Making Connections Outside of the Classroom
Social media shows students that learning isn’t limited to their classroom, but that the world is their classroom, and it has been a strong connector for Albemarle County Public Schools. Here, social media has broken down classroom and district walls, creating a venue for discussion and shared ideas without boundaries.
"I like to think of social media as being somewhat like the bees that go from flower to flower to flower and take a little bit of pollen from here to there, and the next thing you know you've got daylilies you've never had before because the bees have cross-pollinated plants," says Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools.
"I like to think that that happens inside a school system," Moran says, "so the ideas that a teacher has at Stone Robinson Elementary can influence the ideas that a teacher at Woodbrook Elementary has, but then beyond that because social media is one way for teachers to communicate across the system -- whether it's through Twitter or through blog posts or a Vine video that they're posting, or even Instagram."
Social media has helped Albemarle with:
- Student engagement and real world-relevance
- Professional development
- School, district, and worldwide teacher collaboration
How It's Done
Connect Students Within the District
Melissa Techman, the librarian at Broadus Wood Elementary, empowers her students' voices by asking for feedback on the work, look, and usability of the library, and she uses social media for connecting students across the district to foster that discussion.
One example of this social media connection is the series of Skype video chats that Techman set up between fifth grade and high school students to discuss usability when downloading ebooks from the public library. The high school students shared their frustrations and difficulties with the downloads. She wanted to help her fifth grade students form their thoughts and feel comfortable sharing their opinions on how the downloading process should change.
"I think that's an interesting side of living in the real world and living online where we want our students to feel really that their voice matters in all kinds of ways," Techman says.
Connect Students to Classrooms Around the Globe
Michael Thornton, a fifth grade teacher at Agnor Hurt Elementary School, documented his students' paper tower challenge on Twitter.
The project parameters:
- He gave his students 20 sheets of paper.
- He told them that they could fold it and manipulate it how they wanted, but they couldn't use glue or tape.
- They had 40 minutes.
- Their goal was to see how to build the highest paper tower.
Thornton used Twitter to document the paper tower challenge and connect with schools worldwide:
- He tweeted out the initial pictures and explained what they showed.
- He responded to other schools' questions about the paper tower challenge.
- He saw other schools posting their challenge photos on Twitter, and created a Google doc to facilitate a worldwide paper tower challenge.
- Other schools could share their pictures and note their own classes' highest paper tower on the Google doc, showing everyone the champion of the paper tower challenge in real time.
A class from Chicago and a class from neighboring Nelson County participated in the paper tower challenge. In addition to elementary schools, middle and high school classes participated in the challenge, as well as teachers at a teaching conference in Ireland.
"Beyond just the four walls that are in this classroom and with their teacher or their parents, they can share it with classes in Chicago, or across the world," Thornton says. "And that's really important to them, because truly what they're doing, as we know, matters."
Create Consent Forms and Highlight Student Work
Albemarle County Public Schools send out a blanket permission form at the beginning of the year requesting parent consent to share video and photos of their children on social media and the web. That form includes a question like, "Can your child have their picture taken for social media and our website?"
This helps teachers know from the beginning of the year the parameters of what they can and cannot do with social media, and which kids can and cannot be featured.
Here's Thornton's strategy on posting photos of students responsibly:
- Most of the time, he doesn't tweet actual pictures of his kids, focusing instead on their work.
- He steers away from posting pictures of his students' faces.
- Even though he already has parent and student consent, he'll usually ask his kids for their consent again before he publishes something to social media.
Connect Students to Experts
"Can you see the night and day line from space?" a student asked Thornton when they were studying night and day.
Thornton and his class tweeted that question to an astronaut and to NASA, and they both responded. They answered not only that question but others as well, and tweeted back a picture.
Thornton will post some of his students' questions to Twitter. Students are excited to see that people are engaging with them, and that they can get responses from experts, like NASA. "They do appreciate the fact that people are responding to what they do," Thornton says.
When Thornton's class was studying simple machines a few years ago, one of his students asked, "What about a straw? Would a straw be like one of the simple machines?"
To aid their class discussion about the materials they were using, Thornton called attention to the drinking straw by tweeting out, "Would the straw be an example of one of the six simple machines?" Scientists across the United States started retweeting and responding to his tweet. Experts were responding so quickly that he created a Google doc to house all of their responses.
The instant responses and the momentum created by opening up this question on social media was exciting for his students. They saw a live debate evolving on Twitter and their Google doc. They got to see, firsthand, that not all scientists agree, and they got to witness how arguments evolve as more information and viewpoints enter into a discussion. They learned that their questions mattered and that experts will pay attention to what they have to say.
Here's how Thornton creates discussions on Twitter:
- He mentions specific experts and organizations that might answer his students' questions. When you mention someone on Twitter, they get a notification that someone is talking to them.
- He uses hashtags to foster Twitter discussions around certain questions or projects.
- He creates Google docs to allow Twitter users to expand their discussion outside of the 144-character tweet.
Connect Students to Their Community
"Our kids just get so excited when they realize that somebody's interested in what they've done," says Superintendent Pam Moran.
Outside of students' work being seen by other classes across the globe and by experts chiming into their class discussions, Albemarle also uses social media to involve their local community by:
- Sharing students' work on social media and encouraging students to share as well
- Engaging in parent social media posts about student work
- Engaging in community posts about students' work and accomplishments
Albemarle high school students make promo videos of their upcoming spring musicals and share them on YouTube and Facebook to involve their local communities. They're proud to have their work seen and appreciated by people outside of their school.
Moran recently noticed that a parent had shared on Facebook a photo of Albemarle students who won an international robotics championship, and she jumped right in and commented, "I'm so proud that we have robotics teams in all of our high schools, and even our middle schools and elementary schools do a lot with robotics." One of the high school robotics sponsors then commented, "Thanks for the shout out to all of Albemarle County robotics teams."
Moran says about parents and community members who acknowledge students on social media, "It’s a way of both positively reinforcing the work, [and] letting the kids really feel that their work is seen beyond just the sort of face-to-face things that happen in more traditional media."
Social Media Connects Educators
Albemarle educators use social media for:
- Sharing and getting ideas
- Communicating across the district, school, or classroom
- Professional development
Share and Get Ideas on Twitter
Moran encouraged Thornton to set up a Twitter account when she saw what he was doing in his class. "You're doing things here that apply directly to what other people are doing," she told him, "and it'd be cool for you to be able to have those interactions [with other educators on Twitter]."
Thornton uses Twitter to highlight what his kids are doing in the classroom. "You know, they come up with such creative things. It's a great avenue to give them the opportunity to share that," he says.
Other Albemarle teachers use Twitter to get ideas for their classroom. "A lot of the ideas that I come back with and share with kids, I saw through Twitter," says Karen Heathcock, a third grade teacher at Broadus Wood Elementary School.
Before Thornton delved into Twitter, he researched it and created a plan:
- He Googled, "What's the best way to use Twitter in the classroom?"
- He learned not to worry about things being less than great right away.
- He took the time to understand how Twitter works and how its tools could best be used in his classroom.
- He was clear on his purpose for using Twitter. "The goal of using Twitter for me is to promote what my students do," Thornton says.
He also learned to be patient with the process of building his Twitter network. He didn't start connecting with and influencing schools in Chicago and teachers in Ireland with his kids' projects right away. "It's kind of a slow process at first," Thornton says. When he first started tweeting, he felt like he was sending tweets to no one, and he only had about ten followers.
Here are other tips that help Albemarle educators get started on Twitter:
- They follow educators with a lot of followers.
- They follow educators who share their interests.
- They watch how other educators use Twitter.
- They find ideas from other teachers to implement in their own classrooms.
- They directly tag educators, parents, and community members to start discussions or ask questions.
- They use and follow hashtags to find specific information and to join district, school, class, project, and topic discussions.
Use Twitter Hashtags to Communicate Across the Classroom, School, and District
Albemarle County Public Schools use Twitter as one of their main forms of communication, and they do this through hashtags. They create hashtags to use for their:
A hashtag is a word, phrase, or acronym -- like #ACPS, which stands for Albemarle County Public Schools. Hashtags are used to help people follow discussions around a topic, or to start those discussions. If someone has a district-wide question, idea, or thought, they can include the hashtag #ACPS in their tweet. For school-related communications, they would use their school's hashtag. If a teacher or student wanted to tweet something related to their class or project, they would use their class or project hashtag.
Use Social Media for Professional Development
Becky Fisher, the director of educational technology at Albemarle County Public Schools, noticed that some of their teachers were involved in ED chats every week, running ED chats, and using Twitter as a professional development tool. From that awareness, she created a mechanism for teachers to submit their social media work for county-wide professional development credits.
Here's a partial list of social media actions that help Albemarle teachers earn professional development credits:
- Blog posts that they read routinely
- Social media content that they produce themselves
- Participating in ED chats
- Running ED chats
Social Media Platforms
Here's a partial list of the social media platforms that Albemarle uses:
- Google Docs
Techman uses Pinterest boards to accumulate writing prompts and share her students' book reviews. Instead of solely creating social media profiles on different platforms, she'll also use other people's profiles as resources for her students, which is a simple way to integrate social media into the classroom. "I'm seeing Tumblrs run by these very interesting archival sources," Techman says. "I'll project those for my students and say, 'Look at the amazing visual resources that are coming out of this image library and they're showing us on Tumblr.'"