The Importance of Teaching Reading and Writing in Social Media
By Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks
In October 2016, Ira Glass and the This American Life team asked an important question: Seriously?
The title of episode 599 suggested that something was fundamentally wrong with public discourse. Glass explained in the introduction to the show.
The presentation of facts is seen as partisan opinion, and then every day a barrage of untruths are presented as truth, and we’re just supposed to suck it up. That’s the moment we live in. That’s our country right now. And this is going to continue after this election, no matter who wins. Like, this is the rest of our lives, I think, this post-truth politics. With so many of us getting our news from social media and from sources that we agree with, it’s easier than ever to check if a fact is true, and facts matter less than ever. — Ira Glass, on This American Life
When Oxford Dictionaries names “post-truth” as the word of the year, we agree with Glass that there is something seriously problematic about the ways we as adults, as well as our students, interact with social media. “Post-truth” happens when we retweet and share without critical reading. It happens when information remains in a filter bubble. And it happens when individuals and corporations can hide in anonymity while sharing fake news. As it happens, we can fall prey to misinformation.
Despite the warning from This American Life that we may be living in a “post-truth” era, we have hope. We can teach our students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media. The MINDFUL acronym suggests that we slow down and that we analyze what we read and write online as arguments that continue a conversation.
How do we get started in this work? Here are five ideas for the classroom.
- Teach about filter bubbles.
Eli Pariser’s warning that search algorithms may deliver information that is customized to an individual user and not representative of multiple views takes on increased weight as we curate social media streams. Rather than expanding our worldviews, the information we receive often reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. We can teach students how filter bubbles form so that they can more critically evaluate the information that they encounter. Troy has used variations of the lesson “Popping the Filter Bubble” to introduce students to the idea.
2. Talk about what it means to have productive conversations in digital spaces.
Jimmy Kimmel’s popular “Mean Tweets” series calls out “haters” who post cruel messages to celebrities. In less comedic fashion, PSAs like this one and reports like the one by This American Life underscore the problem of anonymity on the internet. With reports of the prevalence of cyberbullying, it’s clear that teens need to consider more carefully their writing in social media spaces. Kristen has started this conversation with middle school students by asking them to “write on the wall,” a graffiti board where they can respond to a question, read others’ writing and continue conversations. At the end of the week, the class discusses what was written, deconstructs the conversations (or lack thereof) that took place, and makes goals for having more productive conversations in their online lives.
3. Analyze social media as readers.
What persona does your feed reveal? Who are you? Val Mattesich (@VMattPV) has asked her students to analyze a public social media feed in order to answer these questions. Using evidence from posts, including pictures, words, and a craft elements of tone, students make a claim about the persona of the individual. Check out Val’s lessons on our wiki.
4. Collect examples of social media that students read and write.
Asking students to slow down and think about their social media interactions is a key step in helping them to monitor their reading and writing online. Finding arguments in social media is a weeklong series of activities that we have designed for this purpose. Perhaps even more simply, you can encourage students to collect examples from their social media lives in their reader’s/writer’s notebook. Placing value on these kinds of texts in the classroom can support a shift to seeing social media as spaces for real reading and writing.
5. Provide constructive feedback on students’ reading and writing of social media.
Though it may seem strange at first to ask students to share their social media feeds, as teachers we need to take an active role in this aspect of our students’ reading and writing lives. Pew Internet just reported that 61% of parents check their children and teens’ web history — and 60% examine their kids’ social media profiles — but this does not mean that they are coaching them to become better readers and writers. This requires active mediation, which is not happening much at home. Ask students to take screenshots of what they are reading and writing, and invite them to reflect on those literacy choices by providing them with suggestions for curating their own social media feeds.
There is no single, best way to help our students become active, critical readers and writers using social media. We share the ideas above — as well as additional resources on our book’s companion wiki site — to help begin the conversation.
Because, with social media participation increasing everyday, we need to get this conversation started now.
Dr. Kristen Hawley Turner is an associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies at Fordham University in New York City. A former high school teacher, she is a Teacher Consultant for the National Writing Project and the director of the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative.
Dr. Troy Hicks (@hickstro) is a professor of Literacy and Technology at Central Michigan University and focuses his work on the teaching of writing, literacy and technology, and teacher education and professional development. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Hicks directs CMU’s Chippewa River Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and he frequently conducts professional development workshops related to writing and technology. Hicks is author or co-author of several Heinemann titles. You can read more from him on his website here.