Tag Archives: digital citizenship

The Role of Educators in Keeping Digital-Age Kids Safely Connected

Last week, I participated in a Screenagers panel at one of our district’s middle schools. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is an hour-long documentary about the impact of screentime on child and adolescent development: social, behavioral, and cognitive. If I had to sum up the film’s argument in a single sentence, I believe it was telling parents to “beware screentime,” because excessive device use can lead to addictive, antisocial, and academically deleterious outcomes.

The film’s screening for a group of 300 of our parents was well-timed for me, both as an educator and as a new parent. As an educator, I have been thinking a lot about how to embed curriculum that will engage students in critical conversations about their online actions and identities, how they curate and develop those identities, and how they keep their data safe from predators, hackers, and others who might do them harm online — or, frighteningly, in “real life,” as a result of their online actions. As a new parent whose toddler is already intrigued by screens, I wondered how exposure to screens, and especially how my own use (overuse?) of screens might impact my daughter’s development, and I considered ways to set limits on my own device use in order to set a positive example for her.

I could wax poetic on the reflections this has sparked for me as a parent, but for this post, I want to focus mostly on the role of educators when it comes to keeping digital-age kids safe online.

First, I think it’s important to understand that kids like screens because screens provide social connection. As contradictory as this may seem to adults who have watched groups of teens sit in a circle staring at their phones, it rests at the core of why teens and pre-teens love tech. The film, and the panel of teenagers that I had the honor of sitting alongside after the film, made the point that digital devices help them feel connected. To their friends. To the lives and experiences of others. Even to their far-flung families. When today’s 3rd and 4th graders begin asking their parents for phones, it is so they can feel connected.

In this effort to feel connected, kids sign up for Instagram or Snapchat accounts. They follow celebrities on Twitter. They snap selfies and post pictures of themselves all over the Internet. They harass and bully one another. They naturally, and concerningly, use things like “likes” and “follows” as tangible evidence that their social circle of peers approves of them. Natural, because other types of social interaction provide no such concrete data. Concerning, because one’s self-worth should not be measured by a tally of “likes” on Instagram.

Enter every parent’s and educator’s fear about today’s kids and students: they will turn to these ephemeral spaces for validation (or devastation), and because the spaces are in so many ways hidden from our view, we will not be able to step in to protect, intervene, or educate before something terrible happens.

I have firmly believed, since my first day of teaching, that one of the major roles of education in our society is to develop decent citizens. Quality humans. As simply as I can put it: Education Exists to Make Good People. People who can invent, build, create, salvage, save, scrutinize, analyze, and interrogate. People who can collaborate, inspire, and innovate.

And today’s good people have to do all of that in work, academic, and social worlds that are both-and: 

  • Both on a screen and face-to-face.
  • Both global and local.
  • Both digital and analog.
  • Both connected and disconnected.

A parent asked me an excellent question at the end of the film. She apologized for “putting me on the spot” later, but she shouldn’t have, because it’s one of those questions I wish people asked me more often. She asked:

In light of all this research about the negative impact of screens and screentime on kids, why the push in the schools for more access to things like laptops and 1:1 devices?

My inadequate response, since I had very little time to respond:

It’s incredibly difficult to teach students how to make smart decisions with digital devices if they don’t have access to digital devices in school.

The better response I would have provided, given more time: It’s also difficult to teach them how to be safe online, how to protect their data and privacy, if they do not have dedicated time in the curriculum and dedicated teachers who can help them understand things like:

How the Internet works (and what, exactly, the Internet is).

What a digital footprint is, and how to manage yours. This seems like an easy enough thing to teach, but it’s not. Could you explain to a child:

  1. How companies work with the Internet to provide services to consumers, and the data they collect in order to provide those services (have you ever signed up for a Snapchat account? They stop just short of asking for your third cousin’s middle name)?
  2. How “third-party companies” gain access to data you’ve shared with other companies, and how they are able and allowed to use that information about you?
  3. How Amazon knows you’d like to buy a bike?
  4. How Google knows you’re in Massachusetts?
  5. How Twitter knows who you might know and want to follow?
  6. The role of big data in developing and maintaining your digital footprint?

What cloud computing is. Do you know?

What computers and machines can do. What they can’t do. And how humans can use them to do things we can’t do.

When to use a device to talk to someone. When not to. How to use a device to talk to someone. How you talk to someone differently on a device than you do in “real life.” How to be kind to someone when you talk to them with a device. How to use a device to talk to someone in order to get something done (digital collaboration). How to combine devices with analog strategies to get things done. This list only gets longer.

What it is safe and ethical to (not) do on a computer. Again, one of those “easy things to teach,” right? You just make sure kids know the “never” list:

  1. Never give anyone your address
  2. Never give anyone your phone number
  3. Never give anyone your full name
  4. Never agree to meet up with someone
  5. Never talk to strangers
  6. Never open an email from someone you don’t know

…but have you noticed that this list of “nevers” is similar to the nevers we heard as kids in the 80s? #5 basically covers it, right? Wrong. Because in this day and age, “knowing” someone is not cut-and-dry. Running into strangers online is easier than running into them in a crowded shopping mall. And  address, phone number, and name aren’t the only data points someone can use to hack into your accounts or local devices and run amok. Furthermore, this list of nevers doesn’t even touch ethical computing: fair use, copyright, and intellectual property is a different game in the digital age.

Some may argue that parents can have these conversations with their kids, but I think that relying on this serves to widen the digital divide and to perpetuate issues that have risen to the surface in recent years as kids are handed cell phones as early as 3rd grade.

Some parents — the ones who majored in computer science — are tech-savvy enough to have regular conversations about all of these things with their kids. But most are not. This is not a commentary on today’s parents, it’s just the reality of a world in which technology changes faster than we can blink. We grew up playing with Legos and VTech “computers.” Handheld Nintendo Gameboys. Atari. CD players. Dial-up. Our kids’ world is different. Teaching them how to be safe, aware, and strategic in it is difficult.

Most (but again, not all) parents ARE able to set boundaries that the film discussed: have a device curfew. Require access to your child’s accounts. Keep technology in a common space, and require that it be used in common spaces, not in isolated areas like bedrooms. Talk to kids about the concerns you have about their technology use, and about how they think it impacts them socially or academically. Here are a few other ideas. However, implementation of these strategies requires parental presence, which is not always a given depending upon work schedules.

All parents can ask their child’s school what they are doing to educate students about computing, the Internet, keeping information safe online, engaging in ethical online practices, and connecting with others positively, in ways that don’t disconnect them from the “real world.”

Emails… and Digital Discourse Communities

I want to start this post with a not-very-brief anecdote on the shifting discourse of email depending on the social context in which an email is being sent. Trust me, it will make sense in a moment.

When I started my PhD program, I spent the first year convinced that my advisor was angry with me for some inexcusable offense I had unwittingly committed before I ever arrived. This was because her emails never started with a salutation, rarely ended with a signature, and usually consisted of one or two short, not always sugary-sweet, and painfully to-the-point sentences.

Granted, I tend to be a little verbose.

(Okay, fine, a lot verbose.)

But her conciseness was downright off-putting. I didn’t know what to do with it, or what to make of it. And it wasn’t just her — emails from professors, grad students, and staff across the university seemed to reflect this “I’m not in this email to craft a lovely letter to you, I’m here to tell you all how it is and get outta here.”

I didn’t understand this until about three years into my program, when my emails started getting shorter, sweeter (not really) and incredibly to the point. 


Basically, I stopped thinking so damn much about emails: whether to send them, how to start them, whether or not it was a good idea to send them, who to cc on them, who to bcc on them, when to reply all, etc. While I definitely kept such important (and often politically-loaded) factors in the back of my mind, I had become fully enculturated into the email structure of the space I occupied, which generally accepted the “just send it” approach to emails. Who has time to think about it?

A quick caveat to everything I just wrote: let no incoming grad student mistake this as an invitation to haphazardly email whatever pops into their minds straight to their advisor in a short, terse message. What you say in an email matters. How you say it matters. End caveat. 

Then I moved back into K-12, but not into a school or classroom — into a district office. And into an entirely new email culture. Suffice it to say that it’s taking me a while to learn the ropes of email etiquette in my new digs: who to cc, who not to cc, when to cc them, when to use a greeting, what kind of greeting to use, when to use a first name, what kind of email signature is acceptable, when NOT to send an email and let someone else send it instead, when to ignore an email, what kind of subject line grabs attention… really, all the rules are different here, it seems.

If any of my coworkers are reading this, I’m sure I’ve screwed it up on an email you’ve been cc’ed on (or were supposed to be and weren’t…), and I’m sorry. 

Why the lengthy anecdote about email? Because this seemingly minor issue I’ve been struggling with illustrates the extent to which digital writing is so deeply tied to the discourses of the communities we occupy in our day-to-day physical and virtual lives. As I was thinking about an email-incident-gone-awry from earlier this week, I reflected on just how entrenched the writing I do for work every single day is wrapped up in the conversations I have with people in my office, the interactions I have with teachers and students in the schools, the climate of the space and the relationships I have with my colleagues, and the history (or, in my case, lack thereof) of those relationships.

Which got me thinking about our students, and the kinds of interactional spaces they will need to navigate when they leave the classroom. Many teachers — within and beyond my district — are experimenting with new ways to communicate with students, but how many of those new modes of communication are also woven into conversations with students in the classroom? When teachers email students, or have students email them, message them, chat them, text them, tweet them, post a Facebook message on the class page, post a video to the Google Classroom feed… how often do teachers stop to talk to students about the discourse communities they are speaking to and within, the norms and expectations of those complex communities, and how to know what’s “okay” and what might offend or silence someone?

An Example: I thought of a moment from my dissertation study when “Mary” (a pseudonym) took an entire class day to discuss an email that a student had sent “on behalf of the entire class.” This particular moment opened up an opportunity for Mary to discuss digital responsibility with her students, to explain the norms of the classroom discourse community, to explore with her students the consequences of speaking for many in a single email. Such conversations, I find, are highly valued by teachers but are, on a day-to-day basis, somewhat rare in today’s classrooms. Lost in the shuffle of too many things, these conversations are sometimes silenced or shoved aside. However, given my own recent struggles with something as simple as email, I wonder if the role of these critical conversations is becoming an imperative.

As an ELA teacher, this is difficult for me to wrap my head around — I would have been incensed if someone suggested my curriculum should value things like email-writing over essay-writing. But when I think about it, I write thousands of emails in my work as a writer, and I write very few essays. Certainly, the academic environment is not all about preparing students for the workplace — it is also about teaching them to be thoughtful and critical human beings who challenge and question the world around them. Therein lies much of the purpose of argumentative writing (I think) — not to teach students how to write effective paragraphs, but to teach students how to develop and articulate a compelling idea.

However, in an increasingly digital world, developing and articulating a compelling idea sometimes happens in an email. It sometimes happens in a meme. Or even in a Facebook post. Furthermore, the social and rhetorical ramifications of “screwing up” in an email or a Facebook post are more severe than in an essay — such texts are directed specifically at certain people, at defined audiences.

What I’m noting here is nothing new. Teaching Channel has video resources related to talking about email etiquette with young students and an entire video playlist on teaching digital citizenship. If you’re a classroom teacher and you haven’t checked out Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship curriculum, you should! And bloggers on DigitalIs have been sharing their approaches to thinking about and teaching digital citizenship, which includes responsible interactions with others in online spaces, for years now.

My recent struggles with email only highlight that this kind of learning — figuring out how to navigate a digital discourse community and all of the types of writing that occur within it — never ceases. Despite considering myself a good writer, a social scientist, and someone who is (usually) pretty good at interacting with others, I am continually learning and re-learning how best to interact with my colleagues and others in my district over email (and Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and this blog, and the list goes on). As we interact with our colleagues and students, how often do we take a moment to make transparent the expectations and norms of the discourse communities we occupy? Conversely, how often do we take for granted that those norms will be understood or agreed upon by everyone in the community?

Questions I will continue to chew on… but will not put in an email. Because that would be obnoxious. (See? I’m learning!)