Learning at its Best

via Lost In Recursion

I know it makes a lot of teachers nervous/sick-to-the-stomach, but I absolutely LOVE communicating with students through Facebook.  Yes, I Facebook with students.  In fact, I accept every request they send my way, because it is an incredible way to take seriously what I believe about relationships and learning.

I bring it up, because I had a fantastic exchange with an Algebra 2 student yesterday, and it couldn’t have happened if I refused or was prohibited from using Facebook with my students.

* * *

An Algebra 2 student of mine sent me a message last night saying, “Those Vi Hart videos are pretty crazy, The doodle games can get so absorbing.”  I of course loved this for lots of reasons.  Math was seeping its way into his life, and he was spending his own time thinking mathematically and scratching the math itch.  This, more than anything, in my opinion, is the critical trait present in the lives of mathematical thinkers.

We started talking about this video, my personal favorite, all about different kinds of stars.  I said something about how all stars with a prime number of points come in one piece, and he said “something i was thinking about with stars that might not go anywhere, what happens if you arrange the dots that map points into a shape other than a square or a circle? do the shapes change or do they just get a bit warped?”  A question of his own – the sure sign of a mathematically active brain.

I spent a ton of time thinking about this last Spring, so I started telling him all about my research and a few of the intriguing questions I worked on.  In fact my own weird path led me to a remarkable fact about triangular numbers in modular rings, and that somehow led me to write some pieces for a DIY music box I bought last year.  I played it for our class one day, and he was amazed to hear the mathematical design.  For me, this is “math in the real world.”

We went on for a while talking our way through a few things.  He was clearly ready to play with the ideas on his own, so I tried to give him just enough to fuel his curiosity and send him on his way.  Here’s my favorite part: “yeah okay i feel like theres a piece of this that im missing, and with the increasing skipping of points when do you stop? is the star closed or composed of polygons.”  I didn’t have to wait for our next class to chat (something I can never find enough time for anyway).  I just went to his profile page, hit record on the webcam, and drew him a few diagrams!

[Have you noticed his grammar and spelling were less than impeccably proper?  Can you think of any reason why I should care at all?!  I can't.  Not when we're in the middle of great math thoughts.]

This whole conversation was a perfect lead-in to the Mathematical Art seminar I’m leading with Justin Lanier and two other colleagues starting next week that this student will be taking.  Talk about bringing motivation and interest to class.  He also posted a picture of his own “string art” drawing earlier this week (deeming school Facebook worthy), so he’s clearly ready to play around with mathematical projects of his own.  I’m honored to mentor that process, wherever it may occur.

* * *

My school puts the relationship between teach, student, and subject at the center of its philosophy, so I feel rock solid about stories like this.  In fact, I wonder if it gets any better.

We have a policy about email that says teachers and students are free to communicate this way, but feedback on classwork should come during class time. To me, handing back a piece of paper with written comments seems rather equivalent to emailing it, but whatever.  I suppose I get it.  That’s fine.

Luckily, our policies don’t yet preclude me from interacting with students through other social media, though I know some administers are worried about having “official classwork” populate there and would probably wring their hands at me.  I’ve heard a new social media policy is coming down the pipe, but I’m just praying my students and I can continue to connect as successfully as we have.

We are friends.  Not the kind that enable your bad habits or exist for status in the often uncomfortable school social scene.  We’re friends with shared interests, and Facebook is where we show them off and connect around them.

I’m not on Facebook to gossip or read whiney statuses or relish in school drama.  I’m there to share content.  Posts with real substance.  Quotes worth reading.  Pictures worth seeing.  Links worth clicking.  Ideas worth thinking about.  The kind of content worth filling your life with.  This is what a life of learning is about.

By interacting with students through Facebook, I can help them fill their life with good stuff and play the role of their intellectual friend – the one who challenges them and points to great stuff they can explore on their own.  Isn’t that teaching?

I just hope whatever policy comes down the pipeline lets me continue to do what I’m already doing well – making real connections with students around content.

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## Discussion

### 14 Responses to “Facebooking with students”

1. The internet is a new form of communication for our species, and an entirely new aspect of culture is being created. It’s clear to me that we should connect adults and kids! We shouldn’t leave the kids to create their own culture without us!

The “forest” analogy posted by a Scattergood teacher is really good: http://bit.ly/xpVG6K

Posted by Riley Lark | January 7, 2012, 10:00 am
• Thanks for the comment. I read your “forest” analogy post the other week and LOVED it. It’s exactly what I’m talking about. This is how you build learning communities. This is how you gain influence with kids.

I love that nothing is required. Students don’t have to send me friend requests, but they do. They invite my presence into their life. They don’t have to look at my posts, but they do. They like them and comment and reshare them on their own walls. All I have to do is point to the great stuff that will affect their minds and lives.

Posted by Paul Salomon | January 7, 2012, 1:52 pm
2. I teach a highly visual subject: Anatomy. My students created a FB group and I friended the group creator to be added to to the group. Now it is the go to place for me and students in sharing pictures to study with and having discussions about what is happening in class. The school provides a place to post things like this but with no interaction. It is working incredibly well, students answer each other’s questions and I’ll post feedback on if the info is accurate. Amazingly helpful for students that miss a lot for medical reasons. I also post a lot of non-subject related articles on everything from getting into college to meteor showers (I’ll post this article). This is where kids are for hours a week and if I can be a part of with my content, it can only help.

Posted by Jason Saiter | January 7, 2012, 5:07 pm
• That sounds like exactly what I’m talking about. Thanks for sharing. See, even when schools allow interface’s like BlackBoard (horrible) or Moodle or whatever, they hold not a candle to Facebook. Why? Because, we’re already there. It is the place where we share ourselves. That’s why school should be Facebook worthy – so that we can connect our learning to who we are and want to become.

Posted by Paul Salomon | January 8, 2012, 1:52 pm
3. I love the learning in this piece, Paul.

I’m going to ask a few pesky questions:

How should we write social media policy for educators (mandated reporters who may also find students on social media sites in violation of user agreements) or should policies prohibiting social media contact between teachers and students be broken?

Best,
C

Posted by Chad Sansing | January 7, 2012, 9:18 pm
• Thanks Chad, and thank you for your pushing on these ideas.

We have to push against wrong-minded policies, but if you lose your job over it, you also lose your ability to impact student lives in the classroom. Really, the whole pandora’s box of education law and policy makes me head spin, and I am thankful to be at a school where I can mostly avoid it. I’m not even exactly sure what you mean about user agreements.

In general, I prefer to handle worrisome situations by dealing with students directly, in whatever way will best help their development. I realize that is a little vague, but if education is community-based, we more easily have the personal understanding we need to satisfyingly resolve conflicts. This is in stark contrast to a national education policy scene, or even state, district or big box school policy, in which we try to systematically prevent these conflicts.

Am I wrong here? Again, I realize that’s vague and semi-romantic, but I feel the relationships between students and teachers need to be productive and personal, and cannot a priori be established or ensured by policy.

Posted by Paul Salomon | January 8, 2012, 2:21 pm
• Actually, I disagree about losing impact if we are not working within the institution. I quit working at the local uni when ‘wrong-minded’ policies were placed before education. I started my online (and offline) biz and now enjoy my work as I am able to provide student-centred constructivist learning that was being quashed at the mainstream job.

The relationship does need to be personal, especially as learning is a social experience. Like any relationship there needs to be boundaries and respect. I too find that Facebook (and Twitter) can provide these.

Enabling students to be aware of how relevant their learning is to their worlds is facilitated by these mediums which most of them use daily.

Posted by Char Paul (@psitutor4psych) | January 9, 2012, 1:54 am
• There have been great pieces written semi-recently about whether great education reform can come from within this system or will have to take place outside of it. I lean to the latter, but I also carry a great deal of guilt about standing apart from the good people in the trenches, fighting the good fight.

Posted by Paul Salomon | January 9, 2012, 11:53 am
• I dig working with students directly and I dig semi-romantic notions of inquiry, autonomy, and community in schools -

I often think about issues related to broader social media use and user agreements because I work in a middle school. I imagine that most of my students under the age of 13 have social media accounts on services that require users to be at least 13 because of laws like COPA. So I communicate via social media with some parents and with some students whom I know are following social media “rules.” However – since students “live” on services like Facebook, rather than on schoolified services like Edmodo – I’m uncertain as yet of my own opinions on communicating with students via individual, real-world social media accounts. Most policy and policy-makers advise against it. I see some merit in arguments that say we need to critical and mindful of how we best to protect students when we decide to limit their rights at school. So I’m interested in real-world “policy” suggestions that might come from folks like you who teach and communicate with students under fewer restrictions than the number of those under which I teach.

All the best,
C

Posted by Chad Sansing | January 9, 2012, 9:50 am
• Chad- More good thoughts. Thank you!

It feels like you’re bringing up the School vs. Real Life distinction in thinking about protecting students vs. exposure (or something like that.) This is a distinction I try to avoid wholeheartedly. I try to bring my real self to the class room.

This means Teacher Paul = Person Paul. There are slight differences in my role, but my passions, interests, activities, relationships, likes, and pet peeves remain much the same. In the classroom I think about people, the same as I do everywhere else. If what I’m doing isn’t cool, it’s not because we’re in a classroom. And so, I don’t fear speaking to students in the hallway, or on our walk to school, or at a restaurant, or through my personal Facebook account.

Steve Miranda writes about this here as he reviews the ideas in “A Hidden Wholeness” by Parker Palmer. I think this is a hugely important lesson, and I include among my goals helping students building/deciding upon the values and behaviors with which they can consistently and confidently live.

In most cases, however, classroom behavior is much more restricted than our “real life.” This, however, is an artificial dichotomy, and I help open students to the consistency of their life. They are always living it, and they must always be present and conscious.

Posted by Paul Salomon | January 9, 2012, 12:12 pm
4. It seemed crazy to me right from the start as to why I would not want to have real conversations about real topics in real places with students. These conversations on FB seem effortless, meaningful and fun. Right away I had 25 students “showing up” online for a FB tutorial/review session. The students drift in and out of the chat and or wall but they keep their eye on it. This is what teens are doing at night, why not infuse some learning into the mix?
Our class FB pages have become bulletin boards; WE post pictures of what happened in class, we comment on them, it builds a real community very quickly. Students love to post useful items they come across and ask questions of each other. This feels so much better than any other tool I’ve use to communicate with students, it just seems effortless from both sides.

However I have received feedback from several colleagues who feel that this is inappropriate and somehow even dangerous and risky. I struggle with this reaction as in what to say, they are so far away from where I am standing I don’t think they can hear me. There is immense pressure in teaching to conform to a predetermined norm and not think for oneself.
I am a believer in change from within the system (I have to be!) however I see the immense challenge. Change must disrupt old patterns to change the entrenched and invisible paradigms that hold the system captive.

thanks so much for the post,
c

Posted by CArolyn Durley | January 9, 2012, 4:44 pm
• You said, “why not infuse some learning in to the mix?” but I insist they are already learning! Why not be a teacher and help shape that learning? I am so glad to hear how well this stuff is working for you and your students! I’ve been friending students for some time, but I’ve only just begun using class groups. Groups offer a somewhat “safer” option for teachers, I suppose, but there’s nothing better than having a uniform identity that you are unafraid to share, I find.

I know lots of teachers are scared of this kind of thing, and I can’t blame lots of them for thinking it’s dangerous. It seems to me, however, that the danger comes from adults, not kids. The adults are looking down on the oversight the kids are actually inviting into their lives. The administrators are most scared, and the entire issue of “mandated reporters” plays into that fear. The fact, however, is this: looking after kids is what we do all day, and we do it well. We deserve the trust to carry that over.

Finally, thanks for your readership and kind words! Thanks for your agency in the schools, most of all!!!

Posted by Paul Salomon | January 9, 2012, 5:27 pm