If you ask me what social studies, social art and social media have in common, it’s people. People communicating, making connections with one another and affecting change. So why not let students express themselves in the classroom the way they often do outside of school — on their phones? It took months for me to finally commit, but once I did, it was like a renaissance of creativity, ideas and critical thinking had overtaken our classroom (in a good way!).
Letters to the Next President 2.0 (L2NP 2.0), the Media Makes series, hosted by the National Writing Project and KQED, is an amazing resource for involving students in the civic process. It inspired me to delve further into the world of student self-expression and using social media as a tool in the classroom. The Media Make projects encourage students to identify what matters to them, instructs them on how to conduct research on the issues, and empowers them to make their voices heard online.
Integrating social media into the learning landscape of middle school history proved to be a huge success, albeit a semi nerve-racking journey. Below are my five dos and don’ts for using social media to help students spread awareness and start a dialogue about their values and concerns.
1. Set the Stage
Help students formulate an opinion and take a stance by exposing them to current election issues. L2NP 2.0 curriculum creates instant student engagement! A class favorite that is certain to pique student interest in current events and election issues is the Media Make: Make Your Own Political Art activity. I was thrilled by the excitement this project stirred up in my own classroom, and can say with absolute confidence that EVERY single learner was tuned in. How often does a middle school teacher get to say that!?
Get your students ready for this creative project by brainstorming social and political issues in America, using resources like The Lowdown and ProCon.org. Once learners have identified a slew of controversies and concerns, they’ll naturally start to align with topics that are relevant to them. To hook students and get them excited about developing their own art, present a variety of different images, and ask students to identify the message, symbols, techniques and topics highlighted by the artists. (Tip: street art, especially works by Banksy were most appealing to students.) Once learners get a taste for how powerful and evocative art can be, they’ll be inspired to make social and political art of their own.
The article entitled “How to Make Political Art,” as well as the embedded video, are immensely helpful in preparing students to create their own work. This modified rubric/instruction sheet has been adapted from the site above, and sets project expectations without stifling student ingenuity. Once you go over the requirements for the project (of which there were few), it’s time to take your hands off the wheel and let students compose their own masterpieces.
2. Stand Back
Set the stage, then step aside. Apart from frontloading useful vocabulary and providing examples of symbols and the power of text and color, your students will take to this project pretty intuitively. While it does require learners to conceptualize, reflect and call on a variety of other high level thinking skills, you’ll find that all students will have access to this assignment. There is something that every child in your classroom would like to see addressed and potentially solved, whether it be in their community, country or worldwide.
Once students have chosen their issue and medium, there’s little left for you to do besides field student questions and provide direction as needed. You’ll most likely find that you need to remind students to keep it simple. For example, many learners will attempt to explain their art, so remind them that their work should speak for itself. Their perspective should be clear, and the art approachable. There is power in this simplicity.
3. Encourage Risks
It’s OK for student work to push the envelope, and even make the viewer uncomfortable — isn’t that the point of social and political art?! This project empowers students to explore their own thinking and values. We’re asking our students to bring an issue to the forefront of our mind’s eye, forcing us to question why things are they way they are, and why they should change.
Student choice is vital to the success of this project. When students have the autonomy to advocate for something they see as a problem, and display their stance in a way they think will resonate with viewers, it is extraordinarily more impactful.
4. Pick a Platform
When I told students the final step was to post their artwork on social media, the response was resounding disbelief and eagerness. Students who were interested in this sort of civic participation via social media turned to Instagram or Snapchat.
For students who aren’t interested in or don’t have access to social media at school or at home, encourage them to share their point of view by posting hard copies of their artwork around town (local library, shop windows with permission, bus stops, etc.) While this alternative means they’ll reach a potentially smaller audience, it still enables students to showcase their pieces in a public forum.
5. Be Safe, Not Sorry
Whatever you do, do not create a class Instagram account with a shared username and login (believe me, I made that mistake!) If you do, you’ll end up with an inappropriate post that one of your 8th graders thinks is hilarious. Instead, streamline your process by either encouraging students to take ownership of their posts and stand proudly behind them on their personal accounts, or upload student work yourself, no matter how cumbersome it feels to deal with all the uploads, airdrops, emails and screenshots.
Determine whether a private or public account best suits your classroom needs. In my case, I found having a private Instagram account felt futile. Why encourage online activism among an audience of 35 students who were already sitting in a classroom together face-to-face? A private account wasn’t going to get student work the kind of exposure I was looking for, but a public account made me nervous. I didn’t want parents feeling like their child’s stance on some contentious issue was just floating around out there without their permission (remember, I’m teaching 13 year olds).
For those grappling with privacy and permission concerns, the unveiling of the L2NP 2.0 youth publishing platform is very exciting! The site promotes a safe, academic pulpit from which students can share their thoughts and opinions on current political, social and economic issues. I’ve just launched my own teacher page on their site (all teachers/school sites can do the same), and am ready to get started on other compelling Media Make activities. Hopefully this will quell some of the fears we have as teachers, parents and administrators over what’s being posted online and who has access.
I imagine most middle school teachers understand the difficulty of gleaning total engagement and enthusiasm in the classroom, even when opportunities for multimodal learning are provided and lessons have been differentiated. Yet this Media Make project defied the norm, and culminated in the production of incredible artwork that held powerful messages.
I highly encourage those of you who are reticent to incorporate social media into your curriculum, to give Media Makes a try and help your students amplify their voices. Students are studying history and making history when they start a dialogue about the world around them. Social media and platforms like L2NP 2.0 offer opportunities for learners to share their opinions with a larger audience, beyond family, friends and classmates. All of a sudden there’s this relatively anonymous, virtual platform of self expression where students can be honest about their sentiments, without fear of criticism.
As I look toward our next project, I’m eager for students to take on a solution-based approach. I want learners to shift their thinking and begin generating ideas on how to actually fix the critical problems they see. Through L2NP’s youth publishing platform, my students-turned-artists will soon become authors, directors and producers focused on connecting their worlds and their ideas to the problems we collectively face.