What if—instead of banning cell phones from the classroom—schools made phones part of the learning process? That’s exactly what teachers taking part in KQED’s “Do Now” program are doing.

Most teachers are familiar with the concept of a “do now” activity—short exercises students complete in the classroom, often at the beginning of class while teachers take attendance. But as an Education Week blog post points out, students often end up socializing or staring into space instead of completing the activity.

Encouraging students to take out their cell phones and log into Twitter might be just what teachers need to make this time count. KQED’s “Do Now” prompts have students grappling with current issues and engaging in a dialog with peers throughout the country and world using social media tools such as Twitter. Along the way, students build critical 21st-century skills in digital media tools and literacy.

Each week, the Bay Area public radio station posts a new activity at kqed.org/donow. Students read a brief introduction to a topic and then respond to the question, either in the comments section of the website or via Twitter. A media resource with audio and video content informs students’ responses. The entire activity takes approximately six to eight minutes.

Tuesday’s topics rotate between science and arts/popular culture, and Friday subjects deal with civics, government, and politics.

For example, the June 6, 2014, prompt asked, “What’s Your Favorite Dance Move?” and invited students to tweet the name of their signature move or capture it in a Vine, YouTube, or Instagram video and share it online. The accompanying KQED video featured a three-minute montage of dance moves, from the Charleston to the Harlem Shake. Students wanting to dig deeper could view additional resources, including videos on choreographers Alonzo King and Margaret Jenkins.

Through “Do Now,” students at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco have weighed in on topics from affordable housing to access to health care. In a YouTube video, students said the activity was “really interactive” and “more fun than writing on paper.”

“The first time we did it, it was on the topic of 9/11. And when they saw it actually gong up on the feed, they would get all excited and tweet, tweet, tweet themselves because they saw their response live and other kids would respond to it,” said Wendy Berkelman, a teacher at Burton High.

“And then we started getting feedback from around the world. And that just really hit home for them that they were part of a global community. They felt connected. It gave them a really big thrill and a sense of empowerment, I think.”

This summer, from July 7 to August 17, KQED will host a collaborative learning experience for teachers called #TeachDoNow, in partnership with the National Writing Project. With weekly activities centered on the “Do Now” prompts, the MOOC will guide teachers in using Twitter and other social media tools to promote civic engagement with students.

Moderator-led discussions will address questions such as “How can we use connected learning principles to promote 21st-century learning and address Common Core State Standards?” and “What media making and social learning tools are best at engaging learners?” It kicks off today with a webinar on “Strategies for Assessing Professional Learning Online” at 4 p.m. Pacific.

Interested educators can sign up on the blog or join the #TeachDoNow Google+ community.

Here’s what students are tweeting about at #DoNow this summer:

  • @agreen71220: @KQEDEdspace yes I believe that e-cigarettes should be regulated because we don’t know the long term effects. #DoNowECigs
  • @kkimberlyphungg: @KQEDEdspace I think that #BringBackOurGirls brings awareness to the world and it is trending which helps even more. #DoNowNigeria
  • @tori_ramiirez: @KQEDEdspace I think graffiti can be used for both art and vandalism, it all depends on intentions #DoNowGraffiti
  • @katelynnkwok: @KQEDEdspace When using the internet you have to be safe. Don’t talk to strangers or post your information online. #DoNowInternet

To receive the “Do Now” prompts, follow @KQEDedspace on Twitter.