Digital Curation: An Instagram Story

Using social media platforms in classroom settings to engage students while enhancing digital writing and communication skills.



“Why do I have to read this?” is a question often asked by ninth graders upon receiving yet another classic novel to read. In response, Freshmen English teacher at Dartmouth (MA) High School, Jessica Brittingham, and I designed, piloted, and scaffolded a project that would help them to better understand the “why” for themselves.

As tech enthusiasts, we believe that social media platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat, can be used effectively in classroom settings to engage students while improving their digital writing and communication skills. Online discourse is an essential skill to cultivate in students, given that “as of August 2017, two-thirds (67%) of Americans” reported “they get at least some of their news on social media,” with “two-in-ten” doing so frequently, according to the Pew Research Center. Two months after Pew released that study, The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) released a set of new standards that resonated throughout our profession and further confirmed that digital literacy is no longer a brief in-school assembly—it’s an essential skill—and should be embedded into our curriculum.

As educators, we’re here to ensure our students are able to apply their analysis and critical thinking skills to all areas of their lives and world. Instagram is an excellent platform to practice digital communication and curation on a global scale. While a typical research project may be read and critiqued by teachers, peers, and parents, a series of thoughtfully curated Instagram posts have the potential to be discussed and praised by a much broader audience. With this in mind, I set out to create a socially meaningful assignment that merged research skills and digital discourse with textual connections and current events.

As a way of ensuring an impactful assignment, I presented my idea to Jessica and recruited her to assist me in designing a project using Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as the anchor text. Together, we built A Modern Exploration: Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird—a project that would require students to use Instagram to create photographic journals that incorporated primary source images representing an interpretation of the themes discussed during their class studies of the book. The project lasted approximately three weeks on a block schedule. It was piloted with one inclusion and one honors class and repeated the following semester with an honors class.

Research 101

Students began reading and annotating Lee's novel back in the Fall of 2017. While they were busy with that, I selected my own theme from the novel, dabbled in research, drafted some captions, selected some images, and created a project model on Instagram.

Before we presented our idea to students, we formatively assessed their current knowledge of best research practices via a Google form. I found that many of our freshmen were uncomfortable with database research. To address that, I put together a research-oriented presentation tailored to beginners. Before formal instruction began, they were given a copy of my slides through Google classroom and were asked to take notes as we went over the information. Students then participated in a two-day, half-block "introduction to research" seminar, where we discussed database sources, research terms, the importance of keywords, advanced Google searching, locating copyright friendly images from Google, and database credibility vs. searching on the free web. I built-in three-minute discussion breaks so they could reiterate to one another what was being covered, as well as ask any questions they may have had. At the completion of each lesson, students were given the opportunity to practice what they had learned and explore the new resources presented to them.

The project

Each student was expected to self-select a theme from To Kill a Mockingbird and write about the parallels that exist between Lee’s text and present-day society. To do this, we wanted them to explore and understand current events using a variety of database sources. Students were also expected to locate and properly cite source images that best paired with their thematic connection. Requirements included:

 ● A minimum of five primary source images (10 for Honors)

 ● Each image must include a full paragraph caption that analyzes the connection between the image and a theme in To Kill a Mockingbird

    ○ At least two secondary sources within these captions

    ○ At least one tertiary source within these captions

 ● A minimum of five pieces of textual evidence

 ● A “Works Cited” page (separately attached to Google Classroom assignment)

 ● Two database resources

 ● A theme statement that represents a student’s project

 ● A project Instagram account

The project resulted in a powerful series of Instagram journals that visually and textually discussed how issues, such as systemic racism, racial inequality, civil rights, gender equality, and sexual assault are still prevalent and/or problematic in today’s society.

To examine a completed project example, search @whycantweloveeachotherlol on Instagram.

The bumps

Students enthusiastically embraced the idea of using Instagram; however, we found that many were overly focused on the image aspect of the project. The easy fix was placing more emphasis on writing and thematic connections in the beginning stages, elaborating more on Instagram details once the project had progressed.

While they were treated to introductory research lessons, many students still struggled to locate appropriate sources within our databases. Their habit of phrasing searches in the form of a question is difficult to curb, but it’s not impossible! After noticing this, I revisited the importance of keywords by modeling database searches as related to the theme I had chosen for my project example. I also curated and shared a document with tips and suggested keywords and phrases to better help locate thematically relevant information. One student even designed their own graphic organizer, which their teacher asked the student if she could distribute it as a resource to others. Everyone was learning together; it was awesome.

Near the initial project’s completion, Instagram released their story “highlight” feature, granting students the ability to screenshot their bibliographies and have their sources readily available to visitors who happened upon their page. Imagine a digital world that operated like this—a world where users articulate their ideas using evidence-based research.

Looking back

I wanted a project that would give students a better understanding of best research practices, regardless of what curriculum area it was attached to; a project limited only by imagination (and resources). Thematic photo journals could easily be adapted to another platform, assigned as a group project, or modified to fit different content areas. There’s no right way to do this sort of project. With a little collaboration and a brief review of your district’s social media policy, anything is possible.

We already know that a rapidly increasing number of people are using social media as their go-to news source. Let’s work to evolve a generation of students who apply their analysis and critical thinking skills to all areas of the digital world. We are, in part, responsible for that evolution. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I know I’m not the only one.

Amanda Lawrence is a writer, speaker, advocate, perpetual learner, and Librarian in her third year at Dartmouth (MA) High School. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @LibrarianMsL

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