A Crazy Idea?

Over the past twelve years, I’ve watched my students progress from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter, not to mention the hundreds of other apps-of-the-moment. The one constancy in this trend is that students are online, interacting all day, every day. In fact, most of their social lives are now taking place digitally. Sure, they still meet up for a basketball game or to go to a party, but the days of phone call invites has ended. Instead, they Facebook message or tweet each other.

This year, I finally realized that if I wanted to reach these students where they “live,” I was going to have to get with it and embrace the “classroom with no walls.” I was going to have to let go of my fears and worries concerning this un-moderated digital universe and make an effort to use a tool that most teens were already familiar with (and loving)—Twitter.

In January, as I began to outline my lesson plans for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I realized that I was no longer excited about teaching something that I’d always loved. Instead, I was bored with it, knowing that with each passing year the language and themes seem to drift further and further from my students’ reaches. I decided it was time! I was going to use Twitter… and my students were too. But how?

In an early morning, wait-for-the-alarm-clock moment, it struck me like one of those orange angry birds. My students were going to tweet as the characters from the play. Each student would assume the role of one of the characters from Hamlet on Twitter for the entirety of our study of the play (six weeks or so).

Before assigning my cool new idea, I needed to double-check that this epiphany had actual educational merit. Would it meet the benchmark requirements? It took mere moments of skimming the Florida standards to realize that it met (and surpassed) multiple standards for our curriculum. This was a one stone/ two birds situation!

Some of the standards met by this assignment are:

Using and understanding current technology

Understanding author’s purpose and perspective

Understanding cause and effect

Discovering main idea

Inference, paraphrase, and summary

Sharing with others and publishing work

Writing in a variety of styles and tones

Identifying theme and giving textual evidence to support it

Writing in expressive, reflective, and creative forms

Using Mass Media and digital technology

Creative writing skills, such as: tone, point of view, character, and writing with concision and clarity

Why Shakespeare?

First, Hamlet was already scheduled for the seniors (which made it convenient); but more importantly, Shakespeare reads much like a foreign language to my students and this assignment translates his work into their speech—the speech of digital natives.

Why Tweeting?

Twitter allows students to express themselves in 140 characters or less. Asking my high schoolers to condense pages of complicated Renaissance dialogue into a few words truly proved a challenge, but the “fun” outweighed the frustration any student felt about translating and synthesizing. In addition to requiring these higher-order thinking skills, Twitter allowed my quiet, non-vocal students to have a voice in the classroom. There was no need to raise a hand and draw attention, simply write and send a tweet electronically. There were students from four different classes interacting with each other throughout school days and over weekends. I saw students bonding as characters on my feed that I had never seen speak as students in the classroom.

Sixty students shared in the experience of reading Hamlet for the first time. Students who hated reading were suddenly intrigued to learn more about their character. “Why is Horatio always in the background?” “What do you mean Laertes is in France? What do I write about now?” “I’m dead? Do I write as a ghost?” Often, there were questions posited that I’d never considered. “Sure, maybe a ghost can tweet.” “Um, yeah, Laertes could be tweeting posts back home to his sister.” “Okay, you can tweet a final line upon dying, and ‘Oh, I die, Horatio” is fine.”

In some ways, the lessons went much further than knowledge of a great writer’s most famous work. Our Twitter feed became a lesson in responsibility. Students had to consider—some for the first time—what was appropriate for a public forum. In the beginning, this was my greatest fear—that my students would curse, write about inappropriate topics, or use the medium as a social tool, but my fears were unfounded.

In addition to learning about using social media responsibly, my students seemed to realize that “learning” and “reading” did not have to be the results of studying a textbook on a desk in a school; every second is an opportunity to learn.

Results?

The results speak for themselves. My students not only understand Hamlet, they love it. They talk about it in the hall, and other teachers ask me about what’s happening on Twitter and whether or not they can tweet as a character. My quiz grades have been higher than any in the past twelve years of teaching this piece. And perhaps the most uplifting of the results is that my students enjoyed themselves in school! They wrote tweets at midnight, on Saturday mornings, in the halls during break time, at their baseball games, and even during class. They interacted with a long-dead poet on a daily basis and came out of it with confidence, knowledge, and a love for a man whose words are beginning to fade from our language.

So, to tweet or not to tweet? The answer: tweet.

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