How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Facebook: The Unlikely Union of Teachers and Social Media

Oh, that loathsome Facebook, the great distractor of students.  It is difficult for teachers to facilitate a classroom when the students are preoccupied with liking status updates or looking at pictures of their friends from last weekend.  Whether in the computer lab or on smartphones, Facebook continues to be a technological threat.  It is a sworn enemy to  educators.

But what if Facebook and teachers were able come to some form of truce?  What if they could join forces and somehow learn to love each other?  For tech-savvy history teachers this notion can easily become a reality.  Signs of this lesson could be seen in College Humor’s Facebook History.

The idea is simple; maybe even a little too simple.  What if students were not just allowed but encouraged to use Facebook to chat with classmates?  Their response would be predictable although it is not clear how teachers would benefit from this allowance.  And this is where we see the catch…students would not be allowed to chat on their personal profiles, but rather a fictional profile of the historical figure they were assigned!

To put it more clearly, students would all be using Facebook under their fictional historical profiles.  For those who ever wondered how King George III would have reacted to Thomas Jefferson’s status update stating, “My draft of the Declaration of Independence has been ratified by the Continental Congress.  America is now free and independent from Great Britain!”  Or what about Pope Leo X’s reaction after looking at his news feed and seeing that Martin Luther had posted the Ninety-Five Theses and already has thousands of likes?

Along with Facebook (which most responsible schools have banned), a more responsible and adequate resource is blogging websites.  I can imagine WordPress or Blogger would make ideal substitutes.

HOW IT WORKS

I see this type of lesson working great with history teachers who are entering a unit which has a wealth of important figures (i.e. American Revolution, World War II, The Protestant Reformation, The Fall of the Roman Republic, etc.) for the students to be assigned.  Throughout the unit as the class learns the material in whichever fashion the teacher deems fit, the students will continue to chat and possibly battle on Facebook.

My preferred method of implementing this strategy is using it as a complementary piece to the core unit and instruction.  Students (either assigned or having signed up for a figure) are then to make a Facebook page about them.  Initially, the students fill out the information on their figure for a grade.

Students explain their figure’s biography, quotes, location, and time period.

As the unit progresses, students are required to comment on classmate’s status updates or photo albums.  This requires them to understand their character, what their motives/objectives are, and who they see as a friend or foe.  Communication is based on what their figure would say in a situation, not them.

Of course, the instructor will have his/her hands full with this assignment.  Along with proctoring the language/ content between students and ensuring they have met the requirements, teachers must instigate conflict.  This is where (for some – hopefully all) teachers get to have their own personal fun and be creative.

Say you are teaching a unit on the American Revolution and the class is at the Declaration of Independence.  The teacher can create their own page (or have a student assigned to it) called “The Second Continental Congress” and assign the class to chat on this page as their characters, asking “What would John Adams say about loyalty to the British?” or “What would George Washington say?” then abruptly scold the student who spoke on the page as him since Washington did not participate in the Second Continental Congress.

That latter part of those questions holds weight.  Playing off the theme of Assessment for Learning (this will be highlighted in my next post) for any student who mistakenly appears in a location they were not meant to or an uncharacteristic comment is provided by a figure, the class (and most importantly the student who committed the error) must understand WHY this was wrong and understand what could have been used in its place.

Teachers can make pages concerning battles, events, conferences, treaties, or any other important element related to the unit.  The Facebook discussion can continue throughout the unit through time allotted during class and (if possible) for homework.  I understand that there are multiple ways in which this lesson would be prohibited in schools, so an alternative is detailed later.

GRADING THIS PROJECT

This project-based assessment (or assignment if you wish) involves a great deal of time and energy from the teacher for the assessment/assignment to be productive, but the benefits which it could produce are well worth the effort.  “Historical Facebook” is an ongoing portfolio-based body of work which evolves during the unit.  The student can be graded on multiple levels and at various times for their work on their figure.

The initial grade comes from a completion of their page and its info section.  Each character’s url address is sent and monitored by the teacher.  Weekly marks can be made by evaluating student effort and performance.  Perhaps a minimum of two posts and four comments each week based on their character’s involvement and portrayal would suffice, depending on the class.

The students’ overall performance can be evaluated by the teacher in accordance to the rubric.  Hopefully by the end of the unit, a vast collection of exchanges and events will allow the class to look over their fictional Facebook universe and see which characters said or did what.

IF FACEBOOK CANNOT BE USED

For many schools or even teachers, the prospect of using Facebook within the classroom is heavily frowned upon.  I respect this viewpoint and suggest an alternative.  Instead of using online media to facilitate discussion, teachers could have students create physical forms of their status updates through poster boards or large sheets of paper from the art room.

Classmates can walk around and look at other poster boards commenting on status updates in their character.  Although this prohibits multimedia and centrality of content, the use of physical displays of content over using social networking has many benefits.

Students are not tempted at the chance to surf the internet or go on their personal Facebook profile, is the most obvious advantage.  The class is less tempted to say something crude or insulting if they must write their words in the middle of the class instead of behind a computer screen.

CONCLUSION

This lesson strategy is an acquired taste.  Not all history teachers will be persuaded to participate in this time and energy draining exercise.  But nonetheless, the incorporation of Facebook and education is not just a reality, but an outlet for creativity and fun.

Students are required to think critically, engage in historical dialogues, and embrace the mentality of their figure, all while using social networking media.  But the ultimate question which needs to be answered before any of this happens Is if this a strategy teachers should invest in or is it asking for trouble.

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The (Flawed) Culture of Education Today

The cartoon above depicts one of the most troubling aspects for educators today.  Teacher accountability is spiraling out of control; from parent blame for their child’s poor grades to pressure from administrators and government officials who decide how much funding the school receives based on student test grades.

Fifty years ago teachers worked in a simpler educational system; corporal punishment did not carry the stigma it does today (although I do not condone the practice) and the curriculum did not have to be altered in an effort to produce better test scores.  Today, technology-driven students are driven by instant gratification while being over stimulated through smartphones and social networking.  This, in turn, has led to a culture of youth entitlement and parents adhering to their children’s every need, however ridiculous.

What this means for teachers is that their class’s attention span continues to wane, forcing them to be more like “edutainers” than educators.  While not all teachers subscribe to this ideology, most if not all are affected by their students’ behavior.

To find some form of solution, as minimal as it may be, teachers must first look towards their administrators.  As mentioned in a previous post, the culture of education in America is lacking and parent involvement continues to dramatically decline when it is the most needed.  That is not to say all parents fail to play an active role in their child’s education.  Many parents are very outspoken and critical of schools and educators.

In many cases, if a parent is upset by the way a teacher is conducting their class or their child is receiving poor grades, they by-pass the teacher and go straight for an administrator.  This is where steady communication between teachers and administrators is essential as it eliminates doubt on both ends, producing a singular narrative.

The problems with some children today are their growing dependency upon their parents, shortening attention spans influenced by instant gratification and stimulation overload and overall apathy towards learning.

How do teachers combat this new breed of student?  That is a great question.  Technological approaches never hurt as teachers use one of their most prominent barriers in reaching students and use it to their advantage.

My teaching philosophy has always focused on a student-centered, expeditionary learning model with differentiated instruction/assessment, so developing lesson plans that are stimulating and diverse is a necessity.

Some teachers, disenchanted with the prospect of change, are not willing to conform and remain conservative in their philosophical approach.  It is usually this type of teacher who gives the anti-tenure argument strength and validity.

To use another political cartoon, the one above shows how teachers continue to be stripped of leverage and authority within the classroom.  As hard as any teacher attempts to adapt to this generation of student, the politics are grossly one-sided and not in their favor.

I ask again, what can teachers do to not be the punching bag for both parents/students and administrators/school boards?  Does reinvigorating your lesson plans and catering to the students’ un-quenching desire to be electronically stimulated help?  What about basing their pay on student performance on standardized tests?

Quite honestly, there is no definitive answer.  The debate between merit pay and tenure is for another post, but the sheer existence of merit pay illustrates how teachers are under fire from every angle.

Both of the cartoons portray explicit messages illustrating the low respect shown towards teachers.  Students will not, and cannot, accept blame nor take any responsibility for their actions, parents refuse to believe that collaborating with teachers will help their child succeed, and administrators expect high test scores because they are instrumental to the school’s flow of revenue and prestige.  It is worth noting that the United States is not alone in this problem.

France is going through this same stage of change in parent attitude towards their partnership with teachers.  The emphasis on preserving the child’s self-esteem while sacrificing their fortitude and ability to accept failure is a major concern for the United States and beyond.

Do parents over-protect their kids?  How bad off are teachers really?  How can this be remedied?  Please share your thoughts.  And remember, when I explain students, teachers, parents and administrators I do not use absolutes.  By mentioning a group I do not imply every single teacher or every single student.  There will always be exceptions to the rule and in this case there are plenty.