I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that Twitter doesn’t look like a model application for teaching creative writing to primary school students. Up until very recently I would’ve have cocked my head to one side and said the very same too. But Twitter and its 140 character limit would prove you otherwise.
Twitter, for those of you who may not know, is an online social networking and microblogging service. Its primary function is to enable users to send and read “tweets”, which are text messages limited to 140 characters. Registered users can read and post tweets but unregistered users can only read them. At the time of writing, there are three different methods users can access twitter, these include through websites, SMS or the app for smartphones. Twitter was created in March, 2006 and in 2012 it had 500 million registered users. It has been described as “the SMS of the Internet”.
Next, let’s take a look at what you can do on Twitter. Despite the implied simple functionality that Twitter holds in the above description, it certainly does have a few uses. The first being that it provides users with real-time information that can connect you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting. In other words it has the potential to tie you to a network that suits your needs!
Twitter’s functionality of being able to provide real-time information has proved itself to be very dependable in important global news & activities. A recent example of this is the 2013 Turkish protests (dubbed Occupy Gezi), in which protestors and police clashed rather violently. This is an event I do not intend to go into all that much, but I highly recommend you read up on it. I feel that the news didn’t cover it quite well enough at the time but through online articles and social media sites you can truly see the extensive damage that had been caused by the government in this incident.
The first news received worldwide about the Occupy Gezi event was through Twitter, where 90% of the tweets made about the event came from within Turkey. Twitter was being used to spread information about the demonstrations from the ground, providing outsiders with real-time information and those who had access to Twitter information on where in the areas of protest were safe, as the government had decided to take violent, suppressive action on all of those involved. At the time, Twitter was an undeniably valuable source of unbiased information for protestors and outsiders alike. There are some more articles on Occupy Gezi are here, here, here and here. And of course, the Prime Minister of Turkey was not exactly pleased with the role Twitter played in the protests.
Twitter is also a form of microblogging, similar to mass text messaging. Imaging sending out a text to a couple of people, or a couple of hundred people, or even a couple of thousand people. The amount of people you can send this message out to is only limited to the number of followers you have on your Twitter, even then the number can be increased by using hashtags. Of course, it won’t take as long to send the text out nor will it potentially provide you with an unholy phone bill. Now imagine being able to follow the text messages of the same amount of people as well. All of these Twitter users interact with one another in a real-time environment. The idea is to be able to see everything that is happening in the world first-hand, free of the bias and filtering of traditional channels, such as the Occupy Genzi incident.
Much to many users dismay, Twitter can also be used for the purposes of marketing and advertising. The greatest example of this I can think of is the controversial Horse_eBooks account. As a lot of Twitter uses would know, Horse_eBooks was a widely followed Twitter account and internet phenomenon. The account became known for its unintentionally hilarious non sequiturs in what may have been an attempt to evade spam detectors. Exhibit A: “Everything happens so much”. However, in 2011 Jacob Bakkila took over the account and acted as the spam bot for two years before announcing it had been controlled by a human. Moreover, it was to be used as the first phase of an art project called “BravoSpam”. (More on this here, here and here.
So then, what does Twitter have to do with creative writing? Well, a surprising amount actually. Twitter allows only 140 characters per tweet, essentially the same size as a text message, or roughly 20 – 25 words. Being restricted to so few words forces you to be concise and to the point, which is a useful discipline for any writer. It puts forward the notion that if you can’t really explain something in a sentence or two then you don’t really understand what you’re talking about. A prime example of creative writing used on Twitter would be a famous tweet made by Ernest Hemingway, who wrote what is credited as the very first Twitter fiction. A Complete story in six words that encourages the reader to use their imagination to fill in the blanks: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s certainly effective, isn’t it? (More on Twitter fiction here and here.)
Finally, we arrive at the main point of this blog post: How can Twitter be used in the classroom? A surprising amount, actually. Jim Newman at Northern Illinois University uses Twitter as a bulletin board for his class, letting students know about last minute news like cancelled classes, which I, and possibly a lot of other people would agree that it’s much more convenient than relying on word of mouth. This isn’t exactly a prime example of creative writing, however, this is: at the College of the Holy Cross, assistant professor Daniel Klinghard uses Twitter to teach students to be concise, summarizing major political texts without going over Twitter-imposed character limits [Source]. I wouldn’t expect primary school children to be able to finish a political text, let alone summarise it in 140 characters (I’m open to being surprised though) but I believe this premise is a good tool for teaching children creative writing. I’d absolutely recommend this method, so long as the text and summary match the child’s ability level. We wouldn’t want their confidence being affected by having a text or story given to them that’s too advanced right off the bat.
To conclude, Twitter is something I believe to be a very interesting teaching tool with a whole realm of benefits in improving children’s literacy skills. However, teachers implementing teaching strategies around Twitter should extensively prepare for what they want the children to get out of it and how they’re going to get there. Like most teaching tools, if it’s not used properly it can be very counterproductive.
In case you’re interested in reading up some more articles related to this post, I’ll leave some links here, here, here, here and here. I’d like to know your opinion too! Would you use Twitter in the classroom? And what for?