A Facebook Education
Last year, a student I’ll call Phillip came to my senior English class every day and never said a word. I knew from his previous teachers that he was a gifted writer. I knew from his classmates that he was a slam poet of some notoriety, having won school and local competitions. And I knew from his mother that the pressure to get college applications together was making him anxious. But in class, he was an enigma. He would smile, listen, and never offer anything more than a “hello” or “goodbye.”
Until, that is, I met him again on Facebook.
All year I had resisted my students’ cheerful pleas for me to get onto Facebook, the increasingly popular social networking Web site that was originally intended for kids in school. I wasn't in school. I was only at school, teaching, sharing a little of what I knew about literature and a lot of what I knew about life. I was perfectly content to be among the millions of Americans who didn't have an online presence.
After all, what if I read something that changed the way I looked at a student? Or what if I found out about underage drinking? Would I be legally responsible to turn a student in? Better not to know, I told myself. A teacher doesn't go to RateMyTeacher.com to read about herself. To me, this was the same can of worms.
I caved in this summer. Every few years a teacher gets a class that grows especially close during the school year. After graduation, its absence leaves a small hole in the next year’s schedule, a hole invisible to everyone but their teacher. Last school year I had one of those classes, and I already missed the kids—adults, now that they were college-bound. An invitation to join Facebook from one of my favorite students had been gathering dust in my e-mail in-box since the day before graduation. After I set up my Facebook profile, listing all my interests, activities, favorite books, quotes and songs, the first message I got on my "wall" was from her. It read, "mrs giese!!! its about time you got facebook! how long ago did i send you this invitation? lol."
Word spread like e-wildfire. It wasn’t long after this one student connected with me that almost every member of the class learned that Mrs. Giese "got a Facebook" and my in-box was filled with friend requests. Suddenly I was popular—more popular than I had been in high school—and I began to see this new medium as a promising way to stay connected with former students.
Once I got comfortable with the medium, I posted a message on my wall saying, "Coffee on Tuesday. 3pm at Starbucks" and eleven kids showed up. Not a bad turnout, considering these kids were done with high school. It used to be that my former students would show up at my classroom door once or twice a year to say hi. While I took a few minutes out of class to catch up with them, my 9th graders would be poking each other with pencils. As time passed, their visits became fewer, and eventually they would stop coming. With Facebook, staying in touch seems a whole lot easier.
A New Perspective
With the school year in back in full gear, it has occurred to me that I have to set some boundaries the average Facebook user probably doesn't need. Already, I've had a sophomore request me as a friend. But there is a light years’ difference between a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old. I may limit my network to graduating seniors, like so many other rites of passage. There are things I just don't need to know about my current students. By the same token, there are limits to what they need to know about me.
Still, I can see some benefits to keeping myself available to all of my students on Facebook. Beyond answering the perennial question, "Mrs. Giese, what kind of music do you listen to?,” it makes me more than the stock character my students choose to see every day.
After getting on Facebook, in fact, I realized that I may be guilty of the same thing as my students. Didn't I choose to see Phillip as a stock character—as the shy, unreceptive student who wasn't interested in my class?
When I looked at Phillip's Facebook profile, by contrast, I saw personality spill off the page. There were photos of him being goofy with friends. Personal records for eating 13 pizza slices at a single party, and for growing eleven inches in two years. A pen-and-ink self-portrait, complete with sarcastic commentary from his two sisters.
It turns out that Phillip and I actually have a lot in common. "I noticed you're into Eastern philosophy," he wrote on my wall. He directed me to his "favorite quotes" list, many of which are from Buddhist scripture. We both like “Chapelle’s Show,” “The Breakfast Club,” and the band De La Soul. Even more surprising, though, were his favorite books: 1984 by George Orwell and Blindness, by Jose Saramago. Books we studied in class. Books he didn't talk about.
Then there was a link to the Web site "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" that Phillip added to his profile on January 29th—the day it came up in class our discussion on Saramago's religious views and the debate surrounding the teaching of evolution. Granted, it wasn't a link to Saramago's Nobel acceptance speech, but it was proof enough that, for a curious kid, what happens in the classroom percolates well after he has left it. It's the part of learning that most teachers don't see.
That same day Phillip directed me to his favorite quotes, I scanned the list of Facebook "groups" he belonged to. Among the list of 35 were groups for our high school and for the college he would be attending. Hidden near the bottom of the list, sandwiched between "Gilbertology: The Study of Gilbert Arenas" and "Slam Poetry Lounge," was a group called "Students of Giese Anonymous," the "Officially Unofficial Page for Students of Mrs. Giese’s English Class." The group was formed by Phillip himself. If I thought Phillip didn't like my class, I was wrong. He was listening to every word I said.
I only wish I had known it sooner.