Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Be Not Afraid to Tackle Social Media

Teachers, are you wary of using social media and other online tools to foster student communication? Follow these tips from Michele Dunaway, who teaches English and journalism at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri (when she's not writing best-selling romance novels).

Recently, the Missouri National Education Association's magazine, Something Better (Summer 2010), did an entire feature entitled "Teaching with Technology: Being Part of the Shift."

The article focused on various ways teachers can use educational websites to provide their students with ways to learn by doing. While the article made wonderful points, the article failed to mention the power of "real world" social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, blog sites such as Blogger and Wordpress, or even the power of using Yahoo Groups or Google Groups. By the time kids are in high school, most are very familiar with these sites and because of this, teachers shouldn't be afraid to use them. These "real-life" environments have plenty of educational value and are great communication tools, giving students real world applications. Don't let the horror stories you might have had stop you — you can use these sites successfully with older grade students.

First, let me admit that I love Facebook. (A brief digression — my students inform me it's all Facebook these day as MySpace is going the way of Betamax and VHS.) I have a friend page and a fan page. My fan page is for people I don't know, and there I can talk about my books and Michele Dunaway the writer. My friend page is where I keep track of my journalism colleagues, my writing buddies, my former students and my family and personal friends. I also run the Francis Howell Publications alumni page, which is a group page for all those who were on a publication staff at Francis Howell. My students run the Francis Howell Publications page, which is for all those who want to keep up with the stuff being published on our school newspaper website (www.fhhstoday.com) and what's going on in the school. This year the yearbook staff will build its own page where people can suggest story ideas and see possible yearbook pictures.

Don't let the fact that most district Internet filters block the site worry you; Facebook can still become one of your best communication tools because it will allow you to access students in a way they communicate best. Many students have Facebook pages long before middle school, and by high school Facebook has become the predominant way kids contact each other. Many of my students check Facebook long before they check their email.

If you have a Facebook page built for your classes, you can post the homework, and once your students become friends or fans (depending on the type of page you build), every kid will see whatever you post. You can send out a quote of the day or a word of the day. You can post links to online articles for future reading, maybe even giving extra credit if they follow through. You can link to videos you want them to see. You can put up the day's homework. You can post pictures. You can reach these tech-savvy students and teach them on a platform they love. You can also reach their parents by letting them be friends or fans.

You can use Twitter in exactly the same way. You can tweet assignments from either a computer or your cell phone, and these tweets will post to your student's Twitter page (so long as they are following you). You can even set it up so that your Facebook updates post to your Twitter and vice versa so you only have to post once. My Facebook fan updates go to my Twitter and then those post to my blog. The key is to always keep things professional, posting only things that you would say in the classroom. All social media sites have privacy settings that you can adjust as you wish. You can set it so that only your friends or fans can see the classroom Facebook page. You can set it so that no one but you can post on the wall. You can use the notes section for classroom assignment sheets.

While Facebook is a great way to communicate, email is a skill kids must learn to use. For my yearbook and newspaper staffs, we have two email loops. One is just for editors. One is for the entire staff. This entire staff list, called Howelltalk, means that by sending one email to the Howelltalk addy, the entire staff receives an email into their inbox. This becomes a great way for kids to communicate with each other — and mimics the way businesses and organizational listserves operate. I use Howelltalk by forwarding journalism current event quizzes. I send them the New York Times story links, words of the day and deadline reminders. My students send each other emails like "Hey, who can take pictures tonight?" or "I need someone to write a story." My students send each other stories and pictures via Googledocs, eliminating paper and flashdrives.

You can set up free email groups through both Yahoo Groups and Google Groups. I like Yahoo best as you can set up a calendar function within the group itself that will send automatic reminders, but my district blocks Yahoo so we use Google. You can also create a group for parents and then you can send one reminder, which will then go to all parents. You can even set up your groups so that they are announcement only, meaning only you can post things. The possibilities are endless.

Another thing you can do to reach your students if you don't like the above choices is to set up your own personal classroom blog on Wordpress or Blogger. All classroom ages can take advantage of these free blog sites. In the past I have posted classroom assignments, including forms, directions, etc., on a blog. (As Yahoo and Google groups have a files section, I now upload my forms there for my journalism classes.) The benefits of a teacher blog are that a quick internet search will find your site. Thus parents and students can check the blog and know what you did that day, what was going on, and when things are due. You can also create a classroom blog where you allow students to post. My newspaper staff used a blog before they went to a full news website. If you are scared of what kids might post, you can have the blog set up so that you must approve each post before it goes live on the Web. A classroom blog can be a great place to publish and share writing that your students produce. Imagine putting up their poetry or essays for grandma to see.

If you are going to use social media sites, blogs and email, the key to making this type of communication work is to expect students to check and use the media. My journalism students have time during class to check their email. I had two students who didn't feel like they needed to worry about email, and they realized they were behind when people began talking about things they didn't know. They quickly got on the ball. Lesson learned.

The biggest obstacle you will face will be dealing with those who do not have access to the Internet. You will need to make sure they have access or you will need to get them the information another way. Yet those numbers are dwindling, and it is clear the future will be very Web-based. Don't let fear of technology or fears of not reaching all students stop you from using social media sites. Some of my journalism students didn't have an email address until they came into my classroom. As teachers we need to prepare our kids for the future. It's more than making videos and posting them to Youtube, or using safe, sanitized educational sites. Preparation students for the future also involves showing them how to communicate successfully in the real world, and social media is now a very big part of that current reality. We can lead by example, all the while making our lives easier as we provide students multiple ways to get information they need for our classes.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.