Magazine Feature

Social Media in the Schoolhouse

Twitter, Google Docs and their cousins shrink the spaces between cultures even as they expand the reach of a typical classroom. How can you use them to promote social justice?
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Illustration by Anthony Freda

In Sarah Brown Wessling’s English class, students are about to give Little Red Riding Hood a makeover.

For weeks, her students at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, have been breaking down several classic fairy tales, discussing ways in which they both construct and confirm our ideas about gender roles. Using examples from the stories, they then dig deeper—exploring concepts such as oppression and objectification in society. Finally, in a culminating activity called the Genders Game, Wessling challenges groups of students to rewrite the familiar tales.

Immediately, students turn to Google Docs—a free, Web-based service that allows users to create and edit documents while collaborating with each other in real time. At first, says Wessling, students switched the roles of the little girl and the valiant hunter who rescues her from the Big Bad Wolf. Little Red Riding Hood, they decided, would instead be the hero who saves the hunter.

“But the further their [online] discussions took them, the more they realized they were just taking what essentially were male stereotypes and assigning them to a female character,” says Wessling. They worked together to recast their story, making the hero a character shrouded in a cloak whose gender is never identified.

The exercise can be a tough one, says Wessling, “because it means perhaps denying what you’ve been taught and suggesting that something about your culture or what you’ve learned needs another look or needs to be changed.”

Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, could just as well be talking about today’s teachers and their use of Web-based technologies and social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. In her classes, she has seen their value in fostering collaboration and in extending the learning experience beyond the 50-minute block.

“They were all writing at the same time,” she says of her fairy-tale authors and their use of Google Docs. “They could create a draft together, leave class, add to it outside of class and see how the work evolved. When I think about social networking, I think of moments like that. That [type of collaboration] really capitalizes on the promise of technology.”

Educators concerned with social justice and tolerance also hope that promise will pay off in the larger world. With their tendency to shrink the spaces among nations, cultures and people, can these social-networking tools foster not only collaboration in the classroom, but students who will become tolerant advocates of each other as adults?

The answer may be more complex than it seems.


How the Experts See It

Two years ago, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project surveyed Internet leaders,activists and analysts on the future of the Web and its impact on everyday life. Their answers were shared in a report titled, Future of the Internet III: How the Experts See It.

According to the authors, “a strong undercurrent of anxiety runs through these experts’ answers.” For instance, while Web-based technologies will give people “the power to be stronger actors in the political and economic world, that won’t necessarily make it a kinder, gentler world,” the report said.

Matt Gallivan, a senior research analyst for National Public Radio, was more blunt. “Sharing, interacting and being exposed to ideas is great and all,” Gallivan said in the report, “but saying the Internet will eventually make human beings more tolerant is like saying that the Prius will reverse global warming. [It’s] a little too much of an idealistic leap in logic. People are people are people. And people are terrible.”

Don Heath is former head of the Internet Society, a nonprofit that provides leadership on Internet standards, education and policy. He predicted that “polarization will continue and the people on the extremes will be less tolerant of those opposite them. At the same time, within homogenous groups (religious, political, social, financial), greater tolerance will likely occur.” In other words, says Florida technology educator Emily Vickery, “like minds can find and feed each other.” And that applies to hate groups as well as to those people concerned with tolerance and social justice.

Educators and parents have seen that dynamic play out among students in the form of bullying. So how can teachers help reverse that dynamic in a rush-to-technology world?

"I believe in good teaching, sensible filtering, good supervision and trusting kids to do the right thing. I don't think anything should ever be blocked." Both webbed applications and social-networking tools "give [students the connections they're quite used to and the opportunity for collaboration."

“Instructional design is what underlies the use of technology,” Wessling says. “[The idea for] 21st-century learning is not just about the technology, but about creating learners who are problem-solvers and critical thinkers.”

The most successful educators are adept at both.


21st-Century Ideas

Vickery is a 21st-Century learning specialist at Pensacola Catholic High School (PCHS) in Florida and supports teachers as they integrate technology into curriculum, instruction and assessment. A former Teaching Tolerance research fellow, she also emphasizes tolerance-based issues and the idea of digital citizenship.

One initiative at PCHS is iPod Pals, an outreach program that partners teens with elementary students at nearby St. John the Evangelist School to learn about the faith’s Corporal Works of Mercy. The actions and practices relate to the material needs of others, such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and sheltering the homeless. Students in the high school’s technology and production classes first produce podcasts that introduce younger students to women in Africa and South America who are struggling to ensure their economic futures. According to senior A.J. Ricketts, students are assigned different tasks in podcast production, including research, voice work and editing.

The teens then visit St. John’s, with each one partnering with three or four elementary students. The younger children are all given iPods and headphones to listen to the three- to six-minute podcast. These students also take a short quiz on the iPod and discuss the topic of the week. In a culminating activity, the younger students travel to PCHS and take part in producing a final podcast that summarizes what they have learned—from math facts to the concept of charity.

“We also wanted to broaden the students’ perspective of the world,” says Ricketts. “I think they realized that there is more going on in the world than just their local city happenings, and that they have a duty to help others in any way they can—whether that is donating to the local food kitchen or fundraising for the poor on the other side of the globe.” And the iPod technology is an exciting hook. It gets the younger students’ attention immediately, says Ricketts. They seem to grasp the learning concepts more quickly and look forward to the next week’s lesson. 

Wessling has also seen the value of combining technology with community resources and social justice. In an advanced course primarily for seniors, she used the novel The Great Gatsby and the play A Raisin in the Sun to teach a unit on the American dream. Both classics explore the topic in their own ways. As an extension project, she then challenged students to create a nonprofit organization that addressed the problems of a particular demographic group in their community—problems that might keep members of that group from achieving their own dreams. She told them that their organizations would compete for a hypothetical $300,000 in grant money.

In groups, students used Google Docs to compile research, take notes, put together budgets and design presentations that would support their grant requests. Although Facebook is blocked in the district, some students also used the social networking site outside class to communicate and organize work.

Wessling invited a panel of community members to read the presentations and then visit the school to hear each group’s final pitch and ask additional questions. With that combination of resources, she says, “there’s no way to avoid full-group engagement.”


Looking Ahead

District blocking of Web-based applications—particularly social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter—is a hot topic among educators.  Many are frustrated with the lack of access to tools so popular with students. Janet Barnstable is an expert on both sides of the argument. An elementary art and technology educator “since the days of the 800 number and 300-baud modem,” she recently retired from Oak Park District 97 in Oak Park, Ill. She’s now program manager for the Global Virtual Classroom, a collection of free, online activities and resources that integrate technology into classroom curricula.

Barnstable notes that previous generations of kids folded secret missives into triangles and palmed them to their friends across the classroom, “but we didn’t take away pencils and paper.”

“I believe in good teaching, sensible filtering, good supervision and trusting kids to do the right thing,” she says. “I don’t think anything should ever be blocked.” Both Web-based applications and social-networking tools “give [students] the connections they’re quite used to and the opportunity for collaboration” they need. But she also says good teachers find ways around the obstacles.

One of those teachers is Michele Gelrud, who last year was a first-year high school Spanish teacher in Virginia’s Chesterfield County schools. She quickly found that her diverse group of students wasn’t interested in traditional lectures and dialogue drills and worked to find the best way they could learn and work together. She gave her students goals for learning the language. Then she put them in charge of their own learning, challenging them to find the most helpful sites on the Web. Outside of class, students then began emailing or using Facebook to send the most useful sites to each other. At one point, they asked to “friend” Gelrud on Facebook.

Understandably reluctant to share photos of her recent beach vacation, Gelrud took down her personal Facebook page and replaced it with one dedicated to “Señora Gelrud.” She “friended” her students and challenged them to share their favorite Spanish-language links on her wall. Others commented on the links and what they’d learned from them.

“They learned a lot [and] the kids still respected me,” she says. “But there was also socializing and interaction to make it more fun”—skills essential to learning a language.

Wessling would like to try Twitter as a note-taking tool in her classroom. She envisions students tweeting observations about the text they’re reading, with those tweets being shared among students taking the same class in different periods.

When such tools are banned, says Florida’s Emily Vickery, teachers lose those valuable opportunities to guide students in using digital tools effectively and safely. Vickery has a particular interest in mobile technology, which she says will be important as the number of smart-phone applications increase.

“The first thing students do when school has ended is to pull out their mobile phones, which are integral parts of their lives,” she says. Mobile technology tools have the potential to “provide the opportunity for learners of all ages to tap into and share information on demand from almost any place,” she adds, “and few schools are embracing this change  … while others resist out of fear. We’re part of a hyper-connected existence—an upheaval of sorts from the way things have always been done. Outdated educational bureaucracies either do not understand it or are not prepared for it.”


Change the Thinking

Wessling says other teachers often ask her how to reverse district blocks of Web-based tools. Her advice: Shoulder the responsibility for turning that thinking around. She says teachers should engage themselves in explaining to administrators just how those tools would function to accomplish curriculum goals. Sites such as Twitter and Google Docs, she explains, represent the start—not the end—of learning.

But she also encourages teachers to consider equity—not just in terms of what students at all income levels can access, but what students who represent all learning styles can get from using social media. While we might assume students share an enthusiasm for them, that’s not always the case.

“Surprisingly, not all students fall into this way of communicating,” says Wessling. “Students who are naturally social anyway seem to have gravitated to it. You find that kids who are on their phones in between classes and seem incredibly well-connected are also well-connected in person. [Others] who are less social have also found it’s a way to find a community that’s important to them. But some aren’t into it at all.”

Instead, Wessling says, learning should be guided by essential questions, with social media used as just one tool toward answering those questions. For the students in her English classes, for example, those questions revolve around what it means to be human. It’s an enduring question she thinks applies to all disciplines.

“I think it’s incredibly important to have included in the fabric of our school lives this understanding of humanity,” says Wessling. She believes it can foster tolerance among students who are the pioneers of social media.

“I suppose,” she says, “that’s social justice at its most essential.”

Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

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