Getting Schooled in Social Media

Tweets, texts, and new apps help link schools with parents and community

In this 2015 photo, Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin, records a podcast with his daughter Alena, then a third-grader.

Cindy Kolpien

The rural district of Fall Creek, Wisconsin, has only 850 students and one school building, but it has 13,400 Twitter followers, and that’s just for the superintendent, Joe Sanfelippo. A constant stream of tweets by teachers, parents, and students reaches thousands more, all united by a hashtag inspired by their diminutive mascot: #gocrickets.

This nonstop digital pep rally is about more than school spirit. Fall Creek and a growing number of schools are tapping tech to upgrade their outreach, hoping to bolster community support and spur parental engagement.  

“Schools need to get better at telling the story of the good things happening in classrooms,” said Steven Anderson, a former teacher and instructional technology director who now consults with districts about venturing into social media. For instance, classroom videos posted on Facebook and Twitter could help convince parents that the school’s recently purchased computers are being used for creative and collaborative projects rather than rote practice and remedial work.

The classroom chronicles can also help parents know when to nudge their kids, according to Colleen Terrill, director of instructional technology for Mashpee, Massachusetts. Since 2015, the district’s teachers have used #mashpee on Twitter to show off student achievement and to post classroom announcements, including homework reminders.

“Parents can follow the Twitter feed, and say, ‘Don’t you have that paper due soon in social studies class?’ ” Terrill said.

Sanfelippo found his district’s social media rallying cry during a school field trip to Fall Creek’s history museum, where vintage banners, pennants, and pins were emblazoned “Go Crickets!”

“We just made it more modern,” said Sanfelippo. He and his staff tack #gocrickets onto photos of kindergarteners counting seeds from a freshly carved pumpkin, podcast interviews with high-achieving students, school sports results, and videos of art classes, science labs, and dance performances—cross-posted on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Most posts collect a handful of likes, shares, and comments, while a few videos have gone viral—such as the Fall Creek tradition of driving tractors to school for homecoming.

“We celebrate everything,” said Sanfelippo, who promotes #gocrickets by giving away T-shirts, windshield scrapers, and other trinkets bearing the hashtag.

“As a parent, if you send a newsletter to my house, I’m not going to see it until the next morning when I’m cleaning out my kid’s backpack in a rush,” he said. “But if I can just check out that hashtag and see the cool stuff my kid is doing during the day, it makes me feel more like I’m part of it.”  

Sharing student learning with frazzled parents was also the motivation behind the social media app Seesaw, launched in 2015. Students use it to create an online, multimedia portfolio of schoolwork that they can share with parents, classmates, and others in the network, who can respond with likes and other feedback, based on access controlled by teachers.

“We have a lot of parents who work two and three jobs, so it’s hard for them to visit our school for open houses, conferences, and things like that,” said Seesaw user Sophia Garcia-Smith, a second-grade teacher in a suburban Chicago school where 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Instead of constantly trying to tell parents in a newsletter about what their students are doing in class,” she said, “they get a front-row seat.”

Parents can sign up to receive email or text-message alerts when their children add something to their Seesaw portfolios. Sometimes, these posts give a heads up to parents that a student may be struggling with some specific lesson, according to Garcia-Smith. Other times, she said, “it’s wow, we had no idea he was capable of this.”

Yessenia Sanchez, whose son is in Garcia-Smith’s class, has had both reactions to his Seesaw portfolio. For example, she recently noticed that he was good with math but had trouble with word problems.

“Once I saw that, I thought, ‘OK, I need to sit down with him and go over the problem so he understands it,’ ” she said.

Within Seesaw, teachers are the feedback gatekeepers. They choose who can see student work and they must approve all written comments.

“We get a lot of smiley faces and thumbs up,” Garcia-Smith admitted. To encourage more thoughtful feedback, she gave her class a “digital citizenship” lesson, encouraging comments that ask a question, give a compliment, or offer a suggestion. This fall, she included those suggestions in a letter sent home to parents.

Stoking a lively social media conversation is no problem for the public schools of Wake County, North Carolina, a district centered on Raleigh. Wake County school officials respond promptly to every student and parent tweet about snow cancellations and delays, early-release days, and other concerns—sometimes with a bit of attitude.

According to Lisa Luten, director of communications for Wake County Public Schools, the rapid response has encouraged students to share their concerns (large and small) with administrators and teachers—from late buses to bullying to worries about the mental health and safety of their classmates.

As for communicating with students and families about things like snow days, Luten said, “A response on social media is available to everybody, so we don’t have to answer a hundred phone calls with the same question.”

Of course, keeping up with social media isn’t easy for parents without broadband internet at home, which includes nearly one-third of households with school-age children and incomes below $50,000, according to the Pew Research Center.

The broadband gap is why Kevin Walker, founder and president of Project Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates parent and community engagement in lower-income school districts, favors outreach through the more-ubiquitous technology of text messaging.

Indeed, recent studies out of Harvard and Stanford show that timely text messages to parents—including homework and exam reminders, school attendance notifications, and suggestions for at-home literacy activities—improved student math and literacy performance.

“Ed-tech innovation can be transformative for some students, but if we keep ignoring the poor, then we end up with two different countries, and one is being left behind,” said Walker.

Anderson advises schools and districts to survey parents about their social media access, habits, and preferences. Then, he suggests they start small. “Maybe you’re already publishing a few stories a week on your school website about a new technology initiative or kids winning awards,” he said. “All we’re going to do is post that link in one more place, like Twitter. I’m looking for quick and easy ways that fit into the workflow, and aren’t a burden to teachers.”

Back in Fall Creek, school-based social media sparks conversation well beyond the digital realm, according to Sanfelippo, prompting more fruitful dinnertime questions than the dead end, “How was school?”

“Now parents can say, ‘I saw that you guys were launching rockets today,’ ” he said. “Tell me about that.”

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.