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Expanded story: Texting for Rapid Youth Support

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Written by Mica Pollock (2009-11 work), Uche Amaechi, Maureen Robichaux, and Ted O'Brien for the texting project, with input from students piloting texting at Full Circle/Next Wave

Click here for the Summary on this project; click here for the Overview and key findings on this project.

Students and teachers analyzing (anonymized) examples of student-teacher texts: Research Day at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, April 2011
Teachers and students analyzing texting again in June 2011

The Details of the Work

The expanded story behind our efforts, our communication and implementation ¡Ahas!, and our turning points!

First Attempts to Explore Tools for Rapid Youth Support

We started working on a tech strategy for rapid youth support in a OneVille-organized afterschool club involving 4th-6th graders at the K-8 Healey School in 2009-10, and then in Somerville’s summer school 2010, with two high school classes of SHS teacher Sabrina Trinca. Our first goal: test a school-based online social network (Elgg software) for on-demand support communications between youth and a “team” of their supporters.

In both cases, we learned that media was inherently attractive to youth but it wasn’t attractive enough to use if it wasn’t social enough yet. Students in the afterschool club wanted to go on Wee World ( to check in generally with all their local and online friends, instead of use our private “OneVille” social network to talk about school or life. So, we realized that students were used to rapid personal support communications, but that it would be difficult to form a new social network for these (what we came to call a “separate place to go” online) without a critical mass of interested members.

(Note: We did note that our afterschool club students were immediately interested in creating “vlogs” (video blog entries), where students spoke into a Flip camera or iPhone video to an intended audience of teachers and administrators about strategies that supported their learning in class. Students immediately grabbed the chance to speak to a camera, even though we didn’t have people lined up to watch! This thread took off later in the ePortfolio project, where Somerville High School teachers and students realized that certain types of questions could also get students “flowing” online in describing their learning preferences and interests. But the rule holds: just because you put media in front of youth doesn’t mean they’re going to use it.)

In summer school 2010, we again tried supporting young people to communicate with each other via a new private social network (again, using Elgg open source software). Where the previous network was created for a loosely connected group of mixed grade, younger students in a new afterschool club, this network was created for two high school summer school classrooms with the explicit purpose of helping the teacher communicate with students daily for six weeks about class and homework.

Still, the “separate place to go” to talk online didn’t work: even though the online homework was required, most students still didn't see enough reason to “go there.” Because the network was computer based, some of the students--who didn’t have computers or internet access--were limited in their ability to connect outside of class time. But beyond this technical obstacle, many of the students also expressed limited interest in interacting with the teacher or peers on class topics via a computer, even when available. There simply weren’t enough compelling online school activities yet to draw them naturally to a separate online site.

(Again, the ePortfolio project may solve this chicken and egg problem by creating more online material of interest and, prompting more online assignments, leading students to go online for school-based work and conversations.)

We decided to spend time that summer (2010) talking to Ms. Trinca’s students about the overall support communications they had normally and how those communications could be improved. We found that:

¡Aha! Students focused on connecting with people that they felt close to, regardless of whether those people were “best” placed to provide them with resources and/or help.

One student looked for help from his teacher from the previous year on history assignments instead of seeking out his current history teacher, simply because he connected with the previous year’s teacher better. Relationship was clearly key to youth support communications.

¡Aha! Besides parents, guardians, peers, and key school personnel, students valued connecting (virtually or not) with “older buddies,” near peer mentor-like figures that would advise them on matters both personal and academic.

¡Aha! Students told us that they used different technologies to interact with different people.

For example, they might talk to their parents over the phone, hang out most with their best friend in person, and text message with individual friends or classmates.

Also, the students said they preferred texting, phone, and talking in person over other methods such as email, IM, and even Facebook--even though many of them had Facebook accounts.

¡Aha! Students told us that even while they didn’t yet text with teachers, texting was generally the best way for anyone, including teachers, to reach them rapidly and a natural way for them to communicate back. The students initially expressed skepticism at interacting with teachers over text, because it was what they typically used with friends. But in the end, they agreed that it was the most reliable way to contact them.

TURNING POINT: So we decided to try assembling texting “teams” around youth one member by one, by starting with student-teacher texting.

A next big ¡Aha! came from a first fumble: at one administrator’s advice, we first asked a “cluster” of teachers at Somerville High if they wanted to work with us to test texting. (Some of these teachers would go on to be key leaders of the ePortfolio project!) The teachers thought about it, but decided they weren't interested. They worried that the use of texting between students and teachers might break a longstanding, and to them, necessary boundary between the formal/academic classroom sphere and each group’s private, informal social lives. The teachers also thought that using texting to remind students of events, help them with homework, and other transactional uses could result in “babying” the students. These were high school students, they argued, and as such should not need or be given such basic assistance. They also worried about supporting poor grammar and inappropriate language in texts.

We then called Mr. Willey, principal at Full Circle/Next Wave, Somerville's alternative middle and high schools. Mr. Willey had already told us months earlier that he had major trouble reaching his youth’s parents and supporters and at times, youth themselves. He agreed immediately that young people seemed more likely to pick up texts than any other form of communication. He invited us to come in and talk to his teachers, and Mica and Uche gave a basic presentation in early fall 2010 where we discussed what students had said about texting as a key channel for youth support. One of the teachers around the table was Ted. “When can we start?” Ted asked. He and Mo, respectively high school and middle school teachers at Full Circle/Next Wave, were excited to try it out, and we began.

TURNING POINT: go with those who are excited. In terms of motivation, it’s crucial to work with people who really want to communicate in a particular way! They are most likely to innovate the new piece of communication infrastructure.

Rather than assemble entire texting “teams” for each student, we decided to start with private, one-to-one student-teacher communication -- with teachers as first members of students' "teams." Uche set Mo and Ted up with Google Voice, which we decided to use because it was a free service that a) gave teachers a new number for privacy, b) captured all texts in teachers' inboxes for review, and c) allowed teachers to text from computers as well as phones without charge (young people would receive texts on their phones and in the end, Mo and Ted still mostly used their phones to send texts).

In January 2011, Mo and Ted and Uche/Mica held an open meeting with all of Mo and Ted's students to see who would be interested. We brainstormed ground rules (e.g., don’t expect a text back before 7 a.m. and after 10 p.m.; no inappropriate language; no sharing of anyone else’s business), gave students the teachers’ new GoogleVoice numbers, invited students to share their numbers with teachers, and invited them all to text whenever they wanted.

Some students already texted teachers at the school (“If I'm having problems at home I text Maureen, or Maryanne or Edith,” one student told us; she did this rather than have her own parents “"know her business."). Some had never texted teachers before and found the idea weird. Texting to them felt like something you did with friends or buddies. But the Google Voice record soon started filling up with texts, with exchanges that were increasingly personalized -- and mutually supportive as well as informational. As students would tell us later in June, there were two kinds of texts sent with teachers that felt OK – businessy ones for school related things you had to get done, and more revealing personal texts sent to people you really trusted.

Over time, our overall ¡Aha! would be about the benefits of texting for student-teacher relationship. But we want to tell you how we got there! Below is a discussion of the “communication ¡Ahas!” we had throughout the pilot, and example texts. We taped a lot of our conversations and so we talk about ourselves in the third person (Ted and Mo, Mica and Uche).

¡Aha! Texting works when you can’t reach young people any other way for time-sensitive information.

In February 2011 as our pilot got rolling, Ted got last minute info in a staff meeting that a ski trip was available to a new student he’d recently met and had been helping with math. The “kid’s voicemail was full.” So, Ted texted the student using Google Voice (below), to tell him to bring needed info and a signed permission slip the next day. The student’s response? “Lots of exclamation points, ‘thank you,’” Ted said; there was now a “high level of communication” with the student. The exchange “allowed us to make a strong connection right when he got to the school.”

Me: Bring in your insurance info tomorrow, the company and your policy number, with 10 bucks, yor going skiing thursday! 3:23 PM
Student: Thank you soo much ted! i will .. ill have it all tomarrow! 4:12 PM
Me: Are you going to school tomorrow? 6:59 PM
Student: Yea .. deffintly 9:36 PM

¡Aha! Texting helps when students don’t have home phones or literally aren’t in school.

One student said that he lacked a home phone, so texting helped: “Sometimes they call your house when there’s no school, but I don’t have a house phone. They might call my mom but she never picks up. If he (Ted) hadn’t texted me (about the snow day), I wouldn’t have woken up for school.”

In another case, a student who had been kicked out of school texted Ted to find out what his situation was, whether he faced expulsion, and when an important meeting was scheduled for:

Student: Ted do u kn how long I am suspened for 9:41 pm
Teacher: [Principal] wanted to have a meeting this week, I will call you tomorrow, sorry so late 10:48 pm
Student: No I kn that I just need to kn wen is the meeting 10:49 pm

And here’s an e.g. of texting by Mo that helped reach a student who was literally absent from school, while checking in on the actions of an often hard-to-reach party, mom:

Teacher: Worried about you!! 8:15 PM
Student: im feeling much better now I will deff see u tmr (: 8:16 PM
Teacher: Good we miss you!! Can mom right a note for the last 2 days 8:17 PM
Student: she called [School admininstrator] today telling him I was out sick not truent 8:18 PM :Me: Good..see you tomorrow..and glad your feeling better!! 8:19 PM
Student: thanks 8:24 PM

¡Aha! Texting can support communication about a wide variety of school issues.

In early March, Uche and Mica got together with Mo and Ted and looked at the GoogleVoice record of all the texts. Our plan: to “pull out examples of texts that you find interesting,” to “label the “type” of communication that occurred,” and to “provide any evidence of any text’s effects on any student’s achievement/motivation/relationship with you.”

We noted first just how many different school-related subjects a teacher and student could text about. So far, Mo had been texting with students for wakeup calls, paperwork reminders, discussions of personal updates, updates on other students that students knew about, health check-ins, and discussions of absence. She bantered a lot with the students, too. We laughed often in the pilot about the number of exclamation points Mo tended to use in her texts!!!!!!!!

Ted had reviewed his own Google Voice record and “broke it up into categories – who talks to who about what.” “(There’s) a cluster about being on time. Another about dropout prevention, kids who haven’t been to school in a long time, what can we do to transition you out of here easier. And, checkins w/ students about miscellaneous—academics, work, home, if they’re heading toward that dropout prevention category . . . Also snow days, field trips, some kids need to bring attire for electives (gym attire, skates, something they may need for the next day). On being on time, staying a full day – if kids walk out I remind them about the day before. . . . And also, jobs. Kids that want jobs.”

Ted was texting with students about absences and lateness; afterschool activity (he coached a boxing club and led a lot of trips); and for personal checkins, which then often considered academic issues. “New electives, new teachers, new schedules – some confirmations on preparations for the next day – are we going skating, to boxing club tomorrow, to bring in the right clothes.” Students were checking in with him via text about academic issues like credits, the semester change, and their discipline records. One student had texted him to ask how he was doing after a fraught interaction, and how his weekend went. A few students had texted him for help in class. In some cases he was strongly pushing young people to attend class or keep up their motivation via text. The other texts Ted had been sending in February were “more like routine -- no school, a snowstorm, ‘you haven’t been in school where are ya’ type stuff. Some kids don’t respond to those at all, some kids do,” he said.

Neither teacher was fielding detailed questions about schoolwork via text. Instead, they were texting more about logistics, reminders, updates, absence explanations, and more -- and in the process, building relationships. As we read all these texts, Ted and Mo expressed surprise and satisfaction with “the language that the kids are using to thank (them)…It’s refreshing to know that they have that capability.” Some students expressed gratitude and other emotions through their texts that Ted and Mo hadn’t experienced with them in the classroom.

¡Aha! Fundamental academic support, personal support, and light banter can occur in the same texting conversation.

Just as in face to face conversation, there’s no either/or.

Here’s an exchange that went from a basic schedule update, to a communication about stickers (Somerville “Villen” gear), to fundamental questions about school deadlines:

Teacher: No school tomorrow 7:09 PM
Student: -_- aww .... Hey do you have any villen stickers by any chance :) jw 7:11 PM
Teacher: Haha, no 7:12 PM
Student: Aww :( .... I wish there was school tommorrow .... Hey do you think the school will extend the add drop day .... Like give us another week for add drop o 7:16 PM
Student: r no...??? Jw 7:16 PM
Teacher: Not sure 7:16 PM
Student: Okaii well I hope you have a nice day or two off :) 7:17 PM
Teacher: Thanks you too 7:19 PM
Student: Ill try -_- ..... :) 7:20 PM

Communications that started about serious school status questions could then turn into banter that was both joking and academically important. The exchanges below happened over several days:

Student: Ted do u kn how long I am suspened for 9:41 PM
Teacher: [Principal] wanted to have a meeting this week, I will call you tomorrow, sorry so late 10:48 PM
Student: No I kn that I just need to kn wen is the meeting 10:49 PM
Student: Thow 10:54 PM
Teacher: [Student,] do you still have the math book I gave you for homework? If you do let me know and [teacher] too 2:38 PM
Student: Ya I do 2:59 PM
Me: Use it! 3:27 PM
Student: Ok. I will 3:31 PM

Another text exchange between Ted and a student mixed banter and serious stuff:

Student: I just left my house right now so I'm going to b late 7:47 AM
Teacher: And I need to know this? 7:48 AM
Teacher: Hurry up! 7:49 AM
Student: Because I don't want you to worry 7:49 AM
Teacher: You miss school regularly silly goose 7:51 AM
Student: I came in all this week and collected points 7:54 AM
Teacher: Get here, we can celebrate 7:55 AM
Student: Hahaha okk I'm on cross street now 7:58 AM
Student: Noo! almost closest ive been! 7:27 AM
Teacher: Good try though, we both have some studying to do over vacation 7:28 AM
Student: thanks and i know my eyes will be glued to that rmv book 7:29 AM

¡Aha! Texting can build a relationship for school even if you are not talking about school.

Several students texted Ted about sports events: he said even one student (above with "silly goose") who had been asked to leave school a few months earlier “texted me after the Lakers beat the Celtics last week, at 10:30 pm”:

Student: Lol wat just happend to ur celtics 10:48 PM
Teacher: Ha 10:57 PM

When a HGSE student asked one of Ted’s students (who had not been responding to Ted’s texts) about whether texting with teachers was useful, the student suggested that he “finds (them) useful, but I just don’t want to text back.” But, he added, he’d like to hear from Ted over the weekend once in a while, even if just to see “how his weekend was going.” The student also wanted to know more about Ted outside of school: for example, “is he working anywhere else, or is he just a teacher?” Talking about this non school-related stuff, the student claimed, would “make their relationship grow even stronger.”

Many students made similar statements in private interviews and group discussions. Obens, another of Ted’s students, summed up the sentiment in our April Research Day: “When you’re texting you feel like you’re closer to the teacher.” Ted agreed with Obens: “(Texting) definitely strengthens our face to face, day to day relationships.”

“Have good conversations,” Yose advised other teachers considering texting with students as we ended our April Research Day. “Like don’t just talk about school. Also talk about how your day’s going, stuff like that. Don’t just keep it about school.”

¡Aha! Texting didn’t supplant face to face conversation. Often, the text was really just a portal to a more informed face to face conversation.

We often think about technology as supplanting face-to-face relationships. But technology can also enable more face to face encounters. For example, Ted texted a student this:

Me: I heard you had a bad afternoon at school. Check in first thing tomorrow 7:03 PM

And this:

Teacher: You need to be in school way more my friend 10:12 AM
Student: Ok ? 10:13 AM
Teacher: Everything ok? 10:14 AM
Teacher: You left early today, then I saw you down the street at dismissal. I'm quite concerned about your behaviors the past month, we should sit down and talk some time this week 9:22 PM

¡Aha! As relationships grow, they are documented in texts!

In our March conversation, we realized that it actually could be very useful to a teacher to have an entire “relationship” with a young person documented via texting.

For example, Ted’s first group text that winter prompted this classic response from a student who at first did not text at all with Ted:

Teacher: A reminder that tonight is Parent-Teacher night at NW/FC. Please notify your loved one at home that teachers are at school to meet them from 6:30-7:45pm. 9:05 AM
Student: O please lol 9:10 AM

Through looking at Ted’s texts in March, Ted and Mo realized that the student had now built a texting and face to face relationship trusting enough that she could reveal serious personal struggles to Ted. In March, this student had texted Ted about a physical argument with someone; via text, Ted “said we could talk later [in person], and we did.” “She never told me that,” said Mo, adding that it showed real growth in the student-teacher relationship -- “That she could share something so big, with you, that she trusts you so much that she could tell you that.”

Teachers could also then share texts to catalyze student support in moments of crisis (in our "groundrules" discussions, we had told students that teachers might share texts with other support staff if student safety or well-being was at issue). In several other cases, Mo had shown texts with a depressed or self-destructive student to the principal, to say “look, I’m really worried.”

As Ted put it, documenting a relationship helped in less crucial cases as well: “When I’m texting a kid I creep back up to the history to see what concerns have come up in the past – that’s helpful for me, just so I can keep it all together, keep track. To remind myself – that I would like to help them more, talk to them more frequently.” Shelia agreed on our April Research Day that texts kept a relationship around with you, for later viewing. “With a phone call, it’s out of your head,” Shelia explained. “With a text message it’s still there when you turn on your phone – it still reminds you. You have to delete it if you don’t want it – it’s there to remind you.”

Since texts were always “there to remind you,” reviewing a relationship could be distressing too, of course. Later in the pilot, Ted would also point out that it sometimes became a burden to look back at exchanges that were emotionally complicated. Sometimes, he said, you just wanted to start clean with a student the next day!

¡Aha! Normalizing texting as something students and teachers can do makes it easier to strike up a supportive relationship with a young person, jumping over barriers of limited time.

Mo and Ted agreed that the OneVille Project’s texting pilot made student-teacher texting seem normal and acceptable and so, allowed for student-teacher relationships to form faster in ways very useful for school. In the past, for example, Ted probably would not have asked a new student for his texting number so quickly. As Mo put it, “in the past I would wait until I developed a relationship w/ the kid and then get his texting number. I would have waited to overhear a conversation about texting, then say, ‘oh, you text? You don’t have my number!’ and then, start texting.” The speed of such relationship-building helped jump over the barriers of crowded days.

Still, Ted added that texting partners had to “try” a little bit to use texting to its full capacity in youth support. “It’s up to both people to enhance the texting relationship. If the student is just responding “ok” or “yes” or “no,” that doesn’t allow the texting relationship to develop and to go towards communications that aren’t just ‘be on time.’”

¡Aha! The style of texts can put students and teachers “on the same level,” even as teachers remain teachers.

Shelia and Mo had that ¡Aha! on Research Day when looking again at Ted’s text “you need to be in school way more my friend.” Teachers texting students were meeting students in a space and medium in which students felt particularly at home. Students noted on Research Day that they felt particularly comfortable with the medium of texting: “Some people might feel more comfortable saying it via texting more than face to face --- because in person you might feel shy, awkward and not know what to say back,” a student said. “I’d rather text my parents than call them,” a student added.

Even as Shelia and Mo agreed that texting definitely put students and teachers more “on the same level,” however, Mo noted in a later conversation that “the relationship” could also then snap back almost like a “rubber band” to teacher-student hierarchy in the classroom; teachers stayed "teachers" even while they communicated with youth in their element. We also noted many times over the year that texting could also handle many “styles” of communication by teachers. Ted noted in March that, “Mo is more of a conversationalist with the way she is texting – mine are more announcement style, school 8 a.m. tomorrow, don’t forget boxing tomorrow, stuff they don’t have to respond to. I do that to protect myself a little bit – I don’t want to burden them or feel like I’m waiting for a response from them.” Mo added, “more an FYI type of thing.” Ted agreed: “if they have a follow up they text me back.” (Still, Ted later received and sent many joking and personalized texts as well, making clear that "style" can change over time.)

Part of meeting students "at their level" for communication was participating in the informality of texting grammar and vocabulary. Ironically, even while some other Somerville teachers wary of texting’s writing style had suggested that the “poor grammar” of texting should make it off-limits to teachers, Ted noted in March that despite texts' typical brevity, texting could immediately allow more “words” to be exchanged between student and teacher, rather than less. “One word answers [in person] with teenagers are more typical,” but via texting, “This is not one word answers. . .it’s better than “huh,” Ted said. As Uche put it, “it takes more effort to text than to talk.” Ted added: “even more than they know they are giving – it might seem mindless, just chatting, and next thing you’re their friend!”

By "friend," Ted meant that youth support was becoming more possible by meeting students in this familiar medium -- making it worth it despite its "youth"fulness. By late spring, when Mica asked Ted what his response would be “to a teacher who might say ‘banter’ or misspellings that happen via text are a problem for education,” Ted had this to say, though not all teachers would agree:

“Lighten up. Anyone who does text is probably aware that the spellings and capitalization and punctuation are going to be all over the place. So we might need to say [against fear of this tech], ‘get used to this -- this is not going anywhere, this is what people are doing.’ It’s almost unhealthy to fear this at this point; this is where we are going. If you want the perfect sentences, do that in an English class, but that’s not what we’re trying to do.”

¡Aha! The many emotions possible via text can give students and teachers a range of ways to share their feelings.

Pointing out uses of humor in the texts on our Harvard research day, FC student Yose made another point about how texting could add to student-teacher relationships: people could communicate even if a student was in a bad mood. A face to face conversation might end with the student “shouting” out of anger, unable to help it; with texting, you could “be mad” and still “send a funny text.” With texting, you could show the recipient the “emotions” you wanted them to see, and not necessarily what you felt.

Another student elaborated from across the room: with texting, you could overcome the “intimidation” of possible “rejection” by the other person, by sending lighthearted texts across the private channel that did not have to be responded to immediately. Emotion was “easier to handle” via texts, another student said.

¡Aha! Concerns about students being “inappropriate” with the channel may be overblown.

On our April 2010 Research Day at Harvard, students were immediately perceptive about another “pattern in the data”: students and teachers were noticeably polite to each other, texting “thanks and you’re welcome” after texts about permission slips, reminders, and personal check-ins on grades or life. “The kids haven’t been crossing boundaries in any way – no one has been inappropriate,” Mo said that day.

Obens explained that for texting to be successful, students had to “keep it private, clean, respectful, stuff like that.” When pushed to define respect, he suggested that students should “give the teacher the same respect you’d give them in school. Don’t think that outside you should act different.”

Ted had commented in our March review of texts on the “language the students are using in thanking us.” Via text, the students were more “receptive to positive talk” than they were in person. In person, he added, students didn’t necessarily “stop and appreciate you in moments” the way they were doing with texting. Students were “taking the time to write back, thanking you for letting them know about something – it strengthens the relationship with us and the school.”

On Research Day, several students pointed out the following texting exchange as interesting and important in its level of student-teacher respect and mutual caring. Starting from a text from student to teacher, the exchange turned into communications about “putting a grade up” in the class:

Student: Hope your alright man.sorry that happened too u 9:43 PM
Teacher: I'm cool, thanks tho, have a good weekend 9:47 PM
Student: Alright man have a good n 11:22 PM
Teacher: Everything ok? 9:30 AM
Student: Ted? 10:39 AM
Teacher: Yup 11:02 AM
Student: Everythings alright I guess im gonna b in tm .. Is there anything I can do to put my grade up for your class 11:05 AM
Teacher: Be on time tomorrow, we'll talk then. 11:06 AM
Student: Alright 11:09 AM

Students also pointed out other examples of “politeness while texting,” like this one:

Teacher: Like I said, you need to get it from him. Be on time for school today 7:00 AM
Teacher: You’re doing great 7:00 AM
Student: I will and u woke me up .thanks 7:01 AM
Teacher: You’re welcome 7:03 AM

Students weren’t angelic with texting, of course: some tried to bend the rules against texting during school. In February, Ted reported that “kids are testing limits w/ texting me while they are standing next to me in school, to get a reaction, not get a reaction – b/c they know they can’t use their phone in school. but they’re not abusing it or anything, they are just testing it.“

In March, Mo noted that one student whose “mouth is a gutter” had “corrected himself” after using the “n word” in a text because “he knows I would say something.” In March, Ted also noted that “A good boundary has unintentionally or intentionally been set by the kids or us – a few texts over the weekend at night but they didn’t start coming in at one in the morning.” Ted and Mo both agreed that kids had done basically nothing inappropriate with the texts -- as our original ground rules had requested.

MOST IMPORTANT ¡AHA! To students, texts demonstrated caring because they demonstrated effort by both students and teachers to respond to the other. And as texting partners actively "cared" about the person on the other end of the line, texts could also make people care more about student success.

If we judged texting by the immediate consequences of a given text, it could sometimes look unsuccessful. Ted said in February that the previous week, a doctor showed up at school for testing one of his students, but “the kid didn’t show up for school that day.” Ted texted the student at 10 (the appointment was scheduled for 9:00-11:00); “he texted me right back w/ what sounded like a confirmation that he was coming but then didn’t come. So that was almost a success story but not.”

Mo noted that some students she texted to wake up still came late. But, the same students were now using text to contact her with serious support needs, even during drug rehab placements. Mo was using her texting to support one young person with depression, so that the student eventually came in to school.

Mo had a major ¡Aha! about texting in March: “Success for a depressed student in a sense is the engagement itself. Even having this exchange.” And as Ted said earlier in the year, “In some ways, it comes down to someone paying attention to them.” As Mo explained of one text she sent to a student in March, “I wanted to make her feel good before she went to bed.” And Mo reported in March that she had this talk with a student the previous day:

"I just wanna make sure you’re ok – when I text you I wanna know you’re ok, safe. We worry about you!” He had responded in a way that confirmed that texting itself could equal engagement: “I know you guys do, I will definitely write you something.”

Over and over in the pilot, we talked about how texts showed not just connection but true caring. Students pointed out a bunch of examples on our April Research Day:

-Mo’s text to a student: “worried about you.” “It shows that she really cares,” Shelia explained.
-“You had a bad day yesterday” was, to students, a particularly caring teacher “check-in.”
-The teacher text “you made 1 day last week”: “I like the encouragement,” one student said.
-Ted's text “you’re a smart kid”: “That’s really nice because some kids might feel doubt and don’t get many compliments from people,” another student said.
-Mo pointed out that one student had asked Ted “how was your weekend.”

Even texts that weren't so explicitly "caring" demonstrated caring, because people were taking the time to communicate about students' well-being. Shelia pointed out that overall, the texts could build relationship and simultaneously, the motivation to try. “You need to know [teachers] care in order to do stuff. Otherwise what’s the point in trying. If a person is ‘I’m here for you’ – you feel someone else cares, I should care too.”

The very act of texting somebody back “shows you appreciate the person and you’re thankful they helped you out,” Shelia said. Mo added: “They appreciate (Ted, our Full Circle teacher) taking time out of his own private life to send these texts.”

When we analyzed this next example in Research Day, the students first noted the easy but respectful banter between student and teacher (“ahhh jesus ted. Fine 8”). Then, the student who had sent the texts pointed out that the fact that he “put in the effort” and the time to text back and forth about attendance rules showed he felt motivated to be there on time. He pointed out his responses, like “fine” and “I’ll make it [to school] by 8:10,” as evidence. “Who would want to text a teacher – there’s a lot you could be doing at that time," he said, adding, "A lot of people won’t do it – that they do it means they really care about what they are doing":

Teacher: School 8:00am manana 7:10 PM
Student: ok boss 9:33 PM
Teacher: 8am! 6:19 PM
Student: Ok lol 6:22 PM
Student: 8:10? 6:22 PM
Teacher: Try for 7:55, and get settled with something to read mi amigo 6:24 PM

Student: That's too early ted. I'm make it before 8:10 6:25 PM

Teacher: Nooooooo, 8! 6:26 PM
Student: Ahhh jesus ted. Fine 8 6:43 PM
Teacher: Arrive late, leave early, booo 3:26 PM
Student: I made it on time 3:34 PM
Teacher: School starts at 8, no later 3:36 PM
Teacher: You can do it! 3:37 PM

The student also added that the texting exchange made him care more about attendance itself: “I sleep a lot – but I made it before 8:10. It did help. I was used to coming in around 8:30,” he said. Obens agreed that texts from Ted had gotten him to school on time.

Wielding her highlighter in again pointing out Ted’s text to another student (“you need to be in school way more my friend”), Shelia explained that “I feel like it’s genuine concern.” “It shows connection,” Obens added. “It also shows courage.” He pointed out that Ted was “taking time to text people about stuff – taking time to get a person to school on time. That shows courage on the part of the teacher. Also on the student, by replying back.” Shelia agreed, adding, “It takes the courage to make that bond – from the teacher -- and also for the student to participate in the bond.”

Ted highlighted this same point: students’ texts to teachers “show a level of investment. Even if (the text is) not school related, the student is checking in, making that contact, when they don’t have to. It’s really important to understand – the value of doing things not only when you have to do things.”

So, texts built up consequences over time; seemingly "small" exchanges over food, stickers, or explicitly school-related issues could be the building blocks of relationship. In the texts below, for example, the youth was still not in school, but a relationship was being built to get him in the next time. Note the three quick appreciative texts back with Mo after a compliment, which many students pointed out on our April 2011 Research Day:

Teacher: Hey is your mom coming in 8:20 AM
Student: Yah bro waiting for her that's y I ain't in school my G G=grandma lmao ur old 8:21 AM
Teacher: Not 8:23 AM
Student: Ii hate the fact u don't apritiate my jokes 8:24 AM
Student: -_- 8:24 AM
Teacher: But I appreciate you:-) 8:26 AM
Student: Ahhh good made my morning 8:31 AM
Student: =) 8:32 AM
Student: Lol jk jk idc 8:32 AM
Teacher: Awwwww 8:33 AM

Similarly, in the texts below it was of course not the actual medical help Ted offered via text that could be supportive to the student, but the caring itself:

Student: Hey I dont think im going to come to school tomorw im wicked sick 7:19 PM
Teacher: Have a glass of o.j. and drink water often. Get some rest, and you'll feel great in the morning, ready for school 7:44 PM
Student: Ive been doing that all day and it hasnt helped one bit 7:58 PM
Teacher: Lets have a good full 1/2 day tomorrow 9:31 PM
Student: Idont know if im goin to school tomorrow 9:46 PM
Teacher: You haven't been putting consecutive full days together, push yourself to improve, you can do it! 9:49 PM

¡Aha! Texting’s time commitment shows caring and builds relationship. But it also -- takes time!

On Research Day in spring 2011, we left sure that texting had “helped” in these teachers’ classrooms but unsure how it might work in “a school of like 600,” as someone put it. Full Circle/Next Wave are particularly “personal” schools, some pointed out: “in other schools it’s less personal, you get five minutes with that teacher,” Shelia said.

We left with a question: does that sort of lack of “personal” time for face to face attention in other schools make something like texting more likely to get traction or not? More likely to help, or less?

As Ted put it in March, “if we had serious students who wanted help academically this could get out of control – multiple texts, multiple students, if students do their homework every night and want a question answered every night – so maybe structuring that with a [texting] office hours idea – [a group chat] a couple days a week.” While computers would be most useful for serious group homework help, he noted, “texting is better b/c they don’t need a computer” and many didn’t have them to use. Students also indicated that they always appreciated the (timeconsuming) strategy of being “nagged” with reminders, via texting or not: “I don’t like getting nagged but it’s what gets me to do stuff,” said a student.

But Ted pointed out that as with any channel, you could just choose how much support you did and didn’t offer as a texting teacher. As Ted put it re. wakeup texts, “I’m going to try not to go as far as the Next Wave (junior high) will go – I’m trying to put more responsibility on the high school student – I’m shying away from the pre-school conversation.”

In June, as paperwork and end-of-school activities took over, texting began to feel a bit “extra” to the teachers. Mo had stopped doing daily wakeup texts with a few students for now: “The last couple months I haven’t texted as much as I did in the first half of the year,” she said. “There’s so much crap you have to do – paperwork for SPED (Special Education); time gets consumed with life,” said Ted, whose wife had just had a baby. “Especially with the baby, I haven’t thought about texting kids that much – but I have texted them more on personal stuff b/c I haven’t been in the classroom so much.” Students had been texting him, though, asking “how’s your daughter . .They texted me when the Bruins won.”

While one-to-one relationship-building definitely took time, check-ins via text could of course also save time, by reaching absent students and by building relationships one could count on later. Some check-ins otherwise simply couldn’t happen in person during packed days. Looking at one of Mo’s texts on Research Day, Yose noted, “She’s making sure the kid doesn’t get in trouble – she asks him to call his mom and stuff. She couldn’t do this face to face b/c he wasn’t in school.” Similarly, Mo pointed out a quick student text requesting useful information: “hey do you think they’re gonna extend the add drop period?” In class, Obens explained, “I don’t feel like bothering (Ted) w/ those types of questions.“

In March, Mo had mentioned that to save time, she really needed a tweaked Google Voice that could help her text her entire class at once (Google Voice typically only allows a text to a group of 5 people). Seth had made that for her and she was planning on using it. Having “started out texting every Thursday for homework,” she had “got away from it b/c was a pain to do 5 and then 5 – to do all at once will make it a whole lot easier.” Ted agreed in June that a texting “blast” to all of his students would save him time. The group began to pilot GroupMe as a teacher-to-many “blast” texting tool in fall 2011 as well as a group texting tool for “teams.” The group ran into a number of issues with the group me implementation. Both students and teachers were confused by the reply-all functionality of GroupMe. They did not immediately understand that any response to a group me message did not go to the sender but to anyone subscribed to the group. This lack of understanding resulted in a few errant texts. Once the misunderstanding was found and addressed, students and teachers were already too hesitant about the tool and the rollout was halted. Teachers and students wanted control over the reply to individual and reply all functionality when sending messages. But even then teachers were nervous that the functionalities would still be mixed up (by students and teachers) resulting in embarrassing or troubling outcomes. In future work we will consider the challenges of providing the necessary functionality and flexibility and how to best educate teachers and students on how to use the services.

¡Aha! Of course, if your support network uses your phone to reach you, you need a phone.

Several times in the pilot, students lost phones, had their phones shut off b/c of not paying bills, or simply ran out of plan minutes. In March, Mo reported a range of student experiences: “Someone who lost their phone, someone who left it in a cousin’s car, someone who got it taken away – some got shut off – [xx] owes $500 on his phone, so he doesn’t have his phone any more. . .and they’re always changing numbers.”

In these cases, it was clear that economics matter in using texting for student support and that texting was hardly a foolproof method of reaching students.

But this is the case regardless of whether people are using phones. And relying on phones may now be more equitable in some ways than relying on people to have the flexibility to meet you for face to face meetings whenever you’re free, or, expecting them to have computers, internet access, and home phone lines.

A student who had 78 texting minutes a month, period, put it this way to Mica in late March 2011:

“I think I have email on my phone but I have to pay for it. I could check email on my mom’s phone, she has a blackberry. If I’m near a computer. . I’ll check my facebook and then my email. [how often do you check your email?] not often. . I could try to check and let you know. . . [right now] I don’t have minutes and so I can’t text. Like when you get a cell phone, it runs off of minutes, [so] you have to pay for the cell phone, internet, and texts. When I have no minutes I have no text messages, no phone calls, nothing. [that’s the situation, til when?] till the 8th or 9th of April. [so If I text you you don’t even get it?] nope. . . . I don’t have a lot so it’s easy to run out – 78 minutes.”

This student later got a Droid that allowed her to do texting, internet, even “edit papers.”

And students also made their own solutions within economic limits. Another student showed us his ingenious phone arrangement: to save on texting and internet charges, he carried an unactivated iphone (purchased from a friend for $120) that he used at school to access the internet over the school’s wifi network. He used smartphone apps for different social networks and also did his texting over the internet, so he was able to approximate having a full-fledged smartphone while saving money. The student also carried a prepaid phone for calls and texts.

¡Aha! Texting can support ongoing career mentoring, too.

A texting relationship also blossomed between some youth and those HGSE grad students who headed to the school multiple times for personal conversations (and, as one high school student put it, to crack a few jokes). In February, we had decided that the HGSE students needed a clearer “role” with the young people even just to check in with them via text on “how is texting going” or “how are you doing.” The FC/NW students also noted that a relationship was needed first before students could feel comfortable texting with new adults. Our decision: HGSE students would return with new roles as college/career readiness mentors on call as well as co-researchers.

One HGSE student then had this exchange with a student at FC/NW:

HGSE: Im happy to help you out. What way do you think I could help you best to be successful?
S: You tell me
HGSE: Well I think your teachers and counselor and fam and friends are a good support team. I could help w advice about graduation and college here and there
S: About geting me in 2 a gud collage for consoler for kids
S: I wonder how u get in 2 harvard
S: I need u 2 tell me where can I go and be a gud consoler wit a gud deagree

This exchange led to more exchanges about the student’s career path, with the HGSE student sharing links to colleges.

Another one of us had this extended conversation with one student, two months after we began: 9:17 p.m.

HGSE: Hey there – a mentor signed up with district but she wants to mentor in journalism carers. Not your thing, correct? Still seeking science and math person from them. And, any questions for me on college/academic stuff? I’m always here to be asked
Student: (immediately!): Do you have any info on culinary arts.
HGSE: I know someone starting a restaurant as a chef. And someone else who made it as a chef in NYC
S: Do you have anything on culinary colleges?
HGSE: I think the chef in NYC went to one. Want me to ask?
S: Yes thanks
HGSE: What’s your email address or how would I put him in touch with you? I have to go through his dad, etc.
S: (shares email address)
HGSE: Ps is it chef role you are interested in or something else?
S: chef. But I’m also interested in everything actually.
HGSE: everything in the world or everything about culinary school?
S: Culinary school. Lol
HGSE: How about the science of food btw? There’s a course at Harvard about that; maybe google it
S: I’ll google it.
HGSE: ((having googled it myself too)): How about this to get started too – Harvard lectures online from chefs on science and food!
S: (10:31): Awesome thanks. I’ll ttyl. Good night
HGSE: ((I have to google “ttyl” and learn it means “talk to you later” (!!!)))

As it turned out, she had no way to open these links without going to school to use the computers, because her phone had no access to the internet and she had no internet-linked computer at home. Still, a conversation began about her career interests that expanded in the months to come -- and she later got a smartphone.

¡Aha! Face to face mentoring meetings can be really hard to schedule, making texting even more sensible.

Having planned originally to test texting “teams” in 2010-11, we promised early on to bring new tutors and mentors on to students’ “teams” if they wanted them. But to match tutors and mentors to students, the district coordinator needed clearance from the principal and then, descriptions of students’ precise interests, which took time -- and it then was very hard for us to schedule the face to face afterschool meetings between the tutors and the students. One tutor, who also worked as a teacher, was only available after 5:00 and on weekends. And the student we were seeking this tutor for pointed out that her own work schedule at Kmart changed suddenly “every week”: she never knew how many hours she’d get and when, and she also sometimes had to work on the weekends. In the end, it took several weeks of coordinating texts, emails, and phone calls to try to get this tutor to meet 3 girls face to face in the school. After we finally set up a meeting between the tutor and the girls after school at a nearby Dunkin Donuts, just one student took the tutor up on the opportunity – after Mica sent multiple text messages urging the student to reschedule a conflict and advised the tutor via text through gridlock traffic. No better evidence that face-to-face mentoring just isn't possible all the time!

Additional Things We Learned in 2011/2012:

Written by Uche Amaechi, Maureen Robichaux, and Ted O'Brien for the texting project, with input from students piloting texting at Full Circle/Next Wave

This year we all wanted to step back and attempt to better understand not just how texting can help strengthen student teacher relationships that support students' academic success, but more generally how youth understood and used mobile communication technologies in their lives beyond the school context. We learned a significant amount about the students' use and understanding of technology beyond school (see below).

Media Use Class

This year's Oneville team composed of two new Harvard graduate students and Uche, the texting pilot coordinator, along with four new teachers and their new students from FC/NW, held a weekly 45 minute Media Use class separately for the middle and high school students during their elective period. The classes consisted of a mixture of question and answer activities, role playing and co-viewing of videos of news reports and other teens discussing their media use. The ultimate goal of the class was to a) better understand the students' thinking about and use of mobile communication technologies and b) to think more deeply with them about the potential and challenges for mobile communication with teachers. Below we list our major ¡Ahas! and considerations on how these might affect any effort to integrate texting into student-teacher communication.

¡Aha! To some middle and high school students, texting with teachers can come to seem normal, but the idea of teachers texting to parents remains “weird.”

The youth often claimed that texting with teachers was at first “a bit weird,” especially at the beginning of the texting conversation. Over time, as described throughout our findings, youth came to feel that teacher-student texting was an important version of youth support. We had always wanted to test one-to-one texting first, to then build out to include other “support team” members in young people’s lives in a group conversation. Parents were one next obvious choice for some youth, but in our media class, students were quite clear that they would find it particularly weird if their teachers texted their parents. Texting was something that kids do, they argued at first. But beyond the "weirdness," students also voiced several practical reasons why they felt teachers should focus on phone calls with their parents (although they expressed personal misgivings about this channel also, indicating that the ultimate issue may have been that for many of these students, parents simply were not optimal “support team” members).

Most of the students felt that their parents were not tech savvy enough to use texting and would not read or engage deeply via texting. They also suggested that parents "wouldn't have enough time to text back." Students argued that voice communication could provide more flexibility for teacher-parent communication. Once the call is started, one student argued, parents and teachers are engaged in the conversation and "parents can just get to the point" faster through voice communication.

We did not work directly with FC/NW parents this year, but we will begin talking to middle/high school parents about their general tech use, as well as how they might envision interacting with teachers and school beyond the typical occasional phone conversations or automated voice mails (and robocalls); we engaged these issues with multilingual parents of elementary school students in the Parent Connector Network effort, and at that level, connecting regularly to parents via any media was a normalized idea. However, it must be noted that there was one minority report at the high school level: one High School student suggested that texting could potentially be preferable to some parents because they would be left with a written record of their conversations with teachers about their children. This last point is identical to a strength identified by teachers.

These questions of "team" support for middle and high school students via text (or other media) remain a next frontier for work.

¡Aha! For youth, texting communications are often preferable to phone calls.

As in our prior year’s work, 2011-12 students argued that they preferred texting to phone calls in certain situations -- here, because they often ran out of things to say when talking on the phone and felt uncomfortable in such situations. Texting removes most of the tension of long silences. Students can easily fill the silences by engaging in other activities on their phones such as playing games, surfing the Internet, etc. Sometimes, they said, they were doing all these things even as they were in the middle of one or several simultaneous texting conversations.

The reduced tension can be extremely useful when asking youth to interact with teachers, they indicated, because students don't feel compelled to continue talking when they have nothing to share. They might also feel freer to share sensitive information when it's on their own terms and timing. So, the (perceived) increased ability to multitask while texting (vs. talking) can contribute to the students' increased sense of joint control over the conversational interaction -- adding to the medium's appeal.

¡Aha! Texting vernacular is constantly evolving -- there is no singular dictionary -- so, teachers need to stay aware of that vernacular.

Students have developed and gained facility with a unique texting vernacular that uses irregular abbreviations, acronyms and punctuation to shorten, augment and enhance communication. (As stated in our findings above, this is the very vernacular that makes some teachers unwilling to use the tool!) Although there seems to be more agreement on vernacular’s meanings between students than between students and teachers, even between students, significant differences in interpretation of the same use of punctuation often arose.

For example, students could not agree on an exact or consistent interpretation of the use of ellipses (. . .) at the end of a sentence. To students, an ellipsis could indicate anticipation of a response from the receiver, a lack of response from a sender, anger or annoyance, or a mix of the above. So, think about potential miscommunications between students and teachers! The teacher in the room during this conversation had only heard of one of these interpretations (that the text ending with “. . .” anticipated a response).

One takeaway for schools and teachers considering texting is that teachers must be educated on the students' vernacular before they engage students. Students and teachers agreed on the importance of this training and even suggested that a vocabulary guide be created and given to adults. Later, however, students nixed the recommendation, suggesting that the texting vernacular changes so quickly that any guide would be obsolete before it leaves the presses. Perhaps this training/discussion should be part of a larger discussion about behavior and language expectations as teachers and students embark on any texting project (see our [ How to Guide at the bottom of Overview and Key Findings page] ).

¡Aha! Middle and High School students may have different phones -- and use phones very differently.

Learn before you institute any blanket policy. We noticed what we believe to be a significant difference in use between our middle school and high school students: middle school students whose first phones tended to have smart phone capabilities used their phones differently than high school students whose first phones tended to be more feature-non smart phones. While we cannot assume that this difference exists in all schools, its presence should give pause to any schools or districts that are trying to implement blanket policies K-12.

Most of the students got their first phone when they were around 13. However, because of the age difference between the middle and high school students, the older students' first phones--which they received about 4 years ago, before smartphones really took off--tended to be feature phones with numeric keypads; the middle school students' first phones tended to be smart phones with QWERTY keyboards and app support. At least in our small group, this difference in first phones appeared to impact how they used their current phones. The middle school students tended to use more apps on their phones (smart phone programs); the high school students tended to focus more on texting, even though some of them had already transitioned to smartphones.

Main ¡Aha!: Schools and teachers should really try to understand how their students use their phones before attempting to roll out a texting program or indeed, any program relying on student phones.

Although most students' first phones will be smartphones going forward, differences between cohorts of students might persist and teachers, students and schools should try to identify these.

¡Aha! Students “trust” the privacy of texting more than other media -- even while texts too are forward-able. So, adults and students texting for youth support need to make very explicit rules for when “sharing” texts with third parties is OK or required.

Far from being unaware of online privacy issues, most of the students considered privacy issues when engaging in computer-mediated interactions. After watching a pair of videos discussing online privacy--particularly around using social networks -- most of the students expressed concern about the importance of online privacy. Many talked about different services they were aware of that could unearth large amounts of seemingly private information about anybody on the Internet. They also discussed -- and mostly, criticized -- services that could be installed on cellphones to automatically forward text messages to parents. We also discussed how images and information sent via text messaging can be, and are often, forwarded without the original sender's consent.

However, despite the range of our discussion, most of the students seemed to view texting as more private than other media, and expressed more concern about privacy on social networks (primarily Facebook). The infinite forward-ability of texting communications didn't seem to bother them. They felt safe because they trusted the closer circle of people they tended to communicate with over text, more than the broader circle they communicated with on social networks -- where they might "have to talk to people they don't want to."

That students “trust” texting more than other media means that adults and youth using the medium in youth support efforts must agree on policy for sharing text-based communications with third parties.

In the ground rules we set with students in both years of the project, we agreed to share texts only if it was necessary to student safety and well-being. We also discussed how because texts are school “records,” parents and administrators can request to review them. Students should be made aware of this and included in debates over all other forms of acceptable “sharing.” See our How To Guide at the bottom of the [Overview and key findings] page.

Click here for the Summary on this project; click here for the Overview and key findings on this project.