Also Twitter: A Useful Tool for Teaching Structure

I’ve spent a lot of time this year chatting with colleagues about Twitter and its usefulness to educators.  Mostly, we chat about the challenges of getting used to its format (it’s not fun to figure out–I almost gave up in my first week or so of fiddling with it), but sometimes the question is simply “What’s it good for?”

My answer is always the same:  Connections to great educators, incredibly fast news updates, amazing animal and nature videos…and the greatest comedy on the planet.

I could recommend some great follows for Serious Teachers or nature lovers out there, but for now I want to suggest to you that comedy Twitter is

  1. The best Twitter (as they say on Twitter) and
  2. A great resource for teaching students about writing structure with fun, playful mini-lessons.

*Builds a Strong Case for Twitter*

The title of this piece, for example, comes from a really popular tweet format wherein the author (I can’t bring myself to type “tweeter” in reference to a human being) creates a parallel set of observations about the same person (often him- or herself), the second of which is the ironic reversal of whatever was implied by the first.  Like so:

Me:  Twitter makes me much more productive and effective as an educator.

Also Me:  *Spends two hours browsing Twitter feed while essays sit ungraded in front of him.*

It’s funny and true!  It also relies on a certain set of structural choices in order to make it funny.  You can’t reverse the order and keep the humor, and the “also me” parallel structure emphasizes the irony of my belief and my behavior co-existing.  

And here’s another great thing about that format, which you might already have noticed:  It utilizes a unique form of punctuation. The use of parentheses or asterisks to indicate the author performing an action has become a normalized rule on social media because it allows for brevity in storytelling/ communicating while still allowing the author to paint a full visual image for the reader.

While that might not seem like a useful writing skill for traditional formats, I’d argue that anything that makes student writers more mindful of brevity and clarity is useful to call to their attention.  Raising consciousness of form in diverse mediums helps kids see that structure isn’t just the artifice of whatever parameters we place on an essay assignment. 

Here’s another great example of the asterisk structure, this time to add humor to an already amusing exchange:

asterisk twitter example

I’d argue, though, that there is a more practical reason to examine structure and grammar on Twitter. Context matters. While the asterisks on Twitter usually imply that someone is performing the action between them, asterisks can have an entirely different meaning in email or other communications:  They can indicate emphasis in the same way bolding a word does. 

I see people make the mistake all the time of trying to substitute quotation marks for asterisks when trying to emphasize something.  Consider the loss of clarity that results: Usually when we put a phrase in quotes (when they aren’t indicating another speaker), we use the quotes to indicate a sarcastic tone towards the phrase and/or that we don’t actually agree with whatever the phrase is implying. (For those who find grammar mistakes entertaining, there’s an entire coffee table book dedicated to this particular faux pas called “The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks: A Celebration of Creative Punctuation”.)  For students to see how certain contexts demand varied uses of punctuation to both create and draw meaning seems like a valuable real-world writing lesson.

*Makes Case That Twitter Users Are Structure Mentor Text Masters*

Here’s another great example of structure in a tweet (this one doesn’t come from the comedy realm, unfortunately). alton sterling tweet

Notice how the use of a list of nouns (and a sentence fragment) build towards a hashtag that suddenly applies meaning to them both collectively and individually.  The RIP that follows functions less as an afterthought or epilogue and more as a painful, powerful statement that the trend Skolnik has already identified clearly has not stopped.

In this case, there’s really no difference between Twitter and a more traditional writing medium:  This list could just as easily open a powerful argumentative piece about race-related police shootings and it wouldn’t lose any of its edge.  Aside from the hashtag, this is just very persuasive writing structure.

As is this, which addresses the same topic but with a different focus:

brooks police tweet

I know some of you already fainted at the use of emojis in a piece of writing that isn’t a throwaway text or lighthearted joke, but once you’ve recovered (splash some water on your face–you look so pale!) I’d ask you to consider Brooks’ strategic use of the police car emoji here.  It saves him tons of characters in limited space (even if he went with “cop” instead of “officer” his tweet would be more crowded), and it also draws visual attention to the power differential at the heart of his argument:  Police officers are such an institution that they have their own emojis.  Meanwhile, in this tense exchange, Brooks, a powerful intellectual, is reduced to just “Me.”  He also cleverly uses a black hand emoji to point his readers towards another thread that expands on his point.  Besides being eye catching, his use of unorthodox characters (I’m trying to make emojis sound more intellectually serious–whaddaya think?!) actually makes his tweet more impactful.

Students would jump at the opportunity to put emojis to unusual use by using them to enhance the meaning of a serious message or argument.  It’s good practice for them to think about where and when such things are appropriate and–again–to consider how usage and structure changes a lot based on medium and context.

*Remembers That He Promised This Post Was About Funny Twitter*

The examples above were just the most recent in my Twitter feed (hence me drifting from that early premise that comedy Twitter was where the best structural stuff was happening), but if you want to keep your mini-lessons playful while still helping kids work on various structure and grammar choices, you really don’t need to venture any farther than a few funny Twitter feeds.  Like this one that I found a minute ago–notice how it starts out shocking but then uses the structure of an imaginary dialogue to both undercut the shock of the opening line AND draw attention to the rather heavy premise of a Disney classic!

101 dalmatians

Could he have just said “How crazy is it that there’s a Disney movie about a woman who wants to kill puppies for a coat?!” Sure.  But the build-up of the imaginary dialogue makes the joke land so much better.  There are also all sorts of clever structural choices here.  It’s a classic medias res beginning with the writer referring to “It’s” which implies this conversation is already underway.  It also uses an ellipsis to great comedic effect–it indicates that–inexplicably–the producer’s sense of horror has suddenly lessened…because the volume of puppies increased.  The joke isn’t quite as funny without either element.

Try playing the imitation game as a bell ringer activity with your kids!  Find a great tweet and see if they can’t use the same structural elements to get a laugh of their own.


How do you make structure study fun and relevant?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @ZigThinks!  You can also follow Moving Writers on Facebook.


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