Using Microblogging and Social Networking to Explore Characterization and Style
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Students use microblogging and social networking sites to trace the development of characters and examine writing style while reading a novel of manners such as Jane Austen's Emma. By assuming the persona of a literary character on the class Ning and sending a set number of tweets (or status updates), students explore changes undertaken by dynamic characters, the effect of plot developments on individual characters, and the nuanced social interactions among characters in Emma. They also discover elements of authorial writing style through imitation and transposition. This lesson can be scaled from an individual class session (microblogging only) to an ongoing companion to a novel. Though this lesson references Emma, the learning activities could be easily adapted to work with any novel of manners.
Historical Tweets PowerPoint Presentation: This brief PowerPoint presentation shares historical tweets from a variety of historic figures.
From Theory to Practice
In the "Learning with Technology" section of English Journal (May 2003), Greg Weiler suggests that "[i]n some cases technology itself [such as blogs, wikis, and social networking tools] can be a motivating factor, allowing students to experience writing in a way that may be different from how they view traditional writing in school" (74). He goes on to note that "[m]any students are familiar with technologies such as Internet chat, e-mail, and bulletin boards. To these students, blogs [and other digital publishing technologies] present an entirely familiar interface, so that the technology becomes "'transparent' and writing is the focus; and new discussions can easily branch out from established topics" (74).
This lesson capitalizes on students' familiarity with social networking software in order to explore character development and experiment with writing style. Additionally, the networked nature of the software allows students to easily publish their writing to be read by and quickly responded to by other students and extends the possibility for interaction beyond the classroom.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
Materials and Technology
- Sign up for Twitter and practice sending a few historical tweets.
- Familiarize yourself with the Jane Austen Style Sheet and add any additional stylistic elements or examples as you see fit.
- Familiarize yourself with the definitions of pastiche and novel of manners.
- Set up the class Ning before Session Four.
- Duplicate any handouts required.
- Arrange for computer access during the appropriate sessions.
- identify and experiment with unique features of Austen's writing style.
- increase knowledge and real-world technical skills by using social networking technology to assume the persona of a literary character.
- explore, evaluate, and make predictions about character development through assuming the persona of a literary character.
- adjust their use of written and visual language to communicate effectively in different media.
- write a series of texts that communicate effectively with their audience.
Session One: Identifying Characteristics of Austen's Language
- After students have read the first chapter of of Emma, place an overhead of the first paragraph on a projector and have a student read the passage aloud.
- Then ask students what they notice about Austen's writing style, even in this brief opening paragraph. Students should make note of features such as
- the use of passive voice
- the structure of the paragraph as one long sentence
- the use of the semicolon
- the extended character description ("handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition").
- the use of passive voice
- Once they have exhausted the examples in the first paragraph, ask them for additional observations they may have made about writing style in their reading the full chapter. Refer to the Jane Austen Style Sheet for examples of specific stylistic features to which you would like to draw attention.
- As students make observations, name and define the literary terms on the board or overhead projector. Refer to the Style Sheet for literary terms and definitions.
- Once you have named and defined the literary terms for their observations, add more of your own (again referring to the Style Sheet for definitions and examples). You may choose to reproduce the Style Sheet for students or ask them to take notes on the discussion.
- Share with students the Definition of Pastiche, and ask them to apply their understanding by writing a descriptive sentence about themselves that follows the stylistic format of the first sentence of the novel.
- Ask students to share their sentences aloud or collect the sentences and check for understanding.
- Close the session by encouraging students to continue to remain observant for unique features of Austen's writing style as they read through chapter 8 of Emma before the next session. As they read, they should add notes to the Style Sheet you have handed out or that they have started in their own notes.
Session Two: Historical Tweets
This session should take place after students have read at least through chapter 8 of Emma and will work best in a computer lab (or in the classroom with laptops) but could be completed in a classroom with a computer hooked up to a projection system.
- In preparation for class today, register for and familiarize yourself with Twitter. Additionally, visit Historical Tweets and preview current entries (2 or 3 historical tweets a week are published on the site, so you may or may not find appropriate tweets). Alternatively, you can use the Historical Tweets PowerPoint Presentation that has archived images from the Website.
- Begin class by asking students what important events have occurred recently in the text. Prompt them to recall that Mr. Martin has proposed; Harriet has refused after much prompting by Emma; Emma and Mr. Knightley have had a strong disagreement about Emma's role in Harriet's refusal; and Emma is increasingly convinced of Mr. Elton's affection for Harriet particularly because he has offered to take the portrait of Harriet to be framed.
- Share with students the categorization of Emma as a Novel of Manners and, as such, it is not overly plot driven, but rather concerned with the drama of everyday life and the minutiae of social interaction. The events that have occurred over the last few chapters are seismic in the world of Emma and give the characters much to think and gossip about.
- Transition to introducing the historical tweets portion of this lesson by asking if any students how people today might communicate the social news that the characters in Emma are experiencing.
- As students begin listing different social networking applications, ask students if they are familiar with Twitter. If they are, ask those students to explain to the class how the social networking application works.
- If none of your students is familiar with Twitter, briefly explain that Twitter is a microblogging service that allows people to update their followers throughout the day with information contained in 140 character "tweets." Some people use Twitter to let their friends know where they are so they can meet up; others use it to ask questions of their followers; and still others use it to impersonate historical figures and imagine what those figures might say to each other. If you would like additional information about Twitter, read this blog post from the New York Times.
- Project the Historical Tweets site (or the Historical Tweets PowerPoint Presentation), explaining the convention of "@username" to indicate that the tweet is in response to or directed at another user. Have students look at examples of several historical tweets.
- Discuss with students the sources of humor in historical tweets. They should note the primary source of humor being historical anachronisms and the transposition of historical characters into a modern setting. Additionally, tweets are reacting to well known events that are implied but not described; in order to get the joke, the audience for the tweet has to understand the historical context without having it explained in the tweet.
- Ask students what specific challenges a writer faces when allowed only 140 characters to communicate their thoughts. They might note that:
- language must be precise and writing clear
- extraneous and long words have no place in a tweet
- tweets should be about an event that is easy to reference or imply and should make sense without extra contextual information
- declarative sentences or questions work well.
- language must be precise and writing clear
- Now have students open the word processing software on their computer and practice writing a 140 character tweet about their day so far to get a sense of length. Students can use the word count feature of the word processing program to measure how many characters their tweets are. In Microsoft Word, highlight the text and use the Word Count feature under the Tools menu to will get a count of the number of characters.
- Once students have had a few minutes to experiment writing a tweet about their day, ask them to try their hand at writing a "historical tweet" from the perspective of a character in Emma. They should refer to their Jane Austen Style Sheet for guidance in writing a tweet that sounds like language a character in Austen would use; however, they will have to do some creative composing in order to communicate a full thought in 140 characters. Obvious and rich character choices are Emma, Harriet, Mr. Elton, Mr. Knightley and Mr. Martin at this point, but the Misses Martin, Mr. Woodhouse, and Miss Bates would be interesting to hear from as well. Share with students the example Emma tweets handout to provide models.
- Have a few students share their tweets and discuss what makes a tweet effective.
- Before the next session, students should read chapters 9 and 10.
Session Three: Signing up for Twitter and Tweeting
Note: If your school has a firewall that blocks student access to Twitter, Ning (the network you will be using for the second part of the lesson) has a status update feature that is similar to Twitter, though not as easy to access. In order to use a Ning as an alternative to Twitter, you will need to create your class Ning and then have students create their profiles and join your Ning. Once they have created their account on the Ning, they will need to add the application "Status." This will allow them to post 140 character status updates that are similar to tweets or Facebook status messages. Ning does not offer an interface, as Twitter does, that aggregates the status message of friends, but students will be able to view their friends' updates by visiting their profiles.
- This session should take place in a computer lab or a classroom with laptops for every student (or pairs of students). If students share computers, they should work in pairs for this entire assignment.
- Ask students to choose which character from Emma from whom they would like to send tweets, register for Twitter, and post a test tweet.
- As students register for Twitter, they should begin to "follow" each other. You should follow all of them as well so that you can read their tweets. Explain that although it is fine if more than one student represents the same character, Twitter will require them to choose unique user names. These user names should still communicate which character they are representing, and they should share with you their real name and their Twitter user name for record keeping and identification purposes. Also explain that students who choose the same character will be working in groups together in later sessions of the lesson. Students who would rather not work in groups need to choose another character.
- Circulate the classroom and help students who run into challenges registering for Twitter. As students complete their registration, encourage them to follow each other and begin sending tweets. As their classmates send tweets, their screens will quickly fill up with messages from Emma characters to which they can respond.
- They should begin responding to those tweets, continuing to stay true to events in the text and working to employ aspects of Austen's writing style. By this point they should have read through chapter 10, in which Mr. Elton writes a charade, Emma claims she has "little intention of ever marrying," and Jane Fairfax is introduced into the story.
- Ideally, by the end of the period, all students will have successfully signed up for Twitter and have been able to send at least one tweet. Assign them to log in to Twitter once a day over the course of the next week to read their classmates' tweets, and to send at least five more tweets.
Session Four: Optional Extension to a Ning
- If time and resources allow, you can extend this activity to recreate the social structure of Highbury on your own Ning, a social networking site that you can control access to and will allow your students to create Facebook-like profiles for all the characters in the novel. In order to do this you will need to schedule several class periods in a computer lab or have access to laptops for your classroom.
- In preparation for today's class, set up a Ning for your class. If you teach more than one section of the same class, you will need to set up multiple Nings.
- Show students Austenbook, a retelling of the plot of Pride and Prejudice via a Facebook feed. Explain that, like the historical tweets, this is a parody of the novel via transposition. Remind students of the Definition of Pastiche and discuss how the tweets they were sending as characters from Emma were both a form of pastiche and a transposition. Reinforce that while the author of a pastiche may be gently ribbing the author of the original, he or she is sincerely trying to imitate that author's style.
- Explain that they will be transposing the world of Highbury from the novel to a Ning. Show students the Ning you have set up and demonstrate how they can sign up. Once they have joined your Ning, they should begin work on setting up a profile for the character they were portraying on Twitter.
- Unlike when they were tweeting, multiple profiles for the same character will be confusing and chaotic on the Ning, so all students who were portraying Emma should work together, all students who were portraying Mr. Knightley should work together, and so forth. If a student does not want to work with a group, he or she could switch which the character portrayed to an unclaimed (and perhaps lesser known) character.
- Give students time in class to set up their character's profile under the "My Page" tab. Share the Highbury Ning Expectations handout with students and explain their performance targets over the course of the next few weeks.
- Allow groups of students the remaining time in class to work on creating their profiles. Circulate the room and assist students in joining the Ning, setting up their profile and posting. Let students know that you will expect them to login and post to the class Ning five out of the next ten school days.
- The assignment is due ten school days after this session, but students will need to be logging in regularly for the activity to work. If you have the luxury of classroom laptops or access to a computer lab, consider scheduling twenty minutes every other day for students to spend interacting on the Ning. If you do not have easy computer access, this work will need to be done as homework.
- Share with students the Highbury Ning Evaluation so they have a clear understanding of how they will be evaluated.
Session Five: Reflection
- The final session of this activity may be completed in class or as homework. Share with students the Reflection Questions handout. If you choose to give them time to write in class, communicate that you expect them to take the full period to think about the questions and respond.
- Alternatively, you can give students the questions in class and ask for them to be submitted in a future session.
- View this excerpt from the adaptation by MASTERPIECE on PBS, where Emma must come to terms with the impact she's had on others.
- Share with students a chapter from Jane Fairfax: the Secret Story of the Second Heroine by Joan Aiken as a model of a pastiche.
- Students can use the ReadWriteThink Profile Publisher to create an offline social networking profile for a character for the novel as prewriting or as an alternative to some of the online activities if access to such sites is unavailable.