Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Neverending Student

What I'm reading (or trying to) right now!
"Why is it so hard being a guy?"

I don't know, Ms. Gerla. It just IS.

My head is spinning. There is so much I want to learn, or relearn, or refresh in my mind.

Over the last few years, the work we do with kids and parents has taken a much more concrete shape now that this thing called "Digital Citizenship" has rooted itself in our community. But as Sam and I have noted before, the digital part of it is only one element. Technically there is much to learn and understand about the world that is so rapidly changing around us. Ethically, however, this is about the choices we make and the kind of people we want to be, and in that regard, many lessons we hope to impart remain constant. I have found that my own professional and personal experience is just not enough in order for me to really dig deep with kids. I have blind spots, biases of my own, and a perspective of the world that is shaped by my identity, my gender, my race, my family, my politics, my everything. How do I make sure that I expose myself to viewpoints different than my own? How do I prevent my own "filter bubble," a concept I discuss with my students, and really listen to the variety of voices around me? How do I make sure I present not just information that I personally think is important and interesting, but actually represents a variety of perspectives and opens the door to discussion? Professionally, how do I stay current in my field?

Lifelong learning, that's how.

The photo above shows 4 in the stack of 11 books currently on my nightstand or my Kindle. My list:
  1. Rosalind Wiseman, Masterminds & Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World
  2. danah boyd, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
  3. Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do
  4. Emily Bazelon, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy
  5. Jennifer Pozner, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
  6. Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century
  7. Jo Langford, The Sex EDcylopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to Healthy Sexuality, For the Modern, Male Teen
  8. Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D. and Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys
  9. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (book club!)
  10. Chris Colfer, The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell (book 1 in a series my daughter is reading and she wants me to read it too)
  11. Rick Riordan, House of Hades (I'm behind in the Heroes of Olympus series, gotta keep up)
Quite a collection. So far the only one I've completely finished is #1 (don't tell my book club).

Masterminds & Wingmen was the must-read at the top of my list. Why? Let me introduce you to my 9th grade Digital Citizenship class. In the first trimester this year, a brief glance at my class list showed that a group would soon be coming into my room over 80% male. Not a big deal, really, but I knew we had big plans on deck to discuss gender stereotypes in the media, and I wanted to be prepared for what an imbalance of that magnitude would do to the atmosphere of our classroom, and what influence it might have on group discussions. I was very up front with the kids... I'm female. I am one of 5 girls in my family. I am raising two daughters. I have read lots of parenting books, and I've been a teacher for many years, of students in preschool through graduate school. But I have no idea what it's like to raise a boy in my daily life, nor am I a man, nor did I grow up with any brothers in my home.  I felt the need to prepare myself more, be careful with my words, try to create a climate where the girls felt comfortable sharing too, and present the idea of gender stereotypes in a way that didn't perpetuate a "battle of the sexes" where we try to figure out who has it worse in our society. I'm not sure how well I succeeded on this front, but the motivation has stayed with me as the year has progressed, and I have actively looked for resources that I hope will both better educate me AND make me a better educator.

So, book #1: Ms. Wiseman's name might ring a bell as the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, the book upon which the film "Mean Girls" was based. (I added that book to my list for a refresher after finishing this current one.) Boy world isn't my world, so I badly needed this resource (and 7 and 8 on the list above). There are several chapters that I think ALL parents should read, not just parents of boys. If you're taking notes, those are Chapter 5 ("Breaking Down the Wall"), Chapter 8 ("Your Parenting Profile"), and Chapters 14, 17, and 18. Who am I kidding? READ THE WHOLE THING!! Chapters 9 and 10 on social networking and video games are worth it alone.

Wiseman is brilliant, and there are far too many "just perfect" quotes for me to share here. At the heart of every chapter, however, is the foundational family principle that all people deserve to be treated with dignity. If you are the type of person who is never quite sure what to say in certain situations, like when your kid is caught lying, or you find out it's your precious child that is the one being mean to others, there's a script in here for you! If you would like to read an excerpt from the book, she has published the Why Doesn't Batman Ever Smile? chapter in three parts at the Good Men Project (another excellent web source added to my list of daily reads).

I have shared extensively my thoughts on the gender front (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 times) and I have continued to teach these lessons to new students this year. But in the context of a high school class on social media and technology, where the news is filled with stories of all the things teenagers do wrong, I wanted to explore this more deeply. I truly believe that the language of stereotypes and social constructions (and misunderstandings) makes up a vast majority of the bad behavior we see online, and I really wanted to challenge my students to think differently about the messages they are sending and receiving on a regular basis. Pushing boundaries, trying to fit in, attempting to be funny, "getting" the jokes, and figuring out who you are in a group of other people are all part of growing up, whether it happens online or off. Where does the hurtful language come from? Why do we use it?

As I got into several lessons with my 9th graders, and frankly as we followed current events, the issue of language kept coming back, and it became obvious once more that our words really matter. By the end of that first trimester, as the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin story neatly summarized a whole pile of related topics we had been discussing throughout the term (bullying, racism, language, Twitter, social media, gender stereotypes, privacy), I saw my boy-heavy class grappling with these very real issues (well, maybe I was grappling more, to be honest), and I threw my hands up and simply asked, "Why is it so hard being a guy?"

I don't know, Ms. Gerla. It just IS.

(cue my reading of Masterminds & Wingmen)
After twenty years of teaching and working with teens, I realize that we often make the mistake of believing that if a boy doesn’t come to us with problems, then he doesn’t have them. We believe this for various reasons. Boys don’t demand our attention in the same ways that girls do. We don’t give them a language for talking about their worries and experiences like we do with girls. And we really don’t think enough about what our culture—and ourselves by extension—demands and expects of boys and how it frames their emotional lives, decision-making, self-esteem, and social competence. When we do notice boys, it’s usually because they’re somehow failing or they’re acting out in ways that appear thoughtless, reckless, disrespectful, threatening, or frightening. (Wiseman)

Frequently, when schools do workshops or classes on sex ed, puberty, or general social skills, we separate our students by sex. While in many cases that makes for a safer environment in which kids can ask honest questions without fear of embarrassment (which is a good thing), I worry sometimes that it removes boys and girls from the experience of really trying to understand each other (which is a HARD thing). That's why I would recommend ALL parents read books, like Wiseman's, that outwardly appear to be for just one group, but can very powerfully teach us more about ourselves in the process, and help us teach our kids about things they don't necessarily experience all the time. Wouldn't conflicts be easier to resolve if we simply took the time to understand each other better?

My teaching partner, Jane Riches, and I use a couple of sections from the educational DVD version of Miss Representation in our class (the "Media Literacy" and "Behind the Scenes" clips for the high school curriculum). We clearly discuss with our students the perspective that shapes the documentary and ask them to see how it relates to all people, not just women in the media. This trimester, Jane has a class that is the exact opposite of what I experienced in the first round...she has 92% girls. As they watched last week, one girl actually expressed her wish out loud that she would like to see the film with boys in the room so she could see how they react to it and talk about it with them. Brilliant. Our class demographics have purely been a circumstance of scheduling, but they have unwittingly provided us with our own "case studies" in gender dynamics. And the more we explore stereotypes, bias, our assumptions, and the social constructions within which we live and act, the more impressed I am at the honesty and maturity of our kids. We have had students research and write about a whole variety of topics related to Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy. And though I wish my own bias didn't make me react with such astonishment, because I just expect girls to care about some of these issues, I have been deeply impressed with our boys who have chosen to write about rape culture, the impact of ideal beauty standards on men, and the culture of gaming for women.

Though I am an educator, I am also the neverending student. I don't think there will ever be a time when I'm "done" learning. Thankfully, in my job, I have a wide variety of teachers.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Teens and #DigCit - Attempting to 'Go Viral'

modified from Flickr 
It's been a big week for me in the land of Digital second trimester students published their blog posts a few days ago, and the grand experiment to actually "practice what we preach" is underway once again!

Sam and I have now been working on Ethics 4 A Digital World for over three years. Our thinking, teaching, and practice have evolved right along with the digital landscape with which we are trying to keep up. Always on the lookout for ways to really practice with students the critical thinking that being a good digital citizen requires, I jumped at the chance this year to teach a ninth grade seminar on this very topic.  I love everything about this class...except that I only get to see my students for two days a week for 11 weeks. So my teaching partner (another amazing librarian, how did I get so lucky?) and I had to really think and plan for what we could accomplish in the amount of time we have been given, which, in actuality, is a huge gift...many schools do not make time for digital citizenship at all.

I knew that I wanted to give students as much exposure to as many digital tools as was reasonable, and provide for them spaces where they could openly talk about issues, practice their skills, learn some new things, and start (or continue) to build a digital footprint that reflected who they are as thoughtful contributors to our world. I wanted to show them how they could use social media for good things, to make a difference for others.  I also really wanted to squeeze some media literacy into the course, because I am a firm believer that the future media our kids create has the power to change some minds and attitudes, and not just perpetuate the same tired stereotypes we see all the time (which, coincidentally, is the source of so much "bad" behavior online).  So I began by writing my kids a personal statement about my wishes for them, and why I see our class time as valuable and important as they grow up surrounded by media and technology.

More than half of our 11 weeks together is spent researching, writing, and commenting for a class blog. Current events in tech/media-land play a large role in our discussions, so I began curating my Pinterest boards in a different way, creating boards for some of the broader categories we cover. I put everything on the "Hot Topics" board initially, but that quickly grew out of control. By separating them, I could actually assign kids to find an article to share about a particular topic (in short weekly assignments), and let them start with the board as a jumping off point. What has happened is that each student reads and shares one article in greater depth, but he or she has scanned all the other headlines and images in the search for something of interest, so exposure has widened. I like that. When it came time to finally narrow the focus and choose one topic for a blog post, many kids started with the Pinterest boards, and quickly moved on to find other resources from online newspapers, our class Twitter feed, library databases, and sites like

Fast forward through Edmodo, Noodle Tools, Google Docs, and Blogger...skill building happens in these spaces, and I don't mean to diminish the real work, but the fun stuff, and what I most want to share, is still coming! (if you're an educator and want more details, please contact me)

Now that we have finally hit the fantastic orange "Publish" button on our blog posts, magic happens. I am cashing in on 6 years worth of building my digital footprint and personal learning network, sharing our work as far and wide as I possibly can with the tools at my disposal. I am encouraging my students to do the same so they can get as much feedback as possible. And, to be honest, I share the visitor stats with them so we can learn a little something about web traffic and analytics...but they've sort of turned it into a contest to see who can get the most hits. Game on!

Local teens sharing intimate "confessions" on Twitter
Sadly, it's stories like this that give teens a bad reputation.
Sharing our work via social media has led to a new development on the horizon. The very day we published our latest round of blog posts, February 13th, my sister was listening to a local talk radio show discussing a negative story involving teenagers and Twitter and heard the host earnestly lament that parents and schools need to be doing more to educate kids. (AGREED!) She immediately messaged the radio hosts about our blog, and our Ethics 4 A Digital World Facebook feed, and the producer of the show contacted me almost immediately. He invited me and a couple of students to be interviewed on the radio about our class and what we are learning. WOW! Stay tuned for more info on that...

Aside from the thrill of getting everything out there, though, one of my favorite things about this project is the change I see in my kids when they realize that people are actually reading their work and value what they have to say. As one student from first trimester put it in his reflection, "Blogging has been a great learning experience for me. I feel like I'm actually talking to someone, whereas if you're writing an essay it isn't directly at anyone." Some of my students changed their minds a bit after being swayed by earnest commenters, some had to do further research to answer questions, and some found more strength in their own convictions after interacting with others. It was rewarding to witness the process. This time around we have just entered the truly interactive portion of the project, and our blog has become a real space in which we can practice digital citizenship by moderating comments and engaging our readers in civil discourse.

Would you care to join us? Good things can go 'viral' too. :)

9th Grade Digital Citizenship Blog
Class Website (more project details are available here)
@cwadc9 on Twitter
Ms. Gerla on Pinterest

Student Posts from Trimester 2

My Parents Posted WHAT about me!
Is Technology Negatively Affecting Our Health?
M for Misleading
Are Password Restrictions Doing More Harm Than Good?
My Photo, My Choice?
The NSA: National Snooping Agency?
What is Rape Culture?
Video Games and Education, Can They Mix?
Is the Internet Taking Over Your Life?
Reading Between the Lines: Privacy Agreements
Photoshopping: Crossing the Path of Enough?
Male Ideal Corruption by Media?
Safe and Secure Photo Sharing? Not!
Marketing Tactics Are Taken Way Too Far
Social Networking: It's Harming you!
Tracking You Online...What's Going On?
Your Online Privacy is Fading Quickly!
How Should Cyberbullies be held accountable?
Is Gaming a Brain Drain?
Don't Ruin Your Chances of Getting the Job
Cyber-bullies Should Pay
Online Dating Dangerous for Teens?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thank you, Lowell Elementary!

Sam and I had the privilege of presenting to the Lowell Elementary PTA this evening, and some guests from other neighboring schools. We are so appreciative of a receptive audience, great questions, and issues to ponder as we all work to raise our kids in the digital world. The slide presentation is embedded below, and I've added some quick links to other resources shared. Thanks so much for having us!


You've already found our site! You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

Gary Kovacs Ted Talk: "Tracking the Trackers"

Browser add-ons or extensions:
Simple Profanity Filter (for Chrome)
Ghostery (identify and block trackers)
Lightbeam (for Firefox)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Digital Citizenship Resources

CSM + Edutopia =  AWESOME!
We have a lot of resources listed in our sidebar to the right, and we hope you will check them out! Two new additions at which you should definitely take a look...

Common Sense Media has teamed up with Edutopia to curate a Digital Citizenship board on Pinterest.  Yahoo! You now have two educational powerhouses contributing their expertise on these very important topics. And since it's Pinterest, it's presented in a fun, visually engaging way. It's easy to spot good posters, infographics, or images that you can share with kids.

Another new addition to the resource list is A Platform for Good. PFG's About Us page could have been written by us! It's right up our alley:
Our vision for A Platform for Good is to start a dialogue about what it means to participate responsibly in a digital world. While recognizing the potential risks, we will celebrate technology as a vehicle for opportunity and social change. We hope to achieve this goal by providing parents and teachers with the resources to learn about and interact with new technologies, and by giving teens the ability to engage and teach their peers, family members, and educators. Through this approach, we hope to encourage good digital citizenship, responsible online behavior, and the use of technology for positive change and making a difference.
 Explore the site, visit its resource center, and tailor your results for parents, teachers, or teens.
Screen Shot of A Platform for Good
As we all know, the internet can feel like a firehose of information, and we just want someone to help us slow it to a manageable trickle. To that end, we try to share the best resources we can find. Have a suggestion? Leave us a comment!

Monday, September 30, 2013

What the Scrap is Digital Citizenship?

A new school year has begun, and the very best parts of my job are back in the classroom with me on a regular basis. As a technology specialist, I spend my time with kids in grades 3 through 9 teaching technical skills, finding great ways to incorporate technology into curricular projects, and best of all, really getting to spend time talking to kids about what it means to participate in our digital world.

Though it's quite easy nowadays to do a quick Google search and find millions of results for this term to help us grasp the concept, creating authentic experiences for our students (or your kids) to actually practice digital citizenship is essential for true understanding to take place. Horror stories abound depicting all the negative consequences of unchecked social media, including cyberbullying, sexting, hate speech, ruined reputations, poor decision-making and the like. Far too often we read stories of adults who have relinquished their responsibility in this realm by writing technology off as something "they don't get."  Well, Sam and I can tell you that the more we work with kids and digital tools, the more we talk to them about behavior. You don't have to "get it" to talk to your kids about the kind of people they are growing up to be. Behavior isn't really about technology at's about the choices we make. Technology just gives us more opportunities to make choices, and sometimes, unfortunately, those choices have bigger consequences because they create a digital trail.

So how do we talk to kids about this in a way that makes sense to them? I've learned, sometimes the hard way, that talking isn't enough. Kids need PRACTICE. But they also need language that they can understand and remember. With my youngest students, I explain to them that technology vocabulary is like learning a new language. Words that mean something in our daily usage of English have a different meaning when it comes to computers. Take the word "menu," for example. When I ask them to find a particular menu,  I'm not asking them to order me an entrĂ©e, amirite? If we need to find something in the dock, I'm not talking about a place you tie up boats.

Thank you technologyrocksseriously!
Language matters!

Last year, when we solicited advice for youngsters from our 8th graders, many groups responded with something like, "Think before you post online."  GREAT advice, right? But what does that actually mean? Think about what? How do I stop and think about the future impact of my decisions when I'm not developmentally able or ready to do that? Looking for help, I found this great infographic from a generous and sharing educator. Breaking down what it means to "think" into smaller elements, and a series of questions that kids could easily understand and answer, helped them get it. And this year? They've seen the posters and read the words, and when I ask them what Digital Citizenship is, they say, "THINK!"

I love that.

So knowing that this whole acronym thing works pretty well with kids, and that I have a new group of bright young minds to introduce to Digital Citizenship, we went back to the drawing board with our official definition.  I shared this with my 3rd graders:

Being a good "digital citizen" means using technology...
  • safely
  • responsibly
  • critically
  • productively
We will spend a great deal of time picking this apart and really figuring out what each part of the definition means in practice, but first we need to remember the words. So let me share the genius of one particular student in this introductory phase.  Having seen the T.H.I.N.K. poster, she looked at my definition of Digital Citizenship and said, "You know, the letters in that almost spell SCRAP." Indeed they do, so we quickly did a little adjusting:

Being a good "digital citizen" means using technology...
  • Safely
  • Critically
  • Responsibly
  • And
  • Productively
I feel another cool poster coming on...

Of course, I still need to figure out some brilliant metaphor for SCRAP in the digital world. The definition doesn't easily lend itself to my cause.

If you have an idea, please share! But for now, we're going with it. Kids tend to remember safe and responsible pretty easily, but we need to really dig into critical and productive to find all the great ways we can use technology for our own learning and to make the world a better place. If SCRAP helps, so be it. 

That's my little scrap for you.  (I tried...)

Monday, July 22, 2013

This Is Not Trayvon Martin

This is not a picture of Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on February 26th, 2012:
An image of the rapper Game, not Trayvon Martin
Neither is this:
An image reported to be of a different person also named Trayvon Martin,

Both photographs have been used in countless blogs, status updates, chain emails and tweets as evidence that the 17-year old was complicit in his own death and much more sinister and threatening than his portrayal in the "liberal media." The fact that a 17-year old black kid in a hoodie is considered even remotely sinister is clear evidence that we are not in a "post-racial" America, but that's a discussion for another time. I want to talk about the power of images and the responsibility we share in communicating accurate, truthful and ethical information. 

It took me exactly 30 seconds, using an article on, to determine that the images I saw all over Facebook, some blogs and other media sources, were not actually of Trayvon.  Also not true is the assertion that the most frequently used image of Trayvon is five years old. That image was only taken six months before his death, prior to the beginning of the 2011/2012 school year.  

So, what's the big deal?

Images are powerful. They convey intense emotions and some of the most compelling have become symbols of major events in our history. A man standing alone in front of a tank? Tiananmen Square. A young boy standing in front of his family saluting a casket? The funeral of President John F. Kennedy. A woman, dust blown and haggard, sitting with her cowering children? The dust bowl and Great Depression. Images really are worth a thousand words. It's because of their power that their misuse is irresponsible, and when we re-post, share and forward images we haven't taken the time to consider with a critical eye, we are complicit in this irresponsibility.

It's true that posted a correction to the article that first shared false photos of Trayvon Martin, but the damage was already done. Those looking for a reason to fault Trayvon in his own death, or to promote the opinion that George Zimmerman acted in self defense, latched on to the photos as proof that Trayvon was dangerous. They shared them on Facebook and forwarded the images in emails. They 'liked' posts and photoshopped comparisons between Mr. Zimmerman and a supposedly older Mr. Martin. The people that used these inaccurate images of Trayvon Martin as evidence, contributed negatively to an already heated national debate.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but in the world of social media, posting inaccurate, extreme, or unethical images is commonplace. Images are used for bullying (drama, general meanness, etc.); they are used to generate 'likes' (like this is if you care about ______, scroll down if you are a jerk);  they are re-posted without permission, sometimes creating conflict even when the intention is benign  (Hey, look at this picture I posted of your awkward phase in middle school!). You can find an image of almost anything using a Google image search and then that image can be downloaded, shared, modified, re-shared, tweeted, posted, emailed and more. Should you like and re-post an image of a soldier tearfully reuniting with her family?  It depends, and we should take a moment to consider our intent, the impact on others (did the family want the photo shared in the first place?), and whether the image is of what we actually think it is.

There are many ethical issues to consider when it comes to images, and Holly and I have had some lively discussions with our students about some of them. Young people wonder if and when they should be asking permission to post photos of their friends. They think about what an image says about their values and character. While working on documentary-style projects, they've been asked to use a critical eye when deciding whether images should be used purely for shock value - a consideration I wish both our mainstream media and everyday social networking users would devote some time towards.

So, what do we do about it?

Step 1: Use a critical eye, even if it was posted by your very, very best friend/sibling/parent. If it seems shocking or too good to be true, do a little fact-checking before you "like" it. and are helpful, but a simple Google search will usually root out controversy and almost-truths. I'll also add that with the abundance of random pages now on Facebook, if you aren't sure who the original poster was, it's a good idea to do a little investigating before you "like."

Step 2: Use experts to back you up. This is the single most important skill I hope my Middle Schoolers gain during their years of academic research. Experts come in all shapes and sizes. They're newspaper reporters and eye witnesses, they're doctors and lawyers, they're Master Gardeners (shout out to my sister, Amy McIntyre at the Idaho Statesman), they're authors of books and peer-reviewed journals and they're easier to find than you think. Before you voice your opinion, make sure the sources informing you are accurate and you've taken bias into consideration.

Step 3: Talk about it. Your teen "liked" an image on Facebook that makes you uncomfortable? Discuss it. You're about to post photos from your family reunion? Ask your family (and kids) permission before you do and tell them why you're asking. You just listened to pundits talk about photos of Trayvon Martin again? Start a conversation about what images do and don't tell us about people.

Perhaps if enough of us take these steps, we'll slow the spread of misinformation, or at least help build good habits for ourselves and our families so that a critical eye can become the first defense against bias and propaganda.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Gender Issues, part 5 - The Merida Makeover, Ignorance, Trigger Warnings, and pretty much everything in my life (right now)

This will be the final post in the Gender Issues series (see 1, 2, 3, 4 if you need to catch up) for several reasons. One, when I began writing back in February, I chose the most boring title on earth, and when I write about this in the future, I'll come up with something more relevant and snazzy. Two, I am so overwhelmed by my own thoughts and emotions since I opened this Pandora's box of topics that I need to do more reading, thinking, and processing. Friends and family currently ask, "What are you up to?" and I launch into a meandering diatribe of a billion different issues (all having to do with gender roles and stereotypes, mind you) that leave me feeling scattered, like I haven't found my own "personal thesis statement" on all this yet. You may experience this in a minute...sorry. I want some clarity. Third, though there is never really a "break" from reality, I need to step away from some of this for a while and concentrate on other projects. The end of a school year is never a leisurely respite, and my attention is needed elsewhere. However, since I can't stop being a female human, I will continue to read, watch, listen to, and digest the many resources I have found over the last few months. Just with less fervor.

So let me wrap up some loose ends...


the Disneyfication of an anti-Princess
I mentioned in my last post the controversial Merida makeover launched by Disney in the lead up to her coronation into the Disney Princess Hall of Fame. One has only to Google "Merida Makeover" to see the response out there. Most important to me, however, was the reaction of my students, since most of them have seen the movie and many were fans of the character. I began with a brief review of our lesson on altering images and why it's done or for what purpose. When I unveiled the Merida before and after shots, the response was overwhelmingly negative. "WHYYYYYYYYYY DID THEY DO THAT!?" Big ugh.

What was wrong with the original Merida? Why did she have to change to fit into the Disney brand? Upon further reflection, one student actually made the observation that Merida's entire character was changed by this makeover. What she looks like fundamentally changed who she is. I found this to be an interesting point to explore, particularly since Merida was changed into something her character in the movie actively did NOT want to be, which was a princess-y princess.  This led to an interesting back and forth about our appearance and what it says about the kind of person we are. (Dress codes are another hot topic lately, but that's for another post) I pointed out that I changed my clothes and looks to come to school in the morning...I wouldn't show up for work straight out of bed still in my pajamas.  Does that change who I am on the inside? No, they responded.  So why or how is this different? The kids were quick to point out that this characterization of Merida was more than a simple change of clothing and the addition of makeup. The movie Merida hated that dress and getting all "done up" out of obligation to her familial and royal status. This dramatic change stripped that spunky, independent part of her character away and made her into the mold of a proper Disney princess.

Overall, I'd say the big reaction from the kids was disappointment and wonder at why it even happened in the first place. I'm impressed that they have begun to question motives. Though it felt strange to be discussing the digital alteration of a cartoon character, they could see clear parallels between this and the magazine covers of real people we had analyzed in the Picture Perfect lesson. Why does the media insist on presenting these "idealized" images of people? Will the money-making juggernaut that is the Disney Princess collection finally bend to the pressure of activists pushing for change? [To its credit (maybe) Disney has acknowledged the controversy, and a few changes have actually been made.] For an interesting take on the potential role of the Disney Corporation as leaders for change, read this post by the Girl's CEO Connection.

The Luxury of Ignorance

Gary Howard with Benjie Howard and Maketa Wilborn
Our Diversity Committee brought the New Wilderness Project (Benjie & Maketa, right) to our school this year for a wonderful inservice day of learning and sharing. The founders of this group are the sons of Gary Howard, author of We Can't Teach What We Don't Know. They asked us how the dynamics of dominance show up in our school culture, and to really dig in, they provided a framework for discussion around three key concepts:

  1. The Legacy of Privilege
  2. The Assumption of Rightness
  3. The Luxury of Ignorance
In the face of our past and present, many white Americans simply choose to remain unaware, a luxury uniquely available to members of any dominant group. (Howard, 2003)
Though Mr. Howard's work is predominantly focused on race, the idea of the "dominant culture" certainly applies to everyday sexism. The luxury of ignorance concept has stayed with me in the months following our inservice day, and I keep coming back to it again and again. Those who don't  experience sexism, or racism, or any -ism, have the luxury of not being acutely aware of the problem. They do not see it. This doesn't automatically make them bad people, but it means they cannot be fully aware and understanding of a challenge that they never experience. I'm grateful for the reminder of how ignorant I have been about many things. I absolutely have this luxury as a privileged white person. I also have this privilege as a woman in many regards. I certainly have the luxury of ignorance if we start talking about sexual violence and abuse. Having not experienced those things myself, I was ignorant to the need for a *TRIGGER WARNING label on certain stories, videos, or images in the media. I have seen more trigger warnings than I care to count lately. They are designed to let people know that sensitive or graphic content could trigger very deep and powerful feelings in them, particularly if they've been victims of assault or aggression. Though I am saddened that such a thing is necessary, I respect its power, and the bravery of people who continue to work toward justice for others despite what wounds they may carry.

Humor or Hate Speech?
My work as an educator and a technology specialist often leads me toward stories involving social media and its use by and impact on our kids. The most recent trigger-warning-worthy story has involved a social media campaign to call out Facebook's misogyny problem. The trigger warning is on the story, but I'll throw it in here as well. In asking Facebook to more clearly define and enforce its own content moderation policies, people have been pressuring companies to stop advertising on Facebook until pages that depict graphic and sexual violence against women are taken down. The content allowed, often times in the name of "humor," is utterly shocking and disgusting, so be warned if you choose to take a look. How much of this extremely graphic content do our kids see? I have no idea. But they are confronted with the more subtle references to gender roles in our culture every single day.  Do you recognize and acknowledge it when you see it? Via social media, our kids share, on a massive scale, that which they deem to be shocking or funny. The blatant misogyny called out by WAM is so far from humorous it is being labeled "hate speech." But it was long before this campaign began that I saw "date rape humor" floating around online, and in real life as I am reminded once again of the "it's not rape if you like it" comment I heard a year ago.

I am happy to report that Facebook has finally acknowledged the problem in its standards and is revamping its policies on content filtering.

If you follow this link to Women, Action, and the Media, you will see something amazing. Within a week, this campaign worked. Several companies (whose ads showed up on some of these horrendous pages unbeknownst to them) responded to the boycott and pulled their advertising to pressure Facebook into action.  This is social activism at its finest, people! And social media, through a massive Twitter campaign as well as direct appeals to Facebook, made it possible. Technology can be used for good every bit as powerfully (and hopefully more so) than it can be used to spread hateful and shaming messages. The trolls don't win if we don't let them.

Bottom Line 

I have woken up. Though I have been aware of sexism, discrimination, sterotypes, gender roles, and media portrayals for a long time (and even experienced some shocking street harassment myself recently), I guess I've finally hit my tipping point and acknowledged my own ignorance. I'm more actively educating myself and sharing my thoughts with others. I'm not willing to sit silently any more, nor am I willing to fear being labeled a "crazy feminist." A more accurate term would be "humanist," but whatever. Bring it on. Feminism is not a bad word, and any label that suggests I care deeply about human rights is fine by me. I care about this, I can do something about it, and it is absolutely my responsibility to do so. This writing series began out of a reaction to things happening around me and my perceived need to address it for the sake of my children and my students navigating the difficult social landscape of the digital world. [In fact, it began with an article entitled, "To my male relatives on Facebook who 'like' sexism."] It became, however, an intensely personal journey of discovery that I am sure to be on for the rest of my life.

Join me.

(By the way, I'm still keeping track of resources on the Gender/Social Health Pinterest board. Please send suggestions my way!)