Ten Tips to Using Twitter in a Social Studies Classroom (Grades 6–12)

Michael L. Clark, K-12 Social Studies Teacher

Twitter is responsible for more than just popularizing the term hashtag. The social media giant has helped a new tech-literate generation connect with their friends and favorite celebrities to share anything and everything. More importantly, it’s become a hub for breaking news and an open forum for instant public reaction. Here’s ten tips to help you better utilize Twitter and its companion apps in your social studies classroom.

#1: Share Privacy Tips

Privacy is often the number one priority among parents and professionals when using any form of social media. Before opening an account to share with your class, start an open dialogue with parents and remind students that they should protect their tweets and can mute/block accounts if needed. It should go without saying, but do not follow your students’ accounts and avoid private online communication (direct messaging).

#2: Replace your Do Now with “Throwback Thursday” or “Flashback Friday”

Social media is known for trends like Throwback Thursday (#tbt), a day when users across several platforms are encouraged to share pictures and stories from their past. Beyond the clever alliterative title is a directive, a procedure. If there’s one thing teachers love, it’s procedures — they help minimize the chaos of a classroom and limit time spent off-task. Create a day where your sponge activity, bell-work, “Do Now”, or anticipatory set includes the use of Twitter. It’s a creative way to bring up current events or create a more relatable introduction to the day’s lesson.

Example: My class uses “Throwback Thursday” as a way to share historical photography and discuss events that occurred on that day in history.

#3: Explore Trending Topics

Trending topics are current events. When browsing Twitter, click the search icon or visit twitter.com/search to see the top twenty trending topics based on your location, interests, and accounts you follow. Under each topic is the amount of tweets associated with each event by hashtag or keyword. Often times, breaking news becomes a trending topic on Twitter long before news channels are able to bring the event to air. In this age of instant gratification, trending topics allow students to discuss and learn more about events as they unfold.

#4: Search and Discover Tweets to Get Full Use of Twitter’s Functionality

Because suggestions and trending topics are recommended based on account activity, the content visible to each user is highly-customized and often rather limited. While personalized content is the app’s advertised utility, the educational value of Twitter as an informational source is often lost to the interests of adolescence. For most students, basketball superstar Lebron James or socialite Kim Kardashian West is a more compelling “follow” than the American Museum of Natural History (@AMNH). To reinforce its educational value, use Twitter as a search engine and measure of public opinion when possible. Results are organized by reputability and popularity, but it helps to screen and filter results first.

For curated tweets from Twitter, you can always use the Moments feature (explained below in #6).

Tip: Twitter searches can be a great learning tool to evaluate sources, identify biases, and stress the importance of considering competing ideas.

#5: Translate Tweets

According to Twitter, its app and website are used by 310 million active users each month. 79% of these users come from outside of the United States. Currently, Twitter supports over forty different languages and thanks to a rather useful integration with Bing, tweets can be translated with the tap of a button from any mobile device or computer. Just click the globe icon to the right of any tweet in a supported language to activate Bing Translator. While the translation may not be perfect, it is better than understanding literally none of it.

How to translate a tweet:

Step One: Look for a globe to the right of each tweet
Step Two: Hover over the globe and click “View Translation”
Step Three: View the translation

#6: Share and Discuss Moments

Moments is a relatively new feature from Twitter. It aggregates tweets based on trending topics to create a storyboard for users to scroll through and stay up-to-date with the platform’s biggest stories — often news stories or controversy. Share and discuss those that might relate to your class or use Moments as an avenue to discuss current events.

Example: Moments allowed my students to catch up with the results of state primaries and breaking news that occurred overnight due to time differences.

#7: Periscope to Live Stream Extracurricular Activities with Parents or Partner Schools

Periscope is Twitter’s free live-streaming service linked and viewable from your account. The app connects users from across the world all at real-time. While I hesitate to recommend using Periscope to live-stream in-class activities, sharing extracurricular activities with parents or partner schools is a great classroom integration to share experiences and develop a sense of global citizenship.

#8: Create a Dedicated Class Twitter Account

Teacher sites and text notification services like Remind (formerly Remind 101) have become a must-have for educators — they provide direction for students who struggle to stay organized and foster productive learning habits outside of the classroom. Take it a step further with a class or teacher Twitter account. Tweet out homework and reminders, re-tweet (“RT”) links and articles, share discussion questions, and even create polls for your students to answer.

Tip: Organize your tweets using familiar class IDs or titles if you’re using the same account for multiple classes.

#9: Recommend Accounts to Follow

When students first create a Twitter account, the app recommends popular accounts to follow — mainly celebrities and sports figures. Fortunately, there are thousands of academically-enriching and historically-relevant accounts in the Twitterverse. To share them, retweet or provide a list of accounts you would like your students to follow. Avoid recommending overly-partisan or controversial accounts and look for verification before sharing (a blue check mark will appear next to the user’s name if the account is verified).

Example: I list several recommended accounts on old my teacher site — including the President of the United States (@POTUS), Library of Congress (@LibraryCongress), National Archives (@USNatArchives), and National Parks Services (@NatParkService).

#10: Use Twitter to Develop Habits at Home

One of the reasons cell phones are banned from many classrooms is the average student’s inability to compartmentalize the utility of their smartphone or tablet. These devices and apps can be used to create engaging lessons that utilize technology in a meaningful way. However, for the majority of the school day, they are used as originally intended — for communication and personal entertainment. This is not a criticism of the student; this is an understandable reality of the digital age.

As educators, we have a responsibility to foster habits and skills of “life-long learners.” It’s a buzzword that’s been repeated ad nauseum, but it remains just as true. I don’t expect students to love history. But, there is something within the wide scope of the discipline that interests them. Encourage the pursuit of those interests at home in a way they know best — social media. Show your students that their phones can be used for more than selfies and sepia-toned pictures of plated food and sunsets. Show them how.

Don’t be afraid to stay current. Be involved, be professional, and have fun!