January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Meaningful Thinking in 140 Characters or Fewer

Posted: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

by Jill Grace

I’ve learned the hard way that I will get “huffs”, eye-rolls, grunts, and the occasional nuclear meltdown from students if I ask them to summarize their learning in, dare I say it, a paragraph. It’s as though paragraph is a bad word and how shocking that I would ask for one in science class! I even get slammed with questions: “How many sentences to I have to write?” (why are we still asking that question in middle school?), “Do I have to use complete sentences?”, and “Do I really have to write a whole paragraph?” *teacher sigh*

First and foremost, I am a huge advocate of having students produce writing in a science class. I will also admit that this can be a challenge, and so the year that I decided to make the shift to an interactive science notebook it was glaring at me. I would be asking students for writing as a vehicle to share their thinking (in what we refer to as “outputs” in the notebook) all the time. Although we wouldn’t be able to avoid the writing, sometimes I may want to ask my students to share their thinking in a way that will avoid the drama that asking for a paragraph can sometimes generate. (Incidentally, this was all prior to implementation of the Common Core Standards – where anecdotally, in just one year, I’ve seen a big shift in student acceptance of writing outside of language arts.)

Switching to the interactive notebook is when I started to get creative. I greedily snatched up every thinking map I could find. I realized that poetry could be used, even brief poetry. To try and summarize what you have learned in the form of a haiku? Deceptively difficult to do well. How about a concept acrostic? You have to dig deep for that.

And then there was that beautiful day I came across this comic and the wheels started turning:

Great Tweets of Science from Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham

Great Tweets of Science from Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham

I could ask the kids to make a Tweet!

The first time I tried this was when we were knee-deep in genetics and the kids were learning a bit about Gregor Mendel. They were working on an assignment asking them to make sense of his contributions and I decided to have a Twitter “throw down” (a friendly competition for the best work in the class – the winning Tweeters earn extra points).

If Twitter existed in Mendel’s day, what would he have Tweeted?

Tweet requirements:

  • Profile picture
  • Name
  • User name (@…)
  • No more than 140 total characters (includes spaces and punctuation)
  • Date and time stamp

Things that are allowed:

  • Hashtags are #awesome
  • Location allowed
  • Retweets allowed
  • Tagging other users allowed

Here are some of my favorites (minus profile pictures):

Gredor Mendel @daddygenesluvspeas
OMG just found out that parents pass 1 factor of a trait to offspring and 1 is masked! #peasarelife #iambetterthanalbert @alberteinstein
1/22/1860, 12:17 PM
(I didn’t have the heart to tell this student Einstein wasn’t alive yet)

Gregor Mendel @fatherofgenetics
Fact of the day: traits don’t blend #peasfordays #plantlyfe @officialprofessorfranz
4/16/1859, 10:30 PM

Gregor Mendel @monkbiologist
Me: what’s up? My child: just the water flowin’ up my xylem #mykidsarecrazy
11/19/1859, 4:07 PM

Gregor Mendel @geneticsgenius
After lots of work I have discovered traits don’t blend #recessive #dominant BTW my book is out #2principleslaws #readit #youwillthankme
11/14/1866, 3:43 PM

Gregor Mendel @peamonk
Purple + purple = white? #mindblown #peasoupfordinner
5/10/1865, 4:30 PM

This went over so well that I recently asked my students to make tweets to show their understanding of the discovery of the structure of DNA and the scientists involved. This time, I was able to snap some photos for you:

When I ask my students to make Tweets – I see them bursting with enthusiasm. They are so excited about what they have done that half of them find it impossible to sit in their seats, they have to get up and show all of their friends. I’ll take that kind of learning excitement any day! Oh, and it’s also a great formative assessment tool!

Final advice: as with all great power, use it sparingly. To keep students interested, save it for just a couple of assignments in the year when you want to do something to pique engagement.

There are countless ides such as this that can be used to give students a forum to reflect on their understanding. I have to give a tremendous shout-out to my colleagues on our California Middle School Science Teacher Facebook Group for bringing their brains together to reflect on meaningful thinking and helping to compile a great resource called the “Output Arsenal.” This is a collection of possible “outputs,” such Tweet. This resource can both inform teacher planning and also be used directly by students when asked to do outputs. CSTA members can access this resource on the CSTA website.

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is the President-elect for CSTA.

2 Responses

  1. Love it!
    One little caution: It may be hard to believe, but kids from low income non-English speaking households may not tweet or even have mobile phones.

  2. Susan, that is such a good point and so true! That’s one of the reasons the structure is explained to the kids first. I didn’t mention it in the article, but I also screen-shot tweets to show them as examples too.

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