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Retweeting History Brings Those Stories to Life

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From following conferences to collaborative story-writing, there are plenty of exciting ways to use Twitter in school (see this lengthy list, for example).

But here's one more: TwHistory, a new, free tool that encourages teachers and students to dig deep into history, get inside the heads of historical figures, and reenact historical events in real time.

What was the experience of those who fought the Battle of Waterloo? What would they have felt? What would they have feared? What if we could re-experience history as it unfolded?

That's what TwHistory attempts to do. Anyone can follow various historical "reenactments" – from the sinking of the Titanic to the assassination of John F. Kennedy – or sign up for free and create their own. Participants choose a historical event, create Twitter accounts for individual characters, pore over primary source documents and think critically about the times, dates, and durations of events to create hundreds of Tweets as they might have been broadcast had Twitter existed before the 21st century. They then submit all those Tweets to the engineers at TwHistory, specifying a start date for their event, and then watch it unfold – over a day, a week, a month or more – reflecting the event's actual duration.

"When I first got on Twitter, I thought – like a lot of folks did – that this was the biggest waste of time ever," says TwHistory co-founder Marion Jensen. "I didn't see any value to it. Then I found out about hash tags and followed a conference. I almost felt like I was there." He thought, "You could almost tell a story using this... and then I got to thinking: History is full of stories."


Shortly afterward, Jensen joined a group of researchers to develop the software for TwHistory, and as proof of concept they reenacted the Battle of Gettysburg. Grants from the Talis Incubator for Open Education and the Utah Education Network helped them continue their work, and now there are about twenty reenactments on the site, with several more in development. Although TwHistory is a recent creation (its current iteration is only about 6 months old), it has a lot of potential for education.

Usually when you learn something about history, Jensen says, "It's outside of real time." But when a group of high school students created a reenactment of the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, "I was following the tweets of John F. Kennedy." The student portraying JFK was tweeting things like, "'We saw missiles in Cuba, we talked with the Russians.'" Another student was playing the part of the New York Times and at one point he was Tweeting baseball scores. Jensen was confused for a moment, until he realized, given the time and date of the Tweet, "Oh, this hasn't hit the press yet! Within four hours the New York Times was Tweeting about the Cuban missile crisis." This can make you think about history differently: "All this was going on at the time and people were oblivious to it. It was one of those educational moments for the students. This is how it all unfolded."

Another example Jensen offers was from a reenactment of a group of pioneers heading west in the mid-nineteenth century. "At one point, some Native Americans came into their camp early in the morning. Six Tweets came at the same time, 'The alarm has sounded!'" But as a viewer of the reenactment, "You don't know what happens after that; you have to sit there and wait. About twenty minutes later, Tweets came in like, 'We shot off the cannon and they left.' It's a new way to represent history. You want to know what the resolution is, but you might not find out for three days."

Following historical figures' lives intimately helps bring it home for participants. One Civil War soldier that Jensen Tweeted for as part of the Battle of Gettysburg "was a guy who wrote letters home every day to his wife. In all of his letters, he was writing, 'Kiss the baby for me, I can't wait till I get home.' But he was killed the very first day. I got to know this guy through his letters and it was hard to know that he died. To really come to know one person brought the point home."

Although TwHistory's amusing tagline is, "Those who forget history are doomed to re-Tweet it," users are, in fact, encouraged to repeat reenactments indefinitely ("We've sunk the Titanic about twelve times," says Jensen). All material is available through a Creative Commons license, so all of it is wide open for collective editing.

"Our goal someday is to have two or three thousand reenactments up there," Jensen says, so that teachers, students, and history buff everywhere can either make them their own or "press play, sit back, and watch history."