Marion Jensen is the founder of the TwHistory project and a senior instructional designer at American Express who has a master’s degree in instructional technology. He is a technology tinkerer, and he is constantly looking for new ways to use social media in learning situations.
GO: What is TwHistory?
Marion: TwHistory answers the question, “What would have happened if people had Twitter 100 or 1,000 years ago?” Twitter is the microblogging site that allows you to post short updates that answer the question “What are you doing right now?” TwHistory allows you to set up a virtual historical reenactment. Instead of dressing up in costumes and recreating historical events, you can do it virtually. An example of a TwHistory reenactment might be the sinking of the Titanic or the Battle of Gettysburg. To my knowledge, there’s really not a way to study or experience history in real time, and TwHistory allows you to do that.
Go Teach in the classroom
Find tips on using this article in your classroom in our new guide. Download the PDF.
GO: How do teachers set up the reenactment?
Marion: It’s pretty easy to do. First, a teacher decides on an event, such as the Continental Congress or the sinking of the Titanic. Either the teacher or the students will need to do a little bit of historical research to find out who some of the historical figures were. Hopefully, we’ve got some people who kept journals, or there is some type of written documentation about the event. Students go through those journals or historical documents, and they create tweets based on those events. You put your characters, all of the tweets, and all of the times that the tweets would have gone out into a spreadsheet and you upload it to our site at www.twhistory.org. You connect it with Twitter accounts, and the site will queue up those tweets and start to send it out.
GO: Can anybody set up a reenactment, or does it need to be a teacher?
Marion: Anybody can do it.
GO: Have you had any recent historical events recreated in TwHistory?
Marion: The most recent events that we’ve had are the Cuban Missile Crisis and some around the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Rides – about the middle of the 20th century. But certainly you could do anything up to even the present day. The best way to do it is to have a good documented source. With the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have all of the recordings as President Kennedy met with his advisors, so that really makes for some good material to be able to tweet these reenactments.
GO: How does virtually reenacting an event help the students learn about it?
Marion: A lot of times, the way we learn history is by reading somebody’s interpretation of it. We’re reading from a history book or maybe we’re watching a movie. Historians have gone through original source documentation, and they’ve pulled out what they feel are the most important parts. That’s a great way to learn history; I’m not knocking that. But this provides an interesting way to learn, because the students are diving right into the historical documents themselves. For example, I was following the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was done by a group of high school students. They each played a character: John F. Kennedy, Khrushchev, some of the advisors. One of them was The New York Times, who was tweeting things from the headlines. As the Cuban Missile Crisis was exploding, The New York Times was tweeting baseball scores. I thought, what’s this guy doing? He’s not doing the most important headlines. Then it hit me. This hadn’t leaked out to the press yet, so he was doing exactly what was in the newspapers. That was an insight to me as I followed it, but probably also to the students as they realized this thing went on for three or four days before the press ever got wind of it. Then we saw a tweet from President Kennedy that said we have some reporters asking questions. We’ve got to decide how to present this to the press. Then, the next thing we know it’s all over the headlines in The New York Times. That allowed students a deeper insight that came from searching through the historical documents.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis was exploding, The New York Times was tweeting baseball scores. … Then it hit me. This hadn’t leaked out to the press yet …
GO: How did you get the idea for TwHistory?
Marion: I started using Twitter and was pretty much unimpressed with it. I thought it was just a way for people to follow celebrities, and I didn’t really see the value of it. Then I learned about hashtags. Let’s say I’m attending a conference, and everybody who is attending the conference will post tweets to a particular hashtag. A hashtag is just a number sign, so if I was attending the WCA Conference, I would type my tweet and then put #WCA2011. The first time I followed one of these hashtags, it was almost like I was at the conference, because people would be tweeting about the keynote speaker, and I was hearing all of these voices. I thought, it’s almost like I’m at the conference, but not quite. My next thought was what would happen if we recreated a historical event? You’d almost get the sense that this thing was happening somewhere in real time. Usually when we learn about history, it’s outside of real time. I might study the Battle of Gettysburg, which happened in three days, but maybe I watch a movie and it’s over in three hours. Maybe I take a semester-long course, and it takes me 15 weeks to get through the material. When a battle starts in TwHistory, it happens in real time, and I don’t get to find out exactly what happened until the battle is done. Is everybody safe? Is everybody okay? You don’t know for two or three hours until they start tweeting again. TwHistory provides a unique way to experience history.
GO: What are some of the most popular reenactments?
Marion: I think the most popular is probably the Titanic because it’s so easy to show what the idea behind TwHistory is.We have one pioneer trek that lasts for four months. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s kind of hard to explain and say, follow this for four months and then you’ll understand what TwHistory is. When people ask me about TwHistory, I say, would you like me to sink the Titanic for you? From beginning to end, it happens in about six or seven hours. It’s easy to run that one and let people follow it and see how TwHistory works.
GO: What problems do people encounter when they set up a reenactment?
Marion: The biggest problem is finding the documents. If you’ve got a good set of documents to start from then it’s really easy to do, but sometimes it can be a challenge to find several detailed documented sources from several people about a significant historical event. There’s a lot of really interesting things out there that happened, but tracking down some of those documents can be tricky. One of the things that we’re working on and that we received a grant from the Utah Education Network for is to put together some lesson plans and find some of these documents so that we can give teachers a packet and say, here’s some good documents, here’s the event, here’s how you can make the assignments.
Google Books is another tool that folks have been using. There are a lot of really good public domain books that are out there, journals of people who were in the Civil War, things like that, that people can find. They’re just these dusty records that nobody uses because they’re “boring historical documents,” but if you take them and assign a student to create some tweets for a two week long TwHistory event of daily life in 1820, it can be exciting to get to know those characters.
GO: What have teachers told you that they have found most valuable about TwHistory?
Marion: I think it drives the students to the documents, but they’re also starting to think like historians might think. They read a paragraph, and they have to ask themselves, is this a critical piece of information, is this something that adds to the story or adds to the event? Sometimes weather might be an important part of the story. Sometimes it might not be. Instead of just being told this is history, this is all the important stuff, they’re starting to ask those questions in their mind. They also learn to analyze and condense information. They’ve got to try and stay as true to the character as they can while coming up with a 140-character tweet based on a 500-character paragraph. It gets them thinking about what’s the most important part of the historical event.
GO: What about the students? Have you gotten any feedback from them?
Marion: Yes, the students have really enjoyed it. One of the happy side benefits of this is you really get to know the historical characters. The Battle of Gettysburg was important and was a turning point in the Civil War. There is so much written about that, but what about the people who were in it? There’s a group of letters that were written by someone who was at the Battle of Gettysburg. He was a young guy, he was about 22, and he had a young wife and a baby at home. He wrote these letters home and they said, I wish I was home, I can’t wait to see you again, kiss the baby for me, I miss you so much. He explained what they were doing during the day. He was shot and killed on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. All of the other characters who had kept journals had survived. We knew about the war because they were writing their recollections. There were a lot of people who were shocked and saddened that this person had died. He was just a private. He wasn’t a big character, but they had come to know this person who had his whole life before him and had seen him shot and killed, and it was shocking. During the Freedom Rides Civil Rights Movement, we had some students who were assigned somebody who had gone on one of these Freedom Rides. They got to know this person through the documents and found out that he was alive. They contacted him and did an interview with him and were able to include some of that in the reenactment. So for them, it was no longer just an event. These are characters who really lived. They had hopes and dreams and passions, and they really come to life as the students dive in and get to know them.
GO: Why do you think it’s important to incorporate social media into education?
Marion: I really believe that learning is a social event. Some people learn very well by reading a book. Other people need to be more hands-on or need to discuss it with somebody. I think a lot of times, we learn things to a greater degree when we talk with other people. The ability to talk to other students in the class is very beneficial. The ability to talk to a teacher is very beneficial, but now social media lets us interact with folks around the globe, with people who are interested in a particular topic, with people who are experts in a particular topic. It’s like the difference between having a pretzel versus having a buffet. There’s just so much stuff out there that we have access to when we incorporate social media into education. It’s a cliché, but it opens up a brand new world, and you can just dive so much deeper into all of the rich content that’s out there.