Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Open letter to Westport (CT) Board of Education and Superintendent Elliott Landon

As a Westport voter and taxpayer, I am outraged by your explicit attempt to undermine teacher professionalism. Your new policy, which prohibits teachers or administrators from "friending" students or their parents, screams micromanagement. I am a parent (Emma-Jean Weinstein, Staples Class of ‘09), an educator (New Canaan High School), and a fierce defender of free-range media in schools for 21st century learning. This policy runs completely against the "progressive" thinking that Westport Public School system claims to embrace. It is backward, shortsighted, and it sends exactly the wrong message to students: Teachers cannot be trusted, they are not your friends, and social media like Facebook invites behavioral misconduct.

As a veteran teacher of twenty years, I can unabashedly say that I have been friends - both digitally and IRL (in-real-life) with students for years. Only recently did I migrate my student Facebook-friends to my professional Facebook profile.

At New Canaan High School library, we use Facebook as a discussion forum for research projects across disciplines. It helps embed digital citizenship instruction in relevant ways – not in abstraction. It demonstrates for learners – students and faculty alike that Facebook is as much a tool for productivity as it is for social interaction. I recently co-presented a workshop to New Canaan parents with my colleague Cathy Swan, a Technology Integration Teacher, and Robert Miller, New Canaan Public Schools’ Director of Information and Communications Technology. They both share my view that bringing social media into education is the very best way to teach students fundamental 21st century learning skills like communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  During our session we presented student responses to a survey about students’ use of Facebook. We were able to obtain responses from students who attended censored schools (schools where social media sites are blocked), and compare them to our own learners’ answers. We reported that students who have access to Facebook in school spend:   
12% MORE Facebook time on schoolwork
8% LESS Facebook time sharing videos and photos
6% LESS Facebook time talking to friends about movies, books and music.

I have blogged about this at Bibliotech.me.

When I open a Facebook group for a school-related project, we explain to students that this is an opportunity to reflect about their profile as if a college interviewer was viewing it. We give them a couple of days to make adjustments, if necessary (usually not), and then we create the group. We offer alternative venues for students who do not wish to “be friends” (which has never happened) or do not have accounts (much more common). Friend-requesting students allows us to have a conversation (apparently something Westport teachers are not capable of, according to Dr. Landon and the Board of Education) about Facebook profiles. We also periodically send students informational emails about Facebook’s privacy and security settings changes when they occur. Facebook is a part of our school culture, our discourse and our instruction. Students know that we are not just talking at them about digital citizenship, but that we live it. They can see it right in front of them.

Michelle Luhtala,
Westport, CT

2 comments:

  1. Well said! I definitely agree that that kind of policy is counterproductive, I hope they take the time to think about this in Westport.

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  2. I disagree, but then again, maybe it is because it is my age group, my specific demographic, that invented Facebook; and connecting with students is just not a part of my expectations of this site. I use FB to vent and connect with my friends, and now my family. I don't want to mix FB time and work time. I would rather use my class website and e-mail to connect with my students.

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