Kia Sellers, an eighth grader in New York City, is a self-styled social media expert. Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Google chat, Instagram and YouTube are all part of the 14-year-old’s vocabulary.
Like many other tweens and teens her age, she has mostly used her ease with tweeting and uploading cell phone photos to organize her busy social life.
But Sellers now finds that these skills are giving her a leg up in the classroom. At her private pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, teachers have embraced the call to integrate lessons on social media into the curriculum.
For instance, Sellers’ eighth grade classmates at the Mandell School on Columbus Avenue are currently using social media sites such as Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter in a class-wide project to save Asphalt Green from the city’s plans to build a 2-acre waste transfer station. The station, which would be located adjacent to the Asphalt Green athletic fields, a not-for-profit athletic complex east of the school, is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 20-year solid waste management plan for the city. Officials said that the station would allow Manhattan to take responsibility for some of its waste rather than sending it to other boroughs. Asphalt Green is open to the public, and contains a park, a pool and a fitness center, among other things.
“Social media can help teach kids that important learning and networking opportunities can take place outside the four walls of a classroom,” said Tiffany Della Vedova, Mandell’s new head of the fourth through eighth grade classes. “Let’s stop looking at social media as something that’s negative.”
Like Mandell, more and more schools are trying to teach their students and teachers how to use social media in productive ways.
The New York City Department of Education recently released a social media guideline for teachers in public schools, and hired someone to help teachers to learn and integrate it in their classrooms.
Chicago Public Schools provide a “Social Media Toolkit” available online to principals and staff. The site has video tutorials on subjects including how to manage a school Twitter page, teaching social media etiquette and how to send mass text messages via Twitter.
In addition to instruction from within the administration, education conferences are now offering help with understanding social media. The ASCD, an international nonprofit group which provides programs, products and services to assist educators, has added a seminar on social media to its annual conference in recent years. Ed Social Media is an organization that provides social media training seminars for schools for a fee, and the group hosts an annual social media summit that includes topics such as Twitter chats and video production. Last year, the conference had 105 attendees from around the country. At this year’s conference, held in Boston at the beginning of April, there were 160.
Some educators argue that students need to know how to use the medium to be successful in the future.
“No one is telling adults to put their devices away,” said Eric Sheninger, the principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, who puts a heavy emphasis on teaching students how to use social media effectively. “It’s becoming more and more prevalent in virtually every field around the globe. Our students have a leg up because they’ve been exposed and immersed in a setting that allowed them to use real world tools to solve real world problems.”
The eighth graders at Mandell are already buzzing about the job opportunities available for those who are fluent in social media – they could become a marketing specialist at Google, for example
But there is not a consensus on how all things social media should be taught.
“Many of our educators came from a pre-digital context,” said Marc Prensky, author of Teaching Digital Natives and From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom. “There are no best practices.”
Instead, schools are creating their own blueprint – figuring out what works for them based on their school and student make-up. It remains to be seen which practices will ultimately benefit students more in the long run.
“The period we’re in is a very high experimentation period,” Prensky said. “People are doing the old things in new ways and think they’re taking advantage of these tools and they’re not. And some people are doing brand new things.”
Under the supervision of teachers at Mandell, students have created various social media accounts on their own in order to bring attention to the controversy surrounding Asphalt Green.
“What they’re going to do is try to bring attention and educate throughout the city from a youth perspective,” said Christina Klapper, director of marketing at Asphalt Green. “A child’s voice is always going to be very meaningful.”
Educators at Mandell are using the project to teach students about the importance of conservation techniques, especially in New York City where green space is limited.
Since their first meeting with Klapper at the beginning of February, the students have started to get the word out about Asphalt Green. Currently, they are building a Tumblr account for the cause, a YouTube video and establishing a hash tag for Asphalt Green, which allows users on Twitter and Instagram to search for anything related to the topic.
“When we use Twitter and Instagram, so many more people use those apps that we can reach,” said Olivia Nikkanen, an eighth grader at the school. “I think it’s just a lot easier for us to spread the word and for people to find us.”
Students are also continuing to build on the idea of promoting nature in New York City – part of what they’ve dubbed as “Finding Green NYC.” The students tweet articles and tips related to the topic, build maps of green spaces, and, in their free time, the students will find examples of green space, take a photo and post it to the Finding Green Twitter and Instagram accounts.
“It’s a powerful tool in activism nowadays,” said Lucas Alves De Lima, an eighth grader at the school.
The efforts in Mandell echo what some New York City Department of Education officials believe are the positive, college-building aspects of social media.
Lisa Nielsen, a technology and social media guru, was recently hired as the city’s first director of digital literacy and citizenship to help teach teachers develop digital literacy. “They are moving in a direction that we know this is important for the 21st century and we do want our students to be prepared,” she said.
While Nielsen said that she doesn’t yet know how she will help to teach social media to students, she will keep in mind her ultimate goal. “In the front of my mind is, how is this going to help kids get into college, how is this going to help kids get a job, how is this going to help kids be a better citizen,” she said.
Currently, New York City public schools are required by law to filter the sites students can access at school, and students are forbidden from bringing electronic devices such as cellphones and iPods to schools.
Other schools are approaching the idea of encouraging their students to tweet and post with much more caution.
In Linwood, New Jersey’s Belhaven Middle School, educators are using social media as a way to strengthen their own school community.
Ed Tech Magazine named Belhaven as one of the top three K through 12 schools that is using Pinterest in August 2012. The school has an active Pinterest site, which allows users to organize links in a visually appealing way. On Belhaven’s Pinterest page is a section for nutrition information, videos the students may be interested in, and info graphics, among other topics. Anyone can access the site, including parents, students and teachers.
The school is most proud of the link it has been able to provide to its Legacy Project through Pinterest, said Frank Rudnesky, principal of Belhaven Middle School, for 433 fifth through eighth graders.
Each eighth grader completes a Legacy Project, or a message of love, hope and remembrance, on a tile where current and future students can see it. With student’s help in taking and organizing photos of each individual project, the school is able to post images of the tiles so that anyone in the Belhaven community can see the Legacy projects, no matter where they are.
“The most important part is the message,” Rudnesky said. “It’s something that everybody takes a look at as they come in. Some kids are no longer in the area and this allows them to still see the tile they left as a legacy.”
While Rudnesky acknowledges that he would like to teach students more about how to use social media effectively, he faces limitations. Like New York City public schools, New Jersey public schools receiving certain funding are required by law to filter students’ Internet access. Facebook and Twitter are two blocked sites, Rudnesky said.
Rudnesky is also concerned that having students use social media more freely in school might lead to increased incidents of cyber bullying. Currently, he sees the most issues with students starting fights or posting hurtful things on Facebook, Twitter, or via text message.
“We still haven’t been able to overcome that difficult barrier of safety for kids at this level.”
Educators at Mandell are aware of these dangers, but try to prevent them by making their students aware of them too.
“Because of the age of our students, it’s important for us to be socially responsible,” Della Vedova said. “Our big initiative in teaching them digital citizenship involves also, how do you comply with the expectations of this digital world where it’s much more difficult to define what the culture of it is, what are the societal norms of interaction, and what are the laws.”
For the middle school students at Mandell, it’s a source of pride that their teachers trust them enough to have such responsibility.
“There’s dangerous things that people do on computers,” Kia Sellers said from behind her MacBook Pro at Mandell. “I think our teachers have done a great job with showing us the good ways to use a computer and how to take care of them so they can be utilized to have a laugh or learn new things.”