Selfie Expression in the Classroom

By Matthew Farber
This past school year I made a concerted effort to add more student choice to my lessons. I teach middle school social studies, often using projects and games. The goal is to give students a deeper understanding of skills and content. Student choice gives the class a sense of agency to become self-directed learners.
466af024-be0a-4499-a183-50d158ad1daa_MF1Of course, teaching middle school kids means being cognizant of what they will find fun and engaging. I already know that they live in an Instagram and Snapchat culture. They constantly take selfies and place a high value on social sharing. I wondered how I could bring that ethos to the classroom. How can the fun of sharing silly selfies support my social studies curriculum?

Selfie Searching

A simple search in the App Store led me to some possible solutions:

  • One app was MSQRD, which is short for masquerade. Once launched, users can overlay digital images over their faces, from moustaches to animal ears. It’s a “live filter,” so when you speak, the overlay animates in real time. You can even swap your face with your friend’s face and then record and share it.
  • SnapChat has a similar toolset, called Lenses, which includes face swaps, live filters and (of course) social sharing on its message service. While fun, I wasn’t sure about the educational merits of using either in the classroom. But I did see potential.
  • Next I checked out Morfo, which I had heard about it recently on Twitter. You take a selfie with your mobile device and then turn your face into a 3D digital animation.
  • Another option was Miitomo, Nintendo’s first foray into mobile, other than its own #DS systems. Miitomo lets anyone make a Mii, which is an avatar similar to those found in Wii games, on their smartphones. The app finds friends from your contacts, including those on social media. Oddly fun and highly social, it wasn’t easy to customize Miitomo to fit my curricular needs.
  • This spring, Voki launched Voki 2.0. Voki is a talking avatar authoring tool, which enables users to create a digital likeness similar to an onscreen representation in a video game. I had been using it the computer-based version for years. Now there was a free app, Voki for Education, which turned out to be the most appropriate way for me to bring the selfie culture to my classroom.

Because of student privacy concerns—even with cartoon overlays—I could not use MSQRD or SnapChat’s Lenses in a classroom. Voki offers a Classroom feature, which is private and teacher-controlled, and the animations are digital.

The Project

I ran this project using BrainPOP resources. Students watched videos based on Renaissance figures, and then were asked to create that person. Because BrainPOP already had a cartoonish likeness of Renaissance people, students had a general idea about what was being asked of them. For more, check out the free example about Leonardo Da Vinci.
Aside from the visual aspects of the avatars, some students discovered that Vokis could speak in different accents and languages. Without direct instruction from me, I began to hear Michelangelo telling his life story in Italian. Another student found a Shakespearean translator. Type anything in the translator’s box and it was turned into Shakespearean English. Thy text wast then copied into Voki and all the world was truly their stage!
I took a Montessorian approach for this project, which helped message to students that I wanted them to have free self-expression. This teaching strategy pertains to how children learn from playing freely. Through uninterrupted play, children discover.
Regarding educational technology and Montessorian principles, give as little direct instruction as possible on how to use tool. I only gave out login instructions and the assignment task. I literally refused to give directions on how to use Voki, or similar tools. Instead we abided by the “Ask 3 then me” rule. This means that students must help out other peers before approaching me.
Creating a project that affords frivolity and self-expression may lead to too much silliness. Therefore, when a student submits an assignment, comment and offer them a chance to resolve any issue prior to grading. This makes the assessment game-like. With Voki Classroom, I had the ability to approve or disapprove work. Failure was turned into a chance for iteration, letting students know it was safe to retry.
Figuring out how to customize a digital character was completely up to my students. Using tools that enabled students to have self-expression when presenting work gave them a sense of ownership over their learning. Learning occurs from freedom to play, not from the game.
A few days in, I overheard a student saying, “This is probably the easiest social studies project we’ve had all year, and the most fun!”  To that end, for fast finishers, I added a “For Fun” assignment module.
I can’t remember students ever asking for a second worksheet to do just for fun.
For more, see:

Matthew Farber is a middle school teacher in Denville, New Jersey and author of “Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning.” Follow him on Twitter:@MatthewFarber.

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