Twitter Provides a Teachable Moment

My Digital Journalism students have been using Twitter to follow journalists, aggregate content that fits their interests, and promote their blog posts, but today they saw the cooperative power of Twitter first hand. And it was awesome.

We have just begun a nine-week long exploration of “The Feature” as a genre of journalism. The idea is a little artificial, but a convention of journalism, I think, and worth exploring. Students read a bit about what features are and how they are organized differently from straight news and opinion writing. The next step was to read the awesome piece about real life superheros published in GQ by Jon Ronson. Students had a few tasks to perform while they read, tying the initial instructional information about features to the example. Uniformly, they loved the piece, just as my IB students loved The Psychopath Test, also by Ronson, who uses a narrative style that is simply unique and engaging.

We discussed the piece and just had a great conversation. At the end of the lesson, a student wondered aloud if Ronson is writing notes the whole time, while crackheads and dudes in rubber masks engage in brinkmanship over a 3am Seattle street corner, or if he uses a recorder.  I started to speculate, then realized that I follow Ronson on Twitter and that we may be able to use a bit o’ social networking gold to find out. Twenty years ago, when I was in tenth grade, we could have chucked paper letters into the void after an author, never to hear of them again. Today, a boy fired off a Twitter direct message to Ronson and heard back 20 seconds later.

iPhone voice memos. Amazement. Engagement. And every kid in class has an iPad to pull off the same trick.

“Do I thank him, or is that just clutter?”

“Hmm. I don’t know. Do whatever you’d like,” I replied. And so he did, owning all of the experience.

My guesses about the impact are as follows:

  • Jon Ronson got 16 new Twitter followers
  • Students saw new possibilities in Twitter that they never did before
  • Authentic learning happened – students now know how a professional records interviews and thoughts and can already do this themselves
  • Young journalists got a little more stoked on writing

A big win, easily done on a whim, happened this morning. Oh, how these technologies may transform not just what we do and how we do it, but how we think about what we do.

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