The importance of media literacy cannot be understated. Nor can the value of social media as a teaching, learning, and publishing tool. Two principles inform why I engage with my students around social media:
- Digital literacy doesn’t just naturally develop any more than print literacy does, and
- All learning happens through reflection and revision.
So, my students must have guided practice analyzing and using social media if they are to use it purposefully, productively, and safely. When collaborating with my colleagues, we dedicate time to nurturing these skills in ourselves and our students. And I have discovered that to effectively accomplish these goals, I must co-exist as digital neighbors with my students, inhabiting and interacting in shared social media spaces.
No matter the era or context, media is created for a purpose, and that purpose affects the content and form of the media. It is incumbent upon all of us as information consumers to identify that purpose and its impact. When students are wrestling with new information, I challenge them to determine what the creator of the media hoped or sought to gain from its creation and distribution. Students need to understand the struggles and triumphs the content creator experienced and how those experiences inform a perspective on the issues of the day. As content creators themselves — just look at any of the memes spontaneously created and shared by students at the conclusion of the PSAT — my students can begin to see themselves in the context of other digital re-mixers and publishers.
Similarly, I push my students to consider how a medium is chosen for maximum impact on the intended audience. Will this information be still or moving? And when the audience receives it, will they be still or moving? Will the media be in color or black and white? Contain images or words or both? Objects are symbols or cultural references; word choice invokes associations and emotional responses. All of these choices combine to create allegories to be decoded. And all of it flies by with the swipe of a finger.
Helping students to practice these skills and habits of mind isn’t as hard as it first might seem. Our travel, relationships, communication, shopping and free time are all mediated by digital content. Which means the resources are everywhere we look! Rather than setting aside time for disconnected or stand-alone lessons, classroom experiences can be infused with media content in ways that help us, the educators, achieve our curricular and learning goals. Social media helps me:
In collaboration with an English teacher, I created The Selfie Project. As a corollary to their study of Transcendentalism, the students used the Makerspace to create 3D representations of themselves (we called their projects, “Yourself, in tangible relief”). The project started with a series of flipped lessons that invited students to examine of all of the ways their identity can be understood. Over the course of five days, students reflected on and accumulated evidence about how their identity was conveyed and perceived. On Day 1 they reviewed what their school data says about them. Day 2 they turned to their music and video playlists and wondered, “who is the person who watches and listens to this?” Day 3 they considered their social media posts and reflected on how accurately those posts portray who they are. Day 4 they turned their attention to an inventory of their bedrooms and asked: “who lives here?” Finally, Day 6, they lined up their school pictures in order to determine what story they tell.
I partnered with the teacher of our non-fiction writing class to examine the streaming 24-7 news cycle and the rise of the citizen journalist. Understanding “Journalistic Truth” and the impact of digital media on our sources of information is essential to the students’ development of savvy research skills and effective communication techniques.
Furthermore, using social media with my students helps them find experts or foundations dedicated to the issues they are studying. That these people and organizations actively use social media to distribute research and raise issue awareness helps students to appreciate ways in which quality information — not just disinformation — is distributed digitally. And it is another excellent way for students to collect valuable insight and potential interview subjects to inform their inquiry.
Foster Student Global Engagement
An educator with a global PLN has the resources to connect students with adults and other students around the world for a sharing of culture and points-of-view. Exposure and interaction build empathy and collaboration. My favorite experience using social media as a teaching tool happened when I was a social studies teacher working with a group of American Studies students. We were studying the cold war and I happened to have a Tweep, Ines, who is an educator living in eastern Germany. She joined my class for a twitter chat about life in the former East Germany and life in unified Germany after the wall came down. We were scheduled to chat for 30 minutes and ended up chatting for the entirety of a 70 minute block period. During that time a few of her teacher colleagues joined the conversation as did her daughter who was a university student. Now my students had both adults and a peer with whom to share perspectives. Several of my students and Ines’ daughter began following each other on Instagram, too. The conversation began as a discussion of cold war life and evolved into a discussion of how we each learn about the other. It was a rich exchange that far exceeded my expectations when Ines and I were planning it!
Twitter isn’t the only way to connect students with learners outside of their community. Creating and sharing Flipgrid videos is also a way a teacher can invite other teachers and students from different schools to share with each other and learn together. These kind of experiences are the first steps for students building their own PLNs.
Provide Authentic Digital Citizenship Practice
Teaching digital citizenship, which is a focus of my role as a library media specialist, is very much like teaching citizenship, which was the focus of my previous role as a social studies teacher. In my prior role I could teach students the ins and outs of the democratic process, the importance of having a voice in the decision-making process, and the history of people fighting for suffrage… but I couldn’t make them vote. And now, I can teach my students to carefully examine their sources of information, think before they share, and the importance of being a good citizen in the digital world, but how can I make them be one?
I have an on-going collaboration with the teacher of our school’s Digital Literacy course. Together we have launched a class Twitter account that the students use to post reflections on lessons and units and as well as share their insights and guidance about good habits of online conduct. To launch this account we had students use Canva to design channel art. We loaded each of their submissions into a Google Form which we pushed to them via Google Classroom. Students then voted for their favorite design and that was uploaded to Twitter. Then I taught a brief lesson on Hashtags & the Anatomy of a Tweet. The conclusion of the lesson was each student drafting what the first class tweet should be. Again, we shared the submissions with the class and they chose which would be used as our introduction to the Twitterverse.
A Social Media Think Tank for your students is another way to engage them with social media in the context of your course material. Create a closed Facebook group or develop a class hashtag and encourage think tank members to post to the group or using the hashtag at least once each week. Students might: share reflections about what you are doing in class, post items from their social media feeds that remind them of class issues or topics, or create their own media (memes are fun!) in response to the class discussion. Use students posts as discussion warm-ups. Ask students to tweet or post the headline that would describe today’s class using the think tank hashtag. Have students compare headlines and discuss why, even though they each participated in the same class, they didn’t describe it in the same way or emphasize the same elements in their headline description. You might ask each student to post a question with your hashtag at the start of class… then ask them to post a possible answer at the end. When your students are reading an author or studying a person currently living and on social media, they can message that person using the class hashtag. Some authors are happy to participate in a conversation with your class (even during your class hours) via social media. If you can’t find someone by searching, check the profile page on his/her publisher’s website. You can even gamify your think tank with exercises like Fake or Real? Post an image and have the members discuss whether they think it is fake or real. Have them search for the image and outline the steps they used to verify it. If you want to create a think tank, here is an elevator pitch you can use with your students.
The challenge of teaching cyber citizen students to be good digital citizens is helping them create space, a moment of reflection, between stimulus and response. Teaching them to be mindful. We need to help our students to approach every digital interaction with the same caution that they might employ when they hear the buzz of a tattoo needle; their online posts, after all, are their digital tattoo. Building empathy is the key to helping students hit the pause button rather than acting (or posting) on impulse. This same emotional intelligence can help us, the adults, understand how we respond to student cell phone use. And understand why students are using their phones with the frequency or in the manner that they are. Emotional intelligence can also help us and our students understand our digital interactions better and navigate the flood of digital media we experience on a daily basis.