By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Middle-school student Jada shares with her class through online collaborative work.
BENITO MUSSOLINI’S STATUS UPDATE on facebook.us — dated Oct. 31, 1936 — shows the Italian World War II leader smiling, confident and totally unaware that he will be executed.
“I completely protected my country to its fullest by uniting with Germany,” he shares on his profile. Among “activities” he lists is murdering people who don’t love Italy. His “friends” include Adolf Hitler. He belongs to “groups” that favor fascism and totalitarianism. His profile, created by Vacaville High School sophomore Jennifer Daugherty, isn’t your typical high school report. But she was thrilled to be given the assignment of creating a faux Facebook page of Mussolini because it appealed to her love of social networking. “It was the best assignment ever,” says Daugherty.
World history and AP art teacher Ali Eeds created her own facebook.us “website” with Microsoft Word because her school, like many K-12 schools, does not allow access to real social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter due to concerns it could be a learning distraction and violate student privacy. It’s a dilemma, since incorporating social networking allows teachers to meet students on their level, build on their technology skills and prepare them for the future.
As a compromise between safety and students’ love of social networking, CTA members are creating in-school versions of social networks or using sites that can be contained for their class, such as School Loop, Ning, Edmodo and Schoology. Others use Facebook or Twitter cautiously. And they are discovering that social networking, once viewed as a colossal waste of time, greatly enhances teaching, learning and professional development.
“I love it because my students are learning and having fun,” says Eeds, who has been teaching for six years. “They can be creative, and it gives them a little free rein. For example, one student had Stalin post a comment on Roosevelt’s page saying, ‘When this war is over, I get dibs on Eastern Europe.’ Before, students had trouble understanding the alliances. But now they can see why certain leaders were ‘friends’ during the war and why, after the war, what held them together was over.” The Vacaville Teachers Association (VTA) member says she created the facebook.us template and put it on a shared drive because she couldn’t afford to purchase a program intended for schools.
Helping students stay connected
Down the hall from Eeds is Spanish teacher Donald Lopez, a 25-year classroom veteran who admits that he was initially skeptical about social networking with his students. “TMI [too much information] at your fingertips can be a blessing and a curse,” says the VTA member. “But now I try and use social networking as much as possible. The kids buy into it, and it’s given me a second wind. It’s reinvigorated my teaching!”
Lopez’s Advanced Placement (AP) classes have their own website for blogging and a discussion group called GASS, for Gramática Avanzada Super Sofistica, or Super Sophisticated Advanced Grammar. The site was created with School Loop, a website system available to K-12 public schools for free. Creating a social networking site with a humorous name for students to communicate with one another in Spanish has increased their proficiency and created a sense of community, says Lopez proudly.
“Through the School Loop site, my students have access to writing prompts for AP tests,” says Lopez. “They practice, share their writing and receive feedback from other students. They comment on each other’s grammar, writing styles and punctuation. Students become peer mentors and show other students what good writing is. Sometimes kids listen to each other more than the teacher.”
His students say social networking makes them feel more connected to school — and each other.
“We all talk to each other and help each other,” says Raul Lopez, a sophomore. “If someone does something wrong on an essay we tell them how they can make it better or word it differently.”
Grace Daniel, a senior, describes the social networking site as a “friendly atmosphere” where students don’t have to worry about being judged harshly by their peers.
But social networking among students is not always friendly, notes Jeff Russell, a sixth-grade English teacher at Marshall Middle School in San Diego. He discovered that two students were bullying others on a social networking site he set up to promote online discussions, “peer editing” of papers and writing exercises. When he found out, Russell tweaked the Schoology program to create a new category giving student offenders limited access: They could read and turn in assignments online, but no longer post comments to others — with the exception of posting comments to the teacher.
|Sixth-grade English teacher Jeff Russell
“There is always temptation and the worry of distraction with social networking,” says Russell, who belongs to the San Diego Education Association. “Sometimes you have to pull students aside or send them private messages so they understand what’s appropriate — and what isn’t.”
Overall, Russell believes, the benefits of social networking outweigh the problems, and he encourages teachers to set up online groups for the classes they teach.
“I have had a lot of success in getting students to communicate with each other on group projects like creating wikis [websites that allow the creation and editing of any number of interlinked webpages via a Web browser],” he relates. “Sometimes students don’t want to share things out loud, but will post them online, which brings them into the classroom discussion if they are shy. It makes the class much more inclusive. The best part is that students have 24-hour access to their grades and can contact me if they have any problems.”
Eventually, says Russell, he would like to see more schools allow Facebook and Twitter, so teachers can fully incorporate social networking into curriculum, to prepare students for the world of work. “Someday the stigma of having students as ‘friends’ on Facebook will go away,” he believes.
Laurie Scheibner, a seventh-grade teacher at Alder Creek Middle School in Truckee, communicates with students on Facebook, but it’s a separate account set up just for students, since she wants to keep her personal life (and personal Facebook account) separate from her school life. The Tahoe-Truckee Education Association member decided to set up an account just for students, since they were already communicating with one another on Facebook and constantly asking her to be their “friend” online. Her student account has highly restrictive settings and is used outside of school, since her district has banned Facebook on school computers along with most social networking sites, although teachers can request access to YouTube for special occasions.
“In middle school, it’s really important to have a personal connection with kids, so you can snag them in when they are falling behind,” says Scheibner. “Facebook allows me to have a better relationship with them. Occasionally they ask me about homework, but usually they share their ski videos and fun photos and let me know what their weekends are like. It also increases instructional time, because they don’t have to each spend five minutes telling me what they did on the weekend.”
On this particular day, Scheibner’s school is closed for a snow day due to severe weather conditions. She observes that some schools in the Midwest are using social networking sites like Facebook to communicate with students and give them assignments during snow days — an idea that could eventually snowball throughout the rest of the country, much to the dismay of students.
Preparation for the future
Mirna Jope’s media class at Encina Preparatory High School in Sacramento created a public service announcement (PSA) video that shows how swearing in class can be hazardous to your grades. The video not only is shown schoolwide, but is also posted on YouTube (“Encina Broadcast #31”) and linked to from Facebook. The school does not allow Facebook on its computers, but community members nonetheless look to the school’s unofficial Facebook page to find the entertaining videos.
Jope hopes that eventually schools will be more accepting about social networking sites. She predicts that they will follow the path of cell phones, which were initially banned at most secondary schools and are now often allowed to be carried turned off and only used during lunchtime.
“Social networking sites are a good tool for teaching students about digital citizenship,” she says. “We need to teach them to be careful about the persona they present online, and you can’t overteach that. If we don’t tell them how to use social networking sites responsibly, who will? We really need to engage students through their interests and passions, and there’s nothing like social networking to open the world up to them.”
At the college level, most professors are free to incorporate social networking sites into their curriculum. Bey-Ling Sha, a journalism and media studies professor at San Diego State University whose students specialize in public relations, requires some of her students to follow her on Twitter. It makes sense, she says, since employers expect students to have social networking skills. Over the course of three semesters she has accumulated more than 457 followers. She tweets or re-tweets to her students about job announcements — one student was hired at VH1 after a tweet — as well as links to PR tips and professional articles. Sometimes she tweets about her personal life with reflections about her roles as a parent and active member of her children’s PTA.
“The hardest thing about incorporating social networking in the classroom is the difference between personal and professional use,” says Sha, a California Faculty Association member. “My students can follow me on Twitter only with permission, which keeps things professional. But I also want them to connect with me and see me as a person.” (Her Twitter handle is @DrSha.)
Clearly her students are connected with her. On this particular day, she sends out a tweet from her office asking students to drop by, and within five minutes some have made their way across the large campus to her door. While she waits, she glances at her computer to read some of their tweets.
“Awww,” she says happily, noting that one of her students has participated in a Twitter Follow Friday tradition and recommended her as someone others should follow. “Awesome,” she tweets back. “Thanks for #FF.”
Pat Foughty, a graduate student who heeded her tweet, says following his professor on Twitter is time well spent.
“I enjoy her insights, and she’s plugged into organizations that are helpful for my academic or professional use,” he says. “It’s helpful now, and will also be helpful in the future.”
The new face of professional development
Adina Sullivan, a fourth-grade teacher at San Marcos Elementary School, follows 500 people in the education community on Twitter. The practice helps her try out new ideas in her classroom, grow as an educator and gain instant support from colleagues she has never met.
|Fourth-grade teacher Adina Sullivan
“Teaching is not an easy thing to do,” observes Sullivan, a member of the San Marcos Education Association. “From Twitter, teachers find new ways to help each other. I was working on a hybrid learning project this week, a combination of online and face-to-face instruction, and I put out questions to my social network. Within minutes I had people sending me links to different resources. It was so much easier than researching it only on my own.”
Social networking has opened up the world to educators in terms of professional development. Teachers, who often feel isolated in their classrooms, can connect with one another in a revolutionary way and improve their craft — and it’s an alternative to one-size-fits-all professional development that has been the standard of many school districts.
Twitter is the social networking site of choice when it comes to professional development. The reason is that educators can share noteworthy news, plug real-time events or invite participants to join online conversations or webcasts. Some have compared Twitter to a giant conference that is always taking place. (For more information, see “Twitter education chats” below and find CTA at twitter.com/cateachersassoc.)
Sullivan says the best thing about social networking is receiving ideas and support from teachers she might otherwise never encounter.
“You can’t attend every conference, so this is a great way to expand professional learning,” she says. “With Twitter, you might start by following an expert you’d never have the nerve to talk with face to face, and pretty soon you are colleagues sharing ideas back and forth. I have found it’s a great way for teachers to collaborate, push each other and question each other. It’s a way to see outside one’s grade level, school site and district. I guess you could say that for me, it’s a window to the world.”
Next article: Legal advice on using social media