Technology and digital connections are not going away. Rather than lamenting and fighting the phones, tablets and laptops our students carry, it is time for educators to embrace social media and start teaching proper engagement with these tools.

As a new teacher,  several different principals across several different districts interviewed me and asked how I use technology in my classroom, attempting to ascertain how I might fit into their technology initiatives. My current school has a team of technology coordinators who assist the faculty in incorporating new and exciting digital and technology skills into our lesson plans. Many classrooms in my district have innovative tools like Apple TV, Interwrite Boards, Document Cameras and Chromebooks. I do not doubt that many schools and school systems across the country place a high value on technology.

TBR Teach

For other takes on social media in the classroom, see Josie Fretwell and Diane Williams later this week. This essay is part of our new feature: TBR Teach, a discussion about school policy among three Boise teachers. Follow their posts here.

However, we have limited ourselves by excluding apps, programs and games that we deem un-educational or purely social. Social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram are blamed for the inattentiveness of our students or we sneer at the important role these apps play in the lives of youths. It is time to end this trend. Social media can be a powerful instrument for communicating with our students, engaging them at their level and as an academic research tool.TBR Teach

I use Twitter to update my students on lessons or remind them about due dates. They can tweet back questions or share interesting articles they have found. I also use social media as a civic engagement assignment: we tweet, Instagram or Vine historical facts to celebrate momentous days, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or Earth Day. I show YouTube videos almost daily. Next semester, I will experiment with historical fact checking on social media, searching for topics on platforms like Pinterest and correcting historical inaccuracies in user captions and comments.

Recently, I’ve been delighted by a new game my students are playing with each other called TriviaCrack that has real educational value. I’ve had countless students (current and old) run into my room and tell me how things we’ve learned in class have helped them correctly answer the history category. I’m sure my colleagues in other subjects have experienced the same thing.

I am just beginning to scale the social media mountain and it will be a long time before I can consider myself a digital sherpa. Nonetheless, I equip myself with updated tools and the encouragement of my fellow climbers, and I try. We do a disservice to our students if we attempt to find a way around the mountain. We cannot ignore the reality of their digital lives. We can no longer hide behind these excuses:

  1. Social media prevents students from being engaged in class – Used incorrectly, social media can absolutely create less present students. Scrolling through their Facebook feed during class time or watching cat videos on YouTube is a waste of precious instructional time. But the blame does not end with students. How many of us have been in a meeting and watched our ADULT neighbor browse the internet or catch up on emails? The habit is not limited to students. To prevent the spread of this rude and distracting disease, we must teach social media skills early, preferably in school. Instead of banning all social media, let’s establish clear rules. No devices out during class discussions or activities and you may only surf when all work has been turned in. This is a real 21st century skill. Banning all media and devices is not realistic practice for their adult life.
  2. I don’t want to be police their content – Set your expectations of what is appropriate and inappropriate from the first week of school. Wishing your friend happy birthday on Instagram is ok. Watching an inappropriate Vine is not. I tell my students that if they feel like they have to hide their phone when I walk by, their activity is not appropriate. Make sure parents are aware of this policy. Then, if a student does use their device inappropriately, the responsibility lies with them. They knew the expectations and they blew it. Your consequence may be as small as turning in the device to the main office for the day or as extreme as revoking that student’s device privileges for the entire year. As long as your rules are set and consistent, it is up to students to see them through. It may require some frontloading, but I believe that the payoff is worth it.
  3. Social media stops real interactions among humans – Face to face communication is alive and well and I’d never argue that it will eventually die out. Heck, even in Star Wars, the walking holograms only went so far. But why would we want to limit ourselves or our students when social media has opened up so many new avenues of interaction? I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends whom I have met at various points in my life all over the world. Without that tool, I would have lost contact with hundreds of diverse people who add their spice and perspective to my fairly limited Idaho life. I want that same experience for my students. We can use Twitter in our classrooms as a tool for students to follow field experts and even ask questions. Reddit and Tumblr are excellent sites to foster specific interests and find inspiration. Even Pinterest can be used for academic connections. Students will learn interpersonal communication in our classrooms, at home, at church, at the grocery store, etc. Why can’t they also use our classrooms to start relationships across the globe?
  4. It’s just one more thing I have to incorporate into my packed career – I hear you! My shoulders have fallen at the news that I’ve been “asked” to help in yet another after school event. I’ve grumbled at the forms and questionnaires we are all asked to wade through. And I am not saying that your curriculum needs to be rewritten or lesson plans should be thrown out the door. Social media should complement our classrooms, just like it does our lives. Start by showing funny Vines or YouTubes that relate to your lesson. Maybe consider a Twitter account set up just for your students. If done slowly and purposefully, it can be an easy transition for you.

There are dozens of new and interesting ways to use social media in the classroom that I have yet to discover. Following the tweets of digital enthusiasts, like Jordan Shapiro, edTech journalist for Forbes’ magazine, or forward thinking organizations like Edutopia or Histocrats, give me inspiration and ideas. We may wade through this new ground with trepidation, but it is still important that we try.

We cannot wait for our students to reach adulthood to start learning the etiquette of social media in a professional setting. Digital connections are their future, and as they are our future, it is our duty to properly equip them for their journey.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.