Why We Need Social Media Curriculum in Schools


Every time the chance of snow causes our suburban Washington, D.C. school system to decide whether to delay or cancel school, our social media savvy superintendent is subjected to a variety of unfavorable Tweets from the community that make me wish there was a national requirement for social media curriculum in schools.

In mid-December, Dr. Joshua Starr, Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), sent out a letter to the community via email titled, “Cybercivility: An Open Letter from Superintendent Joshua Starr.” Winter weather decisions about closures had prompted some students to contact Dr. Starr via Twitter.

In the letter, Dr. Starr wrote, “Some of these “tweets” were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework. Many of these tweets, however, were offensive and disturbing. Some were threatening to me and others. A few referenced my family. There was rampant use of racial epithets and curse words… Some of the tweets I received were so disturbing that my staff reported them to the school principal and our security team. This may seem like an overreaction to some, but it is our legal responsibility to do so, and we take it very seriously.”

As a former Montgomery County teacher, technology specialist, and current parent of two children in the school system, I like following Dr. Starr on Twitter (@MCPSSuper) as he shares photos and Vine videos documenting what he observes in schools and in the community, school system news, and even what he’s reading. His active feed provides an inside look at our school system, while also modeling best practices of Twitter for the students, parents, community members, and many others who follow him. I was disgusted that students were cyberharassing him through Twitter.

Currently, digital literacy curriculum is integrated into subject areas at school, but somehow social media instruction is missing from the curriculum. There are national technology standards that exist thanks to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), but these broad standards don’t often trickle down to the classroom in ways that are applicable to today’s students.

I have to wonder if lessons in social media were required parts of the curriculum, if students would have behaved so badly and cyberharassed their own superintendent. Sure, kids will be kids, and Dr. Starr acknowledged that in his letter, citing the adolescent brain that “isn’t equipped to think long term and doesn’t calculate risk/reward ratios in the same way that adults do.” But there’s a real need for social media curriculum to be taught and assessed in schools along with other subjects.

The New York City Department of Education recently made news with a Huffington Post headline proclaiming “New York City Wants to Teach Kids How to Not Ruin Their Lives on Facebook.” The eye-catching headline is misleading because their nine-page Student Social Media Guide is nothing more than a visually appealing handbook about the do’s and don’ts of “how to use social media responsibly, both within and outside the school community.” It’s not curriculum that teachers can use to provide instruction, and it won’t directly teach kids how to not ruin their lives on Facebook through lessons about social media. (In fact, the meat of the content is no different from our own school district’s IGT-RA: User Responsibilities for Computer Systems, Electronic Information, and Network Security that I shared with my students in my role as Technology Magnet Coordinator. It’s just prettier.)

Hillary Chybinski, a Philadelphia mother of two boys, ages 12 and 6 who writes at My Scraps, explains it well. “I say let’s empower our kids to do good out there in the world, and help them make smart and safe decisions,” she says.

By overlooking the instruction of social media, we’re not empowering students with the knowledge they need. If we’re not teaching them digital citizenship and how to behave on social media channels, so college admissions offices and job recruiters don’t throw their applications in the trash, they may never be eligible for the jobs they may have been able to get, or the colleges that they could have attended.

“I’m really glad I didn’t make my adolescent mistakes online,” admitted Sandra Telep, aka West Philly Mama. “It’s hard to wrap your mind around the breadth of the internet and it’s impact on your future life — it only makes sense to help teenagers understand the potential consequences of what they are posting today.”

Helping kids understand means providing concrete examples through hands-on lessons with the social media platforms they’re already using:

  • Pull up a student’s Instagram feed in the classroom and point out what photos are and aren’t okay, and have a discussion about why.
  • Dive into a conversation about cyberbullying by examining what students say to each other on Facebook.
  • Teach a grammar lesson with Twitter, and at the same time, reinforce that what is said in a Tweet is very public.
  • Design lessons around SnapChat.
  • Teach our youngest kids about being a good friend, offline, so when they go online, they’ll know that being a good friend is as important in person as it is in the virtual world.

As a former educator and parent, I can’t think of a better way to engage today’s students in learning how not to ruin their lives on social media. After all, the students who cyberbullied Dr. Starr on Twitter had legal action taken against them, leaving an indelible mark on their academic records, jeopardizing their college admissions and their first job.

Maybe it’s a pie in the sky dream filled with sparkles, rainbows, and unicorns to wish for the development of a national social media curriculum using concrete and relevant real world examples, but what we don’t need is more student guidelines written by school systems and parents who throw their hands up in the air and say they don’t know how to use social media.

In the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Now who’s joining me?


Image courtesy of woodleywonderworks on Flickr

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