Friday, July 18, 2008

Wasting Time

I find my personal life blurring into my professional activities recently. Just before students left the classroom for their summer adventures, I found myself sitting through yet another meeting which ultimately devolved into complaints about how often teachers and administrators in my building find students wasting time on the web during class. Our high school is in the midst of reviewing which web applications to allow and which to ban students from accessing through our school network, and of course the one site that nearly drips with venom from the lips of most educators these days is Facebook. However, I’ve seen how social networking sites like Facebook can be beneficial inside the classroom.

After listening to many of my colleagues admonish students for wasting valuable classroom time goofing around on Facebook, someone in our meeting pointed out that I had used Facebook with a recent student project. Students in my tenth grade English class had been given the task of finding a way to present their research on an issue currently facing a non-western culture to an audience outside the walls of our classroom. Some of the students adapted their research and presented their work to middle school students. Others wrote letters to senators and newspaper editors. A number of students used Facebook.

Students asked if they might use the Group application in Facebook to form awareness groups and recruit members to join from both inside and outside of our school community. Students posted information, links, videos, discussion questions, and more using the application. Some groups experienced phenomenal results. A small group of girls put together a page about the challenges faced by girls and women in Afghanistan. Their Facebook group is still going strong with just over 250 members from all over the world – the United States, Singapore, Ireland, India, and even Afghanistan. Another group started a page on the challenges faced by former child soldiers in Liberia. Their group started some wonderful discussion threads that pulled in people from Australia, France, Minnesota, and India. Students rushed to our laptops each day to excitedly check and respond to whoever had posted to their discussion section. The students were truly engaged with an audience outside of our classroom based on their research endeavors. And because I too had a Facebook account, I could monitor what the students posted, and I could respond to their discussions.

However, this is also where my professional persona started to overlap with my life outside of school. Technology has a way of bridging gaps in unexpected ways. I originally started my Facebook account so that I could connect with students. My persona, Teacher Ward, was “friended” by my students. They could read my profile and see which groups I had recently posted to. Students would email me and post questions to my “Wall.” This worked well, until my friends outside of school also found me on Facebook. Suddenly, I found myself having to explain my teaching persona to my non-teaching friends. My students were using Facebook to connect with audiences halfway around the world while my former high school classmates were also trying to reconnect with me. It was an uncomfortable mix. Ultimately, I found I needed to “unfriend” my students in order to separate my personal life from my professional one, but I was still able to join and monitor my students’ groups without them being able to similarly monitor me.

It has been interesting to see how using social networking sites like Facebook and Nings inside the classroom have changed how I connect with others outside the classroom. Not only were my students connecting with others outside of their immediate community, but so was I. Using Facebook gave my students an opportunity to share their interests and research and connect with others. Ultimately, it has also done the same for me. Together we have bridged various cultural and perhaps even a generational divides. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t strike me as a waste of time.
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