Twitter can be transformed from a social network to an educational network to teach and learn Italian language and culture by creating a language community where learners can follow experts/natives and cultural trends, using text, images and videos can share knowledge and information, and are able to converse with members of that community. Twitter is a beneficial learning tool because in brief, concise, easy-to-grasp messages, students received authentic input by reading tweets, produce written output when they post tweets, and negotiate meaning when they reply and communicate with other tweeps – all fundamental in the Italian language learning process.
Numerous investigations conducted on the merits of Twitter for education have demonstrated that Twitter has a positive impact on class dynamics, and students have commented that the learning environment is enriched by increased discussions that promote more learning of culture and vocabulary. Moreover, posting tweets help build their confidence in writing Italian because the sound bites of 140 characters reduced their anxiety and helped increase their motivation to write in Italian.
Twitter is the home of microblogging, a social network site that has approximately 310 million users monthly who post about 7000 tweets per second, and supports 33 different languages and writing systems. Twitter, born in 2006, has changed our lives for better and worse, and more often than not, what we learn we hear about it first on Twitter (think of all those newsworthy events that first broke on Twitter), even if you don’t have a Twitter account. Since many Twitter accounts are openly public, content is available, searchable on the Internet and open to people including those who don’t have Twitter accounts.
Why create a Twitter account? Because you don’t just want to be a lurker or creeper (people who read tweets and click links, but never post or engage in the conversation). To become a tweep, create a profile that has a unique username (your Twitter handle) that represents who you want to be on the social network. When tweeps want to engage you in an exchange, they will use the “@” to reply directly to you or mention you in a post. Given the volume of daily tweets (approximately 5,000,000), a #hashtag is a way to organize all the content and be able to engage in meaningful exchanges with your personal network and the Twitter community at large. Tweets have a short lifespan (only about 18 minutes) so in order to make them searchable, have a longer lifespan, and be relevant in exchanges, the #hashtag is a must. Twitter also allows for private exchanges through direct messages (DMs), and like all social media, you can like posts and share others’ posts by retweeting (RT), either directly or with a comment. Oh yes, your following. Don’t forget to connect to other tweeps. Twitter has little benefit if there is not a community of followers and following. The Twitter timeline, which is sleek and functional, is where the bite sized pieces of content appear for your consumption.
Twitter in the Curriculum: Let’s Start
Explain in the syllabus what the expectations are and how they will “count” in the grade distribution. Twitter should not be optional. I expect my students to tweet three times a week, and reply to another tweep’s post, for a total of 4 posts weekly for 15 weeks (60 tweets/semester). Tweets are to be posted on days in which class does not meet (to encourage language practice outside of class time). These tweets are graded on a complete/incomplete basis weekly and are 5% of the final grade. If students tweet more, extra posts are considered extra-credit. From the onset, the course should have a unique #hashtag – for example using #ital101 is too generic and already used by others. Personalize it to #ital1MSU.
Plan a lesson in the language laboratory (fixed or mobile) during the second week of classes. Students can use preexisting accounts, yet I encourage them to create an Italian account and identify in which they represent their Italian self. Have students share their Twitter handle by having them tweet you directly (project your notifications timeline to the class). You can follow them immediately and create a list with all the students’ Twitter accounts, so you have easy and immediate access to their tweets and so other students can subscribe to this list so they have the handles of their classmates.
Since this will perhaps be their first experience tweeting in Italian, provide them with a prompt for their first Italian tweet and give them the course #hashtag. At the elementary level, have them share three facts about themselves in Italian, based on the autopresentazioni done during the first classes: “Mi chiamo Brittany, ho 19 anni e sono di Hohokus #ital1MSU”. Perhaps that’s too simple? Have them ask a question too (ask them to ask you the instructor or a classmate from the class list that you’ll have projected so they can see them) to encourage engagement and harness the power of social networks: “Mi chiamo Brittany, ho 19 anni e sono di Hohokus. Dove abiti @pincopallino? #ital1MSU”. Now, Pinco might be a very social person and ask Brittany another question, just because he’s excited and/or curious about using Twitter in class. And then she’ll answer him, and so on… The beauty of Twitter is that conversations and exchanges are organic and develop naturally if the tweeps are wiling to tweet.
Using Twitter with more advanced language learners? An ice-breaker could include a Twitter speed-dating round, having each student ask more than one tweep a series different questions about their past, present and future (of course, the content based on the knowledge they have from past courses and these first few classes together). Asking questions in a series of tweets is fun – example questions are “Qual è il tuo film preferito @pincopallino e perché? #ital4MSU” (ask them to link the movie trailer too) or “Da bambino, com’eri @pincopallino? #ital4MSU” (ask them to include a picture) or “Se potessi essere un personaggio famoso chi saresti @pincopallino? #ital4MSU”. Responses in 140 characters or less are not intimidating and can also encourage students to learn to be concise in their responses.
To practice oral skills, have students post 30 second videos (the maximum length allowed by Twitter in the timeline). Prompt them by giving them a specific scenario (e.g., I’m a home buyer. Pretend you’re a realtor and present your home to me on your website) or asking them to share what’s happening at any point of their day (where they need to share where, what, why and/or who in 30 seconds). Twitter recently acquired Vine (ranked as the sixth most popular social media site among teens) and videos on Vine can be as long as 140 seconds, so you can assign a more elaborate task. They can create the Vine and post on Twitter, which will then post a 30 second preview, and a link to view the rest Vine video.
Why not have students post on Italian Twitterature? Students can post as a character of a novel (using a few #hashtags, one for the character, the other the title) in a creative and ludic way. They can tweet to paraphrase, interpret, examine key scenes or dialogues of the novel and compare them to current culture or their own experiences. Sound bites, yes, but teaching them how to be concise and carefully read, represent their ideas, and engage with their classmates on a fun platform can only enhance the in-class discussions and provide a deeper reading of the novel.
Have students curate lists of Italian language and culture on Twitter, from news sources to music and museums to literary or political or professional figures, as well as pop culture icons. Not only will they investigate who uses it, with what frequency, to share what information, the level of engagement with their following (by looking at replies), etc., but they can also keep on top of trending topics for these aspects of culture. Have them make these lists public to all, as it may provide additional engagement for others interested in Italian culture. These lists can also be incorporated into further course assignments and individual tasks, fully integrating Twitter into the course, creating stronger connections between social media and education.
Native speakers can either added to the language community as a class with an instructor teaching in Italy or individually. When I used Twitter as a teaching tool initially, I connected with Italians, developed a tweeting relationship for a few months, then invited them to participate in the online space with my intermediate students. The same native speakers, with little exception, engaged with some of my students for two semesters. Students were not required to tweet with the native speakers unless they felt they wanted to. And some did. A lot. Their exchanges were self-perpetuating, generative and authentic. They talked about the weather and the time difference, their family, customs and traditions, celebrations and of course, New York City. In the following year, students tweeted as part of an e-twinning project in collaboration with a fifth year high school class in northern Italy. My upper level students were engaged with native students on a weekly basis, in a more structured way, tweeting about current events and what was news worthy at the time. They spoke in Italian about Italian and American news events, comparing and contrasting their interpretation and opinions succinctly, reflectively, and enjoyably.
The suggestions here are not exhaustive and there are many other ways to use Twitter in the Italian curriculum, both in and out of the classroom. Beware! It’s easy to get addicted to Twitter as a teacher or student. One of my former students became a Twitter addict and posted 324 tweets in Italian over the course of 15 weeks, surpassing the required 60 tweets by 400%. She was taking Italian to fulfill her language requirement only and ended up tweeting in Italian for four years after the course ended. Talk about a lifelong learning tool!