In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning.
It’s the beginning of a typical day: there’s a hum of learning beginning in the classrooms, students are running errands to various parts of the school building, and announcements break in for current school news. Then it’s discovered! Someone has gone into the restroom and written on the walls with a pencil. Outrage ensues and a culprit is quickly discovered. This type of behavior simply cannot, will not, be tolerated. From this point on, all pencils are banned from school grounds.
As teachers, we know that this is ludicrous. We understand that kids will be kids. Mistakes happen. We look for these opportunities to harness the power of turning a mistake, or lapse of judgment, into a moment for our students to learn and grow as individuals. Likewise, we know that we cannot deprive other students of other learning opportunities because one student misused their pencil. After all, a pencil is simply a tool; a tool with incredible potential to support not only content-area learning, but also creativity, collaboration, and problem solving.
However, in today’s classrooms around the world, some teachers are doing just that; they are banning a tool that brings a world of learning possibilities far beyond our imagination. That tool is social media. Those two words typically have a polarizing affect upon teachers. They either love it or they avoid it like the plague.
Many teachers, parents, and administrators are afraid of the potential dangers associated with social media. Are there potential dangers associated with social media? Yes. However, do we ban scissors and physical education classes because there is a potential of danger? No. Within the safety of our classroom walls, we teach students safe practices until those practices become habits. That is also what we need to do with our students and social media.
We have been using social media in our classroom for six years. When we started, I only had a vision of making our classroom visible to my students’ family. I wanted for my learners’ parents and relatives to become a part of the learning that was taking place in our classroom. So I approached my administrator and explained my purpose. I also explained I had put several safety measures in place for our students. After hearing all of my plans and knowing that many of our learners’ family members were all over the world, she agreed to allow us to use social media in order to bring home and school closer together as we worked to strengthen the community bond.
We began with Twitter. First of all, I would be the only one with the login information and my personal phone was the only device connected to that account. I would control everything going out of our Twitter account and filter anything coming into our classroom. We would only follow other classes of students, children’s/young adult authors, or educational resources.
Furthermore, we would spend the first week of school engaging in serious conversations about cyber-safety and netiquette. These conversations were not meant to scare students, but were intended to help open their eyes to all of the benefits of social media as well as the potential dangers. We used the Net Cetera resources from OnguardOnline.gov to guide the dialogue. What surprised me the first year we had this conversation is how many students were already using social networking sites with little to no supervision or guidance. Because we had these conversations, my students understood their online choices and actually made themselves safer when they were away from the filters and safety precautions at school.
Following our in-class discussion, students took the Net Cetera books (also available in Spanish) home to their parents. The students put on the teacher hat and led conversations with their parents about online safety. Parents contacted me in awe of their students’ ability to articulate the importance of making wiser choices when online.
Our foray into social media quickly grew as students began to realize and crave an authentic reason to share their learning, discuss their books, publish their writing, and create challenges for their global peers. They would share their successes and ask for help in overcoming obstacles. Since we had laid a strong foundation in understanding the place for this tool in supporting our learning and communicating with others, my students began connecting with experts who could answer their questions, writing mentors who could guide their writing development, and role models who provided inspiration in pursuing their dreams.
I knew for this to have long-term, successful ramifications, I needed parental support. My learners’ parents needed to understand that social media was more than celebrities sharing their mundane life choices; it was a tool that could connect students to a world of learning opportunities not available through other mediums (See Giving Every Student a Voice with Twitter).
All parents in our district signed a release form allowing photos of their students to be posted online. We would never post a photo with a child’s name. However, I wanted for the parents to see the amazing potential social media afforded their students.
At our “Meet the Teacher” night before school began, I began sharing all of our plans and the role Twitter (later we added blogging , Skype, and Instagram) would play in our learning. I explained the safety precautions in place and how the students would be learning lifelong skills within the safety of our classroom. In the six years we have used social media, I have only had one parent who didn’t want his child’s photo posted and after two months of watching our Twitter feed, he changed his mind. I attribute this to the fact that the parents became a part of the conversation. They were well-informed. Social media was never presented as an “extra,” but as tool to support their students’ learning and growth. It provided a relevance and authenticity to their learning while inviting parents to join us in learning adventures.
When embarking on anything new, education is the key. Change is scary. The unknown evokes fear in many. As the teacher, we must be educated and able to articulate and support our practice. Our choices must be purposeful and support relevant and meaningful learning for all of our students.
It’s important to take time to communicate our ideas while validating and addressing the concerns of administrators and parents. After all, we are the ones leading the learning of all of our students. We need to be the ones advocating for what is best for them in today’s digital age.
It’s time for us to stop banning “pencils,” and open our students up to a whole new world of learning. The answer is not in banning practices or tools that can build our learners far beyond our classroom. There is a world that is overflowing with opportunities for them to grow and connect with their global peers all within the safety of our classrooms. It is our responsibility to pave the way where students can harness the power of different tools to support them on their path of lifelong learning.
Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?: Collaborating in Class & Online, Grades 3-8. She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com.