I listen to the podcast of WBEZ-NPR’s This American Life every week.  It’s a Sunday ritual that alleviates the tedium of cleaning my apartment.  Back in November, Ira Glass and the team brought us the illuminating episode “Status Update”.  The prologue features two teenage girls explaining to Glass not only why they post so many selfies on social media, but why they “like” and comment on one another’s photos.  If you haven’t listened to the episode, seriously, do it now.

About a third of my Facebook friends are fellow teachers.  Whenever I mention to my students that I saw something on Facebook, they gawk.  How could adults possibly understand how social media works?

Their skepticism is totally justified.  Facebook is so “our” generation, and most of us grown-ups don’t even use all of its features (or use them effectively).  How many of you out there have seen an elderly relative’s post or comment, and thought, “SMH“?

I try to stay on top of the zeitgeist.  I make the 14 year-old students in my advisory show me Vines every morning.  If we don’t know their cultural references–or worse, if we don’t care to learn–we can’t expect to make the meaningful connections that we all want to make with our kids.

That’s why I created this unit based upon the language of social media, and how we use it to construct our identities.  Assessments based upon the use of Facebook and other social media platforms are nothing new, but this one takes it a step further.

Here’s an example of a final product:

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This book group read Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

As you may have noticed, we didn’t focus on academic language in this unit.  In fact, I encouraged them to write the way their characters would in the context of digital media.  This screenshot, which encompasses a mere 10% of this group’s final product, includes such language tools as spontaneous photos, posed and edited photos, public posts, private messages,  #hashtags, extra-long ellipses…and ALL CAPS.

I even let them curse.  They loved it.

These choices weren’t made haphazardly.  Before they began the project I took them through several analysis exercises so that they’d understand how images are constructed for the public.  Feel free to download this activity for your own class: Analyzing Social Media Images.

Here’s a formative assessment I did before students began creating profiles for the characters in their novels:

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I printed out 4 copies of 20 Instagram photos with a variety of subjects.  Each student was given a random assortment of images to sort on the continuum and asked to justify those placements.

My kids had to become more aware of the language choices they make on social media by implementing them in a new way: from a fictional character’s perspective, contrasting the traits they’d want to make public with their honest, private thoughts and feelings.  Along with the profiles they created, they submitted rationales justifying their language choices:

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These groups read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chboskey (above) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (below).

In addition to submitting a rationale, each student reflected on his/her own identity construction:

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Not was the unit absolutely overflowing with opportunities for analysis and creation, it was the most relevant language and literature unit I have ever taught.  Next year, I’m making the switch to Instagram–unless teens have migrated to a new platform by then.