New teacher’s guide uses social media to teach about First Amendment

Livestream of #FreeToTweet entries at the Newseum 

Researchers say schools do an “adequate” job of teaching the First Amendment in a historical context, but they fail in giving students practical ways to learn about freedom of speech and the press.

So Thursday, Knight Foundation and The First Amendment Center offered a new way to update lessons – by launching a teacher’s guide for using social media to teach about the Bill of Rights, whose 220th birthday was celebrated at The Newseum in Washington, D.C. The guide, “The First Amendment in the Digital Age,” includes web sites and tools for teachers, in additions to lesson plans. Students, for example, can explore modern communication and activism by playing the roles of the characters in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, and express their thoughts via social media. Another idea is using social media to make sense of the news. The guide, written by Melissa Wantz, was inspired by a survey that examined what students know about the five freedoms outlined in the amendment and how they apply them to their lives. The promising finding: as social media use have grown, so has appreciation for the First Amendment. “There is a connection between the media students use and the resulting attitudes they have about the First Amendment,” said Ken Dautrich, a University of Connecticut professor who oversaw and authored the 2011 survey and discussed his findings on a panel at the Newseum. A series of Knight surveys shows attitudes have changed over time. In 2006, the year before Twitter was born, 45 percent of students polled said the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. By this spring’s survey, that number had dropped to 24 percent. Still, educators aren’t doing enough to encourage an understanding of how social media and the First Amendment are linked, said Dautrich and Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University.  (Watch Goodman explain in a short video interview.)

They found students are learning web publishing and social media tools on their own, and not with the help of teachers. “There’s huge digital divide between teachers and students, and then between teachers and administrators,” said Dautrich. He says it limits the possibility of curriculum changes that could allow for practical ways for students to learn about freedom of the speech and of the press. “There are not many online scholastic media opportunities available because teachers are way behind the students.” Panelist Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president for Journalism and Media Innovation, suggested an additional tactic: a reverse mentorship program to help bridge the gap. He said law firms have had success with such models, in which young associates schooled senior partners on faster ways to do research online. So one way to approach the skills divide is to have students educate teachers in social media to get to common ground. The thornier challenge is likely  institutional. The democratization of publishing is clashing against school district cultures that seek to tamp down dissent. Goodman says the number of student journalists filing complaints to the Student Press Law Center because of censorship problems is skyrocketing. “If anything, it’s gotten more repressive in schools,” said Goodman, who gave schools a “D” when it comes to teaching free expression. “Schools are more terrified of students expressing views that don’t agree with the official school position.” The danger? Students may be getting the short shrift when it comes to practical lessons about the First Amendment. “We’re teaching that censorship is simply appropriate and [lessons about it are] not necessary to teach fair and responsible journalism,” said Goodman.  “Censorship teaches them that someone else has the ability to overrule what they think is right.”

Elise Hu covered the event as a freelance blogger for KnightBlog. She is the digital editor of StateImpact at NPR.