During this past school year Instagram, a picture sharing social media platform, became very popular with my fourth-grade students. About half of my class had Instagram on their phones or iPod touches. I heard my kids talking about how they used Instagram, sharing ‘selfies’ (pictures of themselves), screenshots of stuff they coveted, Minecraft structures, and pictures of food they were eating. One of my first thoughts was, “Great, you have found a way to communicate with each other outside of school that is fun for you, but I hope the purpose behind the communication is meaningful.”
About the time I discovered my class’s love affair with using Instagram, I also started noticing many of my Twitter friends were using it to post pictures. I began to think maybe I should play around with this tool. Instagram didn’t capture my attention for very long. I posted lots of photos in the first few months I was on it, but then my interest faded. I would occasionally check in to see what my friends had posted, but that was about it.
Connecting Instagram and Student Reading
One day I used Instagram to post a picture of our class’s March Book Madness bracket. I noticed that some students in my class had “liked” the photo. This made me realize that I had about a dozen kids from my school following me on Instagram. I have no idea how they ‘found’ me, but thankfully, I had only posted appropriate pictures and nothing that would cause a call down to the principal’s office.
Initially I was concerned about students following me, but Instagram (like Twitter) is a service where the user does not have to follow back. So instead of blocking my students, I just chose not to create a relationship with them in the Instagram world. They could see my pictures, but I wasn’t going to see theirs. As the year was ending I used Instagram a few times to post pictures of class work, and the students who had accounts loved the idea that they could see their class life in their Instagram feeds.
At the beginning of this summer I started posting pictures of books I was reading, with captions that shared a little about the book and where they could find the book. My thought was that maybe I could leverage Instagram to introduce my students to new books and keep them excited about reading over the summer.
To be honest, I have no way of knowing if my goal is being met, but I think there is some promise in using Instagram to “sell” books. So far each book picture has received several “likes” from some of my former students, including one who I didn’t have last year. I have received mentions from students who were fourth graders last year, but not in my class. I also got an email from a parent who loved the fact that about 3-4 times a week her son was seeing pictures of great new books to read. She wrote, “He actually wanted to go to the library this week!” The combination of the Instagram “likes” and the email make me optimistic that my little experiment might be worth it.
Over the last few years my thinking about social media tools has evolved. I used to think services like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogs were more of a time-sucking distraction than a purposeful way to learn. Now I think that we have lots to learn from using these tools. My professional learning and thinking has exploded in the last three years due to Twitter. The blogs I regularly read have also stretched my thinking a great deal. I have developed a network of teachers and educational leaders that push me to be a better learner everyday. Within this network are people I have regular communication as well as people who might not ever know the impact they have made on my thinking.
I believe students should also have the opportunity to build these networks. One thing that fascinates me about Instagram is the simplicity of use, and how quickly people can connect with each other. Like many social networks, Instagram does have an age requirement of 13 (which is older than the students I have in my classroom), so from an ethical standpoint it is hard for me to justify encouraging students to be on Instagram. However, like many tech tools that have age requirements, Instagram is being used by thousands of younger students across our country, and most likely the world. The question I have wrestled with is, “Should I ignore the fact that nine- and ten-year-olds are using the service, or should I model a way to have fun, but be more purposeful about how the service is used?” This summer I have chosen the latter. I haven’t ‘recruited’ students to create Instagram accounts, nor have I encouraged students to change how they are using Instagram. I have just changed how I use it since I know there are students following me. By adding the occasional book photo in the run of other photos in my feed, I am trying to reach out to a few kids who may not be on the lookout for new books this summer.
Being an open and responsible model for how to use social networks or other Web 2.0 tools is a great way for teachers to help students learn about both the positives and negatives of sharing your life digitally. As Will Richardson wrote, “In the Web 2.0 world, self-directed learners must be adept at building and sustaining networks.”
Instagram could be a relatively safe and easy way for younger students to practice the idea of building and sustaining a network for learning. There are many possible issues when students use online tools or networks, but I strongly believe that we should meet the students where they are, and help to show them a way to responsibly build a digital network and digital footprint.
Like many learning quests I decide to start, I am not sure what the next step is. I have many ideas, but I know that I need to bounce them off some of the people I respect in the digital world along with my district leaders to make sure I am not jumping in too quickly without a solid plan. Some of these ideas include:
• Creating an Instagram account for our classroom to post and share photos of books we are reading, work we are doing, and possibly ideas we have.
• Using my account to layer in other thought-provoking pictures like those from Choice Literacy writers Mandy Robek’s #mathinmyworld photos or Mary Lee Hahn’s #scienceinmyworld photos.
• Developing a way for children who do not have Instagram accounts to access the photos without pressuring them or their families to sign up for a service that may not be a good choice for them.
• Exploring ways to help students authentically learn about the positives and negatives of Instagram.
In the meantime, I will still continue to post the pictures of books with little notes about where to find them. Even though I have no actual evidence that students are sprinting to the nearest library or bookstore this summer, if even one child picks up a book this summer because I used Instagram to ‘sell’ a book, then the time I spent will be well worth it.