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Twitter Biographies:
Using 140 characters to sort out confusions:

This isn’t really about using Twitter – I’ve just borrowed the idea of summarising something in 140 characters because this kind of compression of information down to its absolute essentials is a good discipline. More importantly I think it can be used to help students, especially at A level, sort out things which they often mix up and keep mixing up.

From who’s who to what’s what

The idea was prompted when I wrote an article for The Historian on Anne Herbert: a life in the Wars of the Roses and the HA asked me for a twitter biography of Anne – which I wrote as

Independent, intelligent Lady of Raglan Castle, medieval Grand Design. Widowed at Edgecote Fearful at Bosworth. Her ward became king

Fitting a varied life into 140 characters was tough. I wanted to reflect that variety and give it a sense of narrative but also a slight sense of puzzle too. So it took a few goes and lots of character counting (use Review – Word count – characters with spaces. Not that I knew that so thanks to Dave Martin for saving me a lot of time).

So how can this help students? A level students can struggle to differentiate people and terms – the names don’t stick or get mixed up. The Wars of the Roses is a classic example – it’s not just that every nobleman sounds like a town just off the M1 but was Richard III Duke of York or Duke of Gloucester? He was highly popular in York and based in the north for much of his brother’s reign but was actually Duke of Gloucester – the Duke of York was his father. No amount of just telling students that gets through to some.

And then there’s Russia in the 20s and 30s – all those potential successors of Lenin who insist on mixing themselves up in my mind. And there’s the New Deal alphabet groups, English reformation legislation (Act of Annates, Act in Restraint of Appeals, Act of Six Articles, Act of Supremacy etc etc) – if your A level topic has people, places or events that are easily confused you’ll know what I mean.

So would some students benefit from either writing twitter-style biographies or definitions with the explicit aim of differentiating them?

For example, here’s my go at Richard III:

Duke of Gloucester NOT York. King’s brother, warrior, ruler of the north, royal uncle. Suddenly king. Admired, suspected, distrusted, dead.

As you’ll see I’ve built in the confusion – he’s not Duke of York – but also created a mini-story that packs a lot in. It’s a good task in itself getting students to explain each reference, virtually each word. Similarly this summary for Henry VI also covers a lot of ground in 135 characters.

A hero’s son who was far from heroic. Loved religion not war. Deposed, imprisoned, retrieved, murdered. Sad and saintly royal disaster.

Of course there’s two approaches to this – give students a set of tweet-style definitions and ask them to say who’s who or what’s what or use one or two as a model and turn the task over to them – can they write the definitions or mini-life-stories? And then send them to each other by email or twitter. And keep that ‘reducing confusion’ element live – can they build in something that challenges a confusion too? It’s surprisingly enjoyable and challenging and beats just clicking on wikipaedia.


Action Research Project

For the conclusions of an action research project led by Dave Martin on the use of twitter in the classroom [ click here ]


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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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