How to teach about the First Amendment

Thursday, December 15, 2011

WASHINGTON — Teachers hoping to use social media as a resource in the classroom now have a how-to guide. “Social Media, the Classroom and the First Amendment,” released today during the “Free to Tweet” program at the Newseum, is a guide for middle school and high school teachers published by the First Amendment Center and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In a panel discussion, educator Melissa Wantz, who wrote the guide, said, “Some teachers are looking for guidance, and others are plowing ahead and charting their own course.” The guide gives teachers tools, lesson plans and suggestions for classroom use for social media.

One example Wantz cited was using social media to enable students to play roles of characters in novels such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Moderator Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, asked Wantz whether all students were ready to deal with new technology.

“Almost all are intrigued, engaged and want to be involved with it,” she said. “They’re reading, they’re writing, they’re engaging on a social level.”

“The kids are great about helping each other … the great thing about social media is it’s a community,” Wantz added.

David L. Hudson Jr., First Amendment Center scholar, outlined some of the difficulties that have arisen with the introduction of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other media in schools.

Freedom of student speech “has its ebbs and flows through history,” he said. Because “we live in an age of cyberbullying,” school administrators may feel that they must restrict student online speech.

But nobody should be dissuaded from the benefits of social media in the classroom, Hudson said. “Social media amplifies all forms of speech.”

Hudson, a lawyer who has written extensively on student speech, said it remained an unsettled legal question  whether off-campus student speech made through social media and websites is punishable by public schools if it’s offensive to teachers, principals or other students.

“We just don’t know how far school officials can reach into students’ off-campus speech,” he said.

In terms of introducing social media into education, Wantz said, “You have to be able to navigate your culture at your school.”

She said she dealt with inappropriate comments and behavior in school every day — with or without social media. As a teacher you have to be able to handle it, she said.

“Good educators are preparing students for the world they’re going into, not the world we came from,” Wantz said.

To school administrators leery of letting the at-times unfettered online world into classrooms, Wantz said: “Give us a chance, let us see what we can do with it.”

 

 

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