History in 140 characters


Although I’m a member of the online outreach team at the museum, over the last few months I’ve given a number of in-person workshops for teachers, in which I mention the museum’s Twitter feed for educators, @explorehistory. Given the number of educators I see on Twitter, and the growing emphasis on developing a Personal or Professional Learning Network that I’ve noticed at conferences, I was surprised to find that only about 10% of any teacher group I meet in person is active on Twitter, though many are on Facebook (although this statistic is in line with a recent study on Twitter use conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project).


When I discuss Twitter in workshops, responses range from “I just don’t have time for that—it’s enough to keep up with email and Facebook” to “you just can’t have a conversation on Twitter.” And I understand. I wasn’t always so fond of Twitter. I wondered how I would ever say anything useful in 140 characters. As history educators, many of the teachers I met found the shortened communication of Twitter unsatisfying. If the soul of our work is to help students evaluate information and discuss and debate it, how could Twitter help? At least on Facebook you can have a conversation. Right?

What I’ve come to love as I use Twitter, and the value I share with these teachers, is being exposed to more thought-provoking articles than I ever had before, and learning of new resources just as soon as they become available. Twitter may not be the venue they choose for conversation—though plenty of educators use Twitter for mock conversations between historical or fictional characters—but it’s a great place to find the material to spark discussions and classroom activities. Of course, that’s the goal of our Twitter feed for educators — to provide our followers with the latest news about our resources or great material from other institutions, as well as being a way to get in touch with us.

The more I look for educator thoughts about Twitter, the more I find, including a discussion posted by the coordinator of the online community run by our partner, Verizon Thinkfinity, “Why Use Twitter? Tell Us Your Tips” on this same topic, which referenced a useful blog post, “The Power of Twitter in Information Discovery” that encapsulated the reasons I was growing to love Twitter. I noticed that the teachers in the Thinkfinity online community were using Twitter creatively, too (a great example is this presentation, “Thirty Interesting Ways to Use Twitter”) and that teachers were commenting on their Twitter use even beyond our social media channels. In a recent teacher survey we conducted, I found this comment from a teacher, extolling the virtues of Twitter: “I teach modern World Cultures to 6th graders in Texas. I use the Twitter feed to find, locate, bookmark, and share things with my students. I try to tweet in class with the students at least once every other week, but use my twitter feed to share things the museum is doing.” And as I was writing this post, I came across this blog post, “Help a Fellow Teacher Get on Twitter” with links to guides for using Twitter.

So, for our educator friends not on Twitter, I encourage you to consider joining. To get started and find great folks to follow, you can check out the EduBlog Award winners, search for #sschat or #historyteacher in Twitter to find out who’s talking about history education, and be sure to include @explorehistory and @amhistorymuseum on your list!

Naomi Coquillon is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History.