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Engagement, School Community

realfriends: A Student Social Action Project

It began last October when a Grade 12 student asked if I was on Facebook. I replied with my standard, flippant response: “No, I have real friends.” Apparently, that struck a chord. I didn’t hear it at the time but a few days later, I felt the reverberations.

One student, Mitch Redden, came back to me and explained, “I was interested when you said that you have “real friends”. I have more than 500 friends on Facebook, but if I had a problem, I wouldn’t discuss it with any of them…. I am surrounded by people my own age here at school, and yet, it’s hard to meet new people because everyone is in their own social clique.”

“What do you want to do about it?” I asked. And that’s how it all began.

realfriends is a social action project created by Grade 12 students in my English class. We followed the directions of the Imagineaction program offered by the Canadian Teacher’s Federation. One student convinced his class, who in turn involved 240 students at our school as well as an unknown number of people beyond our school who became interested in this social action initiative. The purpose of realfriends was to create a face-to-face social network that would help change the school climate into a more social space. Quickly, the students acknowledged that social action projects have the potential to expand and that realfriends could influence people (or other communities) beyond our school.

Interest in socializing is nothing new for teenagers, but these students articulated a worry that people their age may be losing their social skills due to technologically assisted communication. For my generation, technology is understood to be a tool – something to pick up and hold in your hand when it is useful. I see young people using technology in specific ways: to send text messages, Google, listen to music, or update their social network site. But perhaps my lens is outdated, and technology permeates the classroom in less visible ways. For my students’ generation, technology has become an appendage, an environment, or a way of thinking. It is no longer exclusively exterior to the body, but has invaded mental and social processes. For example, students commonly expressed the concern that text messages and social networking sites may be deteriorating young people’s confidence in social settings. This worry is represented in the students’ motto for realfriends: stop cliquing, start connecting.

For example, students commonly expressed the concern that text messages and social networking sites may be deteriorating young people’s confidence in social settings. This worry is represented in the students’ motto for realfriends: stop cliquing, start connecting.

realfriends started as a series of socializing activities. Students planned four activities (or steps), expecting that the number of participants would double with each step.  It began with 30 students who were identified by staff to represent a broad range of students in our school. At lunch, the English class facilitated the 30 participants in the first activity – blindfolded speed-friending. At the end of the session, people left without knowing who else had participated. They were given a plastic bracelet embossed with “realfriends” and encouraged to look for others in the school with one of the 30 bracelets. When they saw someone wearing a bracelet, they would know that they could safely initiate a conversation. In fact, they may have already spoken with them during the blindfolded speed-friending. Participants were invited to attend the second step and to bring a friend.

The activity in the second step was “speed-gaming”. The 60 participants were randomly organized into small groups based on the colour of their realfriends bracelet. The groups moved to various spaces in the school where my students facilitated “ice-breaker” games so that the participants would get to know each other. The third step, with 120 participants, was designed to bring people together through a common cause. The English class chose to endorse the Children’s Wish Foundation, and they met with the participants at lunch to educate them about this charity. The fourth step, involving roughly 240 participants, was a laughing flashmob  (a planned event that was kept secret until it was performed to an unsuspecting public audience). The flashmob was used to get the attention of the school and to bring awareness to the school community about the Children’s Wish Foundation.

Following these four steps, the English students published a book entitled realfriends: Stop Cliquing, Start Connecting. In this collection of essays, each student responded to a unique inquiry question, such as:

  • What are the dangers for today’s young generation in losing their skills of face-to-face communication due to technology?
  • In what ways does technological dependency limit personal communication skills?
  • How has technology influenced communities?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of technological socialization?
  • What kinds of thinking habits are shaped by using social networking sites?
  • Why should we stop cliquing and start connecting with others?
  • How can we overcome social cliques in high schools?
  • How can teenagers practice more social behaviour?
  • In what ways can social networking change societal behaviour?
  • What is it like to experience realfriends as a facilitator?
  • Will the experience of realfriends encourage people to be less dependent on technology?
  • In what ways has the project of realfriends improved community involvement?

Students used these individual inquiry questions to think about issues that were critical for their current and future lives. In one chapter, entitled “Avatars Not Included”, Adam describes how he sees the current problem of digital communication:

Text messaging, instant messaging, tweeting, BBMs, Facebook, chat rooms, forums, blogs, Myspace, comment box, instant updates, instant feed, online gaming, online dating, Skype, Apple’s “facetime,” cell phones, smart phones, flip phones, touch phones, touch screens. These communication channels have all been given the name revolutionary because they possess the power to connect people – no matter the distance. It is impossible to argue the immense capabilities of these devices and services, but every rose has its thorn and the thorn on the social network’s rose is the size of a large stalactite. With new technology, we are drifting away from one another when we should be closer than ever. The more ways we get to communicate electronically, the more we alienate each other when we’re actually in a face-to-face situation. So, what will the next generation look like if this trend continues?

There is something disquieting about students overtly wanting to talk about how to socialize. Media often taints the reputation of teenage socialization with impressions of strange subcultures, rebellious activity, suspicious behaviour, and secretive peer-communication. In contrast, it has been my experience that young people show willingness, openness, and readiness for teachers to help them develop problem-solving and social skills. Perhaps more than ever before, teachers need to model and facilitate face-to-face communication in classrooms. Perhaps because of a heavy reliance on technology to communicate, teaching how to speak and listen should not be taken lightly in our classrooms.

Perhaps more than ever before, teachers need to model and facilitate face-to-face communication in classrooms.

Throughout this experience, I have witnessed how a student-driven social action project can transform our classroom and our school. More importantly, I have witnessed how realfriends transformed my students. Social action projects can help students’ sense of efficacy and teach them that they can solve problems, contribute to positive change, and respond to societal needs. My students have left me thinking about my own face-to-face network and the value of my real friends. More importantly, they have left me thinking about my role – and teachers’ roles in general – in promoting and participating in social action.

I acknowledge that students have plenty to teach me as well. Why only last week, Mitch was teaching me the word “pwn” when I thought it was a typo in his movie script. (“Pwn”, by the way, is computer-gaming slang – a verb meaning to dominate an opponent.) Students offered ideas about our project that were beyond the realm of my experience or imagination. I was impressed. Sometimes, however, I asked critical questions to challenge their ideas.

For example, I challenged students to think about equity issues during the planning process of realfriends. One activity they considered was a flashmob at the local hockey rink during a Friday night game. This would have allowed realfriends to breach the school walls and infiltrate into the community. I asked, “How much does it cost to attend the game?” and “How will students who do not have access to transportation get to the game?” More than 80 percent of our students are bussed to school; some are on the bus for an hour and half. As they continued to respond to critical questions about their ideas, the students thought through issues of inclusive language, gender-bias in activities, and about the range of skills that their peers would need in order to participate in realfriends.

Facilitation of student-driven social action projects is tricky business. While we negotiate what is realistic or even feasible given limited time and resources, it is important to support students’ enthusiasm for making a difference in their world. Despite such challenges, I encourage teachers to find ways of involving students in social action. I am hopeful that social action projects can transform not only how students engage in schools, but also how they understand their roles as citizens who actively contribute to societal change. By the way, Mitch Redden – the boy whose question first inspired the idea of realfriends ­– received the Nova Scotia Premier’s Power of Positive Change Award in June, 2011 for his part in realfriends. As I write this, I wonder who else will take up the work of these students and continue expanding realfriends.

The story of realfriends can be followed in a two-part documentary, available on the Imagineaction website (www.imagine-action.ca) or at www.stevenvanzoost.com, where you can also read how previous students have been watching realfriends closely – some closing their Facebook accounts, some visiting my current class to make a pitch for realfriends to expand into post-secondary institutions.

EN BREF – Des élèves d’anglais de 12e année à Windsor, en Nouvelle-Écosse, ont créé le projet d’action sociale « realfriends » pour engendrer un réseau social face à face contribuant à faire de l’ambiance scolaire un espace plus social. Le goût de socialiser n’est rien de nouveau pour les adolescents, mais ces élèves s’inquiètent que les gens de leur âge perdent des compétences sociales à cause des communications technologiques. Le mot d’ordre de realfriends manifeste cette préoccupation : arrête de cliquer, commence à connecter. Les médias sociaux salissent souvent la réputation des jeunes par des insinuations de sous-cultures étranges, d’activités rebelles, de comportements suspects et de communications cachottières entre pairs. Pourtant, les jeunes font preuve de volonté, d’ouverture et d’empressement à développer la résolution de problèmes et des compétences sociales. En raison de l’utilisation intensive des technologies pour communiquer, il importe plus que jamais que les enseignants montrent et facilitent la communication face à face en classe.

Meet the Expert

Steven Van Zoost

Dr. Steven Van Zoost

Teacher for the Nova Scotia Virtual School and Avon View High School; part-time faculty at Mount Saint Vincent University

Steven is a recognized educator from Nova Scotia, Canada.  His contributions to education are apparent in classrooms, universities, conferences, documentaries, books, and curricula.  His work is cha...

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