Thursday, February 16, 2012

Twitter, storytelling and serendipity

It's taken me a while to get around to writing about this so, with the ephemeral nature of Twitter, it has not been easy to piece this back together but I thought it was still worth a try.

I mentioned in Say hello to BEd Bloggers that I was working with a group of BEd students and trying to introduce them to social media and creative uses of ICT. In one session I wanted to introduce them to the potential of Twitter as a means of building a Personal Learning Network and, crucially, how it is a source of rapid feedback. One of the things I did was to send a tweet at the start of the session: "Talking to BEd students just now about Twitter. Why do you find Twitter educationally useful? Please let them know."

This worked reasonably well and within a short space of time, I had replies from other students, from teachers, advisers, and a depute rector. So far, so good. My intention was then to move on to creating a "Fortunately/unfortunately" story. This is a consequences style technique where one person begins a story and then people take it in turns to add a sentence. Each additional sentence must alternate between starting with "Fortunately" and "Unfortunately". It is quite a simple idea and I hoped by starting at one end of the class and each person nudging their neighbour when they had added their Tweeted sentence, we would quickly and easily build a story with multiple authors. I hoped it would let the students be creative within the strict confines of the fortunately/unfortunately structure but more importantly, I hoped it would show the easy flow of information on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it did not quite work out that way!

Here's how the story started with a Tweet from me and the next few Tweets that were generated by the students:
I was walking to school yesterday when a tree blew over in front of me. Fortunately, it landed a metre in front of me!

Unfortunately, it hit an old women who was too slow moving out the way.
Fortunately, she had her hard hat on that her husband Bob gave her the previous day.

Fortunately, the students were all arriving for their 9am lectures and one particular student knew exactly how to save the day.
You can see how it goes. I accept that it it not going to win any prizes for literature but a story was being developed. The reason it was not going to plan was nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the lab I was in. The lab was full of old machines, with an old version of Internet Explorer, and frankly they are showing their age! Everything takes forever to do on these machines. Add to that the Internet and/or Twitter was also on a go slow that morning and my idea for a quick, creative, collaborative story-writing exercise went out the window. It took over half an hour to generate the four contributions shown above!

I felt it had all gone wrong. My learning intentions unmet and the students frustrated and scunnered by and exercise that was supposed to excite and inspire. Then something happened, which at the time I didn't fully appreciate but thinking about it later that night, I realised that while not what I expected, it was nonetheless a useful lesson.

What happened? It started with a Tweet from Christine McIntosh asking if she could join in the story telling. I replied that the story generation was intended as a student exercise but that she was welcome to join in as she felt fit.

After the second or third message had been posted by the students, one asked me, "Who's Christine McIntosh?". I explained she was a friend, a retired English teacher and Ewan McIntosh's mum. The reason they asked was that she had started pitching in:
"At the risk of being a pain, I'd say a striking first sentence is as important as a striking conclusion, whatever comes between. Like: 'The tree, when it fell, was shocking in its sheer enormity.'

Two of the first three tweets have changed the first person narrator to a third person.

#BEd2012 students: never write a boring sentence in story!

They've not hashtagged assiduously ..." 
Only four messages... but eventually I realised what a valuable contribution they had made. The story took longer to form than I'd intended but while that hadn't gone to plan, what the students got instead was a lesson in story telling from a skilled English teacher exactly at the point they needed it. In fact, never mind the students I got a lesson on opening sentences! 

So a real and timely demonstration of the value of a good Personal Learning Network. Excellent!

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