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The Merchant Of Twitter

16 Jun

This last week, a group of my grade 8 English students have been taking part in a production of The Merchant Of Twitter. Each member of the class signed up to play one of the characters from the play by Shakespeare, and then, for the next five days, tweeted as that character. Each day of the week was meant to correspond roughly with an act in the play. Students were asked not to use Shakespearean diction, but to imagine they were modern-day characters. I therefore styled the play as an Intertextual interpretation: the major texts being the Shakespearean play and the twittersphere. Students were asked to try to get inside the heads of the characters they were playing and tailor their tweets accordingly.

I had created accounts on twitter for all the characters, using profile pics from stills from the Al Pacino movie version, and a short biography. All characters shared a common password for ease of access. This meant that the students did not need to have a twitter account, or use their personal accounts. I set up a hashtag for the students to use, made posters for the play and alerted all faculty and students that the play could be followed on twitter. The fictitious characters were all added to a Twitter List called The Merchant Of Twitter. This allowed me to archive the tweets by using copy and paste, if the hashtag failed, which it did.

I then set up a Twoodle, a twitter feed on the class Moodle page, set to pull in all tweets using the hashtag to give students a quicker way of accessing the play. I have placed a transcript of the tweets that were made in pdf format in the Dropbox on this blog.

I was a wee bit nervous about how the project would go down. First of all, I wasn’t sure that the students would take to the project. Would it all be a bit of a damp squib? Would they tweet at all? In fact about 80 tweets were made by 19 students over the course of the five days, averaging some 16 tweets a day. The enthusiasm was not shared by everyone in the class, but it was certainly visible. Almost every morning when I walked into the classroom I was greeted by students eager to hear my reactions to what they had tweeted. I used this to emphasize how the tweets were exemplifying the personality traits of the characters in Shakespeare’s version of the play, and congratulate the students on capturing the essence of this or that moment in the play.

While the tweets did vary in quality, and not all of the class seemed to embrace the project as fully as others did, I do feel that the exercise was worthwhile. If you look at one of the tweets by the student playing Gratiano, for example, we can see that she has certainly grasped the fact that Gratiano has a garrulous nature, that he often jokes and plays the fool, and has a sarcastic tongue. Gratiano’s jokes, which punctuated the feed, were entertaining and witty.

Other students used the medium of twitter to explore the play with multi-media additions. The student who played Lorenzo, for example, used photobucket to upload a picture of the monkey that Jessica exchanges for a ring. This particular post was greeted by the class with much hilarity, and excitement, and showed ho willing the students were to explore the boundaries of the assignment.

My second concern was how the “play” would be received. Would anyone follow it? Would they approve? Within moments of sending out the link to the first day’s tweets to staff, I received a very negative response from one particular teacher. She felt that twitter was a diversion from proper study, and that the way the students were tweeting would have revolted William Shakespeare. She said she just didn’t get twitter. What shook me a bit was that this was from a teacher whom I greatly respect.

These concerns go right to the heart of the whole question of whether this project had any pedagogical value. In many ways I had prepared myself for these objections, and had been careful to stage the “play” outside classroom time. While doing it this way squared with my belief that we need to explore flipped classroom methodologies, it neatly side-stepped any concerns that my peers, or Head Of Department might have had around pedagogical worth.

Nevertheless, I do believe that the project did have value. While I am not so naive as to believe that students gained any great insights into the characters of the play, I do believe that it helped consolidate their understanding of what motivated these characters, and allowed them to explore some of the themes of the play in their own voice. In many ways this was an exercise in the power of voice in the classroom. And this is why i think the teacher who objected to treating Shakespeare in this way has missed the point a bit. I don’t think we ever really exercise our higher order thinking skills until we give voice to our understandings, and apply that understanding in new ways. To my mind a student stands a better chance of being able to explore the imagery, characterization and themes of the play in a meaningful way if they render it in their own voice, rather than simply swot up Spark Notes, for example. In any case, I leave it to you to read the tweets and make your own mind up about how much real learning they display.

I was also concerned about how other students would perceive the “play”. Would anyone follow it? I had meant for everyone to be able to follow the play using the official play hashtag, but from the very first tweet, students forgot to use the hashtag, or used alternate hashtags. I then sent everyone the link to the List tweet feed, so that everyone could read all the tweets.

I have no idea who was viewing the List tweets, because apart from the one teacher who felt the project was a waste of time, and one student who tweeted her approval of the play and urged her followers to follow the hashtag, I have no idea if anyone else viewed a single tweet. I had not really expected the “audience” to join in, so this was a very pleasant turn of events.

In conclusion, this was a project which worked a bit better than I had expected, and provided, at the very least, a great deal of fun for the participants. It is certainly a project I am going to repeat. I believe it has pedagogical merit, and as an art form has some potential. When allocating parts, I stressed to the students that in the twitter play minor characters could become the stars of the show. Indeed many of the minor characters did tweet more than the major parts. The tweet above being a case in point.

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