DUNKERQUE Seated in front of the family computer, with his mother watching him, Lucas, 7, let his 30 Twitter followers know that "my cousins Eva and Léa are coming to my house tonight." It's just like he does at school. In 2010, Lucas was a pupil in the first primary school class in France to use Twitter to learn how to read and write.
Still far from the mainstream, especially in the rather traditional French education system, the introduction of Twitter is nonetheless spreading fast among teachers. As of Sep. 1, the website Twittclasses.posterous.com listed 81 French-speaking twittclasses, about 50 of which were located in France.
In Lucas' class, none of the students, and only a few parents, knew about Twitter when the teacher Jean-Roch Masson introduced the new school project for 2010 with the declaration: "We are going to be the journalists of our own lives."
Every morning, one or two pupils are in charge of posting the first tweet of the day. However, before posting it, he or she needs to write the sentence in his or her exercise book, get it corrected, type it on a shared digital document and copy and paste it in the software managing Twitter. The short message then appears on the smartboard on the classroom wall, along with messages from followers of the class. When a new tweet addressed to them appears, the whole class can get over-excited. "I had to set up a few rules," the teacher says. "They wanted to stop everything to read the messages and reply."
In addition to the tweets suggested by his pupils, Jean-Roch Masson uses Twitter for new kinds of exercises: creating portmanteau words, discussing a word, solving math problems... or even playing chess with Amandine Terrier's class hundreds of miles away.
Terrier launched the first primary school twittclass in 2010 to comment on a school trip to Paris. Parents could follow the tweets posted by their children from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre. The experiment should have stopped there, but when the same pupils arrived in her class the next year, the first thing they asked was "Teacher, when do we tweet?" To respond to this motivation to write, Terrier decided to use Twitter as a learning tool for civics projects, and to communicate with schools abroad.
"Those experiments were launched in very specific contexts," says Gérard Marquié, a member of the French National Institute of youth and popular education. "They are all located in rural, middle-class areas or in vocational schools. The pupils' situation encourages teachers to work on ways to motivate them, and open up."
Stéphanie de Vanssay, a member of a teacher network for kids with learning difficulties, says Twitter makes pupils see that reading and spelling is not just about getting good marks at school. "Just writing a line makes no real sense, but writing it for someone does," she says.
According to the psychologist and therapist Yann Leroux, the success of writing on Twitter can be explained by the digital medium's ability to break down inhibitions. "Children quickly learn that something written on paper stays whereas on the Internet, things can be erased. It avoids the guilt a mistake can provoke, and allows you to try new things without fear."
Not being afraid is one thing, but the pupils are also taught to be cautious. To avoid any trouble linked to social networks, each twittclass has created its own code of conduct. Jean-Roch Masson's class decided it would only go on Twitter "with a parent or the teacher to read or write." Pupils need to be "polite and nice" and not to give their "address, password or anything regarding their private life."
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