5 Tips for Teaching Digital Citizenship in the Elementary Classroom
While we shouldn't stop teaching children how to say "please" and "thank you," and bullies will still exist in the face-to-face world, it is vital that we treat online safety and digital citizenship with the same amount of seriousness and attention.
- By Mary Beth Hertz
As elementary level teachers, we are charged not just with teaching academics, but with teaching students social skills as well: "Ignore bullies and tell an adult if you feel threatened,'" "Don't talk to strangers," "Treat people the way you want to be treated."
You're probably familiar with phrases similar to these if you teach the younger grades. Young children are still learning the norms of social behavior and how to handle strangers.
But when was the last time you talked to your students about how to use good manners while leaving a comment on a blog post? When was the last time you and your students discussed what to do if someone is harassing them online or wants to meet them in person?
These are the new citizenship skills for our students. While we shouldn't stop teaching children how to say "please" and "thank you," and bullies will still exist in the face-to-face world, it is vital that we treat online safety and digital citizenship with the same amount of seriousness and attention.
Students as young as 6 are joining social networks and conversing with other kids through online gaming and networks built around their favorite TV shows and movies, as well as through products they see on TV.
The growing trend of schools banning and blocking social media sites and mobile devices frightens me. It's the equivalent of telling students, "Sure, go ahead and play outside, but don't talk to anyone and make sure you don't use the monkey bars."
When I was picked on during recess or if I had an altercation with a classmate, I knew that I could go to an adult for help and easily point out who had upset or hurt me. Young people today do not have this luxury. Often, today's bullies are faceless and nameless. Many parents do not even know that their child is being bullied because it doesn't happen at school or at the playground. It happens in the safety of a child's own home.
The implications for this are huge. Here are a few things we can do to help:
1) Include lessons on dealing with cyberbullies in curricula. Do not just focus on face-to-face bullies, and ensure teachers are aware of how social networks and online networks geared toward children work.
2) Spread awareness of the built-in tools that social networks have for dealing with trolls (those who post inflammatory or, at least, off-topic messages in an online community) and flaming (hostile and insulting interaction among internet users). If adults are not equipped with the know-how of blocking, reporting spam, reporting abuse, and not "feeding the trolls," then our children have no one to go to for help. Maybe we used to be able to rely on our own experiences as children when offering up advice, but childhood has changed dramatically, especially over the past 10 years.
3) Help young people become aware of their "digital footprints." Unlike words on the playground, words exchanged in these new virtual spaces are permanent and very hard to take back. Each year I spend at least a month reviewing digital citizenship and internet safety with my classes. We complete a project that will help us remember appropriate practices throughout the year as we use various online tools that incorporate social features. My second-graders wrote stories on the fabulous site, Storybird, last year, and then got a chance to practice proper commenting techniques by leaving comments on each other's stories. I use Schoology with my fifth- through seventh-graders at the start of the year as a walled garden where we learn how to blog, comment, and use discussion forums.
4) Look for teachable moments. At my school last year, there were a few hairy moments and instances of either cyberbullying or "mean girls"-type chatter. These were great teachable moments in digital footprint, handling negativity, and removing our own comments and making virtual amends, all within a closed environment. I consider these experiences like training wheels. Eventually, we don't need them anymore.
Due to lack of access, my students, in particular, do not often have a chance to use these kinds of online social tools, so it is imperative that they learn them at school.
5) Rethink our approach to teaching social skills to our students and we need to educate ourselves so we can better educate and support our students as they navigate the virtual playgrounds of 21st century childhood.