Social media can be a powerful tool for engaging students and honoring youth culture. It can also be a powerful teaching tool. Here are 5 essential lessons that social media can help us teach our students.
1.How to Collaborate with Peers
I cannot think of a single job on the planet that does not require collaboration. Your garbage man, dentist, taxi driver, and local politician all require a team to excel in their work. Social media has taken this essential concept of individual productivity through a collective effort and put it on steroids. But instead of forcing kids into a Facebook group for homework help, we can use social media to model productive collaboration through our own use of these platforms. I have pulled in excellent lesson ideas from Twitter and Instagram, but instead of walking into my classroom the next day and pawning off the lesson as my own, I put the tweet or the Instagram picture on the projector and explain to my students just where I drew my inspiration from. Later on in the semester, when my students were asked to write persuasive essays, instead of picking a subject from a pre-generated list on a handout, they had the opportunity to scour their Instagram explore pages in order to brainstorm topics and, later, to collaborate with their online peers in order to generate ideas.
2. How to Find Career Paths They’ve Never Seen Before
When I was a kid, I wanted to become a “businessman”. But I had no clue what that meant. My community was rather insulated; there were few mentors or people I could look to as a model or even ask the questions that I had. I didn’t see success in business in my home, at the neighbor’s house around the corner from where I lived, or in my community. And as far as my teachers went, they could not really tell me what the career of a “businessman” would be like. I mean, after all, they were teachers not “businessmen”. Social media gives us a way to close this gap. Kids already go on Instagram and follow their favorite music artists and Hollywood personalities. But beyond this, there is a bevy of less-famous people out there on social media who are very successful in their careers paths and who use their accounts to discuss their work. We can model this by following and interacting with fellow colleagues around the world, and we can guide our students to find, follow, and ask questions of role models in careers that interest them — careers that the young you or me never had the opportunity to learn about.
3. What Confidence Is — and Isn’t
Like television, social media shows us the “finished product”; we are rarely privy to the drafting stages. The mundane has been silenced and erased. As a result, many children who are preoccupied with social media do not have a realistic grasp of what “everyday life” means and they often confuse boasting with showing confidence. One example in my classroom was Instagram’s “youngest flexer”, Lil’ Tay, whom my students brought to my attention. Amassing over 2 million followers in a few months, she is a nine-year-old who rose to internet celebrity through viral videos that portrayed her bragging about a lavish lifestyle filled with luxury homes, luxury vehicles, and extravagant shopping sprees. As a class, we used examples from Lil’ Tay’s Instagram to examine the difference between reality and hyperbole and to discuss the difference between someone who brags and someone who is confident in themselves.
4. Why Today’s Mistakes Can Hurt You Tomorrow
Being behind the screen can free us from restrictive social dynamics so that we can speak more openly, but online interactions also ignore or erode the social dynamics that support positive interactions. This puts the youth of today into a difficult position: in a world where every account ever made can be traced, their adolescent and teenage online interactions might be attached to them for a lifetime. This is very different from most teachers’ adolescent experiences — universities and employers never found out about our exploits because we were never able to gleefully tweet or post them in the moment. It is our job to inform students of this paradigm shift while we model our use of social media in an explicit way so that they understand that some things are not to be shared on social media. Several times a semester, I will talk to my students about a picture I am thinking of posting while sharing my reasoning behind why I feel the need to post. My students routinely ask why I decided to post a picture of me with my family or a “throwback” picture of me playing football in high school. These questions provide the opportunity for me to teach outside of the curriculum, explaining how one’s use of social media should be aligned with their values rather than spur of the moment inclinations. When I take twenty minutes out of a school day in order to answer questions and provide students with my own reflections regarding the photos or phrases I use on my own social media, it extends their capacity to think critically about social media. It shows them that our digital footprint is a reflection of ourselves, thus we should guard it with the utmost integrity.
5. How Your Focus Today Can Affect Your Future
The notion that your “portfolio” now extends to your online interaction can be a good thing, at least if you know this at a young enough age, so you can utilize your digital footprint in a productive way. We know that you won’t become a police officer or lawyer just because you post of bunch of “Law and Order” episodes on your Facebook or Instagram. However, we don’t necessarily know yet how your online profile may amplify your future endeavors. Bethany Mota is a prime example of how social media may change the way adolescents prepare for adulthood. At age 14, Bethany began using YouTube to video blog about her fashion and style purchases. Over the next few years, as her influence and followers grew, she partnered with J.C. Penny and Forever 21. By 2001, she had begun her own clothing line with Aeropostale in 2013. Now, not everyone will become a financially successful entrepreneur simply by the videos or pictures they post on social media. But, if one does have a passion at an early age, a consistent digital footprint may reflect favorably when it is time to apply to potential schools and employers down the road. Sharing Bethany’s story and others like it with students helps them to see how they can begin working toward their futures right now.
Right now, it is easy to demonize social media for the stains it has left on human interaction. But social media is here for the long haul, and it has changed our society. In our growing roles as educators, we must teach students about social media and not the other way around. We must study this highly effective communication model and implement ways that students can benefit from it, while arming them against its dangers.
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