Empowering Students!

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

As explained in my previous post Think! Media Literacy and the quest for truth, “[…] nowadays students need to also become media educated with the guidance of their classroom teachers and librarians” adding that “Perseverance and commitment are needed, as media literacy is an essential skill in the digital age.”

Media literacy is concerned with developing an informed and critical understanding of the nature of the mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of those techniques. […] Media literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products.” 

Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture (Henry Jenkins – MacArthur Foundation)

And because there is not much point in creating media products without having an audience, we should guide our students to become contributors: they are not attending school to pass time and absorb course content waiting to get old enough to play a role in the society. This traditional model is gone! Everyone, regardless of its age, has the ability to make a positive impact on local and global communities, and creating connections, as Scott McLeod reminds us with examples of amazing children and teenagers whose contributions, often through social media, had a positive impact on other people’s lives and/or showed their ability to be engaged citizens!

Extracurricular empowerment: Scott McLeod at TEDxDesMoines – September 2013

I am lucky enough to be working at the International School of Brussels, a school with a great reputation and vision, constantly seeking improvement, placing the student empowerment at the core of its mission. Willing to adapt to a fast-changing world, our school provides regular Professional Development days on campus, inviting some leading experts in the field of education, combined with mini-session offered by colleagues sharing their expertise. I thought I would mention a few from the past recent years, as Scott McLeod is one of the experts brought to us: it will help to understand where we stand as a school in terms of student empowerment and participatory culture.

In September 2015, our PD training’s focus was technology with In The Zone – Learning Innovation in Practice at ISB: “We all – students, faculty & staff – live, teach, learn, and work in a world packed with technological innovation. So much of it untapped in its potential to transform what we wish to achieve. Scott MacLeod is a leading expert who works with schools, in the US and globally, inviting us to think about how technology can transform the teaching and learning landscape. He also brings a focus to the idea of building a personal digital footprint that reflects positively on who we are. Scott will work with students – 10th grade – and faculty on both these areas of his expertise.  Scott is joining us for a few days to work with a number of stakeholders, faculty, students, and parents. He is a core part of the “In the Zone” day organized in the Middle School“.
In March 2017, ISB hosted the Learning by Design conference: A call to re-imagine the way schools facilitate learning. The conference included workshops, seminars, Learning Labs and opportunities for networking, and involved some of our students. Founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators, Gary Stager was one of the learning facilitators.
The second Brussels LbD conference took place in February 2019, looking at the following: “Re-imagining school requires a commitment to changing culture, courageously challenging old assumptions and a willingness to play with and test new ideas – even if they fail.” One of the many learning facilitators was Ewan McIntosh, founder of NoTosh, which makes accessible the creative process required to innovate.

As an example, here is one of the initiatives that the Middle School implemented a few years ago a program for grade 7 to 9 students: it offers choice modules built in their regular schedules. Its objectives are to give students a chance to explore and develop new or pre-existing skills and create the conditions for them to develop and/or deepen a passion for a particular topic or skill. Whenever possible, faculty and staff leading these workshops are encouraged to involve the students in the planning process and trajectory of the module over the 9 sessions to make it more student-centered.  

Examples of past Personal Learning Modules: Collaging with Friends / Jewelry Design Makerspace / Blogging Like a Pro / Booklovers Club / Italian & Cooking / The Art of Gaming / Dance Workshops / Crocheting with Calmness / Let’s Chat! / Engineering – Design Creativity / Entrepreneurship / C’est bon, c’est belge / Gardening, the Life-Cycle / Life Through a Lens / Psych Experiments Through the Ages / Electric Guitar and Bass Rockers / Take Action / Captivating your Audience / Middle School Madness / Sports in Popular Culture / The Great Outdoors / Yoga / Share Your Ideas: Podcasting and Vlogging / Let’s Go to the Caribbean! / African Hand Drumming.

The modules are run by faculty and staff who are willing to share their skills and passions, usually outside their regular role in the school: for example, a math teacher running a Djembe drums initiation, a library assistant, a silversmith by training, leading the Jewelry Design module… Meeting twice a week for periods of 9 weeks, students hold a showcase of a Celebration of Learning at the end.

An acceptable use policy (AUP), is a set of rules applied by the owner, creator or administrator of a network, website, or service, that restrict the ways in which the network, website or system may be used and sets guidelines as to how it should be used.

In Rethinking AUPs, McLeod is asking if “in all of our efforts to teach students safe, appropriate, and responsible technology use, are we forgetting the more important job of teaching our students empowered use?” In a rather long list of blog posts and other resources, he supports that rather being a document stipulating constraints and practices the purpose of such policies should be enabling optimal empowerment of individuals within a school, to meet personal, organizational, educational, and societal goals.

At my school, the Acceptable Use Policy is part of the Student Handbook in the Middle School; in the 2019-20 copy, it is referred to as the Technology Handbook, and rather than rules, it refers to “agreement” and “principles”.

Student Technology Agreement
All technology decisions at ISB are guided by the following principles:

  • Appropriate technology use is an essential component of optimal learning environments.
  • Technology creates new teaching and learning opportunities that improve student understanding.  It contributes to an environment in which teaching and learning are learner-centered, collaborative, engaging.
  • Technology provides the means for equitable learning opportunities. Technology allows teachers to meet the diverse learning needs of students by adapting to individual goals and learning styles.

It is very interesting too, I think, to notice the Resources For Parents listed at the end of the document: they are first-hand partners in the implementation of a participatory culture and they also need to support the empowerment of students at home.


Elizabeth Gilbert, “The Kids Are All Right.

Yalda T. Uhls, “Parents, Chill. Technology Isn’t Destroying Teens’ Brains.”UCLA Newsroom, December 2, 2015.

Yalda T. Uhls, Media Moms and Digital Dads: A Fact Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age.

Amanda Third, Damien Spry, Kathryn Locke, Enhancing Parent’s Knowledge and Practice of Online Safety.

Elizabeth Perle, 5 Myths about Teens and Technology Every Parent Should Know.

Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, Kathleen Clarke-Pearson. The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Families.

Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

Common Sense Media, Social Media, Social Life: How Kids View Their Digital Lives.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Talking to Kids and Teens About Social Media.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Talking to Kids and Teens About Social Media and Sexting.

Scott McLeod, “Extracurricular Empowerment”, TED Talk.

Allô? Allô ? **


** Interjection in French at the beginning of a regular phone call. Not systematically used anymore by young people

The world around us keeps changing. With the constant evolution of technology, this is not only our environment that looks different: social interactions are nowhere close to what they looked like only fifteen years ago.
We don’t connect with others the same way we used to, and adults are usually the ones that need catching up. In 2020, teenagers’ lives are intertwined with technology tools and apps. They learn quickly how to use these, they easily share the “how-to” among peers and friends, they spend the time needed to grasp its particularities. That applies to social media: where adults often make a distinction between a social interaction “in person” and exchanges through technology, for young people, social media is simply real life, and it carries its own rules and etiquette.

As these are often mysterious to adults, Mary H.K. Choi, author, editor, and journalist, conducted a series of interviews with teenagers across the United States, meeting and corresponding more extensively with five high schoolers. In her article, Like. Flirt. Ghost: A Journey Into The Social Media Lives of Teens (Wired), she gives us a detailed report on her findings, chronicling their digital experiences, and I personally learned a lot (not only about English expressions I didn’t know! -Thanks Google Translate and Urban Dictionary-). There are specific unwritten rules such as the obligation to like a friend’s post on Instagram, and the need to comment it for a close friend; there are boundaries: oversharing is taboo, lurking and going for a “deep-like” (liking an old picture) is considered awkward. Some teens might have second accounts with a fake name for sharing more private pictures taken at parties for example. Some might use Facebook as a more public and impersonal account used for extra-curricular updates for example, or to communicate with adults including college admission offices.
Social media for teenagers is also the place where flirting occurs as it replaces, to some extent, the hanging around in groups at the shopping mall; here again, the process is quite codified.
Snapchat is another very popular social media platform, that appeared in 2011 and is still to-date mainly in the hands of teenagers, unlike Facebook years ago, who has been taken over by adults and therefore abandoned by younger teenagers, and Instagram who is widely used by small and big businesses alike to promote their products. Users snap pictures or videos of themselves or friends to update their “story”; the specificity is the fact that posts disappear after 24 hours, reducing the pressure for everyone. It can also be used to send private messages.
Interesting how the current smartphone generation is redefining communication.

But are they?
How is the way our students communicate with their friends similar -or not- to the way we connected with our friends when we were a teenager?

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Attending a small local and quite rural elementary school, friends lived in the neighborhood, and we were mainly seeing each other outside school hours during the nice season, for bike rides and unplanned playdates. At 12 years old, and the start of middle school, socializing started on the way to school, during the 20 minutes tram rides. It sometimes continued in the classroom (ah these handwritten notes that circulated from desk to desk… oops!), with a different group than the morning one, and during lunchtime. There were the people you knew a little, and occasionally talked to, always at school; the smaller circle of good friends, that you would meet on occasional dates, activities or parties, and of course, THE best friend, the one you wanted to spend as much time possible with, including weekends and holidays, the one you would talk to for over an hour on the phone, after school, to your parent’s bewilderment.

One hour was already a lot at the time: first of all, the FAMILY phone was ATTACHED to a wire and usually placed in the living room, at the eavesdrop of the entire family. No privacy there. Secondly, it was quite expansive and parents would remind you to keep it short.
Recently we were explaining this reality to our 19-years old son, and his girlfriend. I am not sure they understood our reality regarding telecommunication in the ’80s. How giving your parents’ phone number to a friend -or possible boy/girl-friend wasn’t anecdotal. How missing the train back home was a disaster when your father expected you back home on time (remember! No cellphone to contact him).

After reading Choi’s article, I got curious and wondered what was the reality of students closer to me: how do they connect with their friends, why those communication methods are so important to them, what are the challenges they face and how do they deal with them?
The lasting school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t allow me to have informal conversations with students on the topic. Therefore I decided to create a Google Form that students could fill in anonymously after I explained the questions and my motivation to find out how they communicate via social media, and what is their main purpose: Social Media and Young People

This school year I have been co-teacher to a Personal Learning group of grade 7 students: we used to meet 4 times a week for half an hour; in Distance Learning, we met every day for 15 minutes on Zoom with short check-in on Wellness Wednesdays: here was my first obvious “study” group, and I enjoyed writing the subject line of the email I sent them: “Helping Mme Toilier with her homework!” They liked it too, as 90% of them replied, and did it seriously despite the anonymity.
My second easy-to-reach target group was current Seniors and recent alumni. In the end, it gave me an interesting gap, allowing comparison between 12/13 years old to 18/20 years old.

For the 12/13 years old group, the top 3 Social Media apps they use most are, in order: YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. Other ones mentioned: Whatsapp, Google Hangout, LINE, and Discord that I had never heard of.
Note: two students answered not being on social media, only listing YouTube (sic) and (video)calls via Zoom or Google Hangout.
Most of them don’t communicate with parents via apps, and if some did before the lockdown, it was a quick check-in via a text message (the “pick-me-up at 6 pm” type).
For the 18/20 years old group, the top 3 for “most used” is actually a top 2: Instagram for one third and Facebook / Messenger for two thirds. They mainly stay in contact with friends through Insta and Whatsapp, or Messenger; one feature they like best is to leave vocal messages, rather than actual calls. During the pandemic, though, they had long group chats with friends, sometimes with video on. Their main communication tools with parents are Messenger and phone text messages.
One big difference between the two groups is the age they got their first smartphone: the younger students all have one, some already for 2 years, while the older ones received their first phone around 13-14 years old, with one at 15 and one at 16. This brings us to the first conclusion: teenagers are definitely ‘online” and are active on social media at an earlier age than ever, and don’t have to wait to be home to use it: the tools are at their fingertips, smartphone always on them.
Common grounds were the distinction they all made between “close friends” and “friends”: the level of interactions changed (public only vs. public and private ones): and as a 13 years-old student quoted: “I do more jokes/use irony with my closest friends”.
A few of them, in each age group, recognized at least one problematic relationship through social media. The communication just stopped afterward. It is difficult to know through an online questionnaire if these were big issues and if some encountered bullying distress.

From Pixabay

What is striking are the similarities between the ’80s and today: the urge to communicate and share with peers, the friendship hierarchy, the failure of some relationships… The differences, and yes, they are quite big, lies in the medium these communications take place, the kind of messages teenagers can instantly share through text, emojis, pictures, videos, voice messages…, the selected or large audience they can reach at once, and the extended geographical zone: friends don’t need to be in the same tram or in the same courtyard to exchange.

What is very clear is how social media has become a key form of communication for teenagers nowadays: it is an integral part of their environment, helping them to bond and create friendships. They are familiar and at ease with social media: as educators, we should not only promote and support a culture of participation, we should use it within our classrooms.

This means that we, adults, also need to learn about the social media culture, and that would include finding out what emojis are, and learning how you can express yourself through this internet-based self-recognition phenomenon where pictures and gifs are used to represent feelings, reactions and internal states when you publish online: Are You Literally What You Post? will tell you all about it. Why not include some of them in your lesson plans or communications with your students?

In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, we learn that we should aim to encourage young people to “develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence needed to be full participants in contemporary culture.” Many of our students are already part fo this process, and usually we are not aware of it. We need to be. And we also need to be (or learn to become) participants too. Today and tomorrow’s education need to include Participatory Culture in the Classroom.

“Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement”.
(from “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture)

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