It’s 9:30 p.m. Journalismadviser Mitch Eden is on Facebook looking at the yearbook staff’s recent photouploads. He gets a message from the photographer. How can she get the perfectshot? Because of Facebook, Eden is able to offer instant advice to thephotographer. The next day she captures a stunning frame.
Eden is sick for the week and away from the classroom buthis staff needs guidance on deadline. The Pioneer yearbook staffposts spreads on Facebook. Eden critiques the spreads from home, leavingcomments on each.
“That’s an instantaneous teaching moment,” said Eden, whoteaches at Kirkwood High School in Missouri. “She asked a question through theFacebook group and before she shot the next day, I was able to give her photoadvice right there.”
The adviser at California’s Whitney High School, SarahNichols, begins class with a warm-up exercise showcasing a photo or article shefound on Twitter. Nichols said Twitter helps her deepen her curriculum andbroaden the worldview of students. Her students follow news organizations,writers and blogs, such as The New York Times’ Lensblog.
“When I’m reading my feed in the morning and somethingstrikes me, I’m certainly going to incorporate it into my schedule for theday,” Nichols said.
Nichols’ Advanced Placement U.S. History class shares linksand opinions in the class Facebook group. Facebook allows a student to continuethe educational conversation on his or her own time, Nichols said.
At Wheat Ridge High School in Colorado, teacher StephanieRossi’s family started her a Facebook account. Soon current and past studentsbegan “friending” her. Rossi accepted the requests and uses the account tohighlight her students’ accomplishments.
“I accidentally found two of my students were cheating onFacebook,” said Rossi, a social studies teacher. “One of the students posted ontheir status, ‘Does anyone have Rossi’s notes so I can turn them in?’ I repliedwith something quirky like, ‘It’ll be interesting to see who gets the points.’”
And at Smoky Hill High School, also in Colorado,publications adviser Carrie Faust said faculty at her school used Facebook tohelp students after one of their peers committed suicide. Facebook became ahelp and support line, Faust said.
Eden, Nichols, Rossi and Faust have something in common: allbelieve social media, when used correctly, enhances the educational experience.Compared to many other teachers across the country, they’re bucking the trend.
The use of Twitter and Facebook has skyrocketed in the pastfive years. Since 2006 Twitter has grown by more than 35,000 percent andFacebook nearly 6,000 percent, according to Media Bistro. When something isshared on the web, 52.1 percent of people use Facebook to spread the news.
In December 2011, Facebook reported having 845 millionactive monthly users. Twitter had 100 million active monthly users, accordingto Media Bistro.
At Missouri’s Francis Howell Central High School, MatthewSchott uses Google Docs to communicate with students, along with Facebook,Twitter and other platforms. The program allows students to upload and changeprojects on their own time but still have access at school — a plus for nightowls, Schott said.
“In class, they don’t have to spend all of their timewriting,” Schott said. “It’s an easy way to help the writing leave theclassroom so we can focus on areas where they’re having trouble.”
Social media is a teaching tool, not merely a tool forsocial interaction, Eden said. He said there’s too much information on theInternet and sometimes kids get lost.
“I use social media to point things out,” Eden said.“Examples of photography and design, so students don’t have to sift througheverything. They can model everything out there and become better journalists.”
Ryan Bearden, a senior at Kirkwood High School, said Edenposts articles about different design elements, often things he’s noticed in TheNew York Times.
“It’s great because instead of doing nothing on Facebook,they [students] can read something on there that enhances their education,”Bearden said.
Eden’s students also use Facebook to verify quotes. Thestaff messages a student to let him or her know their quote will be used in theyearbook. This process, Eden said, allows students to keep up the book’scredibility.
Faust said her publications staff began using Twitter as thesolution to their frustrating miscommunications. The students came up with theidea.
When a camera is needed in the cafeteria, the request istweeted. When a student has a question, that’s tweeted. Faust even advertisesher Facebook, Twitter and cellphone number on her syllabus for parents andstudents.
Faust’s students use social media to connect with otherstudents, teachers and follow local news outlets. Students use smart phones asdictionaries and encyclopedias, not just peer communication. Students arealways plugged in.
“Sometimes it’s rough,” Faust said. “I found myself at homeafter a late night and I got a text from a kid regarding our publication. I satback and thought, ‘Gosh, I wonder what it’s like to be one of those teacherswho is actually done for the day when they go home.’”
Bearden said while he personally uses Facebook to connectwith friends, he uses social media more for his school’s student newspaper, TheKirkwood Call.
“It’s a great opportunity to reach out to people who areinterested in our stories,” Bearden said. “Our stories apply to their[student’s] lives and we post on Facebook and Twitter because they’re on thereall the time.”
Bearden said in other classes, his teachers use Facebook toorganize students. His Advanced Placement classes use Facebook groups, postingwhen a deadline is approaching and allowing students to talk about assignmentsif they have problems. Bearden said he thinks the groups are a nice way tocommunicate outside of the classroom.
“Everybody knows that when they’re writing in the group,they’re communicating with everyone,” Bearden said.
Some teachers are finding their use of technology hitting awall set by state law or district policy.
Missouri’s Senate Bill 54 went into effect in January. Thebill requires all school districts in the state to have a written policy onteacher-student and employee-student communication.
“Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website thatallows exclusive access with a current or former student,” states SB 54.
As a result, Eden and Schott are not friends or followers oftheir students, impacting their teaching tactics and curriculum.
Kirkwood School District’s policy states, “whencommunicating electronically with students for educational purposes, staffmembers must use district-provided devices, accounts and forms ofcommunication… The district discourages staff members from communicating withstudents electronically for reasons other than educational purposes.”
Eden said it’s difficult to use social media because of therules and expectations.
“Why not be there and educate and model for them [students]how they should properly use it?” Eden said. “We should have a presence and weshould be a part of it so we can use it to educate.”
In the past, Schott has used both Facebook and Twitter toinform students of breaking news. Now because of SB 54, Schott doesn’t useFacebook and is very cautious using Twitter.
“SB 54 cooled me off on it [social media],” Schott said. “Istill use Twitter with my editors to share a link but I always make sure it’sjournalism related and school related. I try not to do too much off theeducation path.”
Schott’s school district, Francis Howell, has an electroniccommunication policy that addresses the ways teachers should communicate withstudents and social media’s effectiveness as a communication tool.
According to the district’s website, the policy acknowledgesthat social media can enhance collaboration and efficiency but states,“employees who utilize social media are prohibited from using their personalaccounts to communicate with students unless the employee and student arerelated. Employees must limit electronic communication with students toschool-related matters, including, but not limited to, communications regardingany instructional coursework or extra-curricular activity involving theemployee and students.”
Eden said SB 54 failed to define proper use of social media,which hurts both students and teachers.
Diana Peckham, an English teacher at Northeast High Schoolin Maryland, disagrees. Peckham does not use social media, particularly when itpertains to her students, unless they have graduated from college. Peckhamdoesn’t use social media because of the risk associated for teachers.
“I’ve seen too many instances where teachers have been firedor accused of inappropriate actions or behavior on their personal time,”Peckham said. “They may have posted inappropriate pictures on Facebook orthey’ve tweeted or texted with students and because of the language… you know,140 characters, things get misconstrued. Nobody’s speaking the same language.”
Peckham said she notices a clear division between youngerteachers, those fresh out of college, and more seasoned teachers. Peckham saidschool districts need a clear social media use policy stating the appropriateand inappropriate uses of the technology.
“People don’t recognize the boundaries,” Peckham said. “Studentsget caught up in so much of the drama. It was bad enough when they were passingnotes… but now they’re doing the texting and tweeting. It’s instantaneous andcontinuous.”
Tim Mennuti, president of the teachers’ association inMaryland’s Anne Arundel County, said he advises his members not to use socialmedia to communicate with students.
“People are doing things online where it should be done inperson,” Mennuti said. “The reality is, once you’re out in the open, there isno privacy. The only defense you have is to not get involved.”
Mennuti said he understands the lure of using social mediato teach but once teachers are connected with one student, they areinadvertently connected with all because of the networking capabilities ofsocial media.
“If a teacher makes one mistake online, it’s likely they’regoing to get fired,” Mennuti said. “Why would anybody subject themselves tothat type of scrutiny?”
Mennuti and Peckham understand that Facebook and Twitter maybe where students are conversing, but they insist teachers should not followthem.
“People go into places like bars and toilets,” Peckham said.“Just because they are there doesn’t mean I have to follow them in there totalk to them. I wait for the appropriate place and time… I am not a friend ofthese students. I am their teacher.”
Districts fight access
Another common roadblock to teaching through social media:Internet filters.
In 2000, Congress passed the Children’s Internet ProtectionAct, requiring federally funded schools and libraries to filter online content.Twenty-five states, including Missouri, have laws requiring public schools andlibraries to have Internet use policies.
Internet filters commonly rely on blocking keywords orphrases, such as “sex” and “breast,” according to the National CoalitionAgainst Censorship. By blocking keywords, filters may also be blockinginformation concerning civil rights, feminism and politically charged topics.
“When you just use filters on keywords, that’s going toremove all kinds of educational material,” said Michael O’Neil, communicationsdirector for NCAC.
Most districts block access to social media sites likeFacebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest. But some teachers say their studentsaccess these sites from their smart phones or using smartware that maneuversaround filters. HootSuite is a social media platform that provides students’access to their social media accounts while bypassing traditional Internetfilters.
O’Neil said districts can’t treat the Internet as acybermonster. Districts need to admit students use the Internet and socialmedia sites to teach them how to properly use the technology.
Nichols said she always sees students on their phones. Faustsaid some students use applications to avoid the filters. Some teachers, Faustsaid, are embracing the fact that students use their phones, allowing them toaccess the web and dictionaries for research during class.
O’Neil said students do care about their privacy, despitefrequent assumptions otherwise.
“Young people do care and engage in partition strategiesonline,” O’Neil said. “The more they know their options, the more they care.Kids learn a lot better by engaging in social media rather than keeping theirtraining wheels on.”
Many students don’t have Internet access at home, makingtheir only online experience a censored experience, O’Neil said.
Testing the water
Nichols agrees students and teachers shouldn’t be socialmedia friends, but said new technology shouldn’t be ignored.
“I teach my students the benefits of using social media as asource of news, information, examples, inspiration,” Nichols said. “I teachthem the responsibility of and how to share their work by providing examples ona daily basis.”
Eden agrees: when students are accessing the information anyway,why not educate them?
“Why not be there and educate and model for them how theyshould properly use it?” Eden said. “Kids are always one step ahead of adults.”
In the age of instantaneous communication, it appears toSchott that social media has replaced older tools like email, and it’s here tostay.
“I can’t imagine not teaching with it because of thecollaboration possibilities and the freedom it gives students,” Schott said. “Ithink more schools need to embrace social media because students are familiarthere…Students know a lot and they’re very comfortable there… they’re natives.”
Nichols said whether you’re in favor of using social mediaor against it, the bottom line is educating students about responsiblepractices and positive educational uses.
“I think it gives them a broader understanding of the vastpossibility for learning with social media versus the trivial high school useof saying, ‘so-and-so did this,’” Nichols said. “Once they realize throughclass activities the ways they’re able to reach out or find new information…they take that with them.”
By Emily Summars, SPLC staff writer