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Social Media in Your Classroom


How you can make it work -- and why it may be a good idea.

By Carol Bauer

How did the myth of Friday the 13th as an unlucky day get started?

I have to admit I was stumped when my fourth-graders asked me that question. I wasn’t sure how to respond, or even if I should respond, because the question was off-topic at the time. I could easily find the answer from a quick Internet search, but should I?

One of the biggest changes and challenges in teaching since I started in it years ago is the easy access to information and technology, and the students’ resulting expectation that their every question has an immediate answer within easy reach. Today, many students are totally immersed, connected to a multitude of information sources.  They don’t stop using cell phones and social media when they arrive at school.  It’s become the way they think, communicate and do research. 

Given those facts, teachers are now faced with an often controversial technological dilemma. Is there value to using social media and other tools like smart phones in the classroom, or is it mostly an opportunity for students to tune out, waste time, and do the modern equivalent of passing notes?

The answer, I think, is that it can be both. If done with thoughtful and conscientious planning, students and teachers can use social networks to enhance instruction. In addition, new technology also provides a wonderful opportunity to do what teachers do best: model appropriate behavior and lifelong learning.

Using social media as an instructional tool can offer teachers and students the ability to interact with each other and the world around them in unique ways. A site like Twitter allows students to follow live, up-to-the-second news feeds, and it’s easy to imagine how timely and instrumental this could be in a variety of classes, from government to science.  

When you think more deeply about how powerful and versatile Facebook can be, you realize how many roles it can serve in the classroom.  For example, schools pay thousands of dollars for digital storage, communication systems, and collaboration sites, but Facebook already does all of this, and they do it for free! This technology can open up communication: Having class discussions online provides an opportunity for shy students to participate in an atmosphere that might be more comfortable for them.  Recognizing the outstanding work and accomplishments of students by “tagging” them is like that gold star on your paper, only digital and in a format that is meaningful to young students.  Positive feedback makes all of us strive to continue to achieve and succeed, which is never a bad thing. Although there are age limitations to Facebook (13 and up only!), it can still play a significant role in the younger grades for parental communication, such as sharing assignments, posting reminders, and advertising upcoming events.   

Facebook can also serve as a gateway to other sites and further learning. For example, you can add BrainPOP to your Facebook page. BrainPOP is just one of many websites that are chock full of animated, curriculum-based content on a variety of topics, and by posting a direct link to specific topics, you can direct students to click and learn. Other free ways to share and participate in online collaborations include virtual bulletin boards sites such as Conceptboard.com. Using these sites, students can share ideas within the same classroom, across the school, across the country and even across the world. Each group or student adds posts, creating a community document that can be used to assess understanding and allows all students the opportunity to contribute to an ongoing discussion.

Every year my class “meets” and corresponds with another fourth-grade class in New Mexico—and every year, my students have had difficulty believing that the New Mexico students are just like them. All that changed when I started using Skype. Now my students are able to see and talk to their pen pals, which motivates them to write even better letters because they want to personalize them for their new counterparts. Skype is also an excellent tool for organizing author chats, interviewing experts, and maintaining contact with students who are homebound.  I have had students use Skype to practice their reading to grandparents across the country. Although you can use Skype across great geographic distances, you can also Skype with classes from your own school division to share a visiting expert in more than one room and building at a time.

Social media can also be a valuable teaching tool in another area: It allows a teacher to tackle head-on one of the most challenging—but vital—lessons needed for students growing up surrounded by this rapidly-changing technology.  Students need to know not only how to use these new resources, but how to use them appropriately. It’s essential that they acquire the skills to be responsible digital citizens by respecting and acknowledging the work of others and having necessary consideration for the privacy of others.

Lessons to be learned in this area include recognizing and avoiding cyber-bullying; understanding that while plagiarism may be tempting, it’s wrong; steering clear of undocumented sources; and the dangers of knowingly propagating misinformation.  One only need look at current court cases to see the significance and importance of all this.

Because students make frequent use of technology at home, the line between what’s done there and what’s done at school has been blurred. So a good digital citizen must learn to be responsible in both places. Teachers can model appropriate digital usage by incorporating social media in the classroom in an open and honest way.

While it’s not specifically a form of social media, another powerful learning tool for extending learning outside of the classroom is the daily banner on the Google site. Have you ever opened Google and found one of its interesting or unusual banners, usually tied to an event or occasion of that day? What does the banner represent? It can be a lesson’s introduction or anticipatory set that allows a teacher to begin instruction and hook students into the lesson. Chances are good that the lesson will carry over into after-school discussions where students may even open up the link and show their parents and other students. Those interactions continue the instructional conversation long after class has ended, and isn’t that what every teacher wants? 

Social media and other technologies in the classroom can be targeted to fit the needs of every grade level and ability. Search the Web and you’ll find other educational examples of adding innovative technology to your teaching. Some examples include selecting apps or YouTube videos that demonstrate everything from math facts to sentence diagramming, and using podcasts to ignite student imaginations. Teachers can create class podcasts and have parents subscribe to the feeds. What a great way to share student work with parents, grandparents and other classes! The Wall Street Journal has a wide variety of podcasts that cover interesting topics. How about texting, Skype-ing, or tweeting in a foreign language? Communicating in or reading a foreign language allows students to see how translations, idioms and appropriate vocabulary make a difference, causing them to become more careful in their own usage and translations.

Another viable and practical draw to using social media is that a teacher can develop assignments allowing students to see connections to real world employment. These assignments offer both instruction and experience for today’s technology-based jobs. For example, I know of an enterprising high-schooler that took her love of music and pictures and experimented with online posts for an art class assignment. She built on her work and has now created her own online magazine that is attracting the attention of the national music industry.

For educators who did not grow up in a digital world it may be difficult, but not impossible, to think differently about social media in the classroom.  Like my fourth-graders, we’re comfortable with what we’re familiar with and know.

Remember the Friday the 13th question at the beginning of this article? My students were confident it was because of the movies, because that’s where their experiences have been. However, a quick search of Wikipedia (another example of how effective online collaboration can be) showed that there are many theories as to the origins of Friday the 13th as a bad luck day, including that 13 is irregular because 12 is the number of completeness (12 months in the year, 12 hours on the clock, 12 gods of Olympus, etc.), and that Friday has been considered unlucky since The Canterbury Tales.

While this question and the act of finding its answer deviated from our lesson plan, my students learned something about how to research online, classic English literature, and Greek mythology all at once. All in all, not a bad way to spend five minutes of class time.

Bauer, president of the York Education Association, is a fourth grade teacher at Grafton Bethel Elementary School. She’s also a past member of the VEA Board of Directors.


 


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