Back in the 2014-15 school year, I was in my final year working at an international school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Vietnam is still my favorite of the countries I’ve lived in, and overall the school was a positive experience for me too despite a few ups and downs during my four years there. If I ever get around to writing my international teacher memoir, most of the best anecdotes will come from that school.
When I think about what kept me at that school beyond my initial two-year contract, I remember a conversation I had in early 2014 with the school’s then-director, who I had a good rapport with. One day, he stopped by my classroom and said, “Hey, we’re thinking about offering some high school English electives next year. What’s a course you’d like to teach?” When I told him I’d like to offer a journalism elective maybe with a focus on digital and social media, he said, “Sounds good. I’ll put it on the schedule.” Personally, I’m willing to overlook a lot at a school for that level of professional trust and autonomy.
So, in August 2014, my journalism elective course ran with a decent enrollment consisting almost entirely of 12th grade students I’d known and in some instances taught for their entire high school careers. They were a group I’d developed a pretty strong bond with, our four-year stints having begun at the same time. More on them later.
I knew from the onset that the course should be project-based and that I wasn’t going to be standing up and lecturing course content to students about the changing state of the media in response to emergent technology. I also didn’t want to run a traditional school newspaper or publication although I still have great memories of writing for my own high school newspaper decades before and even spending my study hall/free blocks senior year lurking around the newsroom like some intrepid beat reporter waiting for the next scoop. I knew that the format of a traditional publication wouldn’t be meaningful to these students or even authentic in a country with one of the least free presses on the planet.
Instead, I thought it would make more sense to allow students to focus on individual media projects–blogging and filmmaking essentially–and to produce their own media content through their own blogs or YouTube channels after spending an appropriate amount of time researching and analyzing the style, structure and conventions of the text type they would later create. To the students, the class probably just felt like hanging around and watching each other’s videos or, at worst, having an informal chat with me about what they were working on, but from my perspective, it was both rigorous and intellectually complex.
To make a long story short, many of my students ended up running YouTube channels full of make-up tutorials, skin care regimen tips or fashion videos. A smaller but not insignificant number have now become successful influencers in Vietnam with tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers, producing videos sometimes with more a million views and branching out into fashion design and endorsement deals and living the jet-set lives of that most contemporary and often bemusing of career paths: that of the social media influencer.
Here in no particular order are a few of the students, now in their mid-20s, who were enrolled in my journalism elective course in 2014-15 and links to some of their work. I’m sure they’re all active on other sites I’ve never visited like TikTok and Snapchat, and probably other sites I’ve never heard of.
Let’s be clear: I’m not taking any credit for these students’ successes and future careers. They put in the time and the effort to get where they are. It’s also completely possible that a few of them already had beauty blogs or vlogs or whatever and smartly decided to use them for the course. It’s very likely they would have ended up exactly where they are now without having taken this elective English course in their senior years. This is not a “look at this awesome thing I did as a teacher” post.
Well, actually, it is that kind of post, but what I did wasn’t creating like some powerful Svengali famous social media influencers in Vietnam, who now post YouTube videos I often watch without understanding a single word. My former students did that all on their own. Instead, what I did was see, years before I’d read books like Off the Clock: Moving Education from Time to Competency or any of the great research journal articles on the subject, that the writing and media content creation and just learning students do outside of school for fun is completely relevant in assessing their mastery of skills and conceptual understanding in courses they take at school.
And I’m pretty proud of that. Even if I remain as baffled by the rise of influencer culture as the next sort-of aloof middle age man with a grudging love-hate relationship with social media and technology. I wonder if anyone will comp me a free dinner or hotel room for this?