A Sense of Belonging In A Digital World

By Julie Willcott

A student’s sense of belonging is not confined within the walls of the classroom. As teachers, we are reminded to teach our students to be mindful of their digital footprint and its permanency and to emphasize the importance of appropriate and responsible behavior online. These are critical lessons. As teachers, we must also acknowledge the positive use of our students’ digital tools in fostering a sense of belonging.

As a high school teacher, my toughest days have been those when my students are experiencing a tragedy within their school community. Unfortunately, teenagers drown, car accidents kill, and cancer does not have age limits. These are scary events for any of us; they are especially scary for teenagers who are struggling to find their way in the world. Schools, and communities, do admirable world in providing support under these circumstances. However, students can return to their homes with a sense of loneliness and sorrow. Technology has helped my students to survive these tragedies. Specifically, my students have established Facebook pages to contain their raw emotions, their memories, and their grieving. The pages are filled with students’ stories and thoughts. They provide comfort to other students when it is most needed, even in the middle of the night when students are far from their classrooms.

Not all change that students experience is tragic — thankfully! Even positive change can be scary though. Many of my students leave the small rural community where they have known most of their classmates since before Kindergarten. They may move to large colleges in big cities in unknown places. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a former student who had just started college in New York City. He is thrilled to be there and is delighted at how smooth the transition has been. I asked him why he thinks he has been so successful. He told me that the college provided a social media site where students could “mingle” and meet each other prior to selecting roommates and arriving on campus. He was able to develop a sense of belonging before he had attended his first class.

It is so important that we, as teachers, provide safe and nurturing communities for our students. However, students can also benefit from supportive communities outside of their classrooms. Over the past few years I have developed a network of committed educators who are working around the world to provide the best possible educational opportunities for students. There are days when I feel alone in my work. At that point I turn to my network via social media to get support, encouragement, and often a few laughs. This provides me with the confidence and power to return to work. Our students can benefit from the same type of support; their sense of belonging in the classroom can be improved by a supportive network outside the classroom. The question may be “How do we support student developing their own empowering network?”. We can begin by modeling the development and use of supportive networks.

Developing a sense of belonging, like so many things in life, requires balance. As I have shared here, I believe there are good reasons to use digital tools to foster a sense of belonging amongst our students. There are also reasons to find time for student to relate to each other face to face. I had a group of advisees who developed a strong community over the four years they were together. On reflecting with them about how they developed into such a cohesive group, they often mentioned a community service project from early in their Freshman year. Together we walked to the local fire station. Everyone worked together to wash trucks and clean out the fire station.

When the work was done, everyone was driven around town in a fire truck to celebrate their good work. The students wanted a photo from the day, which they could share digitally. This is the image they created.

This image become the touchstone of their four years together. During their senior year they retrieved it from their digital accounts and used it to decorate the classroom. Most importantly, the students developed a community that supported them during high school and beyond.

In order for our students to develop a sense of belonging, we must keep our students safe while providing them with the opportunity to grow. We must balance their sense of belonging within the classroom with their sense of belonging within the digital world.

Julie Willcott (@willcottjulie, juliewillcott.com) is a veteran high school science teacher from the State of Maine. She currently works with educators to establish and practice teaching methods in their classroom which make the best use of available digital tools.

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