From Connected Educator to Connected Classroom

This year I embarked on a new challenge. One that strives to include my students in the powerful world of connected learning. One that offers to model for them the power of social networking beyond their peers. I want to make the leap from being a connected educator to being a connected classroom full of connected learners. Because if the learning is so powerful for us, we should also be sharing it with our students.

Two weeks ago I shared my journey to becoming a connected educator. It’s one I share with a mixture of pride and relief–pride for the huge changes I’ve seen in myself as a result of my PLN and relief knowing that I never again have to feel isolated in my professional learning.

This year I embarked on a new challenge. One that strives to include my students in this powerful world of connected learning. One that offers to model for them the power of social networking beyond their peers. I want to make the leap from being a connected educator to being a connected classroom full of connected learners. Because if the learning is so powerful for us, we should also be sharing it with out students.

Beta Testing

But this leap isn’t one I make in haste or without some long deliberation. I’ve been thinking about this for at least two years. I’ve been a beta phase of sorts with my high school students. I tested the waters to find their boundaries, their discomforts, their excitement with using those oh-so-important devices to re-engineer their learning. Often times, I found that teenagers like to keep their social networks, just that–social. They became very uncomfortable with any suggestions to use Twitter for a class discussion, and their eye-rolls in my even mentioning Facebook made it clear that at least one social network was already irrelevant.

I created a classroom Twitter last fall (2013) fully expecting to incorporate it in the classroom. I was just bursting with ideas! However, with the exception of one or two isolated instances, I just couldn’t find the authentic connection. The students weren’t jumping at the opportunity to tweet about our learning, and I still didn’t feel confident pushing the issue.

When I’d ask them to share a project with their social networks, I was often met with shuffling feet, an averted gaze, and a mumbled “maybe.”

I wondered why they were so hesitant to connect their learning with the rest of their lives. At the same time, I didn’t force it. The only reason to use social media in the classroom is to enhance, deepen, or otherwise push learning. Since it wasn’t doing that in my classroom with my students in the organic way I had hoped, I abandoned it.

Upon reflection, I realized that students didn’t see technology the same way I did: every new tool, new network, new device bursting with possibilities for learning. Students siloed technology: seeing some things for school, some things for outside of school. They embrace Google docs and Edmodo because these tools were introduced in a classroom, and used exclusively for “school stuff.” These were a digital extensions of the classroom, but also still contained to the classroom, never venturing into the “real world”  or reaching beyond classmates and teachers.

Despite loving and using all sorts of technology in my classroom, I still felt that I wasn’t making the leap with the students to help them see the power of connected learning. I wasn’t getting their work to more of those authentic audiences and we weren’t inviting in those valuable differing perspectives.

I kept asking myself: how could I flatten our classroom walls and open our horizons?

The Myth of the Digital Native

Many argue that students are the “digital natives” while teachers and parents are the “immigrants.” Yet, I have not found this to be consistently true, and at least one study confirms my suspicions: students do not “naturally” know how to use technology for learning. This, like literacy and Algebra, needs to be taught. In one of his most popular posts titled “The Fallacy of Digital Natives,” Dan Pontefract claims that “learning and technology has nothing to do with generational divides,” and I believe him. Some of the people that have taught me the most about using technology for learning are 10-20 years my elder. Some of the students I’ve had are astoundingly inept at performing basic Internet or digital functions.

Worse than false, this myth of the digital native prevents adults from modeling the behavior that will help our students be successful in the world of social networking and digital learning.

Certainly my students view their devices as an essential extension of their body. Certainly their first instinct is to Google the answer to an unknown query. But often times they only scratch the surface of potential for using their technology for authentic learning. Many times, their parents are either afraid of engaging with their teen’s digital social lives or clueless about the degree to which their teen’s virtual social lives even exist! Parents and teachers often operate from a default of fear and suspicion, choosing to hide their own social networking or forgo it altogether because of “what might happen.”

There are legitimate concerns about oversharing and inappropriate behavior. When social media makes the formal informal and blurs the boundaries of appropriate behavior, damage is done. But these concerns will NOT prevent our students from using social networks. It will only keep these social spaces separate from the positive influence of adults. Because the adults are condemning them instead of engaging with them.

Instead of shunning, hiding, or ignoring social media, adults should model appropriate behavior virtual spaces.

We should teach students to navigate these networked worlds, helping them understand how to make moment-by-moment decisions that can foster valuable connections. We need to help them recognize and extract from damaging interactions, and guide them to see social media as a natural part of their learning.

The Ah-Ha Moment

This year it finally clicked. I felt confident introducing social media tools to my classroom, and using them to further our learning. Part of it was watching other educators use twitter in their classrooms. Part of it was being introduced to some creative ideas from Dean Shareski’s session at my district’s professional learning day in August. Part of it was just feeling confident that I understood the social media tools well enough myself to safely act as a guide to my students.

I trusted myself. I let go of fear to trust my students. I had a burning passion for WHY I was using social media in my classroom and how important that mission was.

The most important change, however, was realizing that I couldn’t wait for my students to be excited about using social media in the classroom. Rather than using social media like the irresistible “hook” that draws the reader into the body of an essay, or the “bait” the lures students to the learning, I began to see social media as natural part of the lessons I taught. Learning its nuances, its potential, its drawbacks–these are part of my curriculum. Students need to understand that with each tweet, they have an audience. That within the confines of 140 characters and a hashtag, they can either reach that audience with their message or have their message go largely unnoticed.

This is my curriculum: understanding your audience, understanding your purpose, crafting an effective message, choosing the best form for that message, and growing your influence. I can teach these skills using articles, narratives, poems, blogs, videos, and social media. These are the messages and forms dominating my students’ world. I want them to understand how to both interpret and create messages in all their various forms to reach as many audiences as possible.

Creating a Connected Classroom

I created our class Twitter account, our class Instagram account, and a class Flickr account. We cross-post some pictures to a Facebook account. Next week, I will add a class blog to this list.

Why? Because my students deserve to know the power they have in their finger tips. They deserve the chance to explore the power of social media in a safe way and with a trustworthy guide. Students deserve to understand the power social media can have for good.

And I think they are starting to understand!

When we posted a tweet about an article we were reading in class, we had a response from a teacher who had traveled to Saudi Arabia and blogged about it. We are now going to read her blogs as part of our research unit on website evaluation and choosing the best sources for your purpose.

When we posted about our Skype interview with two American women who worked in the Middle East, we received a response from a male living in the Middle East who wanted to dialogue with us about the misperceptions about his country.

How did I handle a stranger from half way across the world reaching out for conversation? I asked my students what THEY thought we should do. We discussed the pros and cons of engaging in conversation over social media with a stranger. I pointed out that we could look through his profile to see if he appeared to be who he said he was. They pointed out that I could contact him privately to make sure his intentions were good and that he was trustworthy to dialogue with. The students also suggested that we keep our conversation to text only and only Skype people we knew personally.  We made a decision together. Now we are safely, through our class account, dialoging with people from around the world about an issue we studied in class. Now, we are understanding what it means to use social media for our learning.

Now, I feel like I’ve made the leap from a connected educator to a connected classroom.

The Future and The Caveat

Just like my journey to becoming a connected educator was full of learning, surprises, failures, and triumphs, so to will this journey to becoming a connected classroom. I proceed cautiously and thoughtfully because these students and their parents are trusting me not to lead them astray. I talk with other educators I trust, and keep my administration informed about what I’m doing and why. I have called and emailed parents to explain why I’ve introduced social media into our classroom, and I’ve made sure to hear their voices and concerns before proceeding. I’ve asked every student and parent to sign a form indicating their privacy preferences and the degree to which they would like to participate in these social media accounts. And I ALWAYS make it optional for a student to share his/her work and his/her face publicly.

Not every student is comfortable yet forming a tweet. But now they know that a tweet is 140 characters, and they have seen the results in our learning from tweeting. I have introduced and explained the concept of hashtagging to engage with people outside of your known network; my students’ understanding of hashtags were mostly ironic if at all. I hope to soon have us participate in a twitter chat for them to see the potential of having conversations in real time with strangers on a topic of shared interest.

In the future, I hope we realize many of the ideas we brainstormed on this list back in September.

I hope we continue to have conversations with people around the world and continue to have people validate, challenge, and engage with the ideas we post from our classroom. I hope YOU might be our next Skype interview. I hope my students leave my classroom connected for lifelong learning.

This post was originally published on my blog at CTQ. I left the HS classroom in February 2016 to pursue a new direction that allows me to support adults supporting students in our public education buildings and classrooms. 

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