An Issue of Connectivity
In his seminal work Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. DuBois prophesied that the problem of the 20th Century would be the color line. While his argument has clearly been proven prescient and true, the issues that produced the problem of the color line during DuBois’ lifetime have evolved—or morphed, if you will—into the issues that plague us today. Moreover, while our students are no longer segregated by means of race and/or color, we now find ourselves teaching in classrooms that are divided by access (or the lack thereof) to resources like adequate technology. Thus, if we’re to be totally honest with ourselves as educators, we might appropriately surmise that the problem of the 21st century is connectivity.
In Connected: An Autoblography About Love, Death & Technology (2011), filmmaker and creator of the Webby Awards Tiffany Shlain contemplates the following premise: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it’s attached to everything else” (John Muir). In our classroom, we refer to this interconnectedness through the Mayan lens of In Lak’ech Ala K’in—the Living Code of the Heart. Similar to the Indian concept of Namaste, In Lak’ech Ala K’in reveals that each of us is found in one another. Luis Valdez’s poem “In Lak Ech,” which we often recite (both in English and Spanish) at the beginning of class sessions, helps to explain the concept:
Tú eres mi otro yo You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mí mismo I do harm to myself;
Sí te amo y respeto If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo I love and respect myself.
– From Luis Valdez’s “Pensamiento Serpentino”
Shlain suggests that being connected in the 21st century is akin to being connected to the rest of the world via technology, our collective Central Nervous System. She further posits: “As learning professionals, we know the power of technology that links our learners, connecting them with content, instructors, and one another. But we also know the darker side of technology and the problems of an overpopulated planet facing food insecurity, war, and global warming.”
When considering connectivity inside the classroom, it is important to begin by determining what it means to be a connected learner in the 21st century. Specifically, each of us (adults included) must ask ourselves the following questions:
- What are the benefits of connecting with others?
- What opportunity costs are associated with becoming/remaining connected?
- How do we successfully determine which communities to which we should connect/ belong?
For my students and me, the quest to answer each of these questions begins inside of our classroom. Beginning with the first weeks of school, I charge each of my students with trying to identify their life’s purpose. I ask each of them: Why are you here, and what’s wrong with society that only you can fix? Answering these questions requires them to reflect consistently, even on a daily basis. Inside the classroom, we partner tried and trusted methods like journals and Socratic Seminars with innovative methods like TED Talks and lectures from the OER Commons to assist us. Outside of the classroom, where our ongoing discussion continues, we’ve taken to social media. Our personal favorite is Twitter, and we use the hashtags #TIL (which stands for: Today I Learned) and #Room110 (to identify our classroom).
In preparing for this piece—and in the true spirit of In Lak’ech Ala K’in, I reached out to some of my former students asking them to provide their personal testimonies of our using of social media in our classroom and how it affected their perceptions of connectedness as 21st century learners. Masai Smith, who will be attending Atlanta’s Morehouse College as a freshman this fall, had this to say:
“Using Twitter helped all classes grow together as one big family. While expressing our inner thoughts, we found out we had more in common than we realized. As time passed, we developed a great respect for one another. The family feeling the class had was essential to reaching the heights of knowledge we experienced.
When Mrs. Silveri announced that we had to tweet what we learned in class, I was very reluctant. It turned out to be one of the motivating forces that pushed me to further my education. She truly challenged us inside the classroom. The hunt for knowledge became so intense that students did not want to wait until class to share what they discovered. So instead, we would be on Twitter at 9 p.m. still discussing and analyzing the subject of class earlier that day. Using Twitter allowed all classes to interact with each other and Mrs. Silveri. She gave us feedback and motivated us to dig deeper for knowledge, and it always felt good to get a retweet from her.
By the end of the night, you’ve seen so many perspectives on one topic that you had an all-around knowledge base on the topic of discussion. Students would also reach out to different people we read about in class to express gratitude if they had a Twitter account. I can honestly say that we went above and beyond every standard in our class because we were not limited to classroom hours. Over time it showed us the actual power of social networking.”
To garner additional perspectives, I also reached out to current and former colleagues who follow me (@mrssilveri) or my class on Twitter. What follows are two of the many responses I received:
“Ms. Silveri has discovered numerous ways to use Twitter to share resources and differentiate her lessons for the students she serves. For her students, they use this tool to build a new world of learning. Twitter in her room becomes a constant source of new ideas to explore. From tracking hashtags to facilitating discussions and instant feedback, Ms. Silveri has perfected ways to leverage the immense power of social media.” -Trayce Striggles, current Associate Director of Nonprofit Development at Chick-fil-A and former high school social studies teacher
“Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.” – John W. Gardner
This educational quote epitomizes the teacher that Shekema is. I have personally seen the impact that Shekema makes in the lives of everyone she encounters from students to teachers alike. She utilizes Twitter in a way that I have never experienced before to engage, solicit critical conversations, and uplift her students. She challenges them to dig deeper intellectually concerning social issues and to always inspire and encourage one another. Shekema truly creates a family atmosphere in which is she often referred to as “Mama” by her students. Her teachings are deeply rooted in love, discipline blossomed from tenderness, and sincerity that shines brighter than the sun. The lasting imprint she leaves in the lives of every student she meets is unsurpassed. Twitter just happens to be one vehicle she uses to reach them. As a classroom teacher, I’ve become a better person, teacher, and friend just by meeting her.” – Kristy Girardeau, elementary teacher and 2013 NCTE Early Educator of Color Award of Distinction recipient
At this juncture, I believe it’s important to disclose that I teach AP English Literature at a Title I school, within a Title I district. This disclosure is significant for those who believe that the results mentioned here cannot be duplicated. My classroom is a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) environment, and my students are permitted to use cell phones and whatever else they may have in order to facilitate their own learning.
They are encouraged to tweet as they learn, allowing them to teach their followers as they go. In our classroom, we are both connected and interconnected. We are each other and are responsible for making sure that each of us gets the respect, compassion, honor, and love we deserve—an adequate education included. As such, disruptions, distractions, and lack of student engagement have never been an issue for us. Our collective classroom efficacy is just too important for any of us to compromise.
While the results we’ve experienced in our classroom are not necessarily replicable, I am encouraged by the possibilities of a world in which young people know who they are, why they’re here, and how being connected with others facilitates their own personal growth. When students recognize the purpose of learning and understand the responsibility that comes along with that being educated, they are inspired to share their knowledge with the world around them. If indeed the problem of the 21st century is connectivity, social media must be one of the resources we use to solve it. Our students must be taught to harness and use that power so that they can create the future they desire. They are well able to change frame their own world. Let us fearlessly lead the way.