Tuesdays aren't just any day at Walker Mill Middle School to teacher Albert Lewis. They're “Twitter Tuesdays.”
Every Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Lewis moderates student discussions on the Capitol Heights school's page on Twitter — an online social network that allows users to post a timeline of messages in 140 characters or less — covering issues ranging from Trayvon Martin to bullying.
The weekly discussions are more than what Lewis could have hoped for when he launched the page at the start of the 2011-12 school year as another way to engage Walker Mill students outside of the classroom.
“Students, they tend to think of teachers as not hip and removed from things that are cool,” Lewis said. “For a teacher to be using social networking to discuss issues that affect them and they won't be judged, it appeals to them. They can open up to you more without feeling like what they have to say is going to be judged or them.”
Lewis said he got the idea to start a school Twitter feed from friend William Blake, an assistant principal for ninth grade at Upper Marlboro's Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School. To date the Walker Mill Middle feed, @WalkerMillMS, has more than 280 followers.
Blake said he started Wise's page, @PumasDen, in fall 2010 as a way to connect with new students after he transferred from Brandywine's Gwynn Park High School. Not only has it been a way to get out school event information but it has helped him monitor conflicts in the community and among students in real time. To date @PumasDen has more than 1,900 followers.
“If I'm on their Twitter feed and I see they have a cyber beef and I think it's going to escalate, I pull those students into my office,” Blake said. “I make sure their conflict gets mediated.”
Lewis has used the Twitter page as a way to boost participation in the classroom, offering extra credit to the first five students who could tweet his vocabulary word of the day.
Lewis realizes that not all students have access to a computer at home but said they can participate via school computers or their cell phones. For Twitter Tuesdays, either students or Lewis pitch possible topics for the student morning announcement team to mention at the start of school, and the team decides on the best topic before announcing it at the end of the school day on the public announcement system.
Lewis said his biggest challenge was getting parents to let their students use Twitter in the first place. Lewis said not all social networking is negative and there are positive ways to engage students and get responses.
“There are some parents who are just flat out against it, but if they would really give it a chance and see what Twitter is being used for, I really think that they would be pleased in allowing students to use it,” Lewis said.
Eighth-grader Katherine Johnson, 13, of Oxon Hill said her mother, Angelica Johnson, hopped on the Twitter bandwagon before she did. Angelica Johnson joined to keep tabs on Katherine's twin brother, Horace Johnson, but soon started encouraging Katherine to get involved.
“It's allowed me to come in contact with my teachers in a different way,” Katherine Johnson said. “I can actually interact with them more personally like the way I talk to my other friends. It kind of builds bonds with my teachers.”
Angelica Johnson said she joined in late fall as Lewis pushed to get 100 followers. Angelica said she has participated in Twitter Tuesday conversations and said she appreciates the feed because it gets students to dialogue with each other as well as keep her informed about events going on every week at the school.
“I think it's a great tool to get the children involved because so many times they keep things very internally and they don't want to speak about it but his followers are starting to respond more and more,” Angelica Johnson said. “It lets the kids realize they have a voice.”
Briant Coleman, a county schools spokesman, said he likes the way Walker Mill and Wise are using their Twitter feeds but said every school community is different and will decide what is the best way to use a feed. Coleman said the school system is currently working on a social media use policy about the do's and don'ts in how to use Twitter and Facebook to set in place at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
Coleman said he has noticed that the feeds for Montgomery and Prince George's County public school systems are the most active of the state school systems and were valuable during emergencies such as the Aug. 23, 2011, 5.9-magnitude earthquake.
The PGCPS feed has nearly 5,000 followers, and MCPS' has more than 7,600, with the school systems trailed by Baltimore City Public Schools, with more than 1,400 followers.
“All of this is new for school systems,” Coleman said. “There's no model to replicate, so what we're doing is working from scratching in developing our policy.”