Saturday, February 1, 2014

From Hashtag to Home: Where Everyone Matters

This week Central Alabama was hit by a debilitating winter storm. Over 11,000 students with their teachers, administrators, and support staff were trapped at schools. Some who do not live in close proximity to school (like myself) were in safe, warm places but home felt a million miles away.... then the community outreach began. When I realized that I wasn't going to make it home, I had countless offers for me to come stay in different homes from colleagues and my students' parents. Throughout the two and a half days that I couldn't get home, I had so many people reach out to me to make sure that I was taken care of. How did this happen? Through digital mediums. The kindness of others reached me through Twitter, Facebook, and email. I felt such an overwhelming sense of gratitude as this community reached out to me, a newcomer.

As I began to reflect upon the strong sense of community, it brought to mind all that I'd read about how this digital age has deteriorated the sense of community. While contemplating this contradiction, I received an alert that I was being mentioned in a Twitter conversation. I hopped onto my HootSuite to discover that three of my stellar colleagues, Jamie Thomas, Laren Hammonds, and Liz Hancock, were discussing ways we could connect our entire community through a digital, community-wide project. Within a matter of a few minutes, we finalized an idea where students would compose six word stories (memoirs) about their snowy adventures away from school. They would take a photo and post them on Instagram and/or Twitter using the hashtag #RQMSJags. Our ever-supportive administrator, Andrew Maxey, joined the conversation. Between the five us, we began reaching out to our other colleagues asking each one to pass the word through any of the outlets they had to contact their students. They used class Twitter accounts, Edmodo, class websites, Remind 101, blogs, and Facebook (just to name a few) to reach out to the community.

While staying put due to the weather, it was riveting to watch photos* coming through the feed and see what the students were engaged in while we were all physically apart from one another. Without the digital medium, none of us would have known that everyone was safe and having fun adventures in the snow.

Laren then pulled the tweets and posts all together in a Storify making one collaborative community story that everyone could enjoy. It validated experiences, hopes, fears, excitement, and victories by telling the story of our entire community by uniting the voices of individuals.

Snow in Alabama is one of those moments that sticks in the minds of kids. By providing them (and teachers, parents) this outlet, they had the opportunity to share a piece of their story, connect with one another, and further strengthen that community bond. It brought all of us closer together...something that would not have happened had we not provided this outlet.

Could this have been done ten years ago? No. It was only because of the digital age that we had the ability to ensure the safety of all of its members while also bringing everyone together in a meaningful way. So while people may argue the detriment that digital tools have upon our communities, I whole-heartedly disagree. Not because I'm hearing about it on Twitter or at a conference, but because I lived it. Personally, I am closer to my colleagues, my students, and their parents because of this experience. Upon returning to school, my learners shared that our snow stories made them feel like they belonged, they mattered, and they each were valued. Isn't that what we want for our students? Isn't that what we want for their parents? Isn't that the kind of community we want for each of us as educators? I don't know how you will answer those questions, but for me, because of this experience, I no longer feel like an outsider looking in. I'm thrilled to be part of such a wonderful community; one that is focused on collaboration with a singular vision towards doing what is best for students.

Thanks to all of you who opened your hearts (and homes) to me this week.

*For students who had Instagram or Twitter private accounts, they emailed their photos, videos, and stories to me to post through our class account.

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