I want to close out this 3-part series with a few words about social media in the classroom. This can be both a positive experience for some as well as a walk on the slippery rocks for others. For me it has been a little of both. When I first dove in I felt intimidated by the possibilities and pressured to try everything. Even worse were feelings of guilt that I wasn’t doing enough with it. It helps to remember the following:
Very few so-called social media experts are history teachers.
Social media is about the sharing of information and not about building community.
You can’t do everything. Become comfortable with a few tools and explore their full range and potential. Less is more.
Allow yourself to fail.
Social Media Experts?
Let’s face it, social media is the hip thing to be doing in our classrooms. There is a great deal of pressure from within our school administrations and the broader teaching community. Even a quick perusal of this universe reveals a multitude of social media folks with the latest tool that will somehow change the way we teach. My advice is to always remember to stick with your fundamental goals. What skills that are specific to the study of history are you trying to impart to your students? Remember that the majority of these people are not history teachers and may know very little about the kinds of skills that are specific to our discipline. You are the authority. One way to sift through talk is to find fellow history teachers who are engaged in the same projects. I’ve found Twitter to be an incredible resource. It’s easy to find people with similar interests and it’s a great way of sharing information and ideas.
Information v. Community
Quite often you will hear talk about the importance of connecting your students to a larger community beyond the confines of your classroom and school. While I am open to differences of opinion here, it is my view that the only community worth worrying about is the one that you interact with on a daily basis. While social media can play an important role in the strengthening of ties among students in your classroom, its pedagogical benefit is in the sharing of information. Sharing information does not, in and of itself, bring about community. Many of these tools offer students a way to make connections beyond the confines of the classroom, which can be incredibly fruitful. A Skype interview with an expert or radio interview offer new avenues for the gathering and sharing of information.
Less Is More
Take the time to explore the limits of specific web tools. Make sure you and especially your students understand why they are using a specific social media program. I can’t tell you how many horrifically awful YouTube videos I’ve seen. Most of them are done by students who have been given very little guidance by their teachers. Let’s face it, it is easy to say go make a video. Video production, however, is a wonderful way of getting students to think about the presentation of history to the general public. It is worth discussing how various filmic elements such as narrative, sound, and images come together to form a coherent interpretation. Try analyzing a segment of Ken Burns’s The Civil War as a part of their preparation. If you want your students to blog make sure they understand the format. Talk about what goes into an effective blog post and if the site is open to comments than discuss what kind of personal profile it is appropriate to present to the general public. Discuss the importance of collaboration when creating a wiki page or the inevitability and challenges that come with revisions to a Wikipedia page. And if it is something as simple as collecting images on Flickr make sure that students understand how cataloging works through tags.
Once you become comfortable with a few specific programs you can think about using them collectively for a more detailed project. One that I have been working on involves the development of a website that serves as a guide for tourists and those interested in the many Civil War related sites here in Charlottesville, Virginia. Another idea is the creation of an elective that would allow students to formulate their own conspiracy theory of a historical event that would involve the dissemination of online information. All of these uses involve different ways to present history to the general public and different tools force students to think critically about the organization and presentation of information. Most importantly, it gives students a sense of ownership of what they are studying in a way that goes far beyond a standardized test.
The Importance of Failure
I recently gave a talk to our graduating class and one of the things I wished for them was a certain amount of failure. Give yourself plenty of room to experiment and fail. It didn’t take me long to realize that there really is no set plan on how to use these tools in our classrooms. The sky is the limit. I’ve had my share of success and probably more failures and even experiences that I am still having difficulty assessing. For example, a few years ago I had students in a class I taught on Abraham Lincoln set up Facebook pages for the various people within his private and public circle. All of the profile information had to comply with the historical record. Once the individual pages were set up students could interact with one another by posting messages and links. The most hilarious aspect of the exercise were the decisions made as to who to “friend” and under what conditions someone might get un-friended. You can also use Twitter to role play historical figures. Monticello has their own Jefferson profile up on Twitter as does Mount Vernon. I don’t know whether I will ever do this again, but I am glad I gave it a shot.
In closing I think it is important to point out once again that we are not teaching social media. These tools can be explored in just about any type of academic setting. The question that we need to keep in mind is how it helps us to teach this subject called history.