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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Building Good Digital Citizens

This post is also available on my other blog with Sam Harris, Ethics 4 a Digital World.

I'm sharing with you today my own "teachable moment" in hopes that it will help you think about some of these topics as they arise in your classroom (or in your digital life outside the classroom). As you know, a huge focus of mine has been these ideas of digital citizenship, ethics, and responsibility. Another focus has been the development of a curriculum for our students, grades 1-12 that address these topics. This is an ongoing process, and though I am developing lessons that could stand on their own, I want to embed the concept of digital citizenship in everything I 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 them 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 grading 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. Did you have fun, I asked? "YES!" Mission accomplished.  What else, I asked? And believe it or not, 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. 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. I could have let it slide, because they did, after all, learn to use Comic Life. Their posters, even in an unfinished form, demonstrated that. But why have requirements if you're not going to hold your students to them?

As I graded their work the first time, I started to notice a few things that fell into the digital citizenship category. 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 parents, or the headmaster, or a prospective family) interpret the words you used to describe yourself? Is that the image we 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. 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. Sneaky, huh?

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

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