As finals approached last week, Omaha South High history teacher Chad Wilcox tossed out a freebie to his ninth-grade U.S. History class.
“U.S. History students, here is a question from the final,” he wrote. “What event brought the United States into WWII? The attack on Pearl Harbor.”
It wasn't an announcement made in his class, or a giveaway on a study guide he passed out. Wilcox tweeted the question and answer from @PackerUShistory, the Twitter account he uses to post homework assignments, historical trivia and sneak peeks of quiz questions.
“You can't always guarantee they'll study for that, but if they look on their Twitter, it'll remind them there's a test and hopefully something will click in their head: 'Oh yeah, I should study for that,' ” he said.
Wilcox is part of a growing tide of teachers, principals and other Omaha Public Schools staff turning to Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks after a longtime ban was lifted this school year.
Now, teachers can play YouTube videos in class and interact with parents and students via social media. Individual school Twitter accounts are cropping up, and principals are busy tweeting out photos from band concerts or meeting reminders.
“It's an easy way to get information spread around,” said Omaha North High magnet facilitator John Vinchattle, who manages several North Twitter and Facebook accounts. “It's so useful, it's just crazy not to use it.”
OPS has lagged other districts such as Papillion-La Vista and Council Bluffs, which have been using Facebook and Twitter for years to send out alerts and communicate with parents and staff.
“It's just a matter of catching up now, but better late than never,” Wilcox said.
Several teachers credited new Superintendent Mark Evans for loosening the reins on social media use. Evans, once named one of the top 10 tech-savvy superintendents by eSchool News, tweets almost daily from his @ OmahaSupt handle and records a monthly podcast.
“I think we wanted to use social media in OPS, and the new superintendent has really given us the opportunity,” Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School Principal Rony Ortega said. “It took him coming to the district and saying, 'I'm opening it up, and I'm trusting you with it.' ”
Evans said the district's renewed emphasis on technology use and upgrades — the school board recently approved a contract to update OPS's Internet network — seems to be trickling down to school staff. Some staffers have been asking permission for years to use social media or already had their own nonofficial accounts.
“Role modeling makes a big difference,” he said. “We're trying to role-model how we use tools, and we're moving ahead on that in a good way. Teachers are now using YouTube videos and TED Talks and tools they couldn't use before.”
But with great power comes great responsibility.
The district has social media guidelines meant to limit liability and the kind of social media gaffes that have gotten other teachers and school staff in hot water before. In Ohio, a teacher posted a photo on Facebook of her students with their mouths duct-taped shut, and a Colorado teacher was fired after administrators discovered personal tweets that included photos of scantily clad people and a description of one student as “jail bait.”
Last week, the Kansas State University Board of Regents approved a controversial new policy that allows the school to fire staff for “improper use” of social media after a professor wrote a tweet blaming the National Rifle Association for the deadly Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C.
OPS staffers must use their work email accounts to register for social media sites, and some have been asked to turn over their user names and passwords to the district. The district is also trying to standardize Twitter handles — accounts should start with OPS_ so users know it's a sanctioned school account.
Photos of students are prohibited without parent permission and, unsurprisingly, any racy posts referring to sex, drugs or alcohol are forbidden.
“I use it as a professional tool,” Evans said. “I'm quoting articles and attaching things and articles that tie into the same things we're talking about, about how to use technology effectively, so you don't have people making silly mistakes.”
Vinchattle is one of three social media administrators at North. Administrators are appointed at each school and responsible for the bulk of online posting.
Because OPS is new to the game, the district's social media policy is constantly evolving, he said.
“I'm fairly certain I've created some of the district guidelines by calling and saying, 'What do we do about this?' ” Vinchattle said.
Vinchattle and his fellow administrators juggle several accounts, including a North football Twitter — @OPS_VikingsFB — whose followers count exploded to more than 700 after the team won the state championship. The account was actually started last year by a student who tweeted out game scores, and the school asked him this year if he'd be willing to turn it over to OPS.
Vinchattle, dubbed “The Twitter Guy” by some staff, said he'd like to devote even more time to North's social media, if his workload complied. Still, he tries to tweet several times a day, items that are typically restricted to good-news items such as student awards or pep rally photos.
“We went ahead and put our Twitter handle on marketing materials this year hoping to see some increase in followers, and a lot of our prospective seventh- and eighth-graders are following us,” Vinchattle said. “It can be a recruiting tool to attract kids.”
Sports teams often tweet out game schedules, while high schools, such as Northwest, link to practical articles about filling out college financial aid forms.
At Alice Buffett, “I want to brand our school,” Ortega said. “I want to brand our efforts, increase our exposure to our community, to our fans. We want our community, our followers, to know great things are happening at Buffett.”
Ortega conceded that many of the school's followers are OPS staffers, but he said he's hoping that more parents and community members start checking in.
Evans said the district would use social media to post alerts about weather or school closings, but he doubted using it for more critical alerts, such as school lockdowns.
Others, such as Wilcox, have class-specific accounts spawned by the growing number of students logging on. Once Mom and Dad started signing up for Facebook, it became passé in the eyes of the teen set, and Twitter and Instagram became the new go-to apps, Wilcox said.
“My kids were a little leery at first,” he said. “They don't want their teachers to see what they're doing on Twitter.”
So he tries to model responsible use for them, mixing in lessons about Teddy Roosevelt with real-life reminders to keep your Twitter feed clean.
“My freshman aren't always the smartest about social media usage, so hopefully I'm teaching them that, too, not just history, not just government, but how to use social media responsibly,” he said.