Twitter Literati for English Teachers

Australian English teachers have not flocked to twitter in the way I envisaged back in early 2008.

I have been guilty of spamming email distribution lists, evangelising at conferences and publishing traditional print based articles in professional journals, all with very limited success in convincing my colleagues, in any great numbers, to tweet. There are some notable exceptions, tweeple I admire greatly, like Kelli McGraw, Troy Martin, Bianca Hewes, Jo McLeay, David Chapman and others who are all passionate about their English teaching. Our cleverest practioners have quietly resisted the lures of social media for many reasons not understood by me but I somewhat ’courageously’ posit, in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense, some suggestions as to why:

  • time – they would rather do other more ‘grown-up’ things
  • not keen for the populist social media bandwagon - they never envisaged twitter would ever be as big as it is for EVERYONE and it is just too late to start
  • technophobia – many, many neo-luddites reside in English faculties
  • demographics – the average age of our teaching profession means they are just simply not online like Gen Y or even Gen X
  • the penny hasn’t dropped – people just don’t “get it”
  • what else (feel free to comment)?

This is NOT another attempt to convince my colleagues of the importance and usefulness of the site. Quite simply, it is an anecdote about twitter’s usefulness to an English teacher and a student.

Firstly, there are many writers and literary groups who are on twitter. Here’s my ‘literary’ twitter list, if you would like to check out which of your favourite authors tweet. Margaret AtwoodSteven Johnson, William Gibson aka @GreatDismal, Doug Coupland, Brett Easton Ellis, James Bradley aka @cityoftongues, Cory Doctorow and John Birmingham are some of my favourite tweeple. There are many writers of young adolescent fiction such as Nick Earls, Wendy Orr, Margo Lanagan and Penni Russon, who tweets as eglantinescake, to be uncovered here too.

Recently, a colleague brought a young student to me who was seeking feedback on ‘her book’. I mentioned this too Penni Russon via twitter and she was generous enough to assist this student with some pertinent comments about the story. The fact that Penni is a successful, published author made the critique powerful and has inspired this girl to re-draft her work with renewed enthusiasm.

Don’t panic authors, I am not suggesting every teacher in the state contacts you with their marking! ;)

There are many ways to connect using twitter and many teachers are doing that in unique ways.

What (lateral?) ideas do you have about the usefulness of twitter for English teachers?

Here’s an excerpt from Penni’s critique:

The novel has a very strong beginning and I get the sense that you are very sure of your characters and the world they inhabit. I really liked the hint of magic in the relationship between the girl and the raven, there’s heaps of potential there.

I am going to offer a few criticisms, just to give you something to think about as you develop your writing. My first novel I had to rewrite about 4 or 5 times to get it right. The novel I am working on at the moment is my ninth and I have lost count how many times I have rewritten it! This doesn’t always happen – sometimes novels come out almost right the first time. However, fantasy is particularly complex because you have to create your whole world for the reader, as well as the characters and the story, and you have to be able to manage the logic of your world (which is exceptionally tricky). Even if your world is this one (as in urban fantasy), as soon as you introduce magic or a fantasy element, you really need to build a new world from scratch and ask yourself certain questions – who else has magic? Where does the magic come from? Does your magic have rules? What are they? You need to know ALL these things, even if they are only hinted at in the novel. I get the sense from the prologue that the necklace is a magical object – what is its history? Will it work for everyone? How does that relate to the raven?

Prologue

A prologue can be a great hint at what’s going to happen in the future, later in your novel and your prologue is packed with mystery, intrigue and excitement. But they usually work best as a COUNTERPOINT or contrast with the present – eg Chapter One could give us a glimpse into Kai er Sai’s domestic life with her fake parents, before she feels the need to kill them (so we understand what them being fake means). Going from one very violent scene to another doesn’t give your reader much of a chance to identify with the characters (though I am intrigued to discover the relationship between Melissa and Kai er Sai).

Chapter One

So much happens in this chapter! It is full of blood and bodies and incident, which of course is always compelling. But at the same time I got to the end and I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to care about. Are we on Kai er Sai’s side – were her “fake parents” bad? Or is she mentally unstable and unreliable? Why did her fake parents want her so badly? If you began with a more domestic scene you could show us some of these things through dialogue and scene setting.

Her pleasure in killing the stranger makes her impossible to like or empathise with. Maybe this is your intention? But it might be a good idea for your first chapter to show the character we are supposed to care about most, the one who’s journey we will eagerly follow. When you write a novel you are asking your reader to invest time and energy into following your story, and to deny all the other distractions – other books, facebook, tellie, the radio! So you need to give them someone to care about, to want to invest themselves in. A protagonist should be flawed definitely, but we should know and understand their flaws. Bloodlust is perhaps too big a flaw to be able to truly forgive a character and care about them anyway, unless we know the reason why she takes pleasure in killing.

A few little points:

*You and I share a bad habit! We both use the word ‘but’ when it’s unnecessary. Go through and make sure all your buts are doing what they are meant to do!

*Be wary of using “Chinese” as an adjective. You need to avoid stereotypes, or they can seem racist.

*Don’t be scared to slow down and set the scene, or focus in on your character. A lot of action is great, but it can be exhausting to read about things happening all the time.

 

Who are your favourite writers who tweet?

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DISCLAIMER

The views expressed at this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

16 Comments

  1. David Chapman:

    Some real truths there Darcy. I have been trying to spread the tweets to very little success as well. However, perhaps the small community allows for some benefits, ie it is possible to get replies from people that might ignore you with much greater numbers of followers.

    As to your question about authors who tweet – you have listed my top favs in Atwood and Coupland, but I would also add Chuck Palahnuik (although it is one of his staffers) and @neilhimself (Neil Gaiman).

  2. Shireen Richardson:

    Firstly, thankyou for the suggested tweeps. I am relatively new to Twitter and have been blown away by its educational potential and by the amazing info shared by others. As a result, I have been encouraging my colleagues to try it out. You have certainly identified the reasons why many are reluctant. In the meantime, I keep emailing great teaching links (from my Twitter PLN) to my colleagues. They keep asking where I find all of this great information, particularly the fantastic IWB activities. I keep explaining ‘via Twitter’! Perhaps one day…

  3. Speaking of English and Twitter….
    It made me think of the penguin text: “Twittwiture”
    http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780141047713/twitterature-worlds-greatest-books-retold-through-twitter

    It is amazing! It tweets all the classics… Sums then up in say 20-50 tweets. All English teachers should be inspired by that.

    Imagine that as a task at school. “Tweet the novel you are reading..” it leads to clear and concise language, reflection on what is necessary to include and summarizes so it easy to remember!!!!!!

  4. Hold on, let me correct my poor spelling…..

    “Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books Retold Through Twitter”
    Author: Alexander Aciman
    Author: Emmett Rensin

  5. Excellent points Darcy, but not, I think, exclusive to English teachers. I spent quite a while last week talking to HoD CAPA showing the immediate benefits of twitter in terms of following conductors, musicians etc right across the performing arts. I showed her how much I learn, every day. Ultimately, she responded with a vague wave of the hand, and an ‘oh yes when I get time, but I’m so busy.’ Implicit here is that she’s somehow busier than the rest of us. There are lots of reasons for lack of uptake, fear, skill sets, lack of institutional support and expectations around change, fixed ideas around pedagogy and so on. Still, it is worth it to keep trying – not in the sense of proselitising so much as helping people through complex change processes – ultimately, the elearning gig is not really a choice any more.

  6. Jenny Gilbert:

    I hear you! On the time thing – I don’t have as much time as I would like – discovering things via twitter for me is a bit hit and miss – but almost every time I look at the stream there is something that grabs my attention and invariably I end up bookmarking it for later. I also have had difficulty sharing the passion for the PLN let alone twitter for PLN – time is the usual reason but so is the ‘all too hard for me’ . However I find the biggest block is a general resistance to shared learning and pedagogy. Any tips on getting a team of English teachers to be more open about their work and share it? Once that barrier is down they might then be more open to the sharing going on via twitter. Broaden that question to Victorian Secondary English teachers….where are they all? @nenifoofer

    • Darcy Moore:

      Hi Jenny,

      Some have suggested that the Australian Curriculum will give teachers more reason than ever before to share and collaborate online. Maybe this will be the catalyst that generates the kinds of professional sharing that will help children.

      • Jenny Gilbert:

        can only hope so Darcy. being in the bush makes it hard for me to lead and inspire – I rely on online networking.

        • Darcy Moore:

          Jenny, I suspect that you, and your students, will be better off now there is no real ‘tyranny of distance’.

  7. Renae Devlin:

    I read this post with great interest. I’m sure that Twitter has its benefits, but surely there are other ways to build in the use of technology in English and the wider curriculum? I’m a “Gen Y” teacher, and I tend to stay away from technologies/websites that are not accessible to all students. So Twitter in this respect is out, because it is not accessible through the portal. So for some teachers, perhaps it’s an equity issue? I can’t help but think that some of the reasons given in your article above were a little presumptuous about the reasons why teachers don’t run out and embrace every popular website that comes along just because of it’s popularity…

    • Darcy Moore:

      A good point, Renae. It is frustrating that twitter is not accessible via the portal but increasingly, students and teachers have smartphones with a twitter app (so there are equity issues). I did say ‘courageously posit’ to hopefully cover my presumptiousness ;)

      Would you consider giving twitter a go though? It is really fun and amazing as a collaboration tool.

  8. Melissa Cliff:

    Dear Darcy,

    Read your blog about Twitter. Most people think ( me especially ) that the only people on Twitter are celebrity airheads like Ashton Kultcher. Half the problem is also in the name. To ‘ twitter ‘ on about something is perceived to be to ‘ rave on ‘ about a particular topic in a boring manner. I think if educators were more widely aware of the intellectuals who inhabit Twitter you may get more serious academics ‘ Twittering ‘.

  9. Hi Darcy I think that privacy concerns and public exposure are a real concern for many. Possibly teachers fear it most by assuming that students can track their activities and interact in unwelcome ways? I get a real sense that teachers of all professions fear ridicule?

    Cheers Ruth

    • Darcy Moore:

      I think you are correct in supposing teachers are concerned with issues like privacy and the potential for public online unpleasantness, Ruth. I still would argue that one needs to engage personally and professionally with our culture to be an effective teacher. Students have the same challenges and fears one would imagine and having some adult guidance, based on experience, would be useful.

      BTW your blog looks great and has some very stimulating content. :)

  10. Hi Darcy I may be mistaken but I feel by blogging and micro blogging hopefully some kind of transparent and authentic accountability demonstrates my both my learning trail and my particular values and (possibly in a kind of reverse psychology to the concerns above) my peers may support me if and when contentions arise?

    And thank you that is beaut of course that you felt some connection, I’m just waiting for my school to be (kitchengarden) blog ready next year…I’m hoping they will say yes to a Twitter account, cheers and Happy New Year.

  11. Viviana Mattiello:

    Hi Darcy,
    I don’t know about twitter but I find that facebook is a great tool to collaborate with students beyond the classroom. I think they like the fact you can talk to them and are interested in their lives beyond what happens in the classroom and I think, perhaps psychologically, it makes them more open in real life which helps teaching itself. Something to think about (though I’m not saying just make friends with every single student on fb!):-)
    I guess it adds to the connection you already have in real life.
    Love your posts!
    viviana.

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