A fresh look at social media (article for ‘VSA Insights’)

‘VSA Insights’ is a regular column on our school’s internal blog, ‘Victoria Wednesday’. This article was written back in March but I revisited it this week and thought that it was worth sharing on here as well (with a couple of updates). Keep in mind that it was written for our Victoria Shanghai Academy school community. However, I hope that there are takeaways for all teachers and parents. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

As educators and parents, we often focus on the negatives of the internet, and rightly so. There are potential dangers that we must educate our children about. Social media, in particular, is linked to issues such as addiction, cyberbullying, anxiety and reduced self-esteem. The minimum age for most social sites is thirteen, and for good reasons (revisit this post to find out more). Furthermore, dangerous online “challenges” like Momo present us with new threats. Children must learn to use the internet safely, responsibly and critically in order to protect themselves.

But being safe and responsible online is the minimum that we should expect. I invite VSA community members to shift their thinking and consider the positive potential. I would argue that social media offers an array of exciting opportunities for those who use it well. This video from Lee Parkinson (below) is a good summary of my beliefs. Like Lee, I believe in educating students about social media and mentoring them through scaffolding and positive examples. But this is a separate discussion for another time. This article will focus specifically on teachers and how social media is transforming the profession.

For generations, teachers have felt alone in their work. In many schools (especially small schools), teachers feel isolated, unsupported and uninspired. At VSA, we work in large, collaborative teams and are very fortunate to have each other. But even here, our perspectives are limited to VSA and our unique context. Isolation is bad for us too. But times have changed. As George Couros eloquently states:

“Isolation is now a choice that educators make.”

George Couros

With far-reaching social media and the ease of connectivity, there’s no reason to be isolated anymore. It is easier than ever to connect with other schools and fellow teachers from around the world and the benefits of doing so are profound. So much so that Joe Sanfelippo urges educators to give it a try regardless of their initial opinion or interest level.

“If social media isn’t your thing, make it your thing!”

Joe Sanfelippo

In my opinion, social media is the best thing to happen to the teaching profession since I qualified in 2011. A network of teachers is often referred to as a Personal or Professional Learning Network (PLN). The specific platform is a personal choice, but I suggest that all teachers should develop a PLN one way or another. Joining Twitter, for example, was genuinely one of the best career decisions that I have made so far, closely followed by my decision to start blogging. Since starting on these platforms, strictly for professional use, I haven’t stopped learning!

“To have thousands of minds in your pocket via mobile devices is to have an immensely unfair advantage over those who think alone.”

Kevin Honeycutt

Twitter

Often referred to as “the world’s biggest and best staff room,” Twitter is my platform of choice for day-to-day sharing and professional learning. I am connected with thousands of other teachers from around the world and, importantly, I have carefully built my PLN over time to ensure that I only follow positive and supportive educators who share my passion for being connected. The result is a Twitter feed that is jam-packed with positivity and inspiration. A quick flick through Twitter is all it takes to spark new ideas, make new connections and grow professionally through discussions and professional debates. My connections on Twitter are more than just numbers; they are real teachers with whom I can learn from on a daily basis. In most cases, I have never met them offline. But we support each other and they feel like friends and colleagues like any others. I can reach out to them whenever I need guidance or support. Likewise, I’ll gladly help them in return. I am not suggesting that online interactions can replace face-to-face, but they are a close second in my opinion and I benefit from both.

“Social media won’t replace a handshake. But social media done well will change the first meeting from a handshake to a hug.”

Brian Fanzo

Blogging

When I first moved to Hong Kong, I was new to PYP, bilingual education, co-teaching and almost everything else that is special about VSA. I was enthusiastically learning a lot but it was very overwhelming. I needed a place to consolidate my learning. Instead of documenting my journey privately, I created a public education blog, just in case my writing was of use to anyone else. Three years later, it attracts around ten thousand visitors per month and has been awarded the UK Blog Award in Education 2019. Blogging isn’t about being an expert or having the best ideas. It is a process of reflection, sharing and documenting learning. With this in mind, I aim to publish new content every weekend. Years later, it is still me who benefits from it more than anyone else. As Rick Wormeli states, most teachers are not used to sharing their ideas or having them critiqued. As a result, their practice goes unquestioned and unchallenged. It’s lovely when teachers from around the world validate my ideas, but it’s equally (perhaps more) beneficial when the ideas are occasionally challenged and my thinking is stretched. Of course, disagreements take place professionally with kindness and mutual respect (something that our children don’t see enough of online).

When teachers are connected, it’s not only possible to arrange international classroom connections and collaborations, it’s easy! I just need to reach out to my PLN whenever a global connection could enhance my students’ learning. For example, we have connected with classes in India, Poland and Australia – to name just a few. In most cases, these students were learning something similar. This allows the children to learn together, learn from each other, open their minds and further develop international-mindedness. When students from across the planet learn together, they can celebrate diversity while recognising that they are, always, more alike than they are different. Technology allows us to break down our classroom walls and even national borders.

This post has focused primarily on Twitter and blogging because those are my most used and most appreciated platforms, but there are many other avenues that are being utilised by VSA staff for content creation, such as YouTube and podcasts. Whatever platform is chosen, it’s important that it prompts discussions and debates about pedagogy. Some platforms tend to invite surface-level sharing such as photos of decorative displays and worksheets. There’s a place for those, but my social media platforms inspire me, challenge me and push my thinking at a much deeper level.

As a staff, we invite families and stakeholders to enjoy our sharing on social media. These platforms offer exciting opportunities to celebrate the day-to-day learning that happens in our school. As well as individual staff accounts, VSA also has official accounts on FacebookYouTube and Twitter. Considering all of the teachers that use Twitter in a professional capacity, Twitter is the most active platform for VSA sharing. To see all tweets from the VSA community in one convenient location, subscribe to the Team VSA Twitter list or search for #VSAHKG (the school’s official hashtag).

To conclude, we must continue to educate our students about online dangers, but let’s not forget to celebrate the positive and transformational ways in which social media can improve our lives and careers. It will inevitably be part of our students’ lives and, therefore, we have a duty to model positive usage and teach them how to use it well. Online, students need role models just as they do offline. VSA teachers are proud of their presence on social media and their contributions to the profession. In our own small way, we are modelling what it means to be digital leaders (see image below) and we hope that VSA students will follow our lead.

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