Each month, I go to "New Teacher Training" run by our district. It is a monthly meeting for anyone new to the school district, regardless of age or experience. Many of the teachers are new teachers and we spend time discussing many of the "little things" that can come up during your first year that they don't necessarily teach you in college.
We began yesterday with a couple questions, one being: "What was your biggest disappointment thus far?" Responses varied from parents not coming to open house to being cussed out by a student. I was talking with one of the teachers near me when I heard one person in the group say, "I was very disappointed when I found out that some of my 3rd graders have Facebook accounts."
Without getting into a major debate over lying about your age to get one and what role the parents play, this comment really made me sad because I think there is a learning opportunity that is being missed by teachers, just because it is Facebook. I do understand the age requirements and the issues that can arise from signing your child up (or the child signing themselves up). Those issues aside, my question is why shouldn't 3rd graders (or any learner) be exposed to social media in the classroom?
The reason I asked myself this question stems from the truth in that children will learn about social networking somewhere...why shouldn't it be in school? That way, a responsible adult can help them work through things like their digital footprint, social etiquette, and the responsibilities associated with being a digital and global citizen. If we don't take the time to teach or even model social networking skills in our classes, learners will be left to navigate the jungles of the web on their own, and maybe even make some mistakes that will follow them for the rest of their lives. I don't mean to be heavy or alarmist, but that really is the nature of the world today.
Inevitably, there is the question of how to expose learners to social media without asking them to sign up for an account? I don't mean showing them your Facebook page, I mean actually bringing learners into the social media world and giving them an opportunity to be active participants and contributors.
The easiest way to expose learners is to take a day or a couple of lessons to set up a class Facebook or Twitter account. It becomes a window to the rest of the world, where the sky is the limit. Bring in other classes, create virtual pen-pals, learn a new language...in short, show learners how to use the web as a resource and not a destination. The younger we expose them to this idea and help foster responsible use, the better off they'll be in middle and high school when they have their own accounts and are on their own.
Social networking can also be used to build literacy skills. I find, many times, learners are too "wordy" in responses. You can use a class Twitter account to help them communicate concisely, with vibrant and descriptive vocabulary while following a 140 character limit. Another idea I had is a problem solving activity of sorts...maybe set up a mystery in which someone can only send clues through tweets, and the class has to solve the problem using the short clues they get. You can ask them to consider context, the audience, tone, word choice...again, the sky is the limit.
There is more and more evidence showing there is no such thing as a "digital native."(1, 2) No one is born knowing how to interact and connect using the web...it is a skill that is learned as you use it more and more. Further, learners are great at "cutting and pasting, texting, Googling, and Facebooking, their range of skills does not necessarily extend to more complex technological tasks, such as creating and publishing digital stories or websites." (3) If we don't take the time to teach them these skills in school, I can assure you, they will take the time to teach themselves.
Don't be afraid of using social media in your class. Embrace the connections that can be made. Model good citizenship and networking skills. Encourage children to actively participate and contribute to digital learning networks. Who knows...you could very well be learning something from them someday.
Update: Thanks to Deb Wolf for passing along another article I had a hard time finding: Open University research explodes myth of 'digital native'