Twitter, Blogger, Facebook, MySpace, Ning: How do we help our students learn the social skills needed to understand what it really means to live and participate in a global community? How do we incorporate this into our schools and classrooms? How do we keep ourselves and our students safe?
Social networking sites are mainstream media for many tweens, teens, and adults. There are even social networking sites that attract kids as young as 5 years old. This is the reality of the world we live in, and schools should reflect this reality. We need to help students become effective communicators, offline as well as online.
At the Younger End, Safety in Numbers
For students in grades K–3, find ways to use online social networking tools with the entire class. Pair up with another school. Together as a class, post online messages that students in the other school respond to. For very young students, try a network such as VoiceThread, which uses recorded messages rather than typed ones. By second grade, you can move to blog or wiki sites that are text-based. Encourage parents to read what has been posted too. Have class discussions about social networking. Students even as young as kindergarten have heard of Facebook and Twitter, so seize this opportunity to talk about what these sites are and how they are similar to what you are doing in class. Discuss what is good to post online and what should only be shared with people the students know in person.
By upper elementary, students are ready to have individual accounts. A great way to start is to post "thinking questions" students can respond to in a social networking format. Remember to give students guidelines on ways they can respond. For example, they should not just say that they agree with what a certain student said. They should be specific and say what they agree with and why. Use specific examples in class of good posts and not-so-good posts.
As students become more confident using a social network to interact with each other, branch out and create a social network for kids from several classes, even moving outside of the school into networks where kids from several schools can communicate. Here are some things to remember, especially as you branch outside of your classroom:
• Keep the network private, allowing only the students you chooose to have access.
• Decide if you want parents to have access, and, if you do, give them their own accounts.
• Monitor the network regularly.
• Share both appropriate and inappropriate posts, discussing why something should not have been posted (and remember to remove inappropriate posts).
• Be specific on what the network is to be used for and what it is not to be used for.
As with grades K–3, discuss popular sites such as Facebook and MySpace that are used by older kids; discuss how they are similar to what happens in class.
For Those ‘Experienced’ Middle Schoolers
Middle school students can be a tricky group when it comes to social networking tools. By sixth grade, about 40% of the students will already have experience using social networking tools at home or at a friend’s house. If students have not been using social networks in school during grades K–5, they will often need to have a lot of guidance on how to use them appropriately. Start with a network that only the students in your class have access to. Be very specific on what your expectations are when using the online social networking tool. Monitor it often, and share appropriate and inappropriate responses with the class.
Using social networks to begin or extend class discussions is a great way to start using them in middle school. For example, if you wanted to discuss how the design of the pyramids affected the way the ancient Egyptians lived, post a question about it on the network, along with links to online resources—websites and videos—for students to check out. Students can then do a little research and post their responses. The next day in class, bring up the responses and use them to start a class discussion.
You can also have students use the network to continue a discussion started in class. Remind students to stay on topic. In the beginning, it is best to continue posting questions students are responding to rather than just allowing them to get on the network and chat. (It is amazing how quickly middle school kids get off topic. Even though they know a teacher is monitoring their online communication, without guidance and lots of reminders they will post just about anything.)
As you and your students gain experience, you can expand the networks to more students—other students at the school in the same grades, multigrade levels, or even to students in other schools. Remember to restrict the network so that only students you want to have access can get on, and monitor it regularly.
High School Mega-users
By high school, about 90% of kids will have used social networks. Since the kids are all 13 or older, you have many more options. Of course, having lots of options can become overwhelming. So as with elementary and middle school kids, make sure you are very clear about the purpose for using a specific tool.
In high schools, increasing numbers of teachers are using social networks and Web 2.0 tools, so students end up having to visit a lot of different sites each evening; each site will require its own username and password. If possible, talk to the other teachers in your school and try to agree on one or two social networking tools you will all use. Create a single network for multiple classes and, within that network, create groups that you can invite students to join. In that way, students can go to a single site and get access to the networks and groups they need for all of their classes.
A great use of social networks in high school is as a place for students to post questions related to their homework. Teachers as well as other students can then respond. Teachers can see which students are asking questions and which are offering responses.
In secondary school, as in middle school, social networks continue to be a great tool for starting or continuing classroom discussions and responding to "thinking questions." It remains essential, however, for teachers to regularly monitor the networks, removing inappropriate posts and keeping a dialog open with students about appropriate use of the school social network.
Focus on Safety
As we use more and more of these online tools, we want to continue focusing on student safety. Here are some common-sense concepts you can incorporate into your teaching that will help.
• Talk to your students about what should be kept private. As adults, most of us instinctively know not to share our phone number and address with people we have never met. But there is often a disconnect between "in real life" and "online" for kids, tweens, and teens. They usually feel they know the people they are talking with, and so they share personal information. Many sites have privacy settings. Learn what these are and help kids (and parents) use them appropriately.
• Become familiar with the online networks your students are using. You are the teacher, and you don’t need to be using all the tools the students are using to set limits on how they are being used. However, it is difficult to have a conversation about Facebook or Twitter if you aren’t using these tools yourself.
• Use social networking tools as part of the education process. Kids love using these tools, so embrace them for use at school. Demonstrate proper ways to use the technology. Use these tools to teach digital citizenship and media literacy.
• Understand the privacy laws and what they are designed to do and not do. Most of what you will hear is related to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In summary, this document, which is aimed at website providers rather than at parents or teachers, says sites must get parental consent before they can collect personal information from anyone younger than 13. It also allows parents to view online profiles for their kids younger than 13. To avoid issues relating to COPPA, many social networking sites have decided to limit participation to those 13 and older. There is currently no online-specific legislation directed to kids 13 and older. Some sites will comply with requests from parents of kids ages 13–17 to remove their information; other sites say it is up to the child to do this.
• Don’t freak out and shut down access if you find kids doing activities that are disturbing. Use this as a time to talk with and listen to your students. Encourage dialogue. Remind your students why certain activities are not allowed. Help them to use the social networking tools appropriately.
Kids, tweens, and teens are using social networks regularly. All predictions indicate use will continue to increase, so it’s also increasingly important that we find ways to incorporate them into schools. Only in this fashion will we be able to teach kids how to use them well.
Renee Ramig is director of technology at Seven Hills School in Walnut Creek, Calif. Her email address is email@example.com.