A Status Update for School Curriculum:
a personal reflection of authentic learning components being practiced in social media
Advanced Qualitative Inquiry
March 16th, 2012
In the 21st century of education, there are two types of teachers: those using Facebook and those who do not. There are other options but Jaclyn Cabral’s (2011) study about social media addiction amongst Generation Y, also known as the ‘net generation’, ranks Facebook as the popular choice. The study, categorizes Generation Y as those born between mid-1970s and 2000. Parks Associates (2009) reported a growing demand for social media features in television. It concludes by focusing on the growing number of TV users as opposed to passive TV viewers. The concept was beginning to take at the time of the study and quickly became a commonality, according to Cabral, as social media is integrated in various mobile devices. Clay Shirky (2008) recognizes the pattern of technology integration in Here Comes Everybody; technology progresses from normal, ubiquitous, to invisible due to the commonality of everyday use. The following narrative details pivotal moments of my high school experience in comparison to experiences as a high school English teacher adapting to the needs of Generation Y students using authentic learning (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993) and how it can be positively impacted by social media. The results of this reflection support my theorized need for authentic learning and an open policy for social media in the classroom.
At the time of this writing, I’m fortunate to be working as the Literacy Coordinator with the K20 Center at the University of Oklahoma while continuing my degree. In brief, it’s my job to mentor teachers about engaging teaching practices and authentic technology integration. It’s also a lot of fun, but most of the time, it’s just an office job. Let’s face it, there’s nothing like being a classroom teacher. It is a thrill to collaborate with new and veteran teachers participating in the K20’s programs and I fully believe in our mission to spread 21st century learning skill to fully prepare students for life after high school. Unfortunately, the journey leading me to the K20 Center suggests current trends in education are contradictory to our goals.
I enjoyed three years as a 9th grade high school English and Creative Writing teacher, avoiding the notorious pressures of high stakes testing classes. Maybe it is biased to say, but freshmen are the most challenging and important students in a high school. A report by the Alliance for Excellent Education (2010) uses the term ‘bottleneck’ to describe freshman year because a third of all dropouts are filtered out during this time. According to the study, a lack of engagement is one of the primary factors contributing to this trend. The average student brain has a attention span range of 15-20 minutes at most (Armstrong, 2009); an incompatible statistic with hour long classes subjected with lectures and worksheets. Professional development for educators from University course work, College Board AP training, and participation with the K20 Center contributed to my successful first years in the classroom. Then the opportunity to teach sophomore English was offered to me before starting the fourth year. Eager to see the effects my teaching style had on a high stakes testing class, I accepted.
I felt confident and comfortable taking on the demands of the state mandated EOI (End of Instruction) test for English 2 classes and the sophomore students that came with it! It also came with a pre-written curriculum, a script, to be taught. That would be all fine and well except it wasn’t a curriculum I believed in; it was heavy with worksheets, handouts, and drill-skill-kill tactics to prepare students for test after test. It lacked creativity and the authentic learning that helped me reach students in the ninth grade. Despite my objections, it was required curriculum for all sophomore teachers.
The Principal's Office
As a student raised in the American education system, I’ve only had the displeasure of getting sent to the principal’s office once in the seventh grade. It was traumatizing enough to deter me from ever returning again. As the saying goes, I remained on the straight and narrow until high school graduation. Fifteen years later, I find myself being called to the principal’s office again - this time not as a student, but as a teacher. Although an adult by all legal standards, the same uncomfortable feelings plagued me. I hope mom doesn’t find out.
The school principal greets and invites me inside and asks to shut the door. That can never be a good sign, right? To be fair, no one would ever accuse him of being purposely intimidating, but no one likes one sentence emails from their boss. “Please stop by my office after school.” I shut the door and take a seat.
“Josh” said the principal “there are concerns that you’re not on-board with the curriculum.” Time stood still. They got me. The scripted curriculum was delivered daily and each day I added it to a designated pile in the back of the classroom to collect dust. It was heavy in worksheets, handouts, and lecture. Attempts were made to utilize the curriculum, after all I did feel remorse for the amount of paper wasted, but Baines and Kunel (2003) recognize the perceptive nature of adolescents. I found this to be true through first hand experience. If I wasn’t excited about a lesson, it was difficult to convince students to be engaged. However, I had great success at engaging students with the authentic instruction practices proposed by Newmann and Whelage (1993). Authentic instruction focused on similar education practices proposed by Dewey (1938); fostering curriculum with a purpose to societal needs and to the student as an individual. Somehow, worksheets were not enough.
My tower of worksheets had been constructed over the course of almost a full semester before being called in to the principal’s office, but it wasn’t the first time I had issues with education. I haven’t been on board with most of the curriculum for longer than my professional teaching career. It has been a love and hate relationship with the standardized, high stakes testing model of education.
Hate School Writing
I learned to hate school, the first time, in the seventh grade when my family moved to Oklahoma. My English teacher, Mrs. Campbell, was capable of performing witchcraft on class assignments. She could take a black and white, typed book report and turn it red in a matter of seconds. She used something I wasn’t familiar with called grammar and sentence diagraming. A lot of class time was spent trying to diagram sentences off of worksheets. Little time was spent actually creating sentences. My favorite assignments were book reports. Although they consisted of simple summarization, it was still more engaging to present opinions than another diagramming worksheet.
In Texas public schools, creative writing was stressed through elementary and middle school believing grammar and punctuation would develop after a love of writing was fostered. “Your grammar mechanics are atrocious!” Mrs. Campbell would say about my book reports. She recommended me for remedial English classes. My mother found an after school tutor instead. I stayed in Mrs. Campbell’s class and continued to struggle through her eighth grade English class too. Let us say I merely survived?
Hate School Testing
I learned to hate school, even more, in the ninth grade. My parents wanted to enroll me in a college prepatory high school in Oklahoma City. A lengthy standardized test was required in order to be eligible to attend. After receiving the results, the school’s counselor suggested a “regular” public high school would be a better fit for me because it would “...work more at my speed.” Mom enrolled me anyway, despite the counselor’s suggestion. Later in my high school career, we were required to meet with the counselor and fill-out applications for college. I chose the University of Oklahoma but, once again, based on my standardized test scores from the pSAT and ACT, my counselor suggest I apply to a junior college. After all “...OU is very competitive” she said.
I applied despite the counselor’s suggestions. This required a combination of extracurricular work and multiple undertakings of the ACT test. I owe a large part of my ACT success to test prep courses teaching me valuable life skills such as "choose the most detailed and longest answer" or "fill in all Bs and Cs if you're running out of time." The time constraint was my greatest hurdle. I constantly wasted time arguing in my head for more than one answer among the multiple choices. Seven ACT attempts later, the acceptance letter from the University of Oklahoma came through the mail.
I didn’t talk to my former counselor again until after my first year of teaching. We encountered each other in the hallways of my high school alma mater.
“And what brings you back here?” she asked politely. I told her “I was just offered a teaching position in the English department.”
“Here?” she asked noticeably surprised.
“Yes” I said. “But I turned it down. I’m enjoying teaching at ‘regular’ school too much. By the way, did you see my OU graduation ring?”
Love School Writing/Testing
I fell back in love with school during freshman year of college. Almost all my assignments consisted of reading and composing a written response. No more worksheets! Essays require evidence of understanding, developing opinions, and support for arguments. I couldn't depend on advanced test taking tips such as "choose the most detailed and longest answer" or "fill in all Bs and Cs if you're running out of time." I had to convince professors I understood the material or fail.
Also during this period, the greatest technological advancement in the advent of the Internet revolution was the ability to share your music tastes with complete strangers through blogging. My initial experiments with blogging involved writing rants about observed human behavior and satirical accounts inspired by personal experiences. Although lacking any proofreading, my amateur hockey player roommate, Drew, visited my flagship blog without any coercion or begging and left positive feedback: “Dude this is the most hilarious, vulgar, but really intelligent sounding thing I ever read.”
It was flattering for two reasons: I hadn’t been complimented on my writing since the sixth grade and my roommate wasn’t the type to give positive feedback. We were more familiar to competitive “trash-talk” during Halo death match sessions, so this was a nice change of pace. I began to write more, often during class under the guise of taking notes, and posting stories and rants online. Drew was my audience for a long time, but it slowly grew to include past, present, and future girlfriends. Despite the time it took away from note taking in class, it didn’t hurt my College grade point average. College exams were typically essay-based, unlike the dreaded standardized tests I was accustomed to in high school. I love essay-based assessments.
Hate School Testing
I started to fall out of love with school again while on the other side of the fence as a high school English teacher. Our school focused on standardized testing and being data-driven. Standards of authentic instruction (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993) like depth of knowledge started to become a distant thought. There wasn’t time to waste on deepening student understanding. There were too many standardized tests to prepare for each month. My breaking point began during school lunch. I avoid the teacher’s lounge for a variety of reasons and choose to eat in my classroom. Students ate with me and worked on homework, sometimes even for my class, or would receive extra help on assignments.
This was also a great opportunity for them to take make-up quizzes. On one particular occasion, Britney, a student on the high school basketball team, came to make-up one of the standardized quizzes she missed. Britney brought her lunch and logged on to a classroom computer to take the quiz. This was another reason I didn’t mind the quizzes. I used online software to host and grade the quizzes for me. None of my time was spent grading quizzes. More time was available to read student writing or just socialize with students during lunch.
Britney booted up the aging school laptop. It was an old model and good for little more than basic web surfing and word processing, but that’s all I needed. With one hand she navigated her way to the required online quiz while navigating a turkey melt to her mouth with the other. Five minutes or less had passed and she came to check the results with me. It took more time for the laptop to turn on than it did for her to finish the quiz. Granted, it was only ten questions and they were assigned the corresponding reading ahead of time. I logged on to the quiz program and reported, "You got a 100%! You must have done the reading at home. Nice work!” I present my hand for a celebratory high-five. She replied, "Ha! I didn't even read it, Flo! I just guessed!" and she brought her palm to meet mine for a celebratory high-five. I moved my hand, effectively and immediately canceling the celebration. Britney’s palm hanging, I scramble for an explanation as to why it would benefit her to actually read the story rather than gambling between multiple-choice. I wasn’t very convincing. Britney rolled her eyes as she said “C’mon, Flo. It’s just a quiz. It’s not like a research paper or something like that.”
She had a point. It was just a quiz and there would be many more coming. It wasn’t the type of critical thinking based work we usually did in class or something like that. Although she was lucky with her gamble this time, even if she had not been so lucky, I knew and she knew it did not really reflect here true intelligence and depth. Like the reflections regard intelligence ascertained by Asimov (1971), Britney’s success at test taking is a function of the society she lives in, but not a good representation of her.
Hate School Worksheets
I continued to grow apart from my love of education. Standardization was not only becoming the norm for testing, it became the required practice for curriculum. On a typical school day, stacks of worksheets and handouts waited to be picked up from our teacher mailbox each morning. The accompanying wordy PowerPoint would be available in our e-mail inbox. The head of the English team was kind enough to provide sufficient copies of the assigned worksheets and handouts for each student. Picking-up the stacks, walking into my classroom, the bell would ring and the students would sit down. With all the copies pre-made, it was a matter of passing them out and reading the directions off the PowerPoint slides. The students would put their handouts in a designated section of a three-ring binder and turn in the worksheet by the end of the day.
Except it never quite happened according to plan.
I watched as students worked to completion, rather than to deepen understanding (Newmann & Whelage, 2009). Often, blatant cheating took place without remorse. Students would share answers and copy work in order to finish quickly. In my best teacher voice I would say, “You can’t copy your friend’s work! I’m going to have to put a zero down in the grade book for this assignment if you don’t do it on your own.”
“It’s just busy work!” Students scoffed. “What really matters is the test, anyway.”
A worksheet aimed at requiring a single student an entire class period would be completed in a matter of ten minutes or less. It was the microwave, fast food of education. Students gorged on the empty calories from an easy to serve lesson and were content socializing. Although, I noticed it wasn’t typical socializing. Rather than turn to a friend and engage in lengthy conversations, students turned to their cell phones. No, not even to make a phone call. Instead, they were writing shorthand messages, taking and then sharing pictures, or crowding around a single screen less than four inches in diameter to watch a video clip. I was fascinated with their fascination. Sidling up next to a student, I read over their shoulder as they updated their Facebook status to “done working for the day!” Something didn’t seem right about this, but it also didn’t seem wrong. Just misguided.
I could always find more worksheets to occupy time or completely get rid of them.
I had to get rid of them.
Worksheets were a crutch I eliminated after attending an, ironically school sponsored, professional development workshop. Attending professional development is required and I always benefited. After attending the great professional development workshops, we would often return to facilitate a discussion about it for the faculty at school. This peer instruction was ironically a great model of what Mazur (1997) describes as active learning. Yet, despite this and the investment of time and money, the worksheets continued to appear in my school mailbox each morning. The accompanying PowerPoint would be available in my e-mail inbox.
Meanwhile in the principal's office
The principal said, “there are concerns that you’re not on-board with the curriculum.” The door was shut and my knees were shaky. “This curriculum is a little more worksheet heavy than I’m accustomed.” I explained. “Am I required to use so many worksheets?” I had tenure and he wasn’t trying to intimidate by any means, but there’s something about being in the principal’s office that puts you on the defense.
“How do you assess whether the students learned anything?” He asked.
“How about more authentic assessments? Writing and creating a presentation to show what they learned? Making them take notes rather than collect handouts?” I suggested.
“Okay, but do the outcomes merit the amount of time required for lessons like that?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. No doubt, authentic teaching is a time commitment but learning is a recursive process with progressive development and practice (Kajder, 2010). There are six levels of comprehension to guide students through in Bloom’s taxonomy alone and common worksheets struggle to engage students past level one - rote memorization (Forehand, 2010). With the next standardized test around the corner, there wasn’t time to waste on the remaining five levels.He continued to explain. “It’s great if you give a student a project revolved around a single concept, but a project might take days or over a week of instruction time. If you used learning tools like worksheets and handouts, can’t you get the same results when you assess the student?”
I think I understood the dilemma. Test data is more convenient to quantify in a pie chart. Our district wanted concrete results on a frequent timetable to hold up and display for all to see. No one wanted to look at a student’s presentation, a short story, or a multi genre research project (Romano, 2000). The principal continued, “that kind of assessment is too subjective and time consuming. We need data-based evidence to show our students are learning.”
Why would school districts invest in professional development only to restrict students and teachers worksheets? Because critical thinking-based teaching is too subjective to be quantified. Data driven was the new buzzword. The solution to gathering this data was standardization of tests and curriculum. I had to pause to reflect on how it got to this point.
Subjective is Bad
Standardized assessment seemed harmless enough. Every student was going to be taking the same standardized End of Instruction exam in the Spring and we were required to teach the same state mandated skill, therefore regardless of our choice of reading material or teaching style, every student should be able to pass the same test at the end of a unit. Every teacher proctored the same unit tests to ensure their students were receiving the same learning. We could present the material however we wanted, but had to use the same tests. No problem. Every teacher has a unique style with strengths. We weren’t concerned about the test as long as we had control of the curriculum. Eventually, a standardized unit test wasn’t enough.
We also received short standardized quizzes to proctor midway through units. Then the computerized exams known as Benchmarks began to be conducted at the beginning of the year (referred to as the BOYT), a similar exam taking place halfway through the school year (the MOYT), and again at the end of the year (the EOYT). This didn’t count as the mid-term or final exam and was in addition to the state mandated End of Instruction test determining graduation to the next grade level. Oh, and I almost forgot the Psat test. Psat testing day bestowed us with a special school schedule. So, my principal was right. Authentic pedagogy was too time consuming when there were so many standardized quizzes, check-ups, and exams to proctor. It was exhausting.
With required tests scheduled for my students at such a high frequency, the biggest problem was motivating students to take the tests seriously. It was a familiar challenge I encountered first during my internship.
According to a few Google searches, the common range of internship pay can be as low as $7 and as high as $25 per hour. The internship pay for a high school English teacher position is $0 per hour. It actually cost money because we pay for a background check and finger printing before being allowed to start. Luckily, I didn’t know how well paid my friends in other degree fields were during their internships until months after completing mine. This isn’t about the disparity of internship jobs, but the irony makes me laugh a little. It’s necessary to refer to internships because it was during mine I first witnessed the phenomenon of social media at school. While proctoring students in a computer lab, one student was on his Facebook page.
Sometimes interning is equivalent to babysitting (except babysitters gets paid more) and luckily for this student, I was on babysitting duty today. The mentor teacher was making copies and left me in charge to proctor a test in the computer lab. If it had been anyone else but me, the kid might have been turned into the campus cop and charged for hacking the school system. I’m not just dabbling in hyperbole; Facebook was a huge no-no in the school district. It was such a big offense, the district instituted a Big Brother-like program to block it and websites like it. If a student or teacher tried to access it from any school computer, a big red circle with a line going through it would appear on the screen with the words NO ACCESS ALLOWED in bold, impact font. Yet, this boy prodigy of technology with his ironic Pokémon backpack and faded teal hair was updating his status to “this class sucks LOL”. Dewey (1933) might be intrigued at the level of reflective writing taking place at that moment, but I was focused on something else.
He didn’t notice as I walked up behind him and watched as he responded to the postings of other students. Then I broke his moment of rebellious triumphant by asking, “How’d you do that?” He immediately hit a couple keys on the keyboard, closing the website, and replied “Do what?”
“Listen, kiddo, I’m not here to bust you. I’m just curious because the school district invested a lot of money into preventing you from doing this and here you are defiant in the face of censorship.” I was trying to be genuine and convey a sense of level footing with him.
“Promise you won’t tell the teachers how?”
“I swear it!”
He was nice enough to show me. No matter what rule and corresponding punishment, if a student desired access to something they would find a way. This was the first phenomenon I witnessed in the classroom and it was repeated with school policy bans on cellphones. Students were first banned from using school computers from accessing social media sites, so they started accessing the same sites from their cellphones. The school retaliates by banning cellphones too. That didn’t work either.
Much like my experience as an intern, I found during my first year as the teacher that school policy didn’t keep students from using their phones at school. A student didn’t need to be a computer hacker when a fancy, relatively inexpensive smart phone will get the job done. Keeping them away from social media sites was a never-ending war in the classroom for some. There were too many access points for students to choose and if a school locked down one site, there was always another type for students to access. Like the war to get students engaged in worksheets, I had to make another milestone decision; it was time to start integrating social media in my classroom.
The main objective was to create a passive means of communication between students and myself. There were plenty of options available, but most were banned for use at school (e.g. Facebook, MySpace). On a personal level, I was cautious about blurring the student-teacher relationship with friendship. When a Facebook user allows another to access their personal information, the process is referred to as “friending”. Too often the consequences lead to a loss of respect (Lucas, 2012). I didn’t want to be their friend. I just wanted to be a more effective teacher. That is why I started using Moodle, a web 2.0 program similar to Facebook and other social media. Moodle allowed me to control user access but had a fraction of the user-friendly feature of the more popular options.
At first glance, the classroom Moodle page would be mistaken for a simple teacher web page. The same elements were available: a class schedule, a copy of the syllabus, my email address, and calendar. Regardless of the learning curve, Moodle's social media characteristics were effective in engaging students. Students could access it and collaborate on projects. They could turn in their work and allow it to be viewed and receive feedback from peers. I could grade their work and provide instant feedback too. Some even used the blog feature to compose journal entries. One of the most notable uses was as a long-distance facilitator. Getting students to use class time effectively when under the supervision of a substitute teacher is challenging. Often, worksheets seem like the natural solution but if I could reserve a computer lab they would engage with the lesson online and work would be turned in. I could even check up on my class' progress by logging on to the site from my cell phone.
There were many aspects of the Moodle program that made class a success. I assume it would only improve as I continued using it as a teaching tool and learning how to streamline it. Students’ main gripe was the lack of sharing beyond the school controlled site, but remained more engaged than with worksheets. Still, the feeling that we should just use the popular social media sites lingered in my head. My reasoning included the familiarity students already had with the structure stemming from daily practice. On the other hand, there are arguments as to whether the text message and social media practices have a negative effect. Yet for every negative experience, there is a positive in support for more social media integration.
I theorized it had benefits to classroom use but was untapped due to strict policies against its use at school. It would quench my curiosity to see if others shared my belief before going forward with a future planned dissertation level of study. What better way than by using social media to gather data?
I first started data gathering by going back to my roots - asking veteran teachers. Without the help of many veteran teachers, my head never would have stayed above water the first year. “Shut-up and listen,” was my mom’s advice. I think she meant to say don’t be a know-it-all, hot shot, new teacher trying to reinvent the wheel because there are a lot of excellent strategies never taught in college. I made sure to appreciate veteran educators and still receive invaluable advice from them. With social media, they are more available than ever.
Twitter, for example, is a social media tool based around conversation and quickly gaining momentum among professionals. Educators of various experience levels use Twitter for more than alerting students about due dates. I discovered teachers around the world talking about the politics of education, sharing great lesson plans, and providing support. If you have a question about the classroom, Twitter is a place for answers. Does this grammar lesson plan make sense? Does anyone know of a free website to make cartoon strips? How do I download a YouTube video? Ask and a fellow connected educator from Oklahoma City, Denver, Washington DC, or another country will respond. Once a public school teacher in Switzerland gave me constructive feedback on a research lesson plan. She suggested more opportunities for creativity then we compared PASS objectives to her equivalent state-required skills. Much like schools and school districts have their popular, legendary teachers, so does Twitter culture.
All the students know a legendary teacher by name whether they’ve had their class or not. The teacher has a reputation and is generally respected by all. Legendary teachers on Twitter roll out advice to tens of thousands of followers. Often this comes in the form of direct messages and blog post, but also free seminars with interactive note taking. Attending a free, web-based seminar was the most efficient professional development workshop I had attended.
Once experiencing the potential for professional development through Twitter, it continues to make less sense for educators to not adopt it and other social medias into the curriculum and as a professional practice. Conversing and sharing lesson ideas on this platform provided me with the advantage to produce innovative ideas in the classroom. It made me more mindful of the national view on education and more versed in its politics as well.
After voicing my frustrations with connected educators, a sad realization occurred; the high stakes testing phenomenon wasn’t a local problem. It was a national one killing education for a much larger group of students than those enrolled in my school district’s EOI courses. The educators I met online recognized the problem. It would be interesting to find out whether students did too.
Feedback Field Test
I wanted a student’s opinion. In theory, increasing social media use in the classroom would snowball into solutions about other common education issues such as student engagement, fostering creativity, and behavior issues. Would they agree? Would they be willing to use it for academic purposes or would they want it untainted from the stressors of school life? I could not require any student to take my survey, but maybe they would volunteer to take it on their own time. Social media seemed like the right avenue for distributing an anonymous survey.
There were specific goals I kept in mind when developing the survey field test. First, I wanted the survey to be as least time consuming as possible. The least amount of time the survey would take, hopefully the more participants I could convince to provide their opinions. Also in the vein of time management, the initial questions were closed.
A Closed question, as described by Fink (1995), has “preselected” answers. I felt this would be less time consuming than open-ended questions asking for a short response to be typed. Instead, I asked students to provide immediate feedback using a five-point scale gauging their attitudes based on the questions posed. Most of the preselected answers for questions appear as follows:
1 = no effect/never
2 = limited effect
3 = neutral/no perceived difference
4 = noticeable effect
5 = substantial effect/frequently
There were also base demographic questions. This included age and current grade level as well as background experience with social media. Upon completing the draft of thirteen questions, I posted them using an online form, created a link to share, and distributed it through my personal Facebook and Twitter account. It was a simple request:
ATTN X-Students! Please answer my quick survey www.bit.ly/socialmediaschools Especially if I’ve ever written you a letter of rec! THANKS!
The request was posted. Then the replies started coming. Fellow connected educators even assisted by sharing my survey and getting their own children to answer the questions. In the end, thirty-one anonymous, former students took time to answer my survey within an afternoon. It was an exciting experience to obtain feedback through social media and was enough to provide data for reflection.Two phenomena caught my attention in the field test. First, the last two survey questions intended only for current college students suggest strong support for social media’s use in the classroom. The survey asks “would the inclusion of social media have had a significant effect on your academic experience in high school?” The prescribed answers were presented on a five-point scale. A score of 1 represents “no significant effect” while a score of 5 represents “substantial significant effects” on the student’s academic experience.
Thirteen percent of the students responded with a rating of four and sixteen percent rated with a 5, supporting the thought that social media can have a substantial effect on academia. Only thirteen percent said it would not have any effect, whether positive or negative. The follow-up question to this is of a similar vein but more specific. Students were asked, “If used in an academic setting, rate the positive effects continued blogging would have on your writing.”
Only six percent of those polled responded with “No positive effect.” Twenty-three percent responded with a five-rating saying it would have “Substantial positive effects.” Further support can be argued from the nineteen percent responding with a four rating and the majority twenty-six percent responding in the middle with a three rating. Overall there is an edge in support for a social media facet in academia.
The remaining survey results continue to support this positive trend. When students were questioned on the likelihood to use a teacher’s social media site outside of class, seventy-four percent responded favorably with a four or five rating. A five-rating representing “I’d definitely use it!” Considering the major forms of social media available, the majority of students preferred teachers to incorporate Facebook with YouTube as a close second. When questioned about the general inclusion of technology, forty-five percent of the students surveyed responded with a five rating, representing far more engagement in courses involving tech as opposed to courses that do not.
The second phenomena observed from this field test was the amount of written responses students sent in despite the anonymous survey. I had chosen the closed question strategy based on limited time for students to commit. Yet, it would appear I should have also included an option for them to address their responses in the form of a free response too. My favorite comment from a former student expressed the issue of having an impersonal relationship with teachers. He felt being able to reach out and connect with them through Facebook established a more approachable student-teacher relationship.
At the time of this field test, I was excited about the results and eager to distribute the survey to a broader audience. Regardless, I was aware of the hurdles. It was an informal survey and although anonymous, it was initially presented to my former students but caught the attention of a few supportive colleagues. It could gain more ground had I initially allowed students to access me through social networks regardless of their current standing in my class. Only after students graduated or were officially not in my class, I accepted Facebook requests. Many students already followed me on Twitter because the account was initially setup as a quick and easy method of notifying students of homework and due dates - not personal information. Now I wanted to use both to gather data.
This experience led me to another realization: for better or worse, I’m capable of more flexibility and one-on-one instruction with students through social media. Despite my attempt to setup a school approved social media-esque site via Moodle, students naturally turned to Twitter and Facebook to get their questions answered. Although not approved to view my Facebook webpage, they could still send me messages and they did. Even before this data gathering experiment, I’ve had experience teaching after school through social media.
Leadership and Social Media
Students and teachers already benefit from social media as a classroom tool. The following experiences and observations offer strong support for an active learning environment as developed by Mazur (1997). After years of presumed successful lecture based teaching, Mazur discovered a distinct lack of conceptual understanding beyond the test questions among his students. Active learning provides students the opportunity to discuss new concepts amongst them selves and ask questions. It combines the reflective practices of Dewey and the authentic learning element of substantial conversation (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993). Social media is the ideal platform for such practices to take place. My colleagues enjoyed social media as a means for fostering positive relationships, a classroom sounding board for assignments, and a student-led online study hall.
“I mean, how does this get done in a week?” my colleague, Dana Armstrong, posted on Twitter along with a cell phone quality photo of four students posing in front of their completed masterpiece. A hand painted mural of various Disney characters on baby blue butcher paper outstretched from the floor to the ceiling and continued through the main hallway of the school building. The team of four stood in front of their contribution - Cinderella being escorted to her carriage by prince charming. It’s the week of annual fundraising events sponsored by the school and Dana was using Twitter as a sounding board for events as well as cheering on her students. “How much does it cost to watch dodge ball?” a student asks. Dana replies, “$1 admission to the tournaments tonight: 6-9 in North Gym.” Then another teacher chimes in with “What is tomorrow’s Spirit Dress? I want to show my school spirit!” Dana’s student answers first with “Dress in all one color. It’s dress like a crayon day!”
Hall decoration is just one tedious task performed by Dana’s students. The class is large and she delegates work to small teams. Sometimes students have to get up earlier than usual. Sometimes they work late. Sometimes they work on the weekends. Whatever it takes to get the job done. Sometimes it takes the open communication provided by social media, in this case, Twitter. Pictures of their classroom activities and antics are also shared on Twitter along with class updates and reminders, but most postings are just positive banter amongst the fellowship of STUCO members. It fosters an intrinsic motivation for students to keep putting in long hours to organize homecoming parades, community fundraising efforts, and to simply keep everyone organized with a plethora of responsibilities. As a final note, Dana makes a special announcement for her students: “My AWESOME Leadership Classes - as a reward for all your hard work, bring blankets and pillows w/your PJs for Movie Day tomorrow!” I imagine cheers erupting across the twitter-verse.
Classroom Management and Social Media
“I don’t have to worry about monitoring every word they post.” Says Mark Andrews as I sit with others and listen to him share Edmodo, another school-friendly alternative to the more popular social media sites. “Besides, they know I’ll rip ‘em a new one if they do ever get out of line!” he explains with boisterous laughter. Mark is educating us on classroom management through social media at the annual Intelligent Learning Institute conference in Norman, Oklahoma. He’s an English teacher and football coach for a rural high school in southeast Oklahoma. Although he’s seen more as the jokester than the jock, I imagine students would still refrain from getting on his bad side – his 6’ 8” and 200+ lbs. bad side. Edmodo works for him because, unlike a Facebook page, he has more options to moderate it and easily remains in touch with students while traveling during football season.
Students use it to post questions to the teacher, each other, and turn in homework. “Look at this here kid!” Mark scrolls down the various postings by students and focuses us on one of his football players. “Posting at 11:40 at night!” he laughs, “he knew he better get that work in by the deadline or he wasn’t going to be eligible [to play football]!” It’s not all business. His class Edmodo page is also a venue for sharing humorous links and pictures. A fart joke scrolled across making Mark noticeably embarrassed. The coach is a recent addict to Twitter too.
Online Study Hall and Social Media
Even without a teacher as the catalyst, students will utilize the power of social media for school projects. My colleague, Jane Connery, has a strong presence on Facebook whether she likes it or not. During a week of consecutive snow days, her AP History students grew restless. Using Facebook, they created a group page dedicated to the class. This allowed them to continue discussing issues and sharing articles from various online news publications. Its use continued after the snow melted.
“DON'T FORGET TO READ FOR THE QUIZ TOMORROW!” One student posts to the page which starts a discussion amongst the group as to what chapters need to be reviewed, who took notes, and eventually debating on where to host a study group. Another student creates a separate post to share a picture of their favorite political figure, Vladimir Putin. The teacher is involved in social media in a hands-off way. She doesn't discourage the Facebook page but isn't moderating it either. Instead, it is entirely student centered.
“Flores! I found you! Knew you had a FB account!” That was the first message I received and ignored from a student through Facebook. In class I denied having an account. “Hey man, how ya’ doin’?” another student messages me. It goes ignored. “FLORESSSSSSSS! Accept my friend request!!!!!!!!” a third pleads and is ignored. The following morning class begins and I setup the daily free write to get the students warmed up and interested in today’s lesson. “So, for your warm-up today, You will need to use prepositions to describe the best locations to hide from a zombie apocalypse. Any questions?” Sara Monroe raises her hand in the third row. “Yes, Miss Monroe?”
“Why haven’t you accepted my friend request yet?” she asks and students around her murmur similar sentiments. “Well…” I begin to explain with a tongue in cheek tone, “… that’s because I’m not your friend”. I say “friend” while doing a condescending air-quote gesture with my hands. “I’m your teacher. You’re my students. I like you just enough to allow you to be inspired by my presence for exactly one class period per day!” They groan a chorus of whatevers. “Anymore questions?” Another hand is raised. “Yes?”
“Well, what about when we’re not your student anymore? When we’ve graduated?” asks Robert, the class clown always looking for loop holes. Every class needs a kid like this. “Well…” I begin to explain, “… I guess you’ll have to graduate and find out.” They groan again and start the warm-up activity.
Eventually I did accept ‘friend requests’ from graduated students and it proved useful. Many asked to be a job reference and for letters of recommendation. It didn’t stop the repetitive pleas for attention from current students. Although Facebook has privacy settings to prevent strangers from viewing personal information and pictures, users can still search for your name and send you messages similar to email. Slowly, students started sending messages I couldn’t ignore. “Hey Flores. Am I still able to turn in that Julius Caesar analysis rough draft?” asked a struggling student. He was designated as “on-level” as opposed to “college prepatory” material because of some standardized test scores. I had almost lost him once because he struggled through lessons and wanted to give up. It took some coaxing and motivating speeches, but I convinced him and his parents to remain in my College Prep English class. Of course he could have emailed me a question at anytime, but instead chose to use Facebook. I couldn’t ignore it. Besides, answering a question about due dates seemed pretty harmless. It was more important to me to see interest in getting an assignment turned in on time.
Then things got complicated.
“J-Flo I have a question. Compliment and Complement. What’s the difference?” The question came across my Twitter feed. “Compliments are things you say to get a girlfriend. Complement is what a girl does to your social status.” I respond. I setup a school Twitter account as a message board for due dates and reminders for upcoming quizzes. Because it was specifically setup for school use, I did not have a lot of personal information linked to the account as I did with the years of material collected on Facebook. Now I was receiving relatively simple questions about assignments and sometimes just random curiosities. “Flores. Do you know of any places that almost guarantee jobs for teenagers that AREN’T fast food?” I did not.
“MR. FLORESSSSSSSSSSS!!!” was the opening to a dramatic Facebook message. A student was asking for me to proofread three possible introductions for his research paper. “I’m driving right now but I’d be happy to proofread this ASAP!” I messaged back. We worked back and forth for three days exchanging notes and revisions. The assignment wasn’t for my class but it did help the student get accepted in to an important summer music program.
“FLO! I’m having such a hard time writing this paper.” Another student alerts me. “I don’t understand the goal and purpose of it so I can’t figure out where to even start” she explains. I’m sitting in a professional development workshop with laptop open and immediately reply to my student. We review the types of research papers in order to arrive at the standard compare and contrast essay. After, we continue our Facebook discussion on the topic of strong thesis statements. I share some helpful links to the OWL website and ask her about the topics covered in her essay. She submits three possible thesis statements before we determine the best.
“WHAT’S AN ABSTRACT PAGE????” another girl interjects on a different day in stereotypical teen passion. She messages me after school during dinner everyday until a completed outline is developed and she can continue her research. I thought being at school thirty minutes prior to the first bell would suffice. I thought opening my room at lunch for students to come work would be more than enough of a personal sacrifice. Even staying after school doesn’t work because most students play a sport, catch the bus home, and sometimes have a part-time job. It occurs to me how valuable time is to a student and having a flexible teacher is priceless. It also occurs to me that I wasn’t fully supporting authentic learning in my classroom if I limited it from the first school bell to the final.
Students were generating plenty of great questions and collaborating with each other during class. I had that component in my curriculum, but a student’s mind keeps working and searching for clarity hours after the bell rings. This revelation reminded me of the research conducted regarding homework. According to the Center for Public Education (2007), many reports argue on the effectiveness of homework and its correlation to academic success. Overall more success is found through interactive homework as opposed to the alternative. Their report describes interactive homework as assignments involving collaboration between more than one student, but can include parent involvement as well. This type of interactivity occurred naturally during my experiences working with students on social networks.
With an open social media policy I could prevent confusion and offer the guidance students deserved. In retrospect, my homework should have consisted of generating questions and posting each on Facebook or Twitter on a daily basis. The caveat, post the questions in public view and record responses rather than send each directly to me. Then spend some beginning class time reviewing the answers and continuing to clarify concepts.
Until I opened social media as a form of class communication, I had not been doing enough in my curriculum to fully promote authentic and active learning. However, I was doing enough to get called in to the principal’s office.
Leaving the Principal's Office
I was called to the principal’s office during my planning period. He notified me about feelings from colleagues on my team. They felt I wasn’t fully “on board” with the curriculum and this was too unpredictable to risk in a data-driven, high stakes testing environment. “We want every student to be able to have the same learning experience no matter what teacher they have.” my principal explained. The administrator’s motivation was appropriate enough - effectively track data produced from standardized curriculum to monitor student learning. The plan required each teacher to use the same curriculum and timeline. “This means we all need to be onboard with the curriculum.” Which meant I couldn’t stray from the provided scripted curriculum. The environment I fostered did not match their plan.
After feeling defeated, the walk back to my classroom felt longer. My planning period was almost over and I had to get mentally prepared for the next class. It wouldn’t be too difficult though. I would just need to pass out some worksheets, pull up a PowerPoint, and make sure students kept their cellphones in their pockets. Alternatively, I could remain an island and never get “on board” with the high stakes testing hype.
After explaining the objectives of the day – my objectives - sometimes a student will chime in “That’s, like, so much, like work!” or “You, like, make us write, like, so much in this class!” Moments like this were golden opportunities to direct their attention to the back of the room where a growing tower of worksheets was located on the corner of my desk. Each day I added another floor. With the students’ attention directed to the stack, I offered, “Okay, would you rather do this assignment?”
“No!” the students would answer.
Updating the Resume
The required standardized curriculum was uninspired and did not effectively promote authentic learning practices, as I understood them. It bored me. It bored students. There were too many educational tricks in my toolbox to be anchored down by scripted teaching and fill-in-the-blank worksheets. I tried it already. It failed. Consequentially, it was through this narrative I realized my shortcomings. Had I been more open to utilizing social media in conjunction with components of authentic learning and teaching, I might have had more substantial evidence to support this preferred teaching style.
Sure, I could explain and describe the whole class and one-on-one discussions, but a public record of students working together to question, analyze, then clarify their knowledge is more impressive. In the heavy test environment I was experiencing, this would add more opportunities for authentic teaching and learning to occur after school when class time is lost to one of the regularly occurring exam days. This could then be correlated to the required end of the year test results. Unfortunately this realization came too late in my career. I wouldn’t have the time to make the above-mentioned adjustments.
After my experience in the principal’s office, being persuaded to get “on board” with the curriculum in place, I went home to start updating my resume. I did not want to be known as a troublemaker, yet I also did not want to drastically change my teaching style. My students understood my methods and were aware of my attitude towards worksheets. Trying to convince them I had a change of heart would be disastrous. So, if my school did not support my teaching style, I would take a risk and search for a school that did.
“I like the teacher alright...” he said and paused.
There was a lingering ‘but’ in the air. “...but we do so much more work!” he finished. This was the synopsis my former student gave about their new teacher. The teacher hired to replace me when I accepted a new position at the K20 Center. I was shocked and insulted. It’s lunchtime and one of the benefits of teaching in a relatively small, college town are unexpected encounters with students. “We do a ton of more work than we ever did in your class”, he continued. It made my hair stand on end. I always made efforts to engage students bell-to-bell on creative, engaging, and meaningful assignments. Upon hearing this it begged the question from me, “So, are you telling me I didn’t challenge you enough?”
“No, it’s not like that, Flo!” he back pedaled, “I mean, we do more work now, but it’s not hard. It’s way easier than your class was because we don’t have to think as much now” he says. “It’s all busy work! We do a lot of worksheets and it’s really easy. There’s just a lot of them, you know?” In fact, I did know.
Later in the week, another former student is shopping with her family when we cross paths. In my freshmen English class, she wasn’t shy, but stoic, stuck to herself and always did excellent work. I was always self-conscience she wasn’t properly challenged in my class because she never showed emotion – positive or negative. On the other hand, she had a reputation for being blunt and honest – at times, maybe too honest. I casually ask about her current sophomore year.
“So how has sophomore year been treating you?”
Her posture slumped and for once her face showed emotion – irritation. “Sophomore year is a joke.” she began. “I don’t see the point of it when your [freshman] class was more challenging. All we do now is worksheets!”
It’s fun to play catch-up with former students and to be missed but also devastating to realize a majority of them share similar attitudes exemplified in the encounters described. At least they felt challenged, once upon a time, in my class. On the other hand, I couldn’t ignore this trend to create cookie cutter classroom curriculum.
I couldn’t ignore it on a mental level, but it was also difficult to avoid because I finally provided students with full access to my social media accounts. Posts began to fill my Facebook wall and Twitter feed only to be deleted almost immediately due to the condemning nature of the comments. Students write without filter when emotional and everything posted was open to the approved public, including former colleagues.
First, students posted complaints and guilt trips. I did defend the new teacher because I knew well she didn’t have a choice in how to teach. She was doing her job and teaching from a script. Instead of bell work from a textbook, we responded to essential questions by writing in a journal everyday and discussing our reflections.
Students kept me updated on their lives and school activities. I also asked about their studies and was able to get them to reflect on their learning by summarizing it back to me. It’s amazing how easy it is to get the quietest student to write a full paragraph in the social media realm, but by comparison they might struggle to compose a sentence for a research paper. The trend continued and students evolved from complaints to updates to sharing articles or links I might enjoy. In April, I received graduation invites and many requests for help proofreading college admissions essays. I was teaching without a classroom!
During this time, another phenomenon observed was the amount of policing that stemmed from all the writing. Students were conscious to correct their own spelling and grammar and that of their peers. When the opportunity would arise, I would prompt students to also check their spelling as if in the classroom. As an English teacher, it doesn’t get better than students caring about correct spelling and proper grammar. The benefits of social media didn't stop with the students. I benefitted by learning how to use social media as an authentic teaching tool.
I continue to answer questions about word use, provide writing advice, and answer other major questions about life. It continues to fulfill the void of not having a classroom. This experience only continues the ironic trends in my life; my teaching style was questioned in my previous job and now I mentor teachers to incorporate the same style in their daily practice. As previously stated, I’m very fortunate to be part of the K20 Center, but there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as being a classroom teacher.
Furthermore, through my continued experience working with students online through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I fell back in love with education. I cannot wait to be a classroom teacher again.
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