Using Ethnographies in the Classroom

Ethnographies at Work

As a teacher, it can be a struggle to engage our students who are digital natives in non-digital ways. So why not take the learning to them? This lesson plan is designed to be used in an English classroom. However, it can easily be adapted to social studies and other disciplines. For example, much of the presentation of data here is through words, but students could gather numerical data. Then organize this graphically to show their results. This lesson uses ethnography to help students explore a web community that they use frequently, and then think specifically about the goals, beliefs, structure, and practices that help this website function. This lesson is intended for high school students, but can be made simpler or more complex depending upon the needs of your students.

What are digital natives and why should we care?

This is a kind of buzz word in the education community lately, and certainly our students have grown-up in a different environment than us. For many of them, technology is a given. Many complain about children getting cell phones earlier in life or how toddlers can navigate an iPad better than most adults, but this should be taken a step further. If this is the language, so to speak, that our students are learning, why not teach our digital natives in their native tongue.


The examples in this lesson plan uses the online community "roleplaying blogs on tumblr", and examines them. For students, this can be a way to think about the online communities that they are members of. It would be useful, especially for younger students, to work on one as a class with a website they are all familiar with such as Facebook.

The 'How-To'

1. Choose a community. This should be fairly specific for each individual. Not just Twitter, but possibly the Twitters of children's television shows

Students should always explain explicitly what they plan to discuss, and it may be helpful to have them write a short paragraph before the whole paper is due about what community they have chosen. This way you can help guide them if they are not quite on track. It could look something like this:

Tumblr is a special little corner of the internet, and it has something for everyone. One of the fairly large and thriving groups are those that roleplay (rp) on the internet. It is important to note that this is not necessarily a sexual thing, though for some that is a major part of it. It is an extension of fanfiction that exist on other parts of the internet. Rps typically take an already existing show, movie, or book series and ask the players to each take a role. Some roleplays are a retelling of things, or exploring the characters in a different setting. Like many other group sites on the internet, tumblr rps require an active moderator (mod) to keep things moving along. It is in the way that different moderators set up the main site that affects who is attracted to the roleplay, but to a greater extent, it is the activeness of the main site in maintaining the rules that keeps players long term.

2. Data Gathering

First, students should explore the community that they are going to be writing about. Have a list of things that you want them to be looking for initially. For example:

  • What is valued in this community?
  • What is their purpose, be as specific as possible?
  • How do users interact on this site?

It is important that students understand that they are encouraged to be an active participant in the community they are writing about, and they can include their specific experiences in the paper. However, they must try to be unbiased. It is also important for students to interview other users of the community, with specific questions in mind. For some, this may be the bulk of data, but be sure to have them explain how and why these interviews matter. Students must provide enough specific examples, either of things they have observed on the site or through interview.

3. Data Analysis

This is the actual paper writing part of the ethnography. Depending upon what you have assigned as the specific paper topic, the format will be different for each classroom. The most important part is that students adequately incorporate their data, and tell you why it matters, as we see in the following:

The other big key term is godmodding. This is separate from the job of the mod. As explained by Ainsley: "I just say that godmodding is when you take control of someone else's characters in conversation and give an example like Kurt saying that Blaine said he hated him when really, the Blaine player hasn't had their character do so. Anything that the player hasn't explicitly stated their character has done". This is important because for the players it is important that they alone have control of their character. In this community, writing and creativity are important means of expression, and it is expected by the participants that everyone respects one another’s creative license. While they have not necessarily created the character, the way they are playing the character is up to them.

It can be useful to remind students in this section that while they might completely understand the site, those reading the paper may not so strive to make everything as explicit as possible.

Looking for More?

Teacher's Website - A Rhetorical Guide offers some helpful hints about how to make your teacher website work for you!

How to: Ethnography and Oh No They Didn't takes on Politics provide some more examples of how and what an ethnography itself is.

Implementing Digital Media in the Classroom shows us another way to engage digital natives using digital genre analysis.

Rhetorical Teaching discusses how to teach rhetoric for digital natives!

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