The Wonderful and Frightening World of the TwitterFall

On The English Language List I’ve mentioned Twitter a couple of times in an attempt to foment some more interest among the English teaching community. I mentioned using Twitterfall and a couple of people asked me about it. It’s a subscription list without a public archive, so since I can’t link you there I’m just going to copy and paste some relevant bits.

I signed up for Twitter back in 2007, and like most people who are new to it, I really couldn’t see the point. It wasn’t until about a month ago that I started using it in earnest, and I’m now kicking myself for all that wasted time.You probably couldn’t fail to have noticed the splash that Twitter is making now in the media, much of it withering in its contempt, but mainly from people who just don’t get it. It really is something that you can only understand by participating, and that means throwing yourself in wholeheartedly.

I have also successfully used some twitter tools in the classroom. I had a great English Lang lesson last week using on the interactive whiteboard to provide a ‘race against time’ element as the group found linguistic comments on tweets before they fell off the bottom of the screen. Language and technology was an obvious focus, but we also had gender and power comments coming through, and all the linguistic methods covered.

Then someone asked:

I’ve had a look at, got myself a twitter account and am currently revisiting Language and Technology. The posts about this site and how to use it in lessons sound interesting: has anyone got any specific lesson plans or activities I could use, just to get started?

To which I replied:

My advice would be, just get started. Get Twitterfall up on screen, then get kids discussing what’s there and why it’s as it is.

You can alter parameters such as the rate at which tweets display from the panel on the right, and if you want to pause the flow to spend time on a particular tweet you just need to move the cursor over the tweets and the stream is automatically paused.

Among the things we looked out for were:

graphological features (eg. use of hashtags ie. # followed by a term to allow following a particular topic (you can also filter the twitter stream to look for a particular topic from the left hand panel) and the @ sign to denote a user-name); symbols used linguistically eg. = >

lexis – abbreviation, clipping, initialisms & acronyms; lots of field specific lexis (not just related to tech)

grammar – tendency towards elliptical structures because of 140 character limit

discourse structure / pragmatics – evidence that a tweet is part of a wider stretch of discourse eg. response to a question; deictic features – reference to time or place

Oh – there was loads of stuff. It went down a storm. What’s really cool is when you have a big enough network to request some live tweets aimed directly at the class. I got three when I did this last week: 2 from the States and one from an ex-pupil who’s now a journalist. She’s just tweeted that she’s working on the story of the Doncaster man who followed his sat-nav over a cliff-edge. He won’t tell her where he lives. Perhaps he doesn’t know.

(I’m always up for hearing about any other ideas or tools for using Twitter in the classroom, by the way…

Etherpad works – even last lesson on Friday

On Saturday I was going into a concert at which my son was playing when a sixth-former from my General Studies class came up to say, “That was a great lesson yesterday, sir.”

Now I’ll be willing to venture that those words have not been uttered too frequently with regard to General Studies which sadly does not enjoy the most positive of reputations among our students. So what pedagogical fireworks on my part gave rise to such enthusiasm?

Sadly, I can’t claim much credit at all. It was down to the simple genius of etherpad.

A large proportion of the class knew that they were on their last lesson before dropping the subject, so I was on a hiding to nothing trying to engage the whole class. So I allowed them the choice of getting on quietly with work for other subjects, or joining me on etherpad to work on a past paper essay question.

There was quite a buzz in the room as students cottoned on to what was happening. You can get a flavour of what happened by looking at our etherpad here. You can access the chat transcript too, which is where most of the work went on. It took a little while for them to get into what was happening, but I was pleased that it didn’t degenerate into MSN style chit-chat: they stayed pretty focussed on the task most of the time. The students were particularly impressed by the fact that we were joined towards the end of the session by Melissa, a teacher from Virginia, USA, after I’d tweeted a quick invitation for anyone free to join us.

(Another dead simple, yet powerful web2.0 tool…

Give me a lion or a witch, anyday

But never again a flatpack wardrobe from MFI.

Actually that’s not going to happen anyhow, as they’ve gone bust. No wonder.

I had to return to the shop to get a packet of fixings that had been left out of one of the eight (count ’em: eight!) boxes that the thing came in. Then I had to redo almost every stage at least once as the instructions were so hopeless (and my practical skills so unpractised) that I couldn’t tell which size of screw was supposed to go where, and which way round the top and bottom panels would be, and on, and on, and on.

So all the school related work I wanted to get cracking with today has been shunted back to tomorrow. Some of that had already been shifted from last week. And that’s before even considering all the usual household stuff that didn’t get done today.

(Work-life balance? Pah…

Of Gyro-Mice and Men

Last week I took my Y11 English class into our school’s new(ish) virtual media room. It’s kitted out with a stereoscopic projection system, and I wanted to use a piece of software on Of Mice and Men that I’d seen briefly demonstrated at an after school CPD session recently.

The package by Reachout Interactives, called Mindscene is based on a mindmap, but allows you to travel along the various branches of the map, interacting with elements in it as you go. Key quotations can be heard spoken by actorss with authentic accents (handy for us in the UK), there are question-mark icons periodically that offer discussion prompts, and bulletin boards are placed at various strategic points where you can add your own comments or post images. If students had access to the software on the school network I could envisage this fgeature being used effectively as an assignment planning tool, as I believe you can pull out the content of the bulletin boards as a document file.

I’d had cance to spend a few minutes familiarising myself with the software and how to control it. The package can be used on a regular pc monitor and it would be better to have installed it on my own laptop to get to know the content beforehand. Controlling the movement through the virtual landscape using the gyro-mouse (a wireless contoller with an internal accelerometer that converts movement of the hand to control movement on screen) was beyond me, at first. As it turned out that was no bad thing. The opportunity for my students to laugh at me is one they always seize with relish. It led to a relaxed, humorous atmosphere from the off (the gawky 3D glasses are quite an ice-breaker, too), and fortunately our tech-guy Tomek was on hand to step in and do the controlling for me. This allowed me to focus on the content, using our explorations to prompt questions, comments and discussion.

The students, a lower set group with a couple of fairly disaffected members, were engaged throughout the 45 minutes or so that we spent using the software. I was really impressed with the recall that that they showed even though this was a first revision of a text we studied last year. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have got the same response in a regular classroom revision session.

The 3-D effects are pretty much a novelty rather than a genuinely functional feature (software that I’ve seen demoed for Geography and Biology that allows virtual tours of landscape feaures, or body organs was more obviously useful in a practical sense). Nevertheless, the effect of being visually and aurally immersed in the content we were considering certainly had a positive effect on the engagement of my students, and I think the subsequent writing task they have had to do has benefitted from the experience.

(Must get my wrist action sorted with that gyro-mouse, though…

The twipping point


This is a late-night, very tired post. But it’s a nice, energised tired, not the weary crushing type. It may have taken me many years, where others cotton on in days or weeks, but I think I’ve finally reached the point where I can be optimistic and feel that I can begin properly to integrate my personal interest in technology and learning into my everyday practice.

This is happening (if it is happening – I hope it’s not just another false dawn) largely thanks to the power of Twitter to open up an expanding network of fellow teachers, learners and other people from a range of backgrounds and disciplines.

But for the inspiration, ideas and most importantly the confidence and enthusiasm I’ve gained over just the past couple of weeks since using Twitter regularly, I wouldn’t have got round to doing my first video podcast. I wouldn’t have entered the web conference blogged about in my last post, or joined last night in the EdTech Roundup Flashmeeting (though neither my webcam nor microphone were playing the game so mine was a rather marginal participation!) And I wouldn’t have got round to setting up an edmodo account and started to use that with some of my students today.

(Exciting times…twitterrepliesedmodo

I’m a novitiate webinarian

Today I took part in my first ‘webinar’. (As an English teacher I love creativity with language, but that particular blend doesn’t do it for me. I referred to it as an edumeet in a tweet afterwards, but I don’t think that’s any better. Offers?)

I hadn’t planned to take part, as I didn’t know it existed, but a couple of tweets linking to the Classroom 2.0 live show got me curious and I went along, downloaded the Elluminate web conferencing plugin and signed myself in.

The founder of Classroom 2.0, Steve Hargadon writes:

We strive to make our shows very beginner-friendly, and if you’ve never participated in a live web meeting, don’t be afraid to come and take a peek at the show’s format. We would love for newbies to join us and ‘dip their toes’ in the conversations until you feel comfortable enough to ‘jump in the conversations with both feet’! We want to encourage “experienced Web 2.0 users” to join us and contribute and extend the conversation by providing real-life examples and tips/suggestions.

And that was exactly what we got. In total around 130 people were on board, mainly from the States, but as we were invited to place a virtual pin on a world-map I could see that there were three or four of us in the UK.  As it happens, this week’s topic was Twitter, so it was right where I’m at. As the hour unfolded there was a continuous stream of text chat, with people sharing questions, answers, observations and links, while the audio stream and shared desktop space were largely occupied by one of my early Twitter follows, Rodd Lucier (thecleversheep on Twitter) who offered an imaginative and informative introduction to Twitter, supported by a beautifully put together slide presentation shared direct from his desktop to the Elluminate whiteboard space.

With the meeting going ahead on my laptop I was able to look, listen and learn, and even make a tentative contribution or two in the chat room, while responding to a call from my wife to make coffee, and then waking my daughter from her afternoon nap. Maybe, on a Saturday, I should have devoted more of my attention to those activities, but I was so excited by the new experience and by what I was learning that I didn’t want to click the ‘close door’ button, that shows you’re away, even for five minutes. In future, maybe I’ll be less avid, secure in the knowledge that each week’s show is archived shortly afterwards at the Classroom 2.0 Live website.

So, I found this a great way of stepping up my own learning. What about the possibilities for using tools like this in my own practice as a teacher? One idea that immediately springs to mind is that many colleagues offer revision and support sessions after school. Although I’m resistant to the idea that this kind of extra (unpaid) help should be seen as a right by the students, or as an expectation on the part of teachers, there are occasions when I have done this in the past and would want to do so again, but with a young daughter to collect from nursery it’s not possible. I could certainly see this kind of online audio conferencing with the ability to pull up documents, presentations, websites and the like being a way of extending the learning as I see fit, in a way that suits the time I’ve got. I think it would be more efficient than the sometimes lengthy email exchanges I sometimes get into with students, when I get far too hung up on proof-reading and editing my writing before hitting the ‘send’ button so that an explanation that might take five minutes talking can use an hour of my time on the keyboard.

I also think that an awful lot of wasted time in scheduled school meetings could be replaced by targeted collaboration between relevant staff, meeting online at a time to suit them.  I’d be interested to hear from anyone who uses web conferencing tools in this way.  All I need to do now is overcome my ‘introverted’ personality trait, suggest it to some relevant people who might be sympathetic to the idea, and see if we can’t get this particular ball rolling.

(It’s time to try and make things happen rather than just grumbling that they don’t…

I had a tweam…

Despite my personality profile having labelled me a ‘dreamer’ I actually very rarely have dreams that I’m aware of. However, last night I dreamed that someone blogged that my first three posts were a perfect illustration of all 31 tenets of bad blogging in Drew Wheelbarrow’s definitive list on

Perhaps this was my subconscious warning me to temper the navel gazing a little. So instead I’m just going to share one of the, admittedly fairly commonplace, things I’ve been learning about lately.

Twitter looks pointless at first but is perhaps the most useful online tool I’ve encountered. I first opened an account months ago but fell into the common trap of thinking it was no good if you didn’t have already existing contacts to hook up with, and that even then it probably had little value unless you could tell eveyone that you were having a better time than them. However, after an initial flurry of activity using it to follow the Tour of California cycle race (#atoc) I’ve cottoned on to what it means to begin building a Personal Learning Network (PLN) using Twitter, thanks to the likes of twitter4teachers, @MrTweet and @Twitter_Tips.

There’s a bit of new language and etiquette to be learned, and I’m still a raw newbie, but as can be gleaned from the hashtags and @signs, I’m getting drawn in. Follow me @AntHeald.

(Or not, as you choose…

An embarrassment of riches

One of the problems I have with webby stuff is that there are just so many tools, and I’m an inveterate tinkerer.

Over the years I’ve had a go with my own websites using raw html, FrontPageExpress, FrontPage and a bit of Dreamweaver. I’ve used WordPress, Edublogs and Google Sites for school blogs and class sites, and recently had a play with Posterous. Now we’ve got Frog as our school VLE and feel I need to get to grips with that, but I find it a bit clunky and unreliable at the moment, so I’m wondering whether to persevere with it, or whether to go down the route of using my own fledgeling website as a kind of portal for my classes, linking to other services and to files on Frog as I see fit. And if I do that, what do I use to maintain the site? I’m having a look at Joomla, and wondering whether to get more familiar with Dreamweaver.

The problem is, of course, that the more I mess around, the less time I’m spending focussing on content and interaction which really should be all that matters.

(Thing is, I much prefer finding out how to do stuff than actually doing it…

You may say I’m a dreamer…

I was sitting in the staffroom at lunchtime last week, chewing the fat both literally and figuratively, when I got the “student at the door for you” call. Usually it’s someone handing in work, or offering excuses for not doing so, but this time it was a sixth-form student that I’d taught in Year 9, but not since.

Exactly what prompted his visit, I don’t know, but it seemed he just wanted a general ‘picking my brains’ kind of chat. He was asking me how I got such a wide vocabulary (I recall when he was in my class he would always ask me the meaning if I used a word he didn’t know); what kind of things did I read; he’d heard I wrote some poetry (something of an exaggeration) and could he see some; what made me want to be a teacher. Over the course of just fifteen minutes or so we touched on theology, the new physics, politics and economics.

It was a conversation that was both a little flattering, but also challenging and somewhat humbling. I think one of my colleagues had pointed him my way to avoid having such a conversation himself. The young man was very apologetic about taking all my time when the bell went for afternoon classes, and was surprised when I told him that such conversations are one of the things that makes doing my job seem worthwhile. He obviously looked up to me as some kind of paragon of knowledge, but as I was talking I was acutely aware of how little I really know of many the topics he wanted to know about.

Engagement of that type: the building of relationship through sharing exciting and challenging ideas, and being challenged to substantiate and develop your own position, is at the core of what I think education should be be. Yet, as on that lunchtime, it seems to me that most of the formal structures and processes of education marginalise such engagement to the periphery. I don’t have conversations like that as often as I’d like in timetabled lessons, that for sure.

Feeling, as I often do, frustrated by my inability either to make myself work as effectively as possible within the system, or to bend it in the direction I believe it should go, has me thinking a lot about how others think and work (hence my voracious trawling around the edublogosphere of late) and about what I could do to make my strengths work for me and the people I live and work with, rather than continuing to feel and think like a parenthetical clause that remains open-ended, stacking further sub-clause within embedded clause, drifting further from the main text from which the bracket was opened.

Serendipitously I was thinking about the degree to which our personality type is fixed or malleable, and whether I’m just doomed to be the sort of person who reads and thinks a lot without doing much when one of the most inspirational edubloggers I’ve come across – Doug Belshaw – posted about the Myers-Briggs personality type profiles. I’ve done similar tests before and always come out as INFP – the ‘idealist’ or ‘dreamer’. I wonder, though, to what extent such tests are something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: whether I avoid the challenge of changing myself by answering the questions in such a way that my sense of self is simply reinforced.  When I fail yet again to do the simple practical stuff that most people seem to find easy, I can just say – “Ah well; can’t be helped: I’m a dreamer, an idealist, a visionary.”

There does seem to be something in the personality type profiles, though. Unlike star-sign profiles, for example, I can’t read any of the other type profiles and uniformly go ‘yes – that’s me’ in the way that I do with descriptions of IFNP traits. The passage that most struck a chord with me from one of the type descriptions I read was:

The INFP needs to work on balancing their high ideals with the requirements of every day living. Without resolving this conflict, they will never be happy with themselves, and they may become confused and paralyzed about what to do with their lives.

I guess this blog is yet another attempt at finding a way of working through that sense of confusion and paralysis.

(An attempt at closing the parentheses…