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Open Invitation to Learning in a Closed World: Advocacy and Community

by Janelle Quintans Bence

Connection. It can make or break learning experiences. Connection is also what so many missed due to the pandemic. What happens when learners, families, and communities have experienced the trauma of forced isolation due to COVID-19? How does this shape advocacy?

Social media and digital outreach have become increasingly integral to sharing how our learners do literacy, a form of advocacy to help others understand why we teach the way we do. But using Twitter in the classroom is controversial. We have seen tweets that elevate and educate but still so many others that mislead and misstep. I made the decision long ago to help young people understand the potential for Twitter in education and create their own personal learning networks. Twitter for my learners has been a way to celebrate and share thinking on important topics while openly giving a glimpse into public school classrooms--a strategic way to help others understand the world of schools.

Since literacy is about making sense of and interacting with the world, why not invite others to the conversation? This shifts the idea of advocacy from just informing others of literacy practices to inviting them into the conversation where they can share their own literacy practices--to cultivate a community of writers. For example, creativity is often inspired by the artist’s (that includes the writer’s) surroundings, what we sometimes call place-based writing. Asking writers to think of a location that inspired them and to respond to said locale can help young authors connect to where they may be more productive or at least help them to get in touch with the sensation of that moment. Sharing this place with an image and the writing it inspired on Twitter allows writers to gain insight into their own creative process and, as people respond with their own writing, the creative processes of others.

Twitter offers additional chances to connect: the strategic use of hashtags or mentions invites specific audiences to the learners’ writing and thinking. Tagging a location can bring more understanding of that place and experience. There are layers of thought and considerations happening when tweeting. An added bonus is when learners broadcast their learning using social media platforms like Twitter, there is open sharing of the learning that is happening. Tweets are real-time glimpses into a literacy classroom instead of a static snapshot taken from a standardized test.

This past year, Twitter also responded to a need for my learners: connection. As December 2020 rolled around and half of the students were still learning virtually, my classes wanted to make a difference. They wanted to reach out to others and acknowledge those who have contributed and sacrificed so much. They understood that in these isolated times, acts of goodwill were needed more than ever. Student groups chose particular pockets of the community to support. Some created online opportunities to socialize with their at-home peers. Some wanted to express appreciation for healthcare workers, fire fighters, police officers, and more. Some wanted to reach out to their virtual peers to let them know they weren’t alone. These efforts known as the “Grinch Project” were designed, chosen, and facilitated by youth. The folder of choices was just a start, but learners were able to create and design their own way of making a difference. Learners were given their literacy class time to make a real difference in their community. Sharing their process on Twitter added a wider audience to their authentic learning and connection to the community. It showcased how academics interact with the wider world.

Everyday Advocacy, as with practically everything else in education, was challenged, reimagined, and redefined due to the pandemic. This past year was an opportunity… no, a plea, to revisit how to best respond to learners’ needs. Tools like Twitter encourage a wider connection between literacy and community, skills and deeper learning, learners and purpose. Hopefully, these lessons from the pandemic will continue to help education evolve.

Learning that takes place through experiences like Project Grinch remind us how literacy can and should be taught through an authentic lens that engages learners in taking action in the world around them. Through projects like these, students design real strategies to respond to the real needs of stakeholders, and communicate to foster real connection between themselves, their peers, their campus, and their community. It is this type of thinking, listening, reading, writing, and speaking that will sustain relevant growth both personal and academic both during the pandemic and beyond.

Janelle is a 9th Grade English facilitator in her 22nd year of teaching in the state of Texas. Mrs. Bence is also an active teacher-leader for the National Writing Project (NWP) where she served on the Board of Directors for 3 years. She has presented at many national and international conferences and, in 2018, Janelle was selected to receive the Outstanding Teaching of Humanities by Humanities Texas.


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