As teachers, we hear almost daily that we “must meet the students where they are.” It is a core tenant, a sacred truth offered as a key to successfully unlocking the hearts and minds of even the most reluctant learners.
I don’t know where most of your students are, but mine are on Facebook. If it takes a village to raise and teach a child, this multi-billion-dollar social media mecca is the online town center where students are engaged in more than simply hanging out and sharing weird YouTube clips. They are doing the hard work of growing up: They are opening up, finding their voices, pushing and testing boundaries, searching for identity and seeking knowledge, guidance and approval.
I use my Facebook page as an extension of my classroom. As an early adopter of the power of social media in the classroom, I have found that students are far more likely to click on a link, read and comment on an article/study/story/poem that I post on my Facebook page than they are to read either a hard copy I hand out in class or an online copy I post on the school-sanctioned Blackboard.
Our students have trained themselves in a deeply Pavlovian way to see a link, assess it in milliseconds and click before their brains even register genuine interest. This means as teachers, we have a whole new world of magical teaching opportunities at our fingertips to educate in a whole new way (without students even realizing we’re doing it.)
On my Facebook page, my students get to “meet” a diverse group of incredible people. The students who gather on my Facebook page include high school students from rural mill towns in Oregon and from Chicago’s most under-resourced urban neighborhoods, college students from majority-white state universities out West and from elite, private institutions on the East Coast.
On Facebook, those students can interact directly with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and journalists, poets, professors, playwrights, investigative reporters, sociologists, attorneys, artists, media executives, social critics, historians, social justice activists, writers from the country’s largest media outlets. This level of access to some of our nation’s greatest thought leaders is unprecedented and offers a kind of inspiration and education to our students once unimaginable.
These are great minds that would never be accessible to me or my students in real time. Through the network, they are answering their messages, offering writing and editing tips and generously sharing how their powerful minds work.
At the same time technology is offering us these connections beyond the classroom, school districts and universities are placing bans on teachers and students becoming Facebook “friends,” hoping to protect both. Teachers are getting fired for what they write on social media sites. In some cases, unfortunately, both teachers and students have abused or misused the boundaries. Of course, that is unacceptable and there must clear and consistent rules to protect our students from any dangerous adults, and from their own unsafe impulses.
The Wall Street Journal reported that “New York City issued its first guidelines for the use of social media in schools, stopping short of an outright ban but warning teachers to keep a bright line between personal and professional accounts.”
There are real and compelling dangers online. And as in every field, there are teachers who should not be teaching—online or in a classroom. I believe those are a small percentage and that the policies hurriedly being created for all of us should not be based on the criminal actions of a few. Of course teachers who use these new modes of communication to engage our students must do so in the smartest, safest and most responsible way possible.
We are all relatively new at negotiating this intersection of social media and teaching and learning. Rather than be fearful or shy away from the challenges, I urge educators using these technologies successfully to share experiences, to contribute to the emerging conversation and rule-making, and to help guide our profession with eyes wide open, into the brave—and blurry—new world of teaching.
Cytrynbaum is executive director of the Chicago Innocence Project and teaches a city-wide investigative journalism course.