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Portland Social Media Project Ignites Passion for Learning

In an Oregon middle school, a pilot program helps improve social engagement and attendance through social media tools.

by Tanya Roscorla / $"MMMM d, yyyy", $!cms.content.startDate)
George Middle School students Martina McCowan and Akanesi Iongi work on building a website. | Photo by Liz Delmatoff

In north Portland, 92 percent of the students from George Middle School qualify for a free and reduced lunch. The school receives Title I funding, and under No Child Left Behind, it has been labeled a failing school for more years than allowed.

Many of the kids in the mostly poor, urban neighborhoods don't want to come to school. They would rather stay in bed than go to a "boring," "loser" school, as they called it.

The middle school staff members needed a way to spark student excitement about learning, and they found it with online social media tools.


Powerful computers

Instead of sitting students down with a piece of paper, a pencil and some 3x5 cards, George Middle School is allowing them to use tools such as their cell phones that help them learn better, faster and more accurately, said Liz Delmatoff, the school's counselor and key member of the pilot Portland Project. While many of the kids don't have landlines, 75 percent of them have cell phones.

“These kids are walking around with little teeny tiny powerful computers that they know how to use and, I think, for a while we as educators missed the boat by saying ‘put that away, stop playing,’ Delmatoff said.  "All of a sudden we kind of opened our eyes and went, 'Wow, you’ve got something cool in your hand, let’s go with it.' And they’ve appreciated it.”

In September, Delmatoff contacted technology social media strategist Karl Meinhardt to help the school start using social media in the classroom. But they had to get creative. They couldn't use popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which the Children's Internet Protection Act identifies as possible predator hangouts. As a Title I school, they must use sites that the act approves to receive funding.

Instead, Principal Beth Madison, Delmatoff and Meinhardt picked Edmodo to use with four classes at no cost.

Social engagement

Eight months into the Portland Project, students are building websites, writing blog posts and creating videos about what they're learning. For example, when President Obama gave a speech on his goal to extend the school year, teachers had students respond on their blogs.

And they're choosing to learn about things they're passionate about, Meinhardt said, including animal protection, the history of skateboarding and the history of Chinese culture.

“If you can engage three kids and help them find their life passion just because of a new tool, I mean, that’s a pretty big achievement in my world, because I was brought up in a school system that was not about passion," Meinhardt said. "It was about rote achievement.”

The kids actually stay after school and work on projects at home for no credit or rewards too, Delmatoff said. In February, the school started a voluntary homework club called ExtraSpecial.

She created a group on Edmodo and posted fun assignments during the week that anyone who joined the club could do. One of their weekend assignments involved creating a video or slideshow with their phone, digital camera or PowerPoint of good and bad examples of sustainability in their neighborhoods, such as trash and recycling bins. 

At the beginning of the month, they had no members, but by May 19, they had 67 members who've completed between one and 100 assignments. A number of them have also made assignments for their peers, including blogs, quizzes, polls, contests and challenges.

By providing kids with an educational social network and interactive tools, the administrators gave them a reason to go to school.

“The biggest impact on educational performance has been the rate of engagement, which means that because kids love it, they do it," Delmatoff said, "and because kids love it, they come to school.”



In addition to using social media to help kids learn, the school is contacting them in different ways to see if other methods are more effective. Before, the school would have a contractor check in on chronically truent kids every day or offer rewards such as going to the front of the lunch line if you came 10 days in a row. Now Delmatoff texts them each morning at 8 a.m. to make sure they're awake and getting ready for school, which starts at 9 a.m.

The school set up a control group of kids who received traditional encouragement along with a group of kids who received text messages. The first five weeks, the number of absences went way down, but the number of tardies went way up in the second group.

Instead of not coming to school at all, the students preferred to come to school late rather than staying in bed like they normally would. Before the pilot program, 10 students missed an average of 23.4 days per week. But now that they receive text messages every day, that number has dropped to 15.2 days per week. 

Along with media releases and Internet usage forms, parents parents sign a form saying their school can or cannot contact their child, Delmatoff said. And Principal Madison said that No Child Left Behind gives them a reason to get kids to school.

"When you look at the fact that unless you reach a certain level of attendance, your school is labeled by the federal government as a failing school, then I would say that the government has put a significant amount of parenting into our hands,” Madison said.


Professional development

This summer, Madison, Delmatoff and Meinhardt will share what they've learned  with other teachers and administrators during two workshops on June 29 and 30. And next year, the school will receive tech bundles including new laptops and document cameras from Portland Public Schools for every teacher and room where the kids are, Madison said.

The district will roll out professional development to go along with those tools. Last week, Madison attended equity training with Portland Public School administrators, and the presenter gave them a sneak peek of how they could improve their professional development through the same tools the students use.

“I thought that it was absolutely fascinating to have someone come and speak to the administration about this because this idea is going to take off," Madison said. "In the next few years it is actually going to, in my opinion, become a mainstay in schools that you do use social media and the world of Internet to enhance your learning.”

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