At some point, while consumed with pursuing a career in education, developing roots in the Rutland community, and locating the best trails to run on with my dog, I slipped unknowingly into middle age. I can no longer play the new teacher card at school, nor am I identified as part of the young couples in my neighborhood. I do not get carded at the grocery store and I was not immediately recruited for the student-faculty basketball game. My 40th birthday party was the public celebration (admission) to this passage of time, but the moments I most feel (and fight) this inevitable lapse in time is when I find myself seconds away from saying the phrase “when I was a kid . . . “ When I was a kid, my mom would talk to her family on a white rotary phone with a 15-foot spiral cord snaking around the kitchen. When I was in 6th grade, the first Macintosh SE computers were added to our library and students would fight for opportunities to play Oregon Trail during rainy day recesses. When I got my driver’s license, my parents bought a massive black bag phone with a space-aged magnetic antenna for the roof of the car and forbid me to use it unless I found myself in a dire emergency. When I started college, I acquired my first email account and chatted in live time through the computer with high school friends in other states. When I was in graduate school, our professor introduced us to a website called Google and recommended it as our primary search engine. When I was a first-year teacher, a student asked me how far the Earth is from the sun in miles, and before I could walk to the textbook across the room, another student sporting a sleek handheld contraption spouted 92,955,807 miles. When I was a kid, cartoons were only on Saturdays, phone calls were charged by the minute, clothes were bought at the local department store and books were read from the paper page.
This is not to say that the 1980’s and 1990’s were better times. My parents still did not understand my life, bathroom stalls still had nasty messages scratched into the paint, and teachers still confiscated passed notes. It was not better; it was different.
Every generation experiences changes and developments throughout their lifetime. For me, born straddling the Gen X and Millennial boundary, I find myself enticed and intrigued by the power of digital communications and interactions, but comforted by face to face connections and the permanence of paper trails. I worry that students are too consumed by their electronic devices and miss out on real-time interactions with people around them, but I am leery about blanket policies that outlaw all personal device use and disregard the potential these technologies offer. I value the social networks with former classmates and colleagues that I effortlessly maintain through Facebook, but am unable to comprehend why I would want to send a temporary selfie out into the ether through Snapchat.
Repeatedly, my district’s leadership – including the technology administrators and union reps – reminds our faculty of the risks in connecting with our students through social media and we are forbidden from friending current students. My Gen X-ness understands the concerns surrounding these exchanges and feels the panic of witnessing inappropriate interactions or being drawn into drama that I am not prepared to address. My millennial tendencies, however, value meeting students where they are and modeling appropriate use of social media. Digital friends should not replace analog relationships; however, social media has the capacity to build and maintain connections that were historically impossible.
Marian’s story clearly illustrates this point. I first got to know Marian virtually in February 2016 when she was accepted as part of the American JSEP team and added to our cohort’s Facebook page. I physically met Marian in June of that same year in a small village of Greenland when JSEP (Joint Science Education Project, an NSF funded summer program which brings students from the US, Greenland, and Denmark together for a 3-week summer polar science field experience) officially began. The JSEP educators work very hard to build connections between all of our students from these varying religions, cultures, and personal experiences. Facebook groups, name games, dance videos, and strategic groupings are some of our strategies used to achieve this key objective. The JSEP model depends on developing strong relationships that blur traditional boundaries between students and teachers. All of us use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram as ways to jumpstart bilingual conversations, to build our international networks, and to promote public awareness of polar sciences. All of which Marian became a part of that spring in 2016.
Marian is a sweet, boisterous, thoughtful, eloquent young lady born and raised in rural Alabama. She was one of the smallest 2016 participants but was strong, determined, and unflappable hiking across tundra and camping on the Greenland ice sheet. She insisted on making a true southern breakfast on the Fourth of July for all of our JSEP friends, getting up hours before the wake-up call to fry up pounds of bacon and flip over 100 blueberry pancakes. She spoke on behalf of the American team during the end of the program celebration and shared her heartfelt reflections on how JSEP changed her life, opening doors not usually available in the deep South. On November 8, 2016, Marian was an independent leader, finishing her last year of high school, and a month away from her 18th birthday.
On November 8, 2016, I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton and spent the rest of that day obsessing over the constant, instant, and mixed commentary streaming through my various ethereal digital threads. My personalized, tailored, and primarily liberal-minded network of friends on Facebook mirrored my own emotional journey over that 48-hour window. What started as a disciplined feminist celebration quickly decayed into a sense of disbelief, shock, and grief. In the weeks and months that followed, I posted articles, signed petitions, and joined marches. I cried, I vented, and I tried to make sense of the events that unfolded by sharing these frustrations on my Facebook feed with anyone interested enough to follow my posts.
You never really know who you impact with a post; the tallied number of thumbs up is just part of the story. You never really know how you have influenced your students; the grades they achieve are just one indicator. On January 29, 2017, Marian reached out to her JSEP network with a post of her own and validated that she had been listening and that our social network, as fluid and as fleeting as it might seem, grounded her and provided her with at some strength and hope. Marian wrote . . .
Social media is powerful. Social media continues to rapidly evolve and is undeniably a permanent part of our human experience. It is capable of swaying voters’ perceptions of candidates. It repeatedly makes regular people into temporary stars through viral videos. It spreads cat memes faster than the flu. It informs the public about events with impressive swiftness. It unapologetically destroys lives and reputations with every uninformed share. It builds communities that are not limited to geography. And it helps a compassionate young woman worried about the rights of refugees, feel a little bit less lost and isolated when her ideals do not align with her physical community. Stringent umbrella policies developed by school districts to limit employees interactions in using these platforms, handicap educators’ ability to build relationships with people born after 1979 and to model appropriate digital citizenship. While awareness of the drawbacks and benefits of these digital tools is essential, they are just that, one more method that educators can use to foster interesting, versatile, intergenerational, long lasting, and meaningful relationships.
In 20 years, my Gen Z students will inevitably find themselves saying, “When I was a kid . . . “ I hope that their endings to this timeless phrase will be . . . “When I was a young, I was able to reach out to teachers, coaches, and mentors even after the particular school year, season, or program ended. When I was in school, there was a shift in educational paradigms that was not driven by technology, but was enhanced and supported by these digital networks. When I was a teenager, the globalizing world meant relationships spanned the planet and occurred in real-time. When I was a kid, things were not perfect, but it was an exciting and innovative period to be a kid.”
Erica Wallstrom teaches Earth Science at Rutland High School during the school year and travels with students to Greenland during the summer months. Wallstrom’s teaching reflects her belief that all people are capable of learning, want to succeed, and need to belong. Her goal as an educator is to foster experiences that inspire all learners while providing opportunities for incremental, personalized growth in an inclusive, welcoming, safe environment.