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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Social Media in Education: The Power of Facebook

As a teacher and a new mom, it didn't take long for me to find Facebook as a supplement for my stunted social life. And as any FB user knows, once you join, you become inundated with photos of new babies, comments about friends' recent bodily functions, quiz results, and mysterious requests for farm equipment or mafia weapons.

But beyond the posts I saw that made me laugh, cry, and wince, I soon learned that Facebook was also a place of professional learning and development.

I began sharing with other teachers and educators what were working, what news I'd read, what blog post I'd written, my indignations, and my victories. Soon my small pool of professional friends bled into my small pool of personal ones. And so I also discovered that Facebook was more than just a means to learn about friends professionally and colleagues personally: It became a way to publicize the issues each of us felt deserved advocacy.

Potent Proof

A couple recent models of this education advocacy on Facebook that come to mind may be different in intent, but they both have something in common: the use of 21st century tools to move mountains.

Example One: Buffelgrass shall perish

To say the Buffelgrass Shall Perish fan page is the mastermind of Tucson teacher, Brian Kievit would be inaccurate according to the enthusiastic middle school science teacher. It was, he admits with a smile via Skype, "one-hundred percent student created." In true problem-based learning format, the science teacher asked a group of eighth graders at his school to pick a problem in their local community and solve it.

They picked Buffelgrass, that fast-growing, flame resistant menace which is cheaply imported by some states (listen up Texas!) as inexpensive erosion control and cattle feed. But, like something out of a B-horror film, it devours the natural habitat, stealing water and sucking the nutrients from the ecosystem, and has a shelf life seemingly longer than a Twinkie. In other words, after we're dead and gone, it will be Twinkies, cockroaches, and Buffelgrass left behind.

But once the students had discovered the plague-like weed, they weren't sure how to spread the word of its horrors. One student declared that they "needed to get the word out." After all, "knowledge is power." Which was when they decided to create a Facebook page devoted to the threat. They soon posted a a rap song on YouTube and using Facebook, the small group of grime fighters update on their progress in educating the nation about this ground cover of evil.

Brian Kievit's project was all about student choice, the scientific method, and getting the word out to different states -- courtesy of a little 21st century know-how. In so doing, he created a learning community, and nurtured what many teachers scratch their heads to achieve: students who love the learning process.

Using the social networking tools of our age, this one Tucson teacher and his small group of students began to educate politicians, farmers, and Facebook fans like me. Using 21st century tools, they have become advocates for their own local community.

Example Two: Teachers' Letters to Obama

And then there are those who are using Facebook to be advocates for their larger educational community.

Anthony Cody began his Teachers' Letters to Obama Facebook campaign as a personal outlet, a diary entry that soon grew into a movement. And as a result of that movement, twelve of us have been granted a conference call with Arne Duncan himself to discuss concerns and suggestions for Obama's blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Perhaps you've heard of the Teachers' Letters to Obama campaign. Perhaps you've even submitted a letter. If you have, you should know that you've become a part of a chain that has led to Arne Duncan's office itself. For from the time you added your thoughts to the discussion post, your drop in the puddle joined with others to create a pool of possibilities.

What began as a discussion page for teachers to write their experiences, concerns, and suggestions, soon found their way to a congressman and bada-bing, bada-bang, a door opened and a conference call was scheduled between Duncan, Cody, and company -- a small panel of teachers representing all walks of education life from all over the country.

The group doesn't represent a particular political group, union stance, philosophy, or agenda. We come from different educational backgrounds and paths, from all regions and economic brackets. Some are award-winning teachers and some represent everything from rural to urban, from high performing to "failing" schools. In all, we are a slice of the teacher profession in a snapshot.

But while twelve teachers will be speaking, it is almost 2,000 educators whose voices will be heard. And it's all due to the use of 21st century tools. On Facebook, Cody sent out a survey using SurveyMonkey asking teachers to help whittle down the list of topics most frequently brought up on the Teachers' Letters to Obama page to the ones they found to be the most important. The group formed a ning to help hone in on issues, to analyze the phrases from the ESEA blueprint together, and discuss the most innovative solutions from teachers in order to suggest to Duncan. They used Elluminate to meet each other on a virtual platform, planning this collaborative conversation with the secretary of education, bringing the voices of teachers to the policy table.

Our discussion is waiting to be slated, and I assure you, Edutopia reader, that I will update you with its results.

Advocacy in Action

We are no longer "just teachers." We each have the power to change our small and greater worlds by using social networking to get our voices heard. The power of social networking can at times be unforeseen, but it is clearly a tool for advocacy at every level in education.

The bottom line is this: Anyone can be involved in solving the problems of our era. With 21st century tools, a small group of students can stand up to the devastation of nature, and a small group of teachers can be strengthened by the shared opinions of a larger group and take a stand against the devastation of certain policies that may control our practice.

Comments (38)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Erika Huff's picture

I am a facebook user and find it helpful on many levels, both personal and professional. A district in our state just voted so that teachers and students cannot be friends on facebook. They say that it can turn inappropriate and it is important for students to look at their teachers in a role of respect not being a "buddy". I can see how this is a good thing if there have been problems in the past but it also limits how teachers can connect and open the minds of their students, as was mentioned in the above paragraph about the Buffelgrass. I connect with other educators who share interest in improving literacy on http://www.facebook.com/pages/Reading-Horizons/105859258711?ref=ts and I find it very helpful to interact with educators who are social media savvy.

Mary Martin's picture
Mary Martin
Eighth grade English teacher from Aiken, South Carolina

Heather and Science teacher,

Thank you so much for sharing these resources. I love the idea behind iteachinquiry, and I'm wondering if such a site exists that would allow ELA students to have access to and collaborate with professional writers. Also, I'm new to blogging myself, but I'm intrigued by the thought of using this avenue with my students. I would love for someone to share specific ideas on how to incorporate blogging into an ELA classroom.

Jeremy Hren's picture

This is what I love about social networking. I gained new perspective on different resources of using social blogs in the classroom. I guess that my question is the ability to make that work in a school where you have to compete with other classes to use the computer resources? Anybody struggling with the same issue? Can anyone offer insight on how this could be overcome? I would welcome any advice on this.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger

If you have a one-computer classroom, it makes all the difference. A computer + LCD is all you need to create a social media station. I've blogged about my use of twitter here on Edutopia in the past, and having it set up so publicly in the classroom actually also helps with transparency and classroom management, especially when they are learning about technology.

Thanks for the comment. And remember that the key is to be fearless and try, even if you don't have everything totally worked out.

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger

I've checked out nicenet and kidblog and I really like kidblog. Right now in my ELA classroom we have online book clubs going on. The kids are in groups of 5. Every other week, they post a new update about the book they are currently reading (each kid is reading a book of their own choice). I had handed out guidelines and we did our first post in offline rough draft first. Every other week they are not posting their own discussion, they must comment on the posts that those in their group posted. I have them guidelines for posting comments on a blog as well (see my books on Internet Literacy for TCR for a start.) They are so enthused that they are all commenting on everyone's posts. In fact, some are posting regularly just for the heck of it.

We've also just posted our rough drafts of our genre essays for feedback before our final drafts are due. They're great.

It's a monster! And it's some of the best writing I've seen from them all year.

Good luck in your blogging endeavors, and thanks for the comment. Come back for more updates, resources, and advice.

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

sarah's picture

Heather and collaborators,
I teach high school art and an online class in photography.We use blogs, wikis and private threads for online communication and collaboration with great results. Currently I am also taking a Web 2.0 class online in an effort to stay abreast of the technology advances in education. Your experiences with social networking are especially interesting since we're encouraged to blog in our school, but social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube, and any that appear to be "chat rooms" are blocked. Our congressional representative ran the Congressional Art contest through Facebook for the past two years, and I felt it became more of a voter requisition and popularity contest than a forum for young artists. I was opposed to the format simply because many students could not go online and become "friends" with the congressman to view and vote for artwork. In that respect I think Facebook was not the optimum venue.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger

...probably not. But the purpose of the article and our subsequent conversation is to promote social media in the classrooms, to tap into their inherent need to discuss, expand their worlds, and be advocates. Teaching how to function online on these kinds of sites is far more important than using one site in particular.

Thanks for your comment and your reminder about the big picture.

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

maryann walsh's picture

I am a face book user and live in NJ too!

I am happy to see there is possibly a venue for sincere discussions on how to improve student achievement and maintain quality teachers.

I made an effort to write to the NEA three years ago on my thoughts about how to improve the system and teacher salaries. However, the organization never responded and just referred my letter to my local union. I did get a "status quo" response from them
Teaching methods and strategies have have changed yet the union has not made any "paradigm shift" to improve education for students

I would like to be a part of the group of teachers "being heard" by Arne Duncan. Does anyone know if the "educational discussions have already taken place?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger

Nope, the group from Facebook Letters to Obama haven't taken place yet (we are calendaring it as we speak), but the good news about Duncan is that he's set up venues on the DOE site for input from teachers already. He's also been hearing from different groups about their takes on education throughout their whole tenure in DC. The thing that makes the Facebook group different is that we don't represent a particular theory, union POV, or educational stance.

My advice is to go to Facebook, join the discussion, and start getting your voice out in the LTO Forum. We check it all the time for input from other teachers so that our voice represents yours.

Otherwise, go to the DOE and go directly to the boards and blogs that they are referring to daily.

Thanks for your interest and your comments!

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Karl Klint's picture

Indeed, the ability to use social network sites to empower a classroom is tempting, but I would like to caution against the use of Facebook as a classroom outlet.

I actually do use facebook to share political agendas that I am passionate about, but there is danger beyond the spread of buffalo grass that can grow through the crossing of the classroom and facebook.

I love the passion that arises, and the positive atmosphere such a discussion can create; unfortunately Facebook should not be used for education.

Reason 1) The politics of Facebook's anti-privacy action. As many have read in recent weeks, Facebook is indeed making individual privacy more difficult to control. This means that one of your students might write something that goes against the standards of your school or program. Now what? Well, a lawsuit could extend out of this due to the connection the student now has to the classroom.

Reason 2) Future employment could be terminated for the student. Here is an example, you ask the students to write something for a political science class. They may write what is not technically their viewpoint (or possibly a forming viewpoint that might someday dissipate). The class assignment ends, but the words do not disappear. Employees now search databases to find out about their workers. I know this from personal experience. The student's words follow them into the future; and even if their viewpoints change, the employee has no way of recognizing that they have changed. I lost a position I was applying for (personal connections informed me later of the reason) based on a political blog I once authored (for a class assignment). Though I was role playing as a student, the employer didn't want to hire a political loose cannon.

Reason 3) I will end with this: Though Facebook was originally designed as a place for people within education to connect, it has become a social mecca. Students do not fully enjoy having their personal/social lives connected with the subjective world of the classroom. We, educators, see great opportunity in connecting to our students by extending the classroom into Facebook. Unfortunately, we have to also ask ourselves if we have crossed a fine line between school and home. I teach rhetoric at the University level. I have asked students if they would be bothered by the use of Facebook as part of the curriculum. One student asked me this in return, "Do you feel strange if you run into a student while out having drinks on the weekend? Thats how I feel when a teacher wants to be my facebook friend."

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