During the 2016-17 school year at The Town School, I was tasked with expanding the digital citizenship curriculum for grades 2-4. (What follows most closely resembles what I did with 4th grade classes at Town up through the 2018-19 school year. For 3rd and 2nd graders, I did a more pared-down version.) This same year, some grades in the Lower School re-introduced Ethics classes into their curricula, which helped to anchor these digital citizenship lesson in Town’s mission-based ethical code–“S.O.S.,” which stands for “Self, Others, Surroundings.”
Total instructional time for the lessons (for 4th graders) that follow is about two hours–comprised of two, hour-long class periods. The first class period is dedicated solely to “Self,” while the second is dedicated to “Others” and “Surroundings.”
In the digital citizenship version of S.O.S., considerations of “Self” centered around students preserving their reputations online. We began our discussion of this part by talking briefly about what a “reputation” is, about what “online” really means, and about the what similarities and differences between a “regular reputation” and an “online reputation” might be.
Next I informed students that, technically speaking, most of what we’d be talking about on this topic doesn’t, shouldn’t, even really apply to them. Firstly, their school’s policy was that students were not permitted to use personal devices (smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, etc.) in the school building, nor were they permitted to access social media sites and apps on school devices. Secondly, I pointed out (by way of an as-brief-as-possible look at Terms of Service/Use language in a handful of social media apps and websites) that none of the major social media apps that most students have heard of (such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc.) are meant to be used by anyone under 13 years of age–or, at the very least, not without a parent’s permission and supervision.
In the wake of this information, which struck most students as a minor revelation (and major disappointment), I avoided chiding or embarrassing kids who, earlier in that or some other class period, may have admitted to (or even bragged about) using social media outside of school. The decision whether or not to have social media be a part of their lives, I explained, is ultimately up to their families. Their school is not looking to police their lives outside of school; but, I told the students, the school’s faculty and administration have realized that social media can have such a major impact on students’ lives outside of school that it’s effects are often felt in school–and is therefore a subject that we needed to talk and be informed about.
I pointed to SnapChat as an example of both the incredible scale that social media operates on and the major vulnerabilities present in all social media. That is, we looked at how aspects of our–digital–lives that we may think of as private and temporary can very easily become public and permanent.
Following this example, I told students that they did have some protections online–namely, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). We didn’t get too deep into the specifics of this legislation, but I tried to illustrate some of the issues involved by showing students Common Sense Media’s “Follow the Digital Trail” video, which I’ve found to be extremely efficient and effective in conveying ideas about privacy, caution, and agency.
The opening slide for the “Others” part of the lesson is subtitled “Cyberbullies, Haters, and Trolls–Oh my!” As these terms were often unfamiliar to most students in the class (but not all of them, for better or worse), first we worked on a definition of the term “cyberbully.” Then we talked about the basic perceived difference between “hater” and a “troll.”
These definitions lead us to the discussion of “Surroundings.”
I began this part of the lesson with a discussion about what it might mean to be responsible in one’s online “surroundings.” We couldn’t recycle paper online or be sure to push in our chairs in a video game (well, not really), I offered, but we spend so much time in “cyberspace,” “with” other people, that it made perfect sense to extend S.O.S. into this realm.
I tried to convey the real importance of being a good digital citizen by pointing to the cover article–by Joel Stein–from the August 18, 2016, issue TIME magazine:
Stein’s article makes a compelling case for the very great stakes involved in leaving this “culture of hate” unchallenged. I’ve felt this position could be summed up (or, at least, have its foundation built) for my students with the following quote from Stein:
Following this weighty point, I took the students back a step to talk about what a “forum” is–both in its original form and in relation to cyberspace, mentioning along the way (with help from Stein’s article) the near-utopian idealism that early internet architects carried with them into cyberspace.
What I suggested, then, is that, if we agree with Stein, the cyberspace equivalent of this–
could turn into something like this–
Speaking of vandals, and looking to tie some of these issues to students’ everyday lives (or, at the very least, to 4th graders’ everyday academic lives), we then had a quick discussion about what the impact of bad digital citizenship might be on, say, a student trying to do a research project for a class, only to find that someone’s been messing with a source that student relies on to learn about something.
To counter some of the potentially daunting and even unsettling notes these considerations of digital citizenship might sound for students, I would end these discussions on notes that were both empowering and hopeful, as well. I found that Common Sense Media’s “Pause and Think Online” video is extremely effective in this regard. I’ve yet to show it to a class that hasn’t been clapping and singing by the end of the song, or that hasn’t asked to watch the video again as soon as it’s finished.
Over the past couple of years, it’s been been both fascinating (given the rapidly changing pace of the nature of digital citizenship in recent years) and highly valuable (in order to keep my own understanding of these issues relevant) to hear from my colleagues who’ve taught my former students, in order to learn what’s stuck with students and what hasn’t from these lessons, from these discussions. I see it as incredibly vital that considerations of digital citizenship become truly integrated throughout a great variety of classroom spaces in schools, and that this integration is both flexible and responsive, given that we, as teachers, will continue to encounter digital citizenship challenges none of us has even thought of yet.