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Following on from my previous post about engaging senior students struggling to connect with English, I thought I’d share some start up activities developed over the past few years which now form a nice wee package of introductory lessons.

Week One is important. You only get one chance to make a first impression. That first impression for any student is key but for young people who have already experienced consecutive years of Not Achieved (and however you dress that up, it’s never a great feeling), it is vital. Instead of weighing students down with course outlines and standards offered on day one, last year I decided to focus on The Future – for the world, for them as people, and for them as English students to encourage them to reflect on where they want to be and (hopefully) see some relevance in the days, weeks and months ahead because for Mr I Hate English and Ms I Never Read, by definition, this can be a very long year.

To start with, we watched a very cool compilation video summarising the highlights of 2014 via Upworthy. All they had to do was watch and see if they could yell out the event/person’s name before the subtitles. This year – and hey, it’s still early, the best one I’ve found so far is a summary via Facebook.

Fun Factor – check.

Taking it up a level we then close view The World in 2020 (I’ve also used Shift Happens in the past) and discuss ideas around changes in technology and education. Next I used a selection of articles from Mindfood on Future Trends which featured in December’s issue (and has been repeated this year). Students choose a topic that selects them (food, travel, technology) read one or more articles then answer a series of questions. The activity culminates with them pairing up with other students who read about the same topic, summarising and mind-mapping the predictions plus adding their own.

Big Picture – check.

Next I use a reflective piece of writing by a teacher simply titled Some Thoughts (on studying English) which a colleague shared with me years ago. I remind them (hopefully) about skimming and scanning as a close reading technique and then they read and answer questions.

Subject importance – check.

Now we’re up to about Day 3 so I get the students to complete the Careers Quest  (regardless of whether they have done it before or not) which involves answering questions about their likes, strengths etc. This data generates a list of career options as well as entry requirements for the industry, income, current employment climate and information they can use as the basis for a report writing or oral presentations later in the year. (Make sure they save their results so they can refer back later on – and write down password!)

Individual relevance – check.

At this point only, I give out the course outline and go over available standards and credits with them. It might feel as if I’ve created a false impression that the year is going to be all about YouTube and mind maps but what I’ve learned about these students is they already know they will find the standard required hard but what might motivate them to give things a go is if they can see some relevance and understand that we are working together to develop life skills.  Certainly beats writing letters about yourself ….

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Friday. Students currently enjoying coffee and croissants supplied by me (on World Teachers Day too!) as inspiration for an afternoon of feature writing with a 4pm deadline looming. So a chance to reflect on digital technology my students have embraced independently to enhance their learning as part of a Media Communication course.

It was with some delight I learned at the end of term one when conducting a survey on their study habits that several of the keener learners had been connecting outside the classroom via Skype. Now Skype (or a Voice over Internet Protocol VoIP as it’s technically known) isn’t new.  But what has been interesting is how my students have utilised this tool. It has been hugely significant in terms of reflecting a transition towards taking more responsibility for their own learning which has been a challenge for many of them this year. While the keener learners set it up, the less engaged were also using this option by the middle of the year when they could see and hear how the rest of the class were benefiting from it. Skype has enabled them to :

  • clarify ideas/concepts discussed in class
  • brainstorm story ideas
  • share ideas/networks for interviews
  • develop their intro writing skills through the “tell a friend” approach
  • learn how to give constructive criticism of their writing
  • test their knowledge of key terms and concepts
  • revise for tests

Yesterday they started work on a class newspaper with their peers in Christchurch.  Coordinating a class newspaper with a team of fledgling reporters some 350km apart is a daunting prospect (for me at least).  They met for the first time via video conference and learned when trying to allocate roles that paper-scissors-rock doesn’t work via VC due to broadcast delays!

That afternoon, they quickly set up a google docs account where they are building a bank of story ideas, allocating pages and assigning tasks.  Again google docs is not new. It enables users to create and edit web-based documents, spreadsheets, and presentations as well as store documents online and access them from any computer. I am interested to see how my students are using it to their advantage.  Our chief reporter is currently watching the ChCh-based editor type feedback in real-time as they refine story ideas together. Simple.

And while I have used Moodle this year for extension work, sharing readings, assessment updates and to send email messages to students, the ChCh group has used Facebook.  Straight after yesterday’s first VC my students were added to the ChCh group and can now instant message their peers to keep each other informed of progress, share ideas and give encouragement.  Perfect.

So while producing a 14 page, tabloid newspaper with a group of students based in separate cities who have never met might seem daunting, suddenly thanks to digital technology, social media and good old Kiwi ingenuity, anything is possible!

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If you receive the New Zealand Teachers’ Council’s weekly e-letters, you’ll be aware the council has just launched its Teachers and Social Media website – yeeha.  And if you’re lucky enough to be on holiday you might have even had a look at it! The site aims to promote discussion about the relationship between the registered teachers Code of Ethics and social media.

It’s important that all teachers are familiar with the code and being relatively fresh out of training, I’d read it fairly recently. The site is structured around the code’s four stakeholder groups so commitment to learners, parents/families, the profession and society are all covered in relation to social media usage.

Home page of NZTC social media website

The resources section features animated videos that pertain to each of the four groups and deal with scenarios such as texting students, blogging, Facebook and digital footprints. Under the resources tab, you’ll also find guidelines and docs (including a staffroom-friendly social media map explaining what social media is), a presentation framework enabling schools to use the videos etc for PLD, FAQs and links.

True to form, under the reources tab, the guidelines and documents page features a prezi with tips on how to manage and recognise ethical dilemmas when using social media.  A lot of information is repeated throughout the site so what you read in the prezi (don’t set to auto play unless you’re a speed reader!) also features in a downloadable poster. The same page also includes a link to a seminar that was held a few months ago where the site’s developers discussed its content with teachers.  It’s 58 minutes long but interesting to see the initial response to what was essentially a focus group for the new site.  As I’d already explored the site, I found the teachers’ comments in the chat box in the side bar of more interest that the presentation itself.  Some pointed out that their schools still had firewalls blocking the use of Facebook and other social media – these comments were not always picked up on by the moderators but I suspect those and the usual access to technology issues will ensure some of the scenarios discussed are a long way off being reality for many teachers.

My favourite section is  Your Stories under the pink tab where teachers share experiences about using social media tools – yes. That’s what I was looking for!  So far there are only four posts but obviously that will build over time.  I’d used all the tools discussed except pinterest but it’s always good to learn how others are using Facebook, Twitter etc to engage their learners.  The links page in the resources section provides more hands on assistance with the “How do I…?” questions rather than the “What will I do if…?” focus that is the site’s raison d’être.

Overall, it’s a great site and one that is long overdue. I love the resources, enjoyed the stories and have bookmarked many of the links as well as adding #educhats to my twitter feed.

My only concern is the emphasis on the “What ifs…?”.  Because teachers want the best for their students, and possibly due to some of the bad press the profession has received this year, we may be over thinking things somewhat. I’m not trying to be blase about the importance of ethics, a subject I’ve taught most Fridays this year to my aspiring journalism students.   Ethics is all about shades of grey. There’s no way the NZTC can develop a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts to cover every possible scenario that might (or might not) occur.  I guess that’s why the site focuses on linking the existing code to the social media environment so that if members are in a position of having to justify their decision-making, they can refer back to the code to explain themselves.  But surely that’s the same for countless decisions made in every classroom, every day? I guess also for members, this approach provides protection against potential critics.  But should professional protection be at the heart of discussions over usage? Certainly we need to have those conversations but it would be a shame if developing pedagogy that encompasses social media is driven by fear of stuffing up. And that’s ethics too – there is no right or wrong so even with the best of intentions, we might have to accept that sometimes we get it wrong. Hopefully if best professional judgement is applied, those mistakes won’t be career ending, hangable offences.

If we wait for an elusive list of dos and don’ts, we might miss a golden learning opportunity. Digital tools are evolving at such a rapid pace, by the time we work out how to use them ethically and acquire the technology (and skills) to use them, the next tool is here. This results in teachers being in a constant mad scramble to keep up, make lessons meaningful and head off every ethical issue imaginable before it happens.  It’s easy to see why social media ends up in the too hard basket.

It shouldn’t be that hard and it shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of classroom teachers to find ways to successfully embed social media into their schools’ learning programmes. Let’s not forget that social media is all about interactive community building. One teacher in the webinar said when a negative post was made on his school’s Facebook page for parents, before the school worked out what to do, other parents had (diplomatically) shut the negative, naysayer down.

And that’s what it’s all about really – yes we need to be careful and well-informed in everything we do and say with our students BUT we also have to have a little faith that social media, if used wisely, will enhance communication, strengthen communities, engage learners and keep our jobs interesting and personal commitment to lifelong learning relevant.

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Love them or hate them social networking sites are deeply embedded in our lives. And if they are deeply embedded in the lives of those aged over 20, it’s safe to say they are second nature to anyone under 20.  Sitting in a campus computer lab writing this blog there are more than a dozen people in the room checking their Facebook pages at any one time.  For the under 25s, Facebook is a conduit to life. It forges their sense of identity and  belonging.  Older generations may struggle to see the relevance but I’d suggest you leave such thoughts at the door.  While you ponder “Why would you?”, “Who has time anyway?” or “No wonder their personal communication skills are so poor”, a new social network site will have sprung up defining the next generation of communicators, collaborators and colleagues.  You don’t have to “get it”. You don’t even have to like it, but if you truly want to connect with secondary students  – now, today –  you’d be crazy not to use them in class.

So clearly I’m not going to bother to defend the “Why would you?” question for this post.

First up the sea of blue and white screens currently threatening to engulf me is the portal to the wonderful world of Facebook which surely needs no introduction.  If we’re looking for ways to engage with our students , to build positive and possibly lasting relationships with them, this social network ticks boxes.

So here’s a few basics pointers in case….Facebook has a number of features with which users may interact. They include the Wall, a space on every user’s profile page that allows friends to post messages for the user to see; Photos, where users can upload albums and photos; and Status, which allows users to inform their friends of their whereabouts and actions,  News Feed appears on every user’s homepage and highlights information including profile changes, upcoming events, and birthdays of the user’s friends.  Users can control what types of information is shared automatically with friends. Facebook Notes is a blogging feature that allows tags and embeddable images.

If you’re considering setting up a Facebook group, there are a few things to consider first. Here are a few tips for starting out:

  1. Create a separate account just for your classes. Keep two accounts if you want to use Facebook personally as well. This keeps your Facebook relationship at school on a professional level.
  2. Manage privacy settings. If you don’t want to manage two accounts, use these tips to manage privacy to keep your personal and professional lives separate.
  3. Friend students carefully. Make sure you are “friending” students in current and former classes for professional purposes. As a rule of thumb, maintain the same level of professionalism on Facebook as you would in person.
  4. Ask students to put you on limited access to their pages. This keeps you from having to see their personal photos, status updates or other information that may compromise your professional working relationship.
  5. Use FB as a course management system. Use in place of other course management systems such as Blackboard to access all your online information and connections with fewer restrictions.
  6. Stay active. Keep posting messages, use as many Facebook apps and resources as possible, and update status reports so your students know you are engaged.
  7. Get over the term “friend”.  Some teachers are disturbed by the idea of making friends with their students. Instead of adapting the Facebook term in the common way, try to think about the relationship as one of a mentor.

Sribd has a visual presentation which covers off a lot of the privacy/security questions as well as the ethics of communicating with students this way in its Teachers’ Guide to Using Facebook.   or you can read a teacher’s suggestions here.

So exactly how might you choose to use Facebook in class? 

  1. As a way to manage assignments, to network with students and learn more about them.  Dunedin School Logan Park High is doing this successfully….
  2. For class projects – share book reviews, poll your class using the poll app, bring literature to life by doing a character study
  3. To establish your own personal learning networks – Facebook in Education aims to be an ongoing resource for information about how educators can use Facebook – yes, free resources and lesson plans! Join groups, stay in touch with former classmates, share material and access resources.
  4. Facebook has student resources – weread, flash card creator and more.
  5. And of course there are resources and tools for us too – webnaria enables you to post lesson notes to your group, there is a file uploader and a quiz creator
  6. Plus resources for both students and teachers – slideshare etc.

If you need more ideas – here’s another 94!

Now I said I wouldn’t but in case you’re not convinced about the potential of social networking sites as a learning tool, here’s a few more positives to ponder. Online social networks:

  • create an inviting atmosphere
  • are informal
  • encourage collaboration
  • are current
  • assist with engagement outside the class
  • teach personal responsibility (through educating students about privacy and security issues)
  • enhance student-teacher relationships
  • encourage active learning

There are various social networking tools you can set up to help students collaborate, share and discuss learning online. I am out of time to look at more today but will quickly mention Ning which is a bit like Facebook for education. It allows you to set up a closed community where students each have their own profile. You can customise the tools you want to have available but typically there are resources to enable everyone to upload video, documents, photos and sound files, have online discussions, blog and create events which are stored in a calendar and shared with all users.

The main difference between Facebook and Ning is that Ning has far fewer apps (add ons/tools/toys) than Facebook.  Personally I think the interface is cleaner, smarter and simple to use.  Setting up a group on Ning would certainly keep your class work separate to students’ personal social networking activity – less danger of crossover. But it would also mean students would need to join another site and set up another account which may be off-putting for some …

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