• Brent Kaneft

Twitter Stories Improve Student Writing

I've spent a lot of time trying to convince people that Twitter is a legitimate teaching tool. Not only does it keep me updated about new ideas in education, it is also the host of one of my favorite writing activities with students: the Twitter Story competition. Creative Nonfiction, a well-respected literary magazine, began a "Tiny Truths" competition years ago, which asked followers to tweet a true story in 130 characters (+ #cnftweet). As a teacher of nonfiction writing, I decided to subscribe to the magazine last year, then I heard about their competition and made it a weekly (Friday) assignment for my students. They wrote for #cnftweet, but we also came up with #csgstory (Christ School Greenie Stories) that we use to organize our work for our classroom competitions.

My students love this assignment. It's probably their favorite assignment all week. If I don't immediately read their stories on Friday, they get anxious and will beg me to "get to the competition." Obviously they are fueled by their competitive natures, but there's something else that's happening: they are proud of their work (many of them for the first time). They are so excited that they often don't realize that spending 20-30 minutes on one tweet is unheard of for young people, and that during that time, they are working on syntax, word choice, and punctuation rules. They are motivated, too, by sharing their work with a different audience. Participants of the #cnftweet group have given my students great feedback by simply "liking" or re-tweeting their stories. So many students have come to me, ecstatic, to tell me that a real writer gave them a "like." It's empowering.

The concept of the assignment is simple: Do a lot with a little, same as two other familiar writing exercises (and a host of others):

  • Those sonnets older generations had to write in school. 14 lines, iambic pentameter, no problem.

  • The (Mythical) Hemingway 6-Word Story: you know, "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

Parameters encourage creativity. Students are often confused by this notion. "Parameters? You're trying to stifle my creativity!" Just the opposite, in fact; without parameters or obstacles, creativity is more difficult. When you are saturated with options, like in an open-ended free write, students often find it difficult to get started; their brains are made to problem solve. That being said, too many parameters will choke the life — and fun — out of the work. In any writing assignment, stick to the basics: purpose, goal, and format. All else is free, all else is negotiable. Let your students find the solutions.

Twitter stories improve student writing because they force kids to do the hard work of revision. They write and rewrite their sentences. They change their word choice. They try punctuation they usually shy away from (like colons and semicolons). They begin to understand that grammar exists so that you can achieve the right effect within the parameters before you. Now there's a reason to master the dash, because it gives you another tool, another character, to write a better story. Of course, you can tweak the assignment: the stories don't have to be true, and you could assign small poems as well. An added benefit to this assignment is that there is no reason the teacher can't join in the fun. Write a Twitter story, let your students offer suggestions or see how it's done. Try it one week and see how your students respond.

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