PHOENIX — Mecca Patterson-Guridy wants to learn, but for some subjects, she isn’t always comfortable asking her teachers.
So, she has been turning to TikTok.
Online, the 17-year-old high school junior in Philadelphia has found videos on social media platforms about protests over police shootings, civic engagement and Black and Latino history in the U.S. The accounts she checks regularly feature segments including “Fast Black History” and “Black Girl Magic Minute.”
The videos, Mecca said, address “things that get overlooked in the classroom.”
Scrutiny from conservatives around teaching about race, gender and sexuality has made many educators reluctant to discuss issues that touch on cultural divides. To fill in gaps, some students are looking to social media, where online personalities, nonprofit organizations and teachers are experimenting with ways to connect with them outside the confines of school.
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The platform has opened new opportunities for educators looking to expand students’ worldviews.
Isis Spann, for one, said she turned to developing digital content after officials in a South Carolina school system discouraged her from sharing stories about some civil rights movement figures with her kindergarten students during Black History Month. She also recalls being told by the principal’s office to remove earrings that said “Strong Black Queen” because they were deemed inappropriate.
“It didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t help but think that if I weren’t a Black teacher, I would be having a different experience,” she said.
Spann left the classroom and now runs a company, FUNdamentals of Learning, which provides educational materials for use in person and online. She said she is grateful to be able to share her ideas independently from the rules of any school or administrator.
“There is no gatekeeper of sorts for social media content,” she said.
In the “Black Girl Magic Minute” videos, 19-year-old Taylor Cassidy, a host on Sirius XM’s TikTok Radio Channel, highlights the stories of women who have inspired her and shares news about Black culture.
Others who are finding audiences online for their takes on history and current events include Atlanta-based personality Lynae Bogues, who hosts a segment called “Parking Lot Pimpin” on social and political topics in the Black community. Kahlil Greene, who in 2019 became the first Black student body president at Yale University, calls himself the “Gen Z Historian” on social media. He shares stories of Black history and culture.
TikTok has encouraged more educational content on its platform. In May 2020, when most American students were still learning remotely because of COVID-19, the company announced it was investing millions of dollars and teaming with experts, public figures and educational institutions to post more learning material under the hashtag #LearnOnTikTok.
Not everything posted online is educational, to say the least.
A key to help students sort reliable, educational material from everything else — including frivolity, misinformation and conspiracy theories — is teaching them digital literacy, experts say. They need to be able to identify sources and find corroborating information.
Parents and educators should take time to learn more about TikTok in particular to understand the platform and how to reach kids where they are, said Vanessa Dennen, a professor at Florida State University. TikTok alone has about 80 million users in the U.S., and they trend young.
“Look, the thing is kids are on TikTok because the parents and adults aren’t,” Dennen said.
The videos made by good-faith actors that do pique students’ interest can be as educational as anything else they come across in a library or lecture — as long as they have the background knowledge to put them in context, Dennen said.
Meanwhile, new laws passed in more than a dozen states over the last two years have put a chill on classroom discussion of topics that touch on racism and sexism.
The debates have extended to what books kids are reading. The American Library Association, which keeps track of book bans in the U.S., documented 729 challenges targeting 1,597 titles in 2021 across library, school and university materials. That’s the highest recorded number of challenges since tracking began in 2000.
Before high school, Mecca Patterson-Guridy attended Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, which emphasizes pride in students’ African heritage. As a student now at the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts, where she has more white teachers, she said she senses not all are comfortable with questions related to race.
There have been discussions on Black history, she said, but they felt incomplete and based in Black trauma, so she went on social media to find more positive representations.
“A lot of times Black history, Latino history, Asian history, Indigenous history gets overlooked. Let’s talk about women’s rights, sex education and abortion as well,” she said. “I think we should talk more about the things that are directly impacting us.”
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