I was fortunate to be selected – along with my colleagues Andrew Zuckerman and Natalie Richey – to present our talk Teaching Social Media: Lessons Learned from Year One at the NJ Association of School Administrators’ annual Techspo event in Atlantic City this past week. The session focused on our collective experience of rolling out an elective course called Intro to Social Media at our district high school. The session description/sales pitch to the planning committee starts like this, and I think it nicely encapsulates the seed that eventually grew into this class, which first ran in the 2015-2016 school year:
Students today have unprecedented access to social media but may not have structured opportunities in which to think critically about how and why they use it, and why doing so is important.
If you’re interested in viewing the presentation slides, you can do so here (within is also a link to our curriculum document), but this post is not meant to be a presentation rehash. Rather, I want to highlight some of my thought process going into the day, as well as share some feedback we received.
Photo credit: Elissa Malespina
The Road to Techspo
I attended the 2016 event and was disappointed that none of the sessions really pushed my thinking the way that those at an EduCon or an Edcamp have. I didn’t feel I learned anything new, and – at the risk of sounding snobby – I felt pretty strongly that if this represented the cutting edge, both my district (collectively) and I (personally) were fairly far ahead of it. I decided that if I was going to go back, I wanted to share some of what we were doing in our district, if for no other reason than to help push the conversation/standard a bit further. Based on the feedback from the organization and the participants, I think we accomplished that.
Feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. A common theme I heard from our participants was that they had never seen anything like this before (I’m taking that as a compliment, regardless of how it was meant!). Many schools have one-off lessons here and there on “digital citizenship” or – worse – scare tactics about the dangers and horrors of social media. Maybe it’s integrated into a technology class; maybe it’s a grade-level assembly. Either way, none of our participants had ever heard of an entire high school level course solely dedicated to critical examination of social media, and many told us they left our session excited to explore the possibility of implementing one in their districts.
This matches our experience. As Andrew, Natalie, and I all sought models upon which to base this course as we developed it over the summer of 2015, we found nothing. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there, but if it is, not one of us could find it (I’ve since learned that Howard Rheingold has made public his syllabus from his Stanford course Social Media Literacies).
We also spoke with quite a few folks who wished to come observe a class session or two, which we are happy to accommodate, and I extend the same offer to you – if you can make it to central NJ, drop me a line or hit me up on Twitter and we’ll make it happen.
It’s worth noting that I was cool up until about an hour before we went on, when my Impostor Syndrome went into overdrive and I began to think of all the holes people might poke in our presentation – and publicly, no less. Fortunately for my fragile ego’s well-being, the presentation was warmly received all around, and might even be responsible for the development of similar courses around the state.
We were also asked to write up a short 3-4 paragraph blurb on our story for an upcoming edition of the NJASA newsletter, which we’ll happily do. In fact, that got me thinking that another professional organization of which I am a member publishes a magazine consisting solely of member-authored articles once or twice a year; we could certainly submit to that publication as well.
Reflections on the Process
Sometimes presentations are stressful (for any number of reasons), and sometimes even group efforts become one-man or one-woman shows. My experience putting this presentation together with Natalie and Andrew underscores what I always say about my experience in my district: it’s an environment that truly values and supports collaboration. What is perhaps even more unusual is that the three of us operate in different tiers of the district hierarchy: Andrew is our Director of Instructional Services (and my direct supervisor), I am an Instructional Supervisor who oversees a half-dozen different disciplines across all grade levels, and Natalie is a Business Teacher at our high school (and one of my supervisees).
None of that mattered, though, in the development of both the course curriculum and the presentation. We worked together – sometimes face-to-face, sometimes asynchronously – but without any of the nonsense of pulling rank or exerting undue influence (at least not explicitly; I know that power and influence is sometimes exerted more subtly or unconsciously. I do as much as I can to combat that but I suppose it’s never really removed from the equation).
We asked questions, we listened to each other, and we all respected the three very unique perspectives each brought to the table. This was probably most evident in the revision of the curriculum last spring, during which Natalie – who had taught the course for a year and had the most intimate knowledge of the daily classroom environment – was the primary driver of discussion, and I – with more experience in both teaching and curriculum development – helped shape and give form to it all.
Finally, a few words on the course itself: we mentioned during the presentation that we run it out of the Business Department as an elective, but with a little revision of focus, I think it could just as easily and just as effectively be taught as an English, Social Studies, or Technology course. So much of what the course deals with (as we run it, anyway) has students grappling with big-picture questions of ethics and the disparities between the evolution of technology and the evolution of the law that it would be right at home in any of those departments. Additionally, social media plays a role in so many current events that teachers will never want for fresh discussion topics. The other edge of that sword, I suppose, is that it can be exhausting for a teacher to keep up with the latest tech and latest developments, but it’s a deal I’d gladly take, were I in the position to do so.
Since my dissertation defense in October 2014 and a few public addresses surrounding my doc program graduation in January 2015, I’ve had a bit of a dry spell in terms of presentations the last few years. After giving a small workshop at the beginning of the month, it felt good to get back in front of an audience on a bigger (read: statewide) platform such as Techspo. Hopefully there will be more to come soon.