Book excerpt: Speedbumps

A lovely road with one obstacleNOTE: I have a book coming out soon! If you buy it, I guarantee I won’t enjoy a penny of the proceeds. It’ll all be spent on building my thirteen month old a spaceship or something.

Here’s a small sample, from the Overview chapter:

My first experience with technologically enhanced unit planning was not quite the raging success I had predicted. Students were placed in groups of six and assigned a character from Hamlet, then each was asked to create Facebook accounts in the voice of his or her character. They were expected to live a Facebook life as their character would have, right up until each student’s alter ego died in the play. For instance, a student posting as Polonius might write a wall post saying, “I’m going to duck behind this curtain for a quick second, to hear what Hamlet is up to” right before his final post, which might read, “Ouch. Anyone in the castle have a first aid kit handy?” During the first week of the project, our classroom was electric. Students were posting far more than the required ten posts per week, and their character interactions were funny and infused with life. Unfortunately, it was at this point that I became the problem.

Postings that didn’t fit into my rigid view of what was appropriate for the project were deleted. Accounts were deleted or wiped clean when a student stepped too egregiously out of bounds (by my standards, of course, which were determined by a committee of one). One student in character as Hamlet posted a sarcastic, insulting screed on a faux Claudius’s wall. While his words were certainly appropriate for Hamlet at the play’s midpoint, it felt somehow too personal or too vivid, like reality was intruding into this corner of the world. I didn’t feel totally in control of the learning environment, so that diatribe served as the last straw: I pulled the plug on my short-lived attempt to integrate social media into the classroom, and things returned to the normal I knew and was comfortable with.

That was nearly three years ago, so I had plenty of time to reflect on what went wrong before launching a similar project at the start of the 2010-11 school year. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far for feedback. The students let me know where I had gone awry in an anonymous survey I gave at the conclusion of Shakespeare on Facebook v1.0. They wrote of investing themselves in accounts by adding pictures, writing wall posts, and sending emails only to find that hard work edited or entirely deleted. They hammered home the point that they actually enjoyed their in-character interactions before I began over-moderating. No one was really bothered by anything that had been posted except me (and truth me told, I wasn’t bothered by the content so much as the possibility that other students might take offense). That extended to the parents, too. When I notified the parents of our verbose Hamlet that one of his Facebook posts could have caused offense, I could almost feel them shrugging at me through the phone, primarily because no one had actually been offended. I had to learn to let go, at least a little. I had to allow the students a greater say in their education.

Eventually, I felt compelled to try again. This time, before I so much as uttered the word “Facebook,” I had the students collaborate in groups to create several Acceptable Use policies for the character accounts they would soon be creating. I asked them to create a framework of what would and wouldn’t be acceptable in their character interactions, and I empowered them to delineate reasonable boundaries that wouldn’t stifle their creative output, but that would also satisfy the needs of their families and our institution. We then combined each groups’ work into one thorough, coherent policy. Our dean of students approved the students’ work, and before long students and their parents were digitally signing permission forms, propelling a plethora of counterfeit Claudiuses and faux Fortinbras into the social mediasphere.

The first version of the project was not substantially different from the second iteration in concept, content, or execution. The primary difference was my attitude, especially my approach to the input of my students. Once they took the lead, the project took off. Instead of acting as an overseer, I worked to be a facilitator. Instead of explaining why they couldn’t do certain things, I tried to consider the pedagogical value of student suggestions. Some of their ideas were less than pedagogically sound (to put it mildly) and some might’ve been legally actionable, but the best ones were incorporated into our project. When one student suggested we move the wall posting over to Twitter, I realized that they had taken ownership of the work and were now teaching me their best practices. The end result of our second Facebook project ultimately became something a source of pride for everyone, an energetic union of student creativity, teacher design, administrative vision, and institutional flexibility that illuminates many of the wonderful things we can achieve in a tech forward learning environment.

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