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Experiments in EFL Writing: Twitter, Tweetchat, & Blogs

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This is Episode 3 in a series on combinations of technologies & tasks I’ve never tried before with college students in a writing class. In this post I’m going to outline a very cool week (well, 3 hours) of writing classes. This is Part 2. Additionally, I wrote about the beginning of this coolness here, because it felt cool at the time. And it feels cooler now.

First a rant

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Image courtesy jamphong at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

First a rant. I seem to read a blog post or two every day written by classroom ‘technology’ naysayers throwing a ton of beautiful babies out with their bathwater. You’ve probably read them, too. Well, I’m sorry, but if you’ve given up your moleskine-bound sheaf of unlined pages, or your spiral notebook with its bic pen tucked by its cap into the top coil, in favor of BLOGGING with the technologies you spend most of your time and mental energies with, congratulations on developing your techno-linguistic literacies, and for being clever enough to not use too many useless tools in the process, and to uninstall/block the ones you decide aren’t much use… Our students need to develop L2 proficiency mediated by the technologies they use in their non-school lives.

As you skim my week in review, please think about things you might have done differently, and if you have time, let me know what you come up with, or wonder about, in the comments. Thanks in advance.

1. Review

In those links above you could read about how my lowest-level frosh university students and I started the semester by getting class-specific twitter handles, and using Tweetchat on phones (mostly) to ask and answer some introductory sentences. My plan, loosely, was to develop sentence and paragraphing skills via introductions, physical descriptions, personal stories, and other narrations.

2. The story so far

Then we all registered as users of a walled-off sub-domain of this WordPress.Org site, and students interviewed each other via twitter and wrote up profiles of their partner for the site. Then they used pics on their phones for a describe and draw, took pics of each other, and wrote up descriptions with the pics so I could learn their names better Embarassed

— in reflecting, I realize that when I try this again, I’ll make it a blog-based guessing game with their guesses in the comments to the description, and the photos uploaded afterwards as edits to the post by the post author — 

The “gamifying” the task creates a more authentic writing purpose, above and beyond the “only interesting because I’m doing it on a blog about a pic I took” description written for the teacher, which is where it stopped this semester.

We moved into narration by storyboarding our activities of the past 24 hours. Again I failed to take advantage (a few minutes of visualizing the lesson beforehand would have helped, ahem) of the material they produced because I had them write sentences about each pic they drew… It probably would have generated more interest if we had stuck them on the walls and walked around writing sentences under whichever ones we wanted to, or at lest traded storyboards and worked out somebody else’s 24 hours.  Anyway — there’s always next semester.  For homework I asked them to post a pic of a favorite childhood memory, and write the story behind it.

The pics and output were generally cute and fun, but underwhelming from content and accuracy perspectives, which is where the following sequence comes in to play. In among all these student-centered project moments this semester I’ve sprinkled teacher-fronted language development sessions ranging from 10 to 20 minutes, based on the material they produce on the blog. We’ve dealt with fanboys, subordinating conjunctions, aspects, SVO, temporal connectors in a mostly “just in time” fashion, in hopes that some of the students will help themselves and others start to notice and make alterations to their English.

3. 1st hour

The class meets for 1 hour on Wednesdays and 2 on Fridays. At the start of class Wednesday students formed four groups, to which I assigned a TWEETCHAT hashtag.  I had assembled four sets of “Fairytale Dominoes” from Hadfield’s Intermediate Communication Games. Originally a speaking activity, I added a pretty structured integrated skills element to it a few years ago, in which groups pass a paper around, writing the previous speaker’s story contribution before coming up with their own, and retelling the story yada yada yada. This time I allowed them to speak Korean with each other if they wanted to, but eventually each group member must choose their picture domino and tweet their own contribution in turn.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that 2 of the 17 learners appear utterly lost. 1 of them needed 30 minutes of the 50 to understand that her email address is not the same as her twitter handle, both of which she had chosen. Her group members were unable to help her either, but not too bothered about, even though their group’s output suffered in terms of quantity. I should add that a light went on when I sat down next to her with my Ipad and helped her take the final step. When her group’s story actually appeared on her phone’s browser, something clicked. The other student played her part in her group, typing English sentences (albeit with simple present sentences #pleasedsheuseda3rd-person’s’). The results looked like this:

A story on Tweetchat
A story on Tweetchat

I guess this is why some folks use www.storify.com, to resequence the tweets, but we were all pretty engrossed in what we were doing, and no one seemed to mind that the stories went up instead of down…

As they created their stories, I noted that their were three laptops and two Ipads in addition to all the phones. One of the primary motivators for all the keying I’m asking learners to do is that their exit exam is computer-based – they need to internalize the keyboard, or at least the keys, and it’s interesting to see the number of larger devices increasing.

4. And then I discovered…

On the Ipad I could monitor all 4 story-chats at the same time and in real-time in Hootsuite, or on the class PC in Chrome via Tweetdeck, and it looks like this:

4 tweeted stories in tweetdeck.
4 tweeted stories in tweetdeck.

Maybe you’re thinking, well d’uh! But this was just something that came to me towards the end of that hour — I could see how each group was doing without hovering over them (see my personal teaching practice goal for this semester here), know who’s making what kind of mistake, address a particular student or her group as I judged best — just WOW!

5. In between classes (I can see CLEARLY now…)

For anyone not familiar with Evernote Clearly, you can see the desk lamp image above in the Chrome extensions in the screen shots above.  In between classes I spent three minutes total applying Clearly to each of the four tweetchat feeds, so that each looked like this. I printed each, and highlighted issues with tense and number very quickly.

tweetchat clearly

6. Friday (2 hours)

Wanting to work sequencing and past tense structures a bit before revising and finishing the stories, I brought in a couple of the storyboards from the recent edition of Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities. The groups wrote narratives of The Fox and the “sour’ grapes, and then we put a group one on the screen with Microsoft Word. This was a t-fronted 20 minutes in which I heard from every student, elicited a ton of correction from many students, got a lot of spontaneous participation — I was very pleased and surprised by the amount of relaxed, easy, and smart student interaction.

We repeated the procedure with a “sleeping beauty” storyboard that activated schema from Wednesday’s storytelling. I distributed the “Clarified” tweetchats and monitored the students as they fixed problems and rewrote bits. Then they added a bit more to their stories (none finished on Wednesday), and for homework I asked all of them to write their own version of the story — with each ending the story in the way they wish.

This week we’ll probably put the stories on the wall and choose favorite endings, or something like that. Or they can draw story dominoes for another student’s ending. Everything written must be read for the right purpose.

7. Conclusions

Overall, I’m quite pleased with how things developed last week. I’m acutely aware that I made a lot of it up as I went along, but that’s what exploratory practice will do for ya. Still, had I planned even a little bit more carefully, the better ideas that arrived as I was reflecting may have arrived while I was teaching, which is as it should have been.

What would YOU have done differently? Or what have you already done with Twitter?

 

Experiments in EFL Writing: Twitter, Tweetchat, & Blogs
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