“The reason why I’m wearing a bird, everyone’s wearing a bird, is because birds, they tweet and that’s how they communicate with each other,” Jinen Kamdar from Twitter told the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at the Mission District’s Cesar Chavez Elementary School.
“Sometimes you’ll see birds all flying together at the same time in this really beautiful, orchestrated manner, and that’s what happens on Twitter all the time,” Kamdar said. “And so the whole idea of tweeting and twittering originally came from birds.”
Kamdar was one of a flock of nine Twitter project managers who touched down at the school last week as part of Twitter’s “Friday for Good,” a company-wide day of community service. They were invited to talk about their jobs in technology and help the children prepare for Chavez Elementary’s first-ever Tweet-a-Thon, a contest in which the students will compose tweets about books they read over Thanksgiving break.
In the contest, each book report must be written following the Twitter convention of 140 characters or less, in Spanish or English. Later they’ll be tweeted on the school’s Twitter account for the world to see. Those with the best tweets will win a chance to visit Twitter headquarters, which is about a mile away from school physically, but a world away in socioeconomic terms. Cesar Chavez Elementary is 85 percent bilingual and relies heavily on the federal free or reduced lunch program for its students.
“I’ll be very honest. I want my kids to grow up and work in the tech industry,” said Susie Kameny, computer technology instructor at Chavez. “I would like my students to have a wider vision of what careers they can have.”
Bridging the digital divide by making kids more tech-savvy is the main goal of the Tweet-a-Thon, along with promoting math by requiring 140 characters or less, said Kameny. The contest and the prizes – Twitter stickers, pencils and the visitors — also promote “joyful learning,” she said.
“The great thing is there’s all these little businesses popping up right around here in your community, so when you guys get older and you want to stay around here and work in tech, you’re going to have a lot of opportunities,” Twitter project manager Brian Frank assured the students.
In Kate Steinheimer’s class, there was some initial awkwardness between managers and pupils who are new to terms like “content,” “status updates,” “users” and “network.” But the kids listened with rapt attention when Sung Hu Kim asked, “You guys know what this is?” as he pulled out an iPhone 5 and explained that he helps build the Twitter app used on the mobile device.
Another manager, Sachin Agarwal, described how he came to work at Twitter.
“When I was young, I was playing on my computer, just playing different games like I’m sure you guys do,” Agarwal said. “That got me really excited about computers and all the great things you can do with them, so then I started to learn how to program and how to make those games. I went to school for that, and eventually I got into Twitter.”
The best things about working at Twitter, the managers said, include the chance to be creative and meet other smart people. They also said that watching how people used Twitter to find food and help during Hurricane Sandy was gratifying.
Some staffers noted the distance between the corporate world and the Mission District.
“We don’t have parents who work at these companies,” said Carlos Solis, the community school coordinator at Chavez Elementary. Events like this one could create role models of successful individuals in the local high-tech industry.
“Part of it is holding these companies accountable,” Solis continued, citing San Francisco’s hospitality to high-tech companies and business-friendly tax treatment, like the recently passed Proposition E, which did away with the city’s payroll tax in favor of a gross receipts tax, which will benefit startups and small businesses. In exchange, he said, they should do their part for schools.
Assistant Principal Emily Grossberg was upbeat about starting to bridge the gap.
“This is a great opportunity to promote literacy and technology,” said Grossberg. “I think this is the start where we’re trying to build a connection and a relationship with them, and also we’re trying to motivate our students to learn more about technology and motivate them to go to college and possibly go into math and sciences in their career.”
Grossberg noted that Chavez Elementary hasn’t received any funding from Twitter. The project managers were invited by the school and visited as part of their community service day.
Twitter users must be at least 13 years old, the managers said. Neither Twitter nor the school explained why the company was addressing 8-to-11-year-olds. The Tweet-a-Thon will get around the age issue by having students write their 140-character mini book reports on paper, to be typed and tweeted by staff like Kameny.
At times the elementary schoolers seemed a little muddled about social media.
“Twitter is like where you like 140 characters,” said one third-grade boy.
“Twitter is Facebook because you can write things to your friends,” said another boy in the class, a bit unclear on brands and marketing.
Frank said the social media service is “an on-ramp to a lot of what else is out there on the Internet.… It brings the Internet closer to me and it gives me reason to read stuff online.”
“Our goal at Twitter is to be really nice to people,” Frank said, “because we want them to be using our service for a long time.”