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Mobile Technology and Social Media Access Inspires Student

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English teacher Heidie Caraway is changing the way she teaches, engaging more students than ever before.

A high school junior had something perceptive to say about “The Great Gatsby,” and wanted to share those thoughts with a graduate student at the local campus of the state university.

So the teen sent — what else? — an Instagram, a social messaging app used by millions of people, especially the young, to share snapshots with their friends and the wider public.

Using the name “vibehscs1” for anonymity, the student sent a photo of an inspirational poster that read, “Destiny is not a matter of chance. It is not a matter of choice. It is not something to be waited for. It is a thing to be achieved.”

Vibehscs1 added the message: “In the Great Gatsby, Gatsby did not ask for destiny he took it [sic]. Gatsby in a way eliminated his poor past to create a rich future. #GreatWhite.”

For this high school kid, choosing a photo and sharing it on Instagram was a conveyance for thoughts and feelings about a work of literature. And it wasn’t some random activity, some teenage whim. It was the class assignment.

The graduate student responded: “This is a great post. I agree that Gatsby went from a poor past to a rich future. What do you think his motives were for becoming rich? Did Gatsby benefit from becoming rich? #starfall.”

The dialogue about wealth was all the more intriguing, perhaps, because it arose from an academically challenging high school where more than 80 percent of the student body lives below the poverty line: the Health Sciences Charter School in Buffalo, N.Y.

Health Sciences is a Verizon Innovations Learning School, one of 24 across the U.S. receiving grants from the Verizon Foundation. The VILS grant provides teachers with the training to invent new ways to instruct and learn through mobile technology. It was coupled with the donation of 80 tablet computers from Samsung — important in a school where 70 percent of students lack Internet access at home.

English teacher Heidie Caraway grabbed the opportunity with gusto. She teamed up with a professor to connect two of her English classes with graduate students in the literacy program at SUNY Buffalo State, part of the State University of New York.

The idea, first tried in the fall of 2012, was a bold one: The grad students would help the high school students dig deeper into a novel, “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry.

And they would communicate solely by Twitter. Every message would be typed in 140 characters or less.

Even the high schoolers thought the idea sounded a little crazy at first.

“Mrs. Caraway goes, ‘We’re going to be using Twitter for class.’ I was confused. My whole class was confused,” said Edward White. “I never heard someone say, ‘You’re going to be using your favorite social network in class.’”

But by all accounts, the project was a huge success. Using the tablets in class — and smartphones when their enthusiasm kept the discussions bubbling after school — the 30 teenagers delved into questions of theme, character, symbolism, motivation: layer upon layer of meaning that English teachers usually only dream their students will extract from a work of literature.

The results, in fact, were so satisfying that Caraway and the SUNY Buffalo State professor, Jevon D. Hunter, took four students to Boston, where the kids gave a presentation at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, a rare instance of students lecturing to teachers.

And in spring 2014, Caraway and Hunter wrote up the project in “The English Journal,” the NCTE’s magazine of ideas.

“Those students who actively and regularly participated on Twitter improved their writing and vocabulary usage,” Caraway and Hunter wrote. The students also showed “overall improvement on constructed and extended responses,” and appeared better prepared for the statewide Regent’s Examination.

And it all fit nicely with the goals of the Common Core, which New York State is adopting, to boost students’ critical-thinking skills, Caraway said.

The Twitter project “caused each student to improve their analytical responses and to improve their vocabulary,” said Edward, AGE.

“Being able to work with graduate students made me feel like a bit more professional, like we were being taken seriously, like young adults and not high school students,” said one student.

Because teenagers are so comfortable with social media, they fell right into the exercise. “We were born with technology, that’s all we want to use,” said Edward.

The students would read “The Giver” in class, then pause to use the school’s tablets and  communications network to tweet their reactions to a passage. Everyone could read everyone else’s tweets, with hashtag names protecting student’s real identities to encourage everyone to express themselves freely.

The grad students would respond, and the high school students would read those reactions in the next day’s session. But Edward’s class soon grew impatient. The set-up was too slow for all they wanted to say.

“My friend Montel said, ‘Let’s use our phones and get more tweets,’” Edward said. And so Caraway changed the ground rules, allowing full access to Twitter on smartphones, hand-held devices, or computers after school hours.

At the beginning of each class, Caraway would spotlight “Tweets of the Day,” which often became the focus of the day’s lecture and discussions.

“Students were more excited to come to class,” Caraway and Hunter wrote in ‘The English Journal’, “often arriving before the bell rang to quickly review any unread tweets.”

And discussions sometimes went on past midnight. When Caraway asked her students why they stayed up so late tweeting, one boy called out, “Intelligence never sleeps!”

“What I liked most,” said one student, “was the kind of critical thinking it [Twitter] forced us to have. It made me think more about the book.”

“Reading the tweets of others made you want to learn more about the story,” said @bosslady. “When they [the literary specialists] would ask me a question, I had to go back and reread the part they were talkin’ about.”

This year, Caraway expanded the idea, her students using not Twitter but Instagram to communicate with the graduate literary specialists. Now the challenge was to find visual equivalents for their ideas. The book this time: “The Great Gatsby.”

In the novel, Gatsby goes out every night to ponder a green light across the bay — it’s a symbol of his hope and yearning. To discuss that, Edward posted photos relating to music, the thing that stirs hope within himself. Other students got the idea across by posting photos of family members in prison, whom they hoped to see again.

Gatsby is also a story about old money versus new money. Up went a post showing Britain’s Prince William and hip hop royalty like Jay Z.

What about the Instagram showing Kim Kardashian, her old boyfriend Kim Humphries and new husband Kanye West? That was a way of exploring the F. Scott Fitzgerald triangle of Jay Gatsby, his long-separated love Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom Buchanan.

The project got her students more deeply engaged in higher-level thinking, Caraway said — making connections between themes, symbols, character.

She gives great credit to the Verizon Foundation. “I couldn’t have done it without the grant,” she said.

As for that Instagram post about Gatsby making his own destiny and the graduate student responding, “What do you think Gatsby’s motives were for becoming rich? Did he benefit from becoming rich?”

The teen answered like this: “I believe Gatsby has a fear of being alone. People tend to use material things to cover an empty void inside. In a way, Gatsby did not benefit from his wealth because no amount of money in the world can fill that emptiness. I believe Daisy can.”

This was taking literature off its shelves and into the lives and souls of its readers; teenage readers living in a time and place so very different from the New York of the Roaring Twenties that Fitzgerald wrote about.

Through digital technology, Caraway found a way to make those words as young as the people now reading them.