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  • The Social Life

Learning is Social: Finding an Audience Online

by Kristin Ziemke
April 9, 2014

What if you could give students an authentic audience on a daily basis?
What if you could introduce your class to learners who share their passion?
What if you could connect your students to some of the smartest thinkers in the world?
What if we can teach learning as a part of living?

In today’s digital classroom we have the opportunity to do all this and more with supervised social media!

Social media can serve as the conduit between what we do in the classroom and why we do it. Learning is social. Author Stephanie Harvey says it best, “We read, question, research and discuss because it is fun!” When we provide children new social media platforms to build knowledge, we reinforce to our students that their thinking matters! We celebrate thinking, learning, and sharing and teach digital citizenship along the way.

In the past five years one of the most significant things I’ve done is start a blog for my students. Kidblog.org is an easy-to-use, free site that has a number of privacy settings that control visibility and access to the blog. Initially, I planned for my students to blog as a way to write about reading. I quickly realized that the blog was a fantastic space to house all of our thinking, not just that which fell under the ELA umbrella. In a matter of weeks, my six-year-olds were sharing book reviews, inquiry movies, and math stories on their blog.

But sharing our learning wasn’t enough. My students needed an audience for their work. We invited parents, extended family, and classmates across the school to comment on the blogs. We joined Kristen Wideen’s Primary Blogging Community, where classrooms around the world signed up to read and comment on each other’s blogs several times a year.

Now that we had followers who provided meaningful feedback through comments, I saw a shift in thinking as students moved from posting as a means to share one-way communication, to more involved digital discourse as conversations became reciprocal, engaged, and ongoing. Students in Chicago developed partnerships with kids in Vancouver who had their same name or also played baseball.

Kids posted questions to their blog asking for reading recommendations or for information they needed for an inquiry project.
Posts like, “How much does an elephant weigh? If you know, can you please tell me?” demonstrated that students understood two-sided digital communication and viewed themselves as connected learners who use social media to find the answers to their questions.

Our use of Twitter in the classroom evolved in much the same way. Initially, we used Twitter as a reflection tool and shared our learning using the hashtag, #TweetsFromtheRug. Later, I connected my students with other classroom tweeters via my #1stchat community so they could engage in meaningful digital discourse with learners their age.

I continued to build our classroom Twitter network by hosting training events for my students’ families so that they could connect and follow along with our learning. As a result, 28 out of 33 families followed us on Twitter and reported they used it as a tool to spark dinnertime conversations. When our class tweeted, “Pippi is a funny girl but also very brave!” families followed up at home with, “What happened in (your read aloud) Pippi Longstocking today? Why was she so brave?”

As families became more aware of our learning via Twitter, they also became more involved. When we tweeted, “Our class is learning about bats. What do you know about bats?” Moms, dads, and grandparents responded with facts, photos and links to video clips and websites. Projecting these responses for all students to see in our classroom gave kids the concrete evidence that their questions mattered. Students could see that people were watching—and more importantly cared—about the smart thinking and learning that took place in our classroom.  

This understanding and recognition gave students new energy and motivation to “do the work.” At the young age of six, my students now had a viable, authentic audience for which to create. No longer was the teacher the only one who viewed, evaluated, or gave feedback on their work. They had a following—friends, family and people they didn’t even know—who read, responded, and learned from their work.

As a result, my students developed a mindset for connected learning. Instead of asking the teacher, “Is this what you want?” kids asked themselves, “What would my followers like to see?” Instead of looking to me to find information for them, they posted questions and regarded their digital feedback with esteem.

As supervised social media provides students access from any wifi location, we lived a life where the thinking and learning never stopped. When the bell rang at 3:00, we didn’t have to save our ideas until the following day. With social media, kids could login to their blog accounts from home and post a wonder. With help from a parent, students could tweet a photo of something that connected to an inquiry project. We lived a life that was immersed in “always on” learning.

Over time, my students began to think differently about how they could use these tools to think, share, and access information. A few examples:

One student was visiting New York City when Hurricane Sandy made landfall. Back in Chicago, my class was very concerned about their friend and his safety, so we tweeted his family to see if they were ok. My student responded that he was safe in Brooklyn and offered to provide students information and updates “live” from the storm

For the next several days, students asked questions from the safety of our classroom and got information via tweets, photos, and video from their peer. This was transformative as it was the first time my kids experienced a dramatic event where the facts were curated and filtered by a student—a six-year-old was reporting a national story! My students weren’t getting the information from the local news or from an adult; they were hearing it from their buddy—and that somehow made the event a little less scary.

Learning is Social: Finding an Audience Online

On a non-attendance day for students, several colleagues and I invited a few kids to present with us at a conference. My students could not wait to “teach the teachers.” In fact, one child was child so anxious to teach that she posted a blog from home telling her followers about the event! Not only did she use her blog to share her excitement, she embedded an audio clip in the blog that showed others how to use her tool for learning, Croak.it. By the end of the week she had comments from kids and teachers around the country thanking her for introducing them to Croak.it. The feedback this student received showed my students that kids really can teach adults.

Throughout the year, kids connected with authors they love on Twitter, asked questions of local museums and zoos, got feedback from organizations they respected and had regular opportunities to connect with more knowledgeable people. As an adult, I recognize the importance of my PLN—I am the product of what so many others have graciously shared, introduced, and invested in me. My colleagues across the hall, those I learn from at conferences and my online social network provide me access to many of the best thinkers in the world. As educators, it is our responsibility to create the same conditions for our students.

When we provide new avenues for questioning and thinking we help kids build their Student Learning Network, or their SLN. We give kids new ways to think, access, and understand. We set the tone that each child’s contribution matters and that kids have resources and colleagues worldwide. We instill the belief that anything is possible and build upon what Peter H. Johnson has so thoughtfully described as a “sense of agency.” The mindset shifts and students are empowered: I’m the kind of kid who can connect on a blog. I’m the kind of kid who can ask questions of experts around the globe. I’m the kind of kid who has a network. I’m the kind of kid who ______. Fill in the blank. When we build a sense of agency, our kids believe that anything is possible.

Over time my students leveraged social media to find new opportunities. One student in my classroom posted this blog about his dog:

Learning is Social: Finding an Audience Online

In this post we can identify this child understands audience and is thrilled to be getting a pet. But what does he really do? Here, a seven-year old crowdsources a name for his dog. He could’ve surveyed his classmates using a clipboard and markers, but instead he amplifies his thinking and uses his blog to collect global data on what he should name his dog. This is thinking. This is agency. This is passion.

It’s not the technology alone that changes learning, but what we do with it that matters. Social media has invited my kids to write more than they ever have before. Through comments and interactions kids know that their followers care about what they have to say. The authentic audience motivates them to live curiously and inspires them to seek and build new knowledge. Students understand that they have a voice and that their voice matters. They share from their hearts and use these new tools to transform how they interact with the world.

Italian economist Leonardo Boncinelli shares a mindset that I hope to embody in my instruction every day: “When kids are curious & INTERACTING with the world they are not thinking about the learning goals they have to achieve. They are living.”

Learning is social. We now have even more opportunities to amplify student thinking. Let’s do it.

Come see Kristin Ziemke present “Student Learning Networks: Building Digital Learning Communities that Ignite Powerful Learning” at IRA’s 59th Annual Convention, May 9-12, 2014, in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Kristin Ziemke is the co-author of “Connecting Comprehension and Technology.” She teaches in Chicago, works with districts around the country, and hosts webinars regularly for Heinemann on literacy, inquiry and technology. Educators can connect with her on Twitter @KristinZiemke and follow her students @ourkidsteach. Her website is KristinZiemke.com.

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