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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.

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Kathy F's picture
Kathy F
6th grade writing teacher

I am a FB user, teacher, mom, etc. I agree that Facebook can be used as a platform to advocate for our community. I live in New Jersey and there is a lot of tension between our new governor and the teachers' union. I read quite a few postings regarding how Gov. Christie is hurting education with all of the budget cuts etc. In addition, there is also another page in favor of Gov. Christie and his changes to state employees' benefits, wages and education reform.

I think it is wonderful that we as Americans have right to free speech and can discuss our thoughts via email, social networking sites, blogs, etc. However, I wish people would become more informed on the topics before writing their thoughts for the world to see. The ignorance of some people is (in my opinion) disturbing. In addition, those ignorant people end up causing more harm than good for their position.

Jeremy Hren's picture

Do you think that maybe people in the political realm are afraid of what can be done through these social media avenues such as facebook, twitter, etc. I think that it can be hard for the government to accept something being used that is not mandated by the state government. I think that the government wants the credit anytime positive changes are made in education but they do not want any credit for when education is struggling. It solely becomes the teachers responsibility.
I think that these social blogs and online avenues can be a powerful tool for teaching for two reasons. The students are very familiar with how these tools work and it can make the students feel as if they can succeed in expressing their opinion about the things that they learn. It allows the teacher to monitor the students comments and give prompt feedback to their students. It also allows students from other classrooms to interact with our students and give ideas and perspective to learning. That will challenge our students to really know their stuff when they reply to outside comments.

ConsciousSmith's picture
ConsciousSmith
Curriculum Developer, Developmental Studies Center

Heather's inspiring account is a great foil for this story, about the ultra-extreme anti-social media position taken by one principal.

Kenni Smith (@ThinkingSmith)
Developmental Studies Center
http://devstu.org

Science teacher for elementary students's picture

I am unable to access social networking sites in my classroom. I use the site, www.iteachinquiry.com for my students to blog with one another and to blog with other teachers around the world. It is completely monitored so I love it! I can set it up as a free technology and collaboration resource for my students. This allows my students to practice their 21st century skills in a safe environment. I also love it because, since it is backed by a world class science and math company, the students are getting wonderful feedback from experienced scientists and having a blast at the same time. If they or I submit anything and it is posted for others to blog on or share their problem solving strategy, we get something free for doing something that we would do anyway. Perfect!! I love using it as an assessment tool for writing, science, technology, and math. You should check it out. Even the videos are accessible for my kids!

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger

Thanks so much for your comment, and for this resource. I have been using www.kidblog.org with my middle schoolers. For a more conservative administration and community, it's less transparent, but it still gives me the outlet to discuss internet literacy, netiquette, etc...

Thanks again, however, for sharing iteachinquiry. I will pass it on to my math department in my school.

Thanks for commenting!

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Liz Delmatoff's picture

Great article! We started a social media pilot project 8 months ago in a Title 1 Middle School. It's been amazing. I loved reading your ideas and the comments of the readers. Please feel free to share on our blog too ~ www.edsome.com

Andrew Regnery's picture

Great article... As a 21st Century K-12 Education Transformation Advocate you were right on point with the use of Social Networking and Facebook as great learning tools and technology. I perform education outreach through project-focus, team-based, real-world application type after school programs in the field of engineering, math and science. This after school learning environment also uses the capabilities of Distance Learning to permit students access to a virtual and collaborative community. The model of 20th century K-12 public education will go through radical transformation over the next 10 years with the new education policies, programs, and focus of the Obama administration. It is great to see how Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is involving real and effective teachers the opportunity to participate and discuss their concerns and suggestions for Obama's blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Thanks for sharing!

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