First Person

Voices: Reconnecting with mentors via social media

Julia Rappaport, the Managing Editor of Communications and Social Media at Facing History and Ourselves, writes about the value social networks can have reconnecting students to their former teachers.

Laura Johnson, 17, works on a computer between classes at Florence High School in this EdNews file photo.
Laura Johnson, 17, works on a computer between classes at Florence High School in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Social networks today are our photo albums and address books, our cocktail parties and newspapers. Recently, one of my social networks took on a new function: a virtual classroom.

I knew even before handing in my last paper of junior year that my high school United States history teacher was going to be one of those life-changing ones. Energetic and enthusiastic, he challenged his students and brought out the best in us. Once, during a lesson on westward expansion in the United States, he literally dropped to the floor to get our attention as he taught about the spread of smallpox to the Native American population.

Part of what made José so impactful as an educator was his commitment to getting students out of the classroom to learn. In addition to teaching me about the world in class, he helped me pave roads out into that world. As a junior, he encouraged me to apply to a summer study abroad program in Italy – it would be the longest amount of time I had ever spent away from home, I didn’t speak a word of Italian beyond spaghetti, and I was terrified. And he didn’t stop there.

“Get out there,” he said as he sent another application my way, this time to a semester-away program in New York City that would take place during my second-to-last semester of high school. This was a man who made learning happen. He pushed his students beyond what we thought of as our own limits, and, in doing so, expanded our viewpoints, our understanding of the world around us, and those in our universe of obligation.

After graduating from high school, José remained important in my memory, but – as is so often the case with educators – his time as my mentor was up. He was on to a new set of students; I was on to new teachers, courses, and campuses. I remember thinking at the time that it was too bad that there seems to be an unnatural end for the length of time we get teachers as mentors. Their lessons remain in our minds, but as we leave school, most of the time we no longer continue that mentor relationship.

Recently, though, I’ve seen this begin to change. Educators – along with the rest of us – are still figuring out how to best use media and social networks like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. How private should we be? Should we connect with colleagues or friends we haven’t spoken to in years? What is social media’s role in our day-to-day life? But as we begin to figure out with what it is we’re comfortable,  some educators are beginning to use social networks to extend their reach out of the classroom – and beyond the confines of high school, college, or middle school.

A few years ago, a Facebook request from José landed in my inbox. I was two years into my life after college, and it had been probably a good six years since I’d last seen or talked with José – likely at my high school graduation. “José!” I wrote in a Facebook message back to him, “What’s up?? This just made my day!” I told him about studying history in college and my life after graduation – how I got a job as a college admission officer before landing a gig as a reporter for an award-winning newspaper on Martha’s Vineyard. “I am loving it. I’m getting all into Vineyard history and spend tons of time in the archives, which I 100 percent chalk up to your history reenactments in class,” I wrote. He wrote back a few days later. “Julie,” he said. “You make me so proud.”

Every couple of years, José and I exchange messages on Facebook, catching up on work and life. It’s nice, but what’s better is being able to have his thoughts on current events, the articles he finds interesting, and the music he likes in my Facebook news feed. Though they might seem like routine posts to his friends and family, but to a former student, the posts allow me to continue learning from his perspective, worldview, teaching strategies. They become mini-lessons that, although they arrive now in a social media news feed rather than in a classroom, continue to influence my understanding of the world around me.

A few months ago, I heard from José again. It had been almost two years since we last exchanged updates. I opened the message and was shocked to find the letter of recommendation José wrote for me when I was applying to college over a decade ago. Reading it, I was reminded of who I was as a student in his class – hardworking, tirelessly curious, ready to soak up the world. As an adult juggling work, life, bills, friends, family, reading, eating, sleeping, exercising, and more, it’s easy to forget those young people we once were – those versions of ourselves that got us started on the paths we now tread every day. Reading that was a reminder of where I started and of what I’m capable. It was a reminder from a mentor who, at another time, might have been relegated to memory, but who today, thanks to social networks that can connect and inform us, is just a click away.

This post was originally published on the Facing History tech blog InterFacing

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.