Today’s students are connected. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, email, texting….. all of these social media avenues provide the opportunities for students to exchange ideas, opinions, set schedules, find information and stay informed about what is important to them. We older adults often think of these social media activities simply as teenagers talking back and forth about what they do every single minute of the day. I think we underestimate both the power of the combined media and the sophistication of our children.
Connection in today’s world means something very different than it did 15 years ago. Prior to the turn of the century, real connections with others occurred face-to-face. Email availability and video conferencing began to change all of that, but relationships remained defined as person-to-person. The term “Friends,” referred to a physical person with whom one interacted directly. Although it seems like it happened overnight, connections with others began to rely more and more on technology and less on “looking the other guy in the eye.” As with all technology, this change had both good and bad results. The good part meant that people could see and talk with others around the world cheaply and instantaneously. Communication opened the world and commerce followed. The bad side of all of this meant that people could assume identities and hide behind the anonymity of long-range connections. It also seemed to isolate individuals in an ever-expanding world. There seemed to be less “human” contact as cyber connections grew and expanded. Societies are built on the interchange of human contact: the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Medieval Fair, the New England Town Meeting are all examples. People began to worry about the “isolation generation” and what that would mean for their future socially, and for our future as a society.
If you sit a “digital native” down long enough for a person-to-person conversation, you will find that our future is in pretty good hands. Students are “connected” electronically to information and to others around the world. That is part of my optimism. Young people are very interested in themselves and in their immediate friends and acquaintances. This has not changed over the last 200 years. However, these youngsters are also concerned about significant issues. Poverty, hunger, and injustice recur in their conversations. Social media has made this generation more aware of the magnitude and the impact of those subjects and their myriad manifestations earlier than any other. They see these issues, not only in the world, but also in their communities, among their classmates. Because they have connected at a variety of levels to these issues, the issues are not abstract, but, in their terms, “relevant.” They connect to the problems and the people involved.
Engagement in education concerns connecting information and students in a manner that invites personal interest, motivates self-study, and extends the learning beyond the classroom. It seems obvious that if we are to teach our students, we should use approaches that engage them. Why not use what is “relevant” to them already? Regardless of discipline, effective teachers align their lessons with the issues, topics and ideas in which their students already are involved. How difficult can it be to link an economics lesson to poverty? How about a geography lesson? Why not make injustice the topic of an essay, or a research paper, or a short story? Would the future of the global economy make a good discussion topic for current affairs? One need not concentrate only on the “negative” side of such issues. Have students seek out those stories of people who are working effectively to end hunger, relieve poverty and reduce injustice. Those are positive stories and many of them involve children taking small steps with huge results. If you want to engage your students, focus your lessons on what is important to them. To reach your students, become “relevant.”