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Social Media Goes to School

See how schools are using Skype, Twitter, and other social media to create authentic learning opportunities.

In Kader Adjout's global history classes at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, students don't just discuss multiple perspectives in the abstract; thanks to Skype, they learn about it firsthand with peers from other countries. And those discussions, says Adjout, are not always easy. Years ago, when they started connecting with students in Afghanistan, things got tense because Adjout had students with family members in the Army.

"An Afghan student would say, ‘I don't know why you're here; that's [an] insult to my culture, and some GIs have seen my sister without a veil.' And one of my students said, ‘My cousin is there to help you guys,' and they said, ‘We didn't ask for your help,'" Adjout recalls. "All students had something dear to them at stake."

Another Skype discussion concerned the killing of Osama bin Laden. Adjout's class debated the issues of sovereignty and military intervention. "Those kinds of discussions are very authentic," says Adjout. Beaver ­students also Skyped with students in Egypt during the elections there and, most recently, with German students over military intervention in Syria.

"You can't find this in a textbook, and those are the kind of authentic conversations we have,'' says Adjout, who estimates that 80 percent of his class curriculum is based on the use of social media.

Most students would be thrilled to have social media as a big part of their school day. And with teachers such as Adjout finding great ways to use these tools, social media is going from the banned list to becoming a powerful vehicle to broaden students' experiences and enhance learning in interesting and innovative ways.

Collaboration and Innovative Use
"There are fabulously interesting uses of social media and then there are things for fun-and-show," says Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit education group. In surveys from her group's Speak Up initiative, she says, "kids are telling us they're learning in environments around collaboration, [and] social media gives you a natural way to create collaboration.

"Since many students at Beaver Country Day School already bring in their own devices, administrators ­decided to encourage teachers to use social media in their ­classrooms—rather than block it. The philosophy is not to use technology for technology's sake, school officials say, but to use it when it is appropriate and can add dimension to the curriculum.

"A few years ago, everyone was saying, ‘You cannot have your cell phone at school, or if you have it, you need to go outside to make a phone call,' but...we're the kind of school that says we need to be evolving with the technology and using it appropriately," Adjout says.

Maddie Brucker, a 12th grader at Beaver, says she has been challenged by her teachers to use social media in intriguing ways. Last year, for example, she and several classmates ­created a website on brain cancer as an assignment for biology and English classes. "I had to send it to doctors at different hospitals, and they had to give us feedback on the website and say [whether they] understood it and all the information was correct," says Brucker. The senior also sent the Web link to family members and friends via Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail to make sure a layperson could understand the information.

Privacy Counts
Leslie Bowman, a professor and the author of two books on online learning, advocates for the use of social media in K-12 classrooms with the caveat that it's done using private, secure, education-oriented sites that are supervised and monitored by teachers and, in some cases, administrators.

Bowman taught elementary school for 15 years and now teaches online courses for Walden University. She says there is legal liability to consider when allowing students to go online during school. When most people think of social media, Bowman explains, the sites that immediately come to mind are Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, all of which are open to anyone.

"With stalking and bullying and sexual predators, you just don't want to have K-12 students doing collaborative projects on public social-media sites,'' she says.

Evans concurs, saying that parents still have a lot of fear about students using social media in school. While Project Tomorrow data shows that students and teachers overwhelmingly want Internet access in schools, parents are not as enthusiastic. "I totally get it,'' Evans says. "There's such media hype around cyberbullying and dangerous predators and what can happen" when students are online.

That's where a guide, such as ed tech guru Steven Anderson's "How to Create Social Media Guidelines for Your School", published in collaboration with Edutopia and Facebook, can help districts set up the proper controls without extinguishing students' curiosity and excitement.

Anderson, the director of instructional technology for North Carolina's Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, suggests a simple seven-step process to create the right plan for your district. After considering your district's culture, he advises organizing a broad-based team, allowing it to research various viewpoints on the issues. Draft a document, get feedback from your community as well as your school board and school attorney, and then introduce the new policies to the community. The last step is to review the document periodically to keep pace with rapidly changing social media.

Tweeting as Writing Lessons
Skyping with peers in Afghanistan and creating medical websites is sophisticated stuff, but social media doesn't have to be limited to high school students. Christopher Casal, a technology teacher in Brooklyn, has found a way to integrate his Twitter account with a second-grade class. Knowing about digital publishing and what a digital footprint is can be valuable even in grades K-5, says the teacher at P.S. 10, the Magnet School of Math, Science and Design Technology. "When I started sharing resources from my Twitter account with ­parents and teachers, I wanted to find a way to bring it into the school," Casal says. He also created a second Twitter account, @PS10Tech, for his classes to share resources. A little over a year ago, he decided to teach students how to tweet, starting with second graders.

"I wanted them to use proper grammar and punctuation, and I made it more challenging by having them take a picture of what was happening in the [technology] lab and attach it to the tweet," Casal explains. Another lesson involved figuring out how to describe the attached photo, which creates a link that eats up anywhere from 10 to 21 characters. "That forces them to create a more concise, thoughtful post," he adds.

When Casal hands ­students iPads and tells them they have 120 characters to describe something, "it gets them way more excited than if you handed them a pencil and paper and said, ‘Describe this in one sentence.'"

At the end of the 2012-13 school year, Casal had a third-grade student tweet something documenting what they were doing in class. The student made a reference to marine biology and yellow tang fish. "A college professor friend of mine in North Carolina responded and said she hadn't heard of that fish before and wanted to know what they are," Casal recalls. "I showed it to [the student] and he was so excited [an adult] actually saw something he wrote, and read it and had a question about it."

Prior to students engaging in social media, Casal says all parents are required to fill out a consent form from the New York Department of Education. Of the 950 students at P.S. 10, there are 25 or fewer who opted out.

Responsible Collaboration Online
Edmodo, a free online collaboration tool for students and teachers, is being used in different ways at a number of schools around the country. At School Lane Charter School in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, eighth-grade language arts teacher Jessica Giblin uses the platform to get students talking about reading and literature in a meaningful way. "I have lot of kids who may not participate in class, but if you give them a computer they'll share their thoughts and run with it," she says. Giblin has created groups on Edmodo so students can have online book clubs for the different books they are reading. They post questions for the group to respond to, and share opinions about events in a story.

"What I really like about Edmodo is the privacy factor," Giblin says, adding that she has to give students a code to be able to log in to a group. "Once they do, they're interacting with other people from our school." She says her goal for this school year is to connect with other Edmodo communities around the world. "I can make a connection with another teacher and build a bridge with another school to do virtual blogging."

Edmodo was criticized last year in a New York Times story for not using SSL encryption on all student posts, potentially allowing outsiders to see students' comments. In a summer update, the company made the SSL version of Edmodo the default version. "Edmodo was ­created to provide teachers and students with a safe and secure alternative to consumer-based social networking sites," says Aden Fine, the head of the company's user trust and safety team. "Edmodo allows teachers and students to connect, collaborate, and share content, all in a closed environment.... Edmodo has a number of other security mechanisms in place, including site-wide SSL encryption."

Giblin posts questions online for her students to respond to and says she can observe their comprehension and see if they're picking up the themes in their books. Additionally, students write in a paper-based reader's journal, so they are blending social media with traditional learning.

Edmodo also allows Giblin to post a daily agenda. If a student is absent or forgets something, he or she can go in to the platform and access everything that was covered in class. "It has worked wonders for some of my unorganized students," she says. It is also great for students who don't want to share their phone numbers with others but need to collaborate on projects, she adds.

Karen Mensing, who teaches first- and second-grade self-contained gifted classes at Fireside Elementary School in Phoenix, says Edmodo has a "Facebook feel" that her students like. She has also used Twitter with her students, and they enjoyed it so much that they created a Twitter Tutorial. Periodically, they send tweets to educational scientist Steve Spangler when they are doing science units, and he has ­tweeted back. Mensing was an early adopter of technology at her school. She says she is "very lucky to work in a progressive, forward-thinking district that is extremely supportive of technology, innovation, and 21st-century learning."

 —Winter 2014—

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