How A Fourth-Grade Class Twitter Account Rekindled My Faith In Humanity
Or, at least, my faith in Twitter.
Here is my favorite tweet ever:
This is a close second (and it’s in iambic pentameter!):
I found Ms. G's fourth-grade class in the roundabout way you stumble across anyone on Twitter. About a month ago they tweeted a question at my favorite knitting site (yes, I know), who retweeted them. I didn't fully understand at first — was this an entire class sharing one account? who even were they? — but I was so taken by the earnestness and sheer excitement that before I knew it I'd read the account's entire timeline.
Usually, I feel the same way about Twitter as I do about living in New York City. They're both loud and constant, irritating but exciting, alternately full of possibility and impossibly stagnant. They can be the source of intimacy and also of isolation. Both seem somehow integral for my career, and people seem to like writing dramatic essays about leaving them.
Elementary school Twitter came to me at the perfect time. Lately, the parade of hot takes and the breakneck race to make the same flat joke before 14 other people have grown a little stale; I've seen enough screenshots of weather apps to last me 10 frigid lifetimes. And I'm absolutely a part of it! The first thing I do every morning is scroll, numbly, through Twitter. (The other day I couldn't find my phone and realized that I had tucked it neatly into my bed.) I get a hollow ping somewhere in my chest with each new notification and I am genuinely, fleetingly thrilled when my quasi-snide remark is the one that gets some traction. But eventually it all resets and there again is that sense that everyone is talking and no one is listening. Then I found myself in the strange, delightful alternate universe of Ms. G's and Mr. D's fourth-graders.
Michele Giovanelli, aka Ms. G, and her co-teacher Ted DeBruin, both teach fourth grade at Arnett C. Lines Elementary School in Barrington, Illinois. (DeBruin is also the assistant to the vice principal and the high school's varsity badminton coach.) It was their idea to bring Twitter into the classroom this year following a professional development course they took over the summer. They are easily two of the warmest people I've ever interviewed.
"It's been such a game-changer," Giovanelli told me; at first, she wasn't sure what the reception would be, but the kids in her class have come to love having the account. They live-tweet what they're learning and tweet questions at people they're interested in hearing from, like Chicago-area athletes and NASA. There's a rotating social media manager, who writes down ideas for tweets on a slip of paper and gives them to Giovanelli to send from her iPhone (personally, I think everyone on Twitter should have to do this). DeBruin said that the form has required the students to think harder about the lessons they're learning and communicating: "You've got to condense that into 140 characters, and that takes a little bit of cognitive ability. What do you really want someone to know?"
More than a thought experiment, Twitter has been a portal to new worlds for the students. The question for the knitting site turned out to be part of a program called Genius Hour, in which students are given an hour a week to focus on what Giovanelli called a "passion project." Her class taught themselves everything from coding to maze-building to web design, and one girl wanted to learn how to knit. "They had some lingering questions," Giovanelli said, "so we decided to put them out on Twitter."
When I was 9 and 10 and 11, fooling around with yarn and trying to build on what my grandmother had taught me years before, I remember often feeling bewilderingly alone. I couldn't read knitting patterns and wasn't really interested in taking formal sit-down lessons, so instead I stayed up long past my bedtime and I improvised. I knitted things in the shapes of sweaters and hats, sort of, and then I abandoned them in piles at the back of my closet. It wasn't until years later, when I found YouTube tutorials and message boards and the same knitting site the students found, that I really felt like I had a foothold in this world I wanted to enter. I can't imagine how gratifying it would have been, when I was first starting out, to yell into the abyss and get an answer back.
A quick survey of the account shows that the kids have their habits and their favorites. They adore Kid President and will retweet any lion picture they come across. (The school mascot is the Lion.) When they see the weekly summary of the account's retweets and replies, "They freak out," Giovanelli said. Recently the class tweeted about watching Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech; a class in Washington state replied that they were doing the same thing with a message to check out their blog, which started a conversation about the civil rights leader. From what I can gather, their social media experience is ideal. There's a real sense of camaraderie and connection, a feeling that right now, the universe is exactly the right size for them.
And then there are the parents. "Parents who travel, or parents who may not typically be as involved in their child's day-to-day school life, have access," Giovanelli said. She added that a common response from parents has been, "I love that I know what I can ask my child about at dinner." And when the kids themselves are away from the classroom, they can still stay connected. One student went on a safari vacation and used her family's Twitter account to send pictures and updates along the way. "We almost got to be on the safari with them!" Giovanelli said.
But not all parents love it; many just aren't on Twitter, or don't use it every day, or don't understand how it works. "I can't even tell you how many calls I've gotten from parents in my classroom asking to do an evening class," Giovanelli said. When DeBruin told his class that they'd be tweeting, one girl replied, "But my mom's afraid of birds!"
So for now, the account is less a source of important day-to-day information for families and more a new window into the day's lessons. DeBruin told me that his class is considering switching over to Facebook, since it feels more accessible. It's an interesting corollary to the singular (and often frustrating) appeal of Twitter: that sense of immediacy. You can, within reason and bounds of propriety, talk to anyone you want, be they an astronaut or a YouTube star, and they just might write you back. At its best, Twitter is warm and giddy, like a cafeteria table where you hadn't known you were allowed to sit. At worst, it's abusive and abrasive and out of control, not remotely worth the emotional energy required to keep going. At medium, it's just not for everyone.
No matter the platform, the teachers are concerned with safety and what Giovanelli calls "digital citizenship"; she blocks anyone who doesn't seem like they should be following the class, makes sure to leave off identifying details in tweets, and had each kid bring in a signed release before they could appear in any photos. The students are encouraged to be kind and thoughtful in their own social media use, to behave online as they would in real life. It's probably one of the most important lessons you can teach a kid now, and one that a lot of adults would do well to keep in mind too.
Eventually our Twitter interactions did bring me face-to-face with the students, when DeBruin invited me to FaceTime with his and Giovanelli's classes. He referred to it as a "TedsTalk."
Their questions were endless: How did I get here? What do I like about it? Who is my editor and what does she do? What are my favorite and least favorite things to write about? How do I beat writer's block? Can I knit with anything, even barbecue skewers? I answered as best I could, floored by their curiosity and openness. I told them that Lance Bass had recently visited the BuzzFeed office and they had no earthly idea who I was talking about because they were barely 10 years old. When our time was up there were still inquisitive little hands waving in the air, and I was sorry to say good-bye.
There's no better cure for internet ennui than describing your internet-based career to a room full of 10-year-olds. Since stumbling upon the fourth-graders, I've found myself increasingly jealous of their version of Twitter: handpicked and manageable, forever renewing, a source of wonder instead of fatigue. So I've made an effort to re-create it for myself. Over the past two weeks, slightly less than consciously, I've unfollowed nearly a hundred accounts. I've muted without shame or hesitation. I had a crafting party at my house (called it a "crafternoon") and invited a bunch of people I want to get to know better, a lot of whom I've met or grown closer with on Twitter. Sitting on my bedroom floor, showing a girl I'd hung out with twice how to cast on a row of knitting, felt something like making my own grown-up Genius Hour.
Of course, I'll never end up with Ms. G's fourth-grade internet; Twitter, and the web at large, and actually also most communication between humans, probably, will stay loud and obnoxious. But just knowing that these kids are out there, listening and learning and figuring out how to be, makes the world feel a whole lot more close-knit. Plus now I have a new candidate for my favorite tweet ever.