At a suburban school district near Washington, D.C., the most popular teacher happens to be a local star on YouTube. Unbeknown to him, students with cell-phone cameras have videotaped him dancing to "Soulja Boy Tell 'Em" and other songs taught to him by the students.
Less sweetly, when another teacher from the same school Googled the school's name, she found videos showing students getting into fights with one another. They posted the videos to their MySpace pages and debated who had the better fighting skills. The teacher also found footage from a set of girls who had filmed themselves dancing suggestively in school stairwells. These videos were disturbing, inappropriate, and often exceptionally well-produced, with multiple camera angles and sophisticated editing cuts.
If the school administration knew of the videos, they would be deleted and the teenagers responsible for them would likely face suspension—including the ones who taught their teacher how to dance to Soulja Boy. Schools have had a nearly unanimous response to Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube: repression and silence. Administrators block access to these sites because they think it's important to keep classrooms free from the perceived harms associated with social networks—harassment, bullying, exploitative advertising, violence, and sexual imagery.
But this is shortsighted. Educators should stop thinking about how to repress the huge amounts of intellectual and social energy kids devote to social media and start thinking about how to channel that energy away from causing trouble and toward getting more out of their classes. After all, it's not as if most kids are investing commensurate energy into, say, their math homework. Why not try to start bridging the worlds of Facebook, YouTube, and the classroom?
The main reason is fear. Megan Meier, the 13-year-old student in Missouri who committed suicide after an ex-friend's mother created a fake MySpace profile to humiliate her, stands as a warning against school involvement with the intricacies of kids' online social lives. In response to cyber-stalking and online solicitation of minors, the House of Representatives passed a bill in 2006—the Deleting Online Predators Act—that would require schools to block students from accessing sites like Facebook, MySpace, and LiveJournal. The Senate has put forward similar proposals. And even without a Congressional mandate, many schools have already taken the initiative to ban students—and teachers—from using these sites.
Bad idea. Researchers have already enumerated the benefits that kids can get from traditional media. Watching Sesame Street or Blue's Clues improves children's problem-solving skills and school readiness. Teaching students how to use word-processing software, Web-design programs, and video-production tools is a proven way of refocusing at-risk teens on school, and, eventually, getting them jobs. Social networks can also pull in students who are otherwise disengaged, because they draw on kids' often intense interest in finding new ways to communicate with one another.
How can teachers bring social networking into the classroom? For starters, students could talk about what they're doing on Facebook and company, map out the ways they're making connections with one another, and share videos and software they've created. Once the conversation gets going, teachers could figure out whether some kids were being left out and find ways to increase those students' media literacy and bring them into the fold. Teachers can manage the project by selecting the best content and conversations, and incorporating it into other parts of the curriculum. If a student created an entry on Wikipedia for a local band or sports team, other students could work on revising the entry and building it into a larger local history project. The audience for school projects need no longer be one hurried teacher.