As teachers continue to grapple with Facebook, Twitter and even newer technologies, the debate grows louder: should social media become part of the classroom curriculum?

It’s 9:30 p.m. Journalism adviser Mitch Eden is on Facebook looking at the yearbook staff’s recent photo uploads. He gets a message from the photographer. How can she get the perfect shot? Because of Facebook, Eden is able to offer instant advice to the photographer. The next day she captures a stunning frame.

Eden is sick for the week and away from the classroom but his staff needs guidance on deadline. The Pioneer yearbook staff posts spreads on Facebook. Eden critiques the spreads from home, leaving comments on each.

“That’s an instantaneous teaching moment,” said Eden, who teaches at Kirkwood High School in Missouri. “She asked a question through the Facebook group and before she shot the next day, I was able to give her photo advice right there.”

The adviser at California’s Whitney High School, Sarah Nichols, begins class with a warm-up exercise showcasing a photo or article she found on Twitter. Nichols said Twitter helps her deepen her curriculum and broaden the worldview of students. Her students follow news organizations, writers and blogs, such as The New York Times’ Lens blog.

“When I’m reading my feed in the morning and something strikes me, I’m certainly going to incorporate it into my schedule for the day,” Nichols said.

Nichols’ Advanced Placement U.S. History class shares links and opinions in the class Facebook group. Facebook allows a student to continue the educational conversation on his or her own time, Nichols said.

At Wheat Ridge High School in Colorado, teacher Stephanie Rossi’s family started her a Facebook account. Soon current and past students began “friending” her. Rossi accepted the requests and uses the account to highlight her students’ accomplishments.

“I accidentally found two of my students were cheating on Facebook,” said Rossi, a social studies teacher. “One of the students posted on their status, ‘Does anyone have Rossi’s notes so I can turn them in?’ I replied with something quirky like, ‘It’ll be interesting to see who gets the points.’”

And at Smoky Hill High School, also in Colorado, publications adviser Carrie Faust said faculty at her school used Facebook to help students after one of their peers committed suicide. Facebook became a help and support line, Faust said.

Eden, Nichols, Rossi and Faust have something in common: all believe social media, when used correctly, enhances the educational experience. Compared to many other teachers across the country, they’re bucking the trend.

Digital communication

The use of Twitter and Facebook has skyrocketed in the past five years. Since 2006 Twitter has grown by more than 35,000 percent and Facebook nearly 6,000 percent, according to Media Bistro. When something is shared on the web, 52.1 percent of people use Facebook to spread the news.

In December 2011, Facebook reported having 845 million active monthly users. Twitter had 100 million active monthly users, according to Media Bistro.

At Missouri’s Francis Howell Central High School, Matthew Schott uses Google Docs to communicate with students, along with Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. The program allows students to upload and change projects on their own time but still have access at school — a plus for night owls, Schott said.

“In class, they don’t have to spend all of their time writing,” Schott said. “It’s an easy way to help the writing leave the classroom so we can focus on areas where they’re having trouble.”

Social media is a teaching tool, not merely a tool for social interaction, Eden said. He said there’s too much information on the Internet and sometimes kids get lost.

“I use social media to point things out,” Eden said. “Examples of photography and design, so students don’t have to sift through everything. They can model everything out there and become better journalists.”

Ryan Bearden, a senior at Kirkwood High School, said Eden posts articles about different design elements, often things he’s noticed in The New York Times .

“It’s great because instead of doing nothing on Facebook, they [students] can read something on there that enhances their education,” Bearden said.

Eden’s students also use Facebook to verify quotes. The staff messages a student to let him or her know their quote will be used in the yearbook. This process, Eden said, allows students to keep up the book’s credibility.

Faust said her publications staff began using Twitter as the solution to their frustrating miscommunications. The students came up with the idea.

When a camera is needed in the cafeteria, the request is tweeted. When a student has a question, that’s tweeted. Faust even advertises her Facebook, Twitter and cellphone number on her syllabus for parents and students.

Faust’s students use social media to connect with other students, teachers and follow local news outlets. Students use smart phones as dictionaries and encyclopedias, not just peer communication. Students are always plugged in.

“Sometimes it’s rough,” Faust said. “I found myself at home after a late night and I got a text from a kid regarding our publication. I sat back and thought, ‘Gosh, I wonder what it’s like to be one of those teachers who is actually done for the day when they go home.’”

Bearden said while he personally uses Facebook to connect with friends, he uses social media more for his school’s student newspaper, The Kirkwood Call.

“It’s a great opportunity to reach out to people who are interested in our stories,” Bearden said. “Our stories apply to their [student’s] lives and we post on Facebook and Twitter because they’re on there all the time.”

Bearden said in other classes, his teachers use Facebook to organize students. His Advanced Placement classes use Facebook groups, posting when a deadline is approaching and allowing students to talk about assignments if they have problems. Bearden said he thinks the groups are a nice way to communicate outside of the classroom.

“Everybody knows that when they’re writing in the group, they’re communicating with everyone,” Bearden said.

Politically correct

Some teachers are finding their use of technology hitting a wall set by state law or district policy.

Missouri’s Senate Bill 54 went into effect in January. The bill requires all school districts in the state to have a written policy on teacher-student and employee-student communication.

“Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student,” states SB 54.

As a result, Eden and Schott are not friends or followers of their students, impacting their teaching tactics and curriculum.

Kirkwood School District’s policy states, “when communicating electronically with students for educational purposes, staff members must use district-provided devices, accounts and forms of communication... The district discourages staff members from communicating with students electronically for reasons other than educational purposes.”

Eden said it’s difficult to use social media because of the rules and expectations.

“Why not be there and educate and model for them [students] how they should properly use it?” Eden said. “We should have a presence and we should be a part of it so we can use it to educate.”

In the past, Schott has used both Facebook and Twitter to inform students of breaking news. Now because of SB 54, Schott doesn’t use Facebook and is very cautious using Twitter.

“SB 54 cooled me off on it [social media],” Schott said. “I still use Twitter with my editors to share a link but I always make sure it’s journalism related and school related. I try not to do too much off the education path.”

Schott’s school district, Francis Howell, has an electronic communication policy that addresses the ways teachers should communicate with students and social media’s effectiveness as a communication tool.

According to the district’s website, the policy acknowledges that social media can enhance collaboration and efficiency but states, “employees who utilize social media are prohibited from using their personal accounts to communicate with students unless the employee and student are related. Employees must limit electronic communication with students to school-related matters, including, but not limited to, communications regarding any instructional coursework or extra-curricular activity involving the employee and students.”

Eden said SB 54 failed to define proper use of social media, which hurts both students and teachers.

Diana Peckham, an English teacher at Northeast High School in Maryland, disagrees. Peckham does not use social media, particularly when it pertains to her students, unless they have graduated from college. Peckham doesn’t use social media because of the risk associated for teachers.

“I’ve seen too many instances where teachers have been fired or accused of inappropriate actions or behavior on their personal time,” Peckham said. “They may have posted inappropriate pictures on Facebook or they’ve tweeted or texted with students and because of the language... you know, 140 characters, things get misconstrued. Nobody’s speaking the same language.”

Peckham said she notices a clear division between younger teachers, those fresh out of college, and more seasoned teachers. Peckham said school districts need a clear social media use policy stating the appropriate and inappropriate uses of the technology.

“People don’t recognize the boundaries,” Peckham said. “Students get caught up in so much of the drama. It was bad enough when they were passing notes... but now they’re doing the texting and tweeting. It’s instantaneous and continuous.”

Tim Mennuti, president of the teachers’ association in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, said he advises his members not to use social media to communicate with students.

“People are doing things online where it should be done in person,” Mennuti said. “The reality is, once you’re out in the open, there is no privacy. The only defense you have is to not get involved.”

Mennuti said he understands the lure of using social media to teach but once teachers are connected with one student, they are inadvertently connected with all because of the networking capabilities of social media.

“If a teacher makes one mistake online, it’s likely they’re going to get fired,” Mennuti said. “Why would anybody subject themselves to that type of scrutiny?”

Mennuti and Peckham understand that Facebook and Twitter may be where students are conversing, but they insist teachers should not follow them.

“People go into places like bars and toilets,” Peckham said. “Just because they are there doesn’t mean I have to follow them in there to talk to them. I wait for the appropriate place and time... I am not a friend of these students. I am their teacher.”

Districts fight access

Another common roadblock to teaching through social media: Internet filters.

In 2000, Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act, requiring federally funded schools and libraries to filter online content. Twenty-five states, including Missouri, have laws requiring public schools and libraries to have Internet use policies.

Internet filters commonly rely on blocking keywords or phrases, such as “sex” and “breast,” according to the National Coalition Against Censorship. By blocking keywords, filters may also be blocking information concerning civil rights, feminism and politically charged topics.

“When you just use filters on keywords, that’s going to remove all kinds of educational material,” said Michael O’Neil, communications director for NCAC.

Most districts block access to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest. But some teachers say their students access these sites from their smart phones or using smartware that maneuvers around filters. HootSuite is a social media platform that provides students’ access to their social media accounts while bypassing traditional Internet filters.

O’Neil said districts can’t treat the Internet as a cybermonster. Districts need to admit students use the Internet and social media sites to teach them how to properly use the technology.

Nichols said she always sees students on their phones. Faust said some students use applications to avoid the filters. Some teachers, Faust said, are embracing the fact that students use their phones, allowing them to access the web and dictionaries for research during class.

O’Neil said students do care about their privacy, despite frequent assumptions otherwise.

“Young people do care and engage in partition strategies online,” O’Neil said. “The more they know their options, the more they care. Kids learn a lot better by engaging in social media rather than keeping their training wheels on.”

Many students don’t have Internet access at home, making their only online experience a censored experience, O’Neil said.

Testing the water

Nichols agrees students and teachers shouldn’t be social media friends, but said new technology shouldn’t be ignored.

“I teach my students the benefits of using social media as a source of news, information, examples, inspiration,” Nichols said. “I teach them the responsibility of and how to share their work by providing examples on a daily basis.”

Eden agrees: when students are accessing the information anyway, why not educate them?

“Why not be there and educate and model for them how they should properly use it?” Eden said. “Kids are always one step ahead of adults.”

In the age of instantaneous communication, it appears to Schott that social media has replaced older tools like email, and it’s here to stay.

“I can’t imagine not teaching with it because of the collaboration possibilities and the freedom it gives students,” Schott said. “I think more schools need to embrace social media because students are familiar there...Students know a lot and they’re very comfortable there... they’re natives.”

Nichols said whether you’re in favor of using social media or against it, the bottom line is educating students about responsible practices and positive educational uses.

“I think it gives them a broader understanding of the vast possibility for learning with social media versus the trivial high school use of saying, ‘so-and-so did this,’” Nichols said. “Once they realize through class activities the ways they’re able to reach out or find new information... they take that with them.”

By Emily Summars, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2012