Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Facebook and the mind

There's no getting around the fact that Facebook is a dominating social force is the world today. Earlier this evening, a student of mine posted as his Facebook status that there are more people on Facebook today than there were alive in the world 200 years ago. He didn't cite a source for this statistic (what kind of teacher am I?) but the point is that a significant chunk of the world's population is "plugged in" in a way that they never have been before.

There's a lot of good things I could say. Aside from the obvious "communication/keeping in touch/photo sharing tool" praises that I could offer, I've found it to be an engaging educational tool. This past week, I've been having my 9th graders create pages for revolutionary figures. They spent a week researching a figure that they chose from a list (from the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, or French Revolution) and have been creating a fan-page as if they were that historical figure. This group of 9th graders is responsible and motivated, so I decided that I could trust them for what has been a trial-run for a project style that I may wish to develop in future years. I'm taking notes and figuring things out along the way: trying to keep privacy as high as possible by limiting the interaction to people within the class, making sure the students do not use their real names anywhere on the page, etc. Mostly, I've been impressed with the immersive potential of such a medium:

Facebook is addicting. I'm not assuming--I know firsthand. It's easy to get absolutely lost in the world of Facebook. As I pointed out to my students, it's also very easy to misrepresent your identity, or pretend to be someone/something you are not and do so consistently (even without realizing it... our online identity often differs greatly from who were are/how we speak and act face to face). All of this sounds bad, but I thought that since these feelings of anonymity, escape and freedom to recreate identity are part of the attraction to Facebook, why not channel them in a positive way?

Why not use the medium to become Martin Luther, Henry VIII or Jean Jacques Rousseau? Such a use of Facebook would add another dimension entirely to a standard research project. High school kids sometimes struggle with simulations, can be self-conscious about acting in front of peers, but they can relate to taking on a different identity on Facebook: everyone in the class admitted to acting even perhaps the slightest bit different in their online interactions versus their in-person interactions. Once the kids slip into the shoes (or boots, or culottes) of their historical figure, then they can walk around and see what happens. I told them that beyond the biographical information that they needed to include on their page (through the "biography section", as well as a series of status updates), they could be creative and that not everything needed to be documented fact or historically accurate. I did warn them, however, to try to stay consistent with the basic beliefs and character of the person they researched.

One feature I am requiring is a write-up called the "Eureka" note. For this, the kids must post a brief Facebook note (diary or journal style) from the perspective of their figure either during or after a major accomplishment (perhaps after finishing the Mona Lisa, observing the law of gravity or positing a heliocentric universe).

Students may also add another feature of their choice. One girl, researching Henry VIII, created a photo album (courtesy of portraits found on Google Images) of all of Henry's wives, crassly titled "My 6 wives". Each photo contained a comment on who the wife was, and why she died/was executed. This was pretty much exactly what I had envisioned when I first started planning this project!

Next week, once the students have completed their profiles, they will have a chance to interact with each other as their historical figures. I'm especially looking forward to this!

Facebook has the easy potential to be an intellectual and creative vacuum--a time waster, an escape from thought and care. Interestingly, some of those very qualities that make it a vacuum and an escape are also what allow it to be a valuable educational tool. For it to succeed as a tool requires careful thought and implementation on the teacher's part. In this, I'd give myself about a 'C', as I may have rushed into this project without enough forward planning, but inevitably, I'll learn a lot about what rules and structures need to be established to make this a consistently solid classroom activity.

In the meantime, the kids are having fun and seem to be not only learning facts about historical figures, but actually applying what they know! If critical thinking is the end-goal, I think I may have discovered a new means.

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