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.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 7th 2010, 3:34 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
My apologies to all you readers who got lost on my website yesterday looking for 'sprizzlefracked'. I should have specified the story in question. Go to:
'Dolphin Address, www.janploeg.nl / English Version, in the sidebar you'll find 'Hippie Love', Enjoy!
Wednesday July 7th 2010, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Suzanne (Asheville, NC)
Thank you, Michele, for all these great ideas. You make a strong argument for getting with it and not fearing the future. Your suggestion that we shouldn't be afraid to use social media or blogs for fear that we won't reach all of our students rang out for me. I appreciate your advice. It sounds a little shocking to hear that some of your students didn't even have email addresses until they took your class, but I know that a great number of families in the US aren't online yet. We need better access, inexpensive high-speed Internet for more areas, including the rural towns and cities where students are really struggling.

You must write instead of sleep. Congrats on your 23rd novel, too!
Wednesday July 7th 2010, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
That we as a species have every reason to fear the future is a gross understatement. In the face of blind engagement for maximum production and consumption, it is best to let that simmer, instead of trying to elaborate.
Wednesday July 7th 2010, 11:16 PM
Comment by: Steve C.
This is an unfortunately badly misguided article. In a perfect world, or even a well maintained environment the social media experiment would be just as excellent a medium for student interaction as is described by the author. This is not the case however. Facebook would be the wonderful medium described if there were any consideration beyond a halfheartedly maintained veneer of concern for the customers of the service.

The problem is privacy, but not in the way of the common debate. Yes we are all protected from one another should we take the initiative to shutdown the insanely open default permissions. The problems truly lay in the back door access to the data available to anyone with the dollars to pay for it. The people with those dollars granted open access to build profiles at any granularity at their leisure are more hazardous than most any of the end user peer users of these environments.

With proper legislation to close the backdoor sales of personal data by prohibiting the sale of data from purchased services or forcing free services to publicly disclose those to whom data is being sold would be a good first step to making this a realistic article.

Our children need to be taught how to protect themselves in this emerging technological world blossoming around us, not encouraged to mindlessly exploit what is easy or "cool." The unquestioned pursuit of this social candy sets our children up to be the ones exploited in the end.
If there is doubt in this regard consider what life would be like if the singular form of information kept in our credit bureaus were as uncontrolled as the social media of today. Each of us as individuals are already at risk of tremendous inconvenience at a minimum in this closely controlled space of credit reporting. Now consider the breadth of information that is available about anyone who posts to an uncontrolled space whether it be the hugely popular Facebook, the "Betamax" of social media MySpace or any of the other plethora data gathering and aggregating entities.

We need to be calling an end to the wanton exploitation of anyone not computer savvy that has been taking place. We need to be demanding legislative protection of our data as individuals and teaching responsible use of our technology, not naively encouraging each other to further immerse ourselves in an environment for which there is only a vague understanding. When on vacation with our kids in places we don't fully understand we keep them close and have them check in often, yet many of us allow them to wander freely and unchecked in the poorly understood no-man's land of technology amongst the numerous corporate giants already demonstrated to place a much higher value on cash flow than social responsibility.

There is a reason professionals and companies are blocking Facebook and similar sites. They understand the dangers that run considerably deeper than an overlooked peer restraining permission on someone's account. It is irresponsible to suggest in any way circumventing their efforts to protect their own interests and ours, to some degree, by proxy.

Thursday July 8th 2010, 8:37 AM
Comment by: mare4short (Fresno, CA)
Dear Steve and Everybody:
Legislating perfection IS NOT AVAILABLE TO HUMANS! Even the tinyest little itsy bit!

Experimenting to discover what works, when, with whom, how, why, whynot, and etc. (meaning there's always more no matter how you or anyone slices any problem)! [And any solution.]
Monday July 12th 2010, 1:37 AM
Comment by: Steve C.
Dear Ms. Fuller,

I was not calling for legislation to create a perfect world any more than I am sure you are not saying we should have no legislation whatsoever. If we keep my comment within the context for which it was meant, I am pretty confident the issue of the dangers of ushering people to an environment they don't fully understand is clear. Ms. Dunaway obviously means well and I wish her well in her writing endeavors. Having only one book that is far from any best sellers list, I can sincerely congratulate her in a 23 book accomplishment, However Ms Dunaway is also apparently absent of the in-depth knowledge that would be appropriate for advising others in the use of technology.

I feel my point is made and clear Ms. Fuller. Perhaps if our paths cross again at a place other than Ms. Dunaway's article we will be in a better forum to discuss the merits of digression from topic that are your comments.

Wednesday August 11th 2010, 2:27 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
This is one of those situations that calls for us to walk the line between courage and caution. And it's a fine line. Ms Dunaway's article was aimed at giving courage to cautious teachers to use the networking technology that increasingly drives the social lives of most of our pupils today. The article wasn't aimed at the students, nor was it encouraging anyone to indulge in risky practices - she mentioned more than once ways in which teachers can, for instance, restrict access if they prefer. Her article was saying, in effect: your students are already network-savvy, so, hey, teachers, get in there with them.

Steve is, of course, right to stress the dangers in careless networking which hands the intimate details of our lives to corporations waiting to target their products more precisely, or to criminals intent on stealing our identity to use for their nefarious ends. Thankfully, we are presently being bombarded with such warnings, which I am sure Ms Dunaway is mightily aware of, given her professional standing.

I would be surprised if the IT teachers in our high schools were unaware of the dangers that Steve refers to, and I therefore presume that the English and Journalism teachers who respond positively to Ms Dunaway's article will be given plenty of careful advice in this matter, so that the teachers won't be putting students into danger of exploitation, which none of us wants.

One of my sons teaches Media Studies in a High School (in the UK). I will ask him about the use of social networking sites by the teaching staff in his school and about their awareness of the dangers. I will report his comments if relevant and interesting. I may even persuade him to write a comment himself (we are all currently on holiday together in France).

Finally, there is the possibility that teenagers know about the dangers but don't mind, for instance, being targeted by corporations. What we see as exploitation they may see as helpful marketing. Indeed, I saw an *adult* interviewed on this subject and he said he *welcomed* adverts targeted at his interests and hated adverts that were for products or services in which he had not the slightest interest.

We are in a state of radical flux in the way we relate (or don't) as individuals within our world, and I feel the debate sparked by Ms Dunaway's article is one of the most important we can be engaged in right now.

By the way, I am currently recounting My Life In Pictures on Facebook, viewable by the Public, and I seriously don't know what risks I am running in doing this. I have changed some names and been especially cautious about including photos of other people (even those I've not been in contact with for decades). Where does one obtain advice on this matter?
Wednesday August 11th 2010, 8:18 PM
Comment by: Steve C.
I appreciate Geoff A's comments on this matter as sincere with genuine concern and respect for the several facets of the discussion. I am however concerned as these comments reflect the "I'm sure someone is taking care of it" stance that I myself fell to, even as an IT professional having extensive experience in this area.

To me it was unconscionable to believe the immense potential for benefit available to the world would be left so unprotected and abused as it is today. We have gone from realizing the great benefits to be enjoyed in our technology and guarding against it's abuses, to our current circumstance where the hazards almost outweigh the benefit.

I am fully on board with Ms. Dunaway's comments. I once championed the very same causes and have been a pioneer of sorts in what I then called "collaborative networking." Unfortunately this great evolution in technology has been corrupted. Like fertilizer made into an explosive, the technology so rich in opportunity to foster our deeply ingrained social impulses that are a part of the human condition have been turned against the individual.

Whether teenagers "mind or not" has no bearing on the conversation. It is our responsibility as adults to teach them the survival skills needed to succeed in today's society. It is our responsibility to be accountable for the structure in which they develop. I can tell you that far too many of our leaders see our kids age 12 to 25 as the primary target for cash harvesting moreso than being seen as the future of our society. As long as we let , or worse "advise" these young adults to freely interact in a way that makes them vulnerable we are letting our youth down. Commentary such as this article are seen as endorsements of this medium and provide a false sense of security. A mindset of "Yeah my words are being watched, but Ms Dunaway said it was okay so it must not be a problem" prevails and the problem proliferates.

I am in no way saying this social activity should stop, although I do feel there is no substitute for personal interaction. I am saying that the current mediums of choice should not be used as they are, and certainly not as recommended in this article. The technology to fix this problem exists today. What we need is knowledgeable people to stand up for what is right moreso than what is profitable. While I understand a business must make money and money is the lifeblood of any modern society, there are more important currencies in life than the monetary system.

I do digress. I have expressed my concerns much further than in this article commentary. There are a lot of end users like yourself who suspect something is awry and can't put their finger on it. There are also a lot of professionals in this field that understand what is awry and don't know what to do about it. I am currently working on bringing these concerns together to create a solution to these problems. You are correct Geoff, this is a very important conversation and it must continue. In answer to your question of where to go for advice: Steve @ AskAThena . us

(delete the spaces before using the address)
Thursday August 12th 2010, 7:34 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I will be in touch, Steve, probably when I get home from this holiday - another gloriously sunny day in Normandy. Hopefully by then more people will have joined the debate.

I did ask my son about it. He works in an area of one of our major cities with a low socio-economic population, where it is hard to get much cooperation from the pupils in any sphere of their education. So maybe that explains why, when he has tried to use technology in ways suggested by Ms Dunaway (eg for posting homework, etc) he's not had sufficient response to make it viable. As he puts it, the kids use the technology *constantly* in their out-of-school lives and so using it for any kind of school work or project would 'taint' it for them. It wouldn't be 'cool'. (They aren't allowed their cell phones in school).

As for the dangers of being exploited and targeted by commercial powers, he was sadly pessimistic, worn down by the reality of these youngsters' lives: he said in effect that it's what they *want* - after only three years sharing their lives in a teacher-pupil relationship, he is tired of trying to change their outlook and ambitions: they live for buying stuff, for consuming, for exchanging trivia on their innumerable social networking sites, for comparing purchases and fashions.

In other words, one could say that the social networking sites and all the selling tricks now employed by retailers on their websites (reviews, lists, preferences, etc) are successful because they chime with what most people have become - rabid consumers and fashionistas. We used to have campaigns against the power of tv commercials to brainwash our children (and adults, of course) into becoming mindless consumers, and now the corporations are laughing because youngsters (and adults) are actively complicit in this brainwashing because advertising has, in effect, become interactive.

A positive side to this is that aware adults (and some youngsters) can use this interactivity to badger companies into improving their products or giving a better service. If users are more exposed, so are companies. But it does mean that unaware people (of all ages) can be terribly taken advantage of (one thinks of old people falling prey to phishers, which sadly is happening a lot).

The sunshine beckons!

- GA
Thursday August 12th 2010, 5:10 PM
Comment by: Steve C.
Geoff's last comments are very bittersweet for me to see. On one hand to see such a clear expression of my concerns so clearly articulated out of his own research is a huge validation in a very lonely effort. On the other hand, I would have enjoyed seeing something, anything out of his sons experience, to prove me doubtlessly wrong.

Geoff, you have hit on several topics in your comment that are very near our root causes in the social problems we are experiencing in our technological advancements. In the end it isn't the technology itself at all. Please send me an email to the address I left for you previously as I gave a speech to about 300 people a little while back that I think you should read judging by your comments. I was asked by a reporter at the event for the speech and he published it verbatim, but I'm thinking you wouldn't have seen it in your local paper on the other side of the Atlantic.

The email address I gave you is going to be deactivated soon and the associated site dropped in favor of a new site with a focus on expanding the conversation around these topics into much broader circles.

Have a fine wine in that glorious sun. Enjoy life beyond the screen that so many seem to have lost themselves into.


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