A Fresh Idea for Teaching Digital Citizenship

Choices Editor Kim Tranell is at the SXSWedu Conference in Austin, Texas, where she’s soaking up everything she can about the most innovative approaches to health education and social-emotional learning. All week, she’ll be sharing tips you can apply to your classroom and curriculum.

In our March issue, we profiled three unbelievable teens who created incredible online communities around their interests. And Tuesday at sxswEDU, I had the pleasure of attending a fantastic presentation on a similar subject: How, exactly, can we use students’ passions to foster deeper learning?

One particular project I fell in love with was shared by presenter Katharine Hale, formerly a 5th grade teacher and now a middle school Instructional Technology Coordinator for Arlington Public Schools. She used blogging as a way to encourage her students to develop a love for writing, and in the process, watched those same students learn life-changing lessons about self-branding, responsible technology use, and self-discovery. Here’s how it worked:

1. The Preparation

Students spent approximately one week thinking about what passion or interest area they wanted to share with others on their blog, then explored whether or not it was sustainable. (In other words: Could they come up with a list of at least five posts they would want to write in relation to that topic?)

2. The Support

Once they chose their subject, Hale helped her students to find “mentors”—that is, sample blogs or bloggers on a similar topic. Students were prompted to observe: How do these bloggers open and close a post? How do they use media and links to supplement their writing? She also coached students by encouraging them to focus on crafting their own unique style and voice, rather than getting too stuck on mechanics.

3. The Interaction

To create an audience, Hale shared the students’ blogs with colleagues and friends. She also encouraged students—in a very structured manner (often around lessons on main idea or theme)—to comment on each other’s posts.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: I’m not a writing teacher. How does this apply to me? But I encourage you to think about how you could use this sort of project, even if you never carry it beyond the planning stage—and especially if you’re struggling (as I’ve learned this week that many teachers and schools are!) to address digital citizenship in the classroom.

Think of it this way:

► Students are automatically creating a positive digital footprint. As Hale tells her students: Everything you post and everything you write is representative of the brand of you. What an incredibly empowering way to flip the typical digital footprint script, right? (That is: Everything you post stays there and follows you.) This approach also gives you the space to help students find confidence in their identity, and in turn helps them understand how to flourish in situations where they need to sell their “brand” (think: college applications, job interviews, etc.!). This is true, even if you’re simply planning the blog in class due to lack of time or technology.

► You’re providing a structured and supervised online community. For teachers with the privilege of time and resources, this is where digital citizenship and responsible technology use go from dry, rules-based teaching to authentic practice-in-action. As students develop content and interact with each other, the teachable moments will present themselves as essential digital citizenship questions—from “what is fair use of media?” to “what is a constructive vs. potentially hurtful comment?” Just think of the discussions that can follow!

Please check out Katherine’s entire blog post on the project here. Even if you can’t implement an equally ambitious undertaking in your own classroom, it’s essential reading for any educator interested in positive prevention and digital citizenship. Her 5th graders learned how to present themselves online, use their voice, and navigate tricky social media situations —all before entering middle school!