come together to discuss parallels, lessons learned, emotions, etc.  Each section already has a ‘note buddy’ that is responsible for taking good notes and posting them online.  I am considering making a Twitter buddy to aggregate the postings per section into a mini ‘report’ for us to use during these discussions.

Just wanted to share a practical way I am trying to take advantage of an opportunity in my school.