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

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Words Matter: Bullying terminology and its effects on the conversation

Bullying is a loaded term. It is defined differently depending on circumstances, the role a person plays in an incident, age and experience. It can also be polarizing and a conversation-ender. How then do we discuss bullying without destroying the dialogue before it starts? In a recent student survey we chose to get at the issues surrounding bullying by asking questions using a variety of terms and circumstances. Instead of only asking if a student had experienced cyberbullying, we also asked if he or she had ever gotten in an argument using technology. In addition, we asked if students had ever teased others using technology or if they had been embarrassed, upset or uncomfortable by something that occurred online. What was most striking in our survey results, was that the more vaguely we defined the behavior, the more kids admitted to having experienced it. "Have you ever been bullied online?" received a 9% response in the affirmative. But watch the numbers grow for our other questions:
  • Have you ever made fun of, harassed, or messed with someone by email, text, etc 16%
  • Have you ever received an email, text, IM or comment that made you angry, hurt, embarrassed or upset? 37%
  • Have you ever gotten in an argument via text, email, online, etc? 47%.

Now, does getting in an argument constitute bullying? Not necessarily. And in virtually every classroom where we presented our survey results, there was visible discomfort in the kids when the word "bullying" came up. We got several comments like, "what do you MEAN by bullying?" What is it? For the past several months in the media, much has been shared about the extreme consequences of unchecked bullying, and we have had the sad misfortune of hearing seemingly endless reports of teen suicides and criminal consequences for extreme behavior. However, when talking to our 8th graders, for example, we wanted them to think not just about the end result of bullying in these cases, but all the little steps that led to such tragic consequences. How does bullying start? How do we recognize it?  If statistics that say "less than 50% of kids who are bullied will tell an adult" are correct, how do we help our kids reach out to those that can help them when they are unable to handle it on their own?

Looking at the broader issue of relational aggression is one way to approach modeling and teaching skills to young people. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors of the book Nurture Shock have written extensively about parenting methods relating to relational aggression (see Chapter 9).  Modeling ways to handle conflict between adults is an important step. I think we can all agree that the saying, "do as I say, not as I do," simply isn't realistic. If we handle conflicts in ways that promote problem solving, civility and respect, young people will be more likely to do the same.

Discussing issues surrounding bullying before they occur is another method that works. We would never wait to explain the proper way to cross the street until someone was injured. We explain and demonstrate and role play with young people all the time. We can do the same with bullying. Talk about the different roles in a potential bullying incident. Discuss the smaller incidents that might lead to bullying, and don't label an argument, a mean email or text as bullying immediately. Those smaller incidents might combine to create a situation that warrants the label, but even if they don't, students need to know how to react. Role play with young people strategies for handling situations if they are a victim, accused of bullying and, most importantly, a bystander. Knowing what to do as a bystander and feeling empowered to do something about it may be one of the most important skills we can teach. It is almost always the case that a peer can influence behavior more rapidly than that of an adult.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Teachable Moments: Building Good Digital Citizens

I'm sharing with you today my own "teachable moments" in hopes that it will help you think about some of these topics as they arise in your classroom (or in your home). As you know, our focus here has been the concepts of digital citizenship, ethics, and responsibility. Another focus of mine has been the development of a curriculum for our students, in all grades, that address these topics. This is an ongoing process, and though I am developing lessons that could stand on their own, I believe we need to embed the concept of digital citizenship in everything we do with students. When teachable moments arise, jump on them!

I have the privilege of teaching 3rd graders once a week, and they amaze me with their skill, adaptability, and fearless approach to using technology. But they're 9 years old. How much life experience do they have? How capable are they of seeing the long-term consequences of their actions? It is my job to help guide them in the digital world and get them to think about some of these things. And I will continue to do so until they are sick of me, or they get the message. For the next 9 years. :)

For the last few weeks we have been teaching the kids how to use Comic Life. I began with a simple poster project, asking them to design a poster of themselves to accomplish a couple of things:
  • how does Comic Life work?
  • what are all the features I can use?
  • how do I take pictures of myself to use in the comics?
  • WHY would I choose to use Comic Life (or a comic format) instead of a simple document? what are the benefits? limitations?
The project requirements were designed to get them exploring all the features of the software: use a template, create a text banner with your name, include 6 images of yourself, 1 thought or speech bubble, 5 descriptive adjectives about you, comic effect applied to at least one photo, and color effects. Today, after assessing what they turned into me last week, I asked them what THEY thought the purpose of the assignment was. First response? "To have fun!" I love these kids, because they make teaching fun. Of course, that wasn't the point, but "Did you have fun?" I asked. "YES!" Mission accomplished. What else, I asked? Believe it or not, when given time to process and think about it, they were able to elaborate, to think about the project more deeply and reflect on what they had actually learned. They mentioned everything in my list above. Now it was time to share with them a hidden purpose most teachers have...measuring a student's ability to follow all the directions.

Upon reviewing what was turned in, and assessing them based on the checklist, I did not have one student who did everything I asked of them. TEACHABLE MOMENT #1. Why not? What happened during the process that got us off course? What decisions did we make along the way that led us to forget some of what was required? This part of the conversation was skillfully led by the kids' homeroom teacher, and when we got back to revising and editing our work, each student had their checklist beside them and worked a little harder to make sure, step by step, that they had met all the requirements. Now, I could have let it slide, because the kids actually did learn to use Comic Life. Their posters, even in an unfinished form, demonstrated that. But why have standards and expectations if you're not going to hold your students to them? What message does that send? "I expect this of you, but if you don't really do it that's okay." Huh? From that perspective, it's not okay. So I wanted to give them time to finish thoroughly and turn in their very best work.

As I assessed their work the first time, I started to notice a few things that fell into the digital citizenship category as well. A few students chose adjectives to describe themselves like dumb, evil, demented, and dead. Placed next to snapshots where they made some silly faces, some of these descriptors made a little sense. But...TEACHABLE MOMENT #2. In addition to the purpose of the assignment, let's step back for a moment and consider our audience. Who will read these? What is the message we are trying to send? We chatted a bit about the words we use online, and what they might mean to those who don't know us personally. It was my intention to publish their posters on our class website, so theoretically, anyone in the world might see them. While I found each poster engaging, entertaining, funny, and representative of their level of humor, how would a stranger (or your grandma , or the headmaster, or a visiting family) interpret the words you used to describe yourself? Is that the image you want to portray to the world? I get the joke, because I have a personal relationship with each of these kids. But to the average viewer, they might not understand the words a child chooses, in humor, to describe a picture of him or herself. And my 9-year-olds had certainly never thought about anyone looking at these other than me (though I told them I'd publish them online). Clearly, the bigger concepts of publishing to an authentic audience, choosing words that help build your positive digital footprint, and being careful about what you say about yourself are things we will discuss over and over as they grow and mature. But man, was I grateful to have an opportunity to start the conversation now. For a simple project, designed to introduce a new tool and help kids get familiar with it (for use on a more academic project for their class), the built-in lessons in digital citizenship were amazing. And the 9 year olds got it. At least today.

I'm not sure a few years ago I would have seen it the same way, nor might I have taken the time to really talk about it to the kids during a one-hour class in which so much needs to be covered. But I could not ignore what was staring me in the face, and in fact, this project provided me the perfect opportunity to engage them in a meaningful conversation about digital behavior. Consider your audience. Think before you act. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Sneaky, huh?

One more thing...this exercise also gave them one last chance to work on their grammar and spelling before publication. :) Bonus.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bookmark list for parents

The service I once used to collect resources and bookmarks from the web, Delicious, will soon be gone, and I have been searching for a replacement. I have decided to use a cloud-based service called Diigo, where I can not only bookmark my favorite resources, I can add annotations, notes, and highlight portions of the text, and share them all with you. This is the first attempt at publishing a list of bookmarks for you to peruse, as I'm still working out the setup. I have collected hundreds of bookmarks, and have been categorizing them to put into lists. Below are the contributions thus far to my "Parents" list. The Delicious menu in the sidebar has gone away, replaced by the five most current bookmarks in Diigo. You can always click the Diigo badge and see my entire collection of resources for parents, students AND teachers, or you can just look over the ones I specially mark for parents. Even better, if you visit the list, you can subscribe to its feed, so every time I add a new resource, it will automatically come to you!
Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.