Sunday, April 8, 2012

To Friend or Not To Friend

It’s not that I’m anti-Facebook.
It’s not that I’m anti-technology.

I encourage my students to use cell phones in class to discuss, research, write, but I have yet to find a sweet spot using Facebook with students.  Of course I know the Facebook No-No’s. I know better than to friend current students, but beyond that, the line gets fuzzy.

Three times I’ve dabbled in Facebook with students and three times I‘ve been burned:

  1. Strike One: two years ago, when recent graduates sent me a facebook invite, I accepted. It was fun staying in touch, seeing how they were doing in college, keeping my finger on the pulse of teendom.  But soon enough, I ran across a rant about my AP Class: too hard, too much reading, what did it have to do with real life anyway? I was surprised by my reaction – how much I took this to heart: ‘this” being my life, my livelihood. “This” being why I stay up way too late at night, why I bring a stack of papers with me everywhere I go, why I feel perpetual guilt for not spending enough time with my family. So I revised my Facebook policy: no “friending” former students until post-college age.
  2. Last year was strike two.  I violated my policy and let one recent grad slip in; a beloved student and the daughter of a friend and colleague. Things were fine until her friends realized that we were friends, and the requests started streaming in. Clearly I had to reestablish the line. Fresh out of my classroom, our teacher/student roles were too recent. And once friends with a recent grad, their friends (many who are still in high school) see my business. FB is a place where I want to be a non-teacher. If I feel ike ranting, I want to rant.
  3. Third Strike: This year, my beloved Freshmen blew my mind. I assigned a “This I Believe” essay modeled after the National Public Radio Show. It required that they write and read aloud an essay about what they believe. I had hoped this assignment would inspire the sublime – that it would force students to examine themselves and their world in a profound and meaningful way. This year, my 5th year of teaching “This I Believe’s,” it happened. After being touched by the work of one of their peers, who opened up about a deeply personal topic in her essay and courageously read it to the class, my freshmen, with no prompting from me, rewrote their essays – getting much more personal, opening up, writing about what matters most. They bound their essays, wrote me a cover letter that made me teary, and ceremoniously presented it to me in class. And so, when they told me they started a facebook page with their essays and invited me to join, I hesitated, talked it over with them, and ultimately joined, hoping to affirm and extend the inspiration they clearly had for writing and the camaraderie clearly forming . That was about two months ago. Today, a single comment posted on that page pierced the heart of their poorly-labeled “fearless leader”: “So guys, what are we going to do when we actually have to try hard to pass English next hear?” OUCH. BIG OUCH. ENORMOUS OUCH. These are accelerated students. I expect that they will have no problem passing. I expect them to strive for excellence on each assignment. I expect that my job is to encourage and nudge, not threaten or penalize.  And I would expect that I’d have thicker skin after 18 years of teaching.  And so, strike three, facebook is out.

Public and private spaces exist for a reason. With social media playing an increasingly powerful role in our culture, teachers must be deliberate in making and walking the public/private line.

There’s an inherent paradox in education: we are told to get to know our students, to personalize their educations, to appeal to their interests, but we’re also rightly told to leave our personal lives and biases outside the classroom and to maintain a professional distance. A tough balancing act.

Students need a place to blow off steam, to be themselves, to say things they can’t say in school. We need to give them their space and we need to accept that not every technology tool is effective and appropriate to use with students.

And so, farewell Facebook.

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