Blog Post

"Adventures in Twitter Fiction": Student Generated Digital Storytelling and the Foreign Language Classroom

Twitter as an instructional tool in the college classroom is not a new phenomenon.  A cursory Google search will yield all kinds of lists for top tips for Twitter use in academic settings, and academic journals have also begun to publish literature on the topic.  I'll admit, however, my first foray into using Twitter with my German students stemmed from an excitement generated from personal use of the micro-blogging site.  I found I could easily plug into a community of individuals that I perhaps didn't know, but with whom I shared common interests.  It was this community feeling combined with the potential for authentic target language communication that led me to begin using Twitter in my introductory German courses.  The 140 characters gave my introductory level students just enough space to communicate with me, each other, and the world at large in German, and all at their own pace, both outside and inside the classroom.  The students were able to create their own community centered on learning German and learning about German culture, and, to a certain extent, took ownership of their own learning process.

This semester, I am teaching an intermediate German course organized around short stories from post WWII to the present.  In keeping with a student-centered approach, I wondered how I might better empower my German students in their language learning process via Twitter.  It occured to me that a creative, collaborative Twitter project playing with the genre of the short story might be just the ticket.  Around this time, I stumbled into the world of #twitterfiction or #twitterature, via a TED talk by Andrew Fitzgerald: "Adventures in Twitter Fiction".  In the TED talk, Fitzgerald explores how individuals are experimenting with digital storytelling on Twitter, from questions of narrative structure to real time storytelling.  For example, Fitzgerald notes that the New Yorker's Twitter feed for fiction ( @NYerFiction ) was originally created in order to publish author Jennifer Egan's "Black Box" and still regularly features Twitter fiction.  For a while, it even had a scheduled storytelling time slot on Monday nights, where readers could tune in for their literature fix.  While there are many more examples of individuals experimenting with Twitter fiction, there are far fewer examples of collective Twitter fiction.  Collective digital storytelling, especially in a time-sensitive medium such as Twitter, is a more complicated endeavor, since factors like timing, multiple identities/characters, direction, and duration can all come into play.  Transferring collective digital storytelling to the classroom might seem even more daunting, especially for the foreign language classroom.  However, such an endeavor taps into the unique community feeling that social media offers students as well as giving them the opportunity to become knowledge producers (Derek Bruff, Director for the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, wrote an article on the potential of social networks for student learning in "A Social Network can be a Learning Network").
In this spirit, I've created a project for my German students in which they will together flesh out characters and a storyline (drawing on the many short stories they have encountered throughout the semester), take on the characters, and together write a Twitter short story.  A class/story hashtag will cull all of those tweets into one stream, thus making it readable.  The goal of this project is twofold: 1. for students to creatively use their own German and 2. to think critically about the short story genre (a topic we have discussed regularly throughout the semester).  Of course, the project has yet to take place, but I will be monitoring and archiving the project, and I will be reporting back with the general results!
Until then, here are a few references I have found useful (aside from the aforementioned ones!):
A starter guide to Twitter provided by the London School of Economics and Political Science: "Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities".
James D. Lang's article from the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Using Twitter to Talk About Teaching".
Mark Sample's article from the Chronicle of Higher Education: "A Framework for Teaching with Twitter".
Twitter Fiction: -- an online publication for Twitter fiction.
Coverage of the first Twitter Fiction Festival in November, 2012: LA Times' article "Social media and literature make friends at the first Twitter Fiction Festival" and NYT's "First Official Twitter Fiction Festival Begins".  (The NY Public Library even hosted some of the non-digital events surrounding the festival).
"Twitter Fiction: Social Networking and Microfiction in 140 Characters" by Carla Raguseo for the Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language (Vol. 13, No. 4)




Vivian, this sounds like an awesome project!  I'm looking forward to your updates as things progress.  I'd also be interested to see the actual instructions you give to the students.  I've found that it can be difficult to introduce students to a totally new type of assignment--giving just the right amount of explanation that clears up difficulty without making the project sound overwhelming in its detail.  Looking forward to hearing more!


Amy, you're absolutely right about the importance of proper explanation when it comes to instructions for a new type of assignment.  I'm still in the process of fine-tuning them, since we're still several weeks away from the project itself.  I've already been posting examples of Twitter fiction (on Twitter, of course!) for my students to check out in the mean time.  We have also been informally speculating on Twitter about alternative endings to some of the short stories we've read and the larger effects of such possible changes, so they are, in a way, already exercising that creative muscle!  But I have every intention of sharing the final instructions for the project in my next blog post!


Like Amy, I'm really looking forward to hearing how your students respond to this assignment, especially if they are new to the Twitterverse. I'm also curious if you've received any resistance to the assignment and the use of social media? 

Also, have you given any more thought to having your students experiment with Twitter Haikus first? (personally, I just want to read them)


Thanks for your insights, Dani!  I've found that since I've been using Twitter consistently over the course of the semester, ranging from mini assignments to off topic conversations (leading into and out of class discussions), students are less reluctant rather than curious and maybe slightly nervous.  The nerves are understandable, since it is something completely new to them, but as I mentioned in my reply to Amy, they have been using some of those creative tools already.  I also will be very clear with instructions, provide examples of Twitter fiction (which I've already been doing.... on Twitter, naturally!), and serve as an auxiliary "consultant" during the project itself.  I'll be posting more about it in the coming weeks!

Also, I'm going to run with the Haiku idea!  Already cooking up some thoughts about that for next week...


This is a great list of resources: I wish I had found it over the summer, when I was thinking about whether (and how) to include Twitter in my teaching this semester. 

For more general smart thoughts about teaching with Twitter, there's Michael Ullyot's "Listening with Twitter":

And Paul Benzon (among many others, I'm sure) has a electronic literature course using #tuelit13. He's @pbenzon. 



Thanks for the tips, Matthew!  I'll definitely check out both of your suggestions.  It seems that I'm constantly coming across more things the more I explore this topic.  It's a great problem to have!


I tested this project last year in an English major survey. This year, I've imported it to a General Education course (Great Works of Literature). Students have been taking notes on Twitter all semester so that they become familiar with the 140character limitation. Even with that practice, once we began tweeting as a character, I watched the tweets and offered help for implementing more imagination with the genre. At first, students became mired in description & full sentences. Once I pointed out that Twitter suggests, even requires, links, unusual typography, continuing ideas over multiple tweets, about half of the students began experimenting more. But, it's imperative that they have an extended amount of time with the tweeting (7 days, in our case). 

Check out the instructions here:

I'll do this again in the Spring with my Brit Lit Survey.


Thank you so much, Katherine, for your tips and link.  Your instructions for your class are very similar to what I'll be drafting for mine.  I also agree with you that Twitter can/should be used for experimentation in a project like this, especially if you are using literary characters with a modern day twist.  I also agree with your suggestion for a slightly longer timeframe for the project, since it allows students to get acclamated to the project in real time and build momentum into experimentation.  Thank you again for your suggestions!  I'm excited to follow along with your course's hashtag!


Anonymous (not verified)

Sounds like a great project Vivian ! It is a great way to enhance the quality of learning and engage the students. It is a wonderful idea. I am also an online tutor and I uderstand how important it is to keep comming up with new ideas that can enhance teaching as well as increase student participation. Good Luck.