YARMOUTH — If your teenager resembles mine, he or she may seem happiest when curled around an electronic device, thumbs moving at a dizzying pace, motivated by a game’s challenge or a need to respond, immediately, to incoming messages.

Many teenagers not only use Twitter as fluently as they can think, but also actually speak in tweets, employing no more than abbreviations and a handful of characters when pressed to talk to their parents.

“Hashtag my day,” our son will say to summarize an already brief description. Ideas and concepts, no matter how big, are abridged, boiled down to a minimal number of strokes and sent without attention to grammar or punctuation, let alone nuance in meaning or tone.

Communicating through tweets, Instagrams or Vine may be difficult for some adults to contemplate. Baby boomer and Gen X parents remember sending letters by mail and dialing numbers on rotary phones. Though we may feel nostalgia for days when we had to time to reflect on words as we wrote them on notepads, for our children, those methods are akin to using quills on parchment.

To best serve students, we need to speak, or at a minimum, understand, the language that social media has helped form over the last decade. Grasping this mindset includes comprehending not only this communication’s basic structure, but also its underlying nature for framing experiences in short bursts of words, symbols and images that capture a thought and catch the eye.

I’m not implying that teachers renounce books and exclusively use e-texts and blogs. Nor do I believe students should be on their phones during the school day – children’s brains need device-free hours, a rest from the pop and sizzle of the screen. Still, we need to understand the influences and qualities of these media, both their strengths and weaknesses, and intelligently frame our teaching.


How? Students will naturally communicate through online media, with or without their instructors’ permission. Therefore, teachers might start by acknowledging how much communication about schoolwork on social media already occurs.

Teachers also need to be clear that revealing answers or trading tips about a test in any format, including social media, constitutes cheating. But setting up ethical structures and guidelines that allow students to think through, say, a chemistry problem set, could be useful for students learning to collaborate.

Teachers may choose to monitor and participate in these collaborative moments. In doing so, it’s a lot easier to provide feedback quickly. To keep this generation of students engaged, it can be helpful to accelerate response times and assessments. With the right online structure in place, learning has the potential to be more immediate, and in certain instances, more effective.

Teachers in the humanities might have the additional opportunity to address the actual structure of texting and the language of social media while inviting students to think about the benefits and disadvantages of shorthand.

Discussing why we must write grammatically, spell correctly and argue at appropriate length reveals interesting insights about effective communication. The more methods students master, the better prepared they are to communicate across generations.

And there’s a lot of playful innovation in the way language changes in texting; if teachers stay current with the shifts, they can help students observe and analyze them, not simply use them carelessly.


Finally, administrators, teachers and parents alike need to remind students about the limits and rules of social media. That is does not replace the ability to speak directly to a friend or family member. That it can flatten as opposed to round out the human experience. That words and images that are hastily or cruelly used have a permanency that can shadow a child’s life forever once they are added to the World Wide Web.

Frame your expectations clearly and check in with your children about their on-line lives. What we say and do online can and will follow us. Learning the rules and consequences of that form of communication is a critical human skill in today’s world.

So stay in touch with your texting teenager. Ask questions that make them roll their eyes. Talk to their teachers, too, and help your own family and community use these new and ever-changing phenomena as thoughtfully, appropriately and positively as possible.

We’re not returning to quill pens any time soon; the wired world is here to stay. But staying alert and responsive to the opportunities and downsides of social media will help all of us better determine how much they shape and influence our lives and our learning.

— Special to the Press Herald


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