START THEM YOUNG. Alisal Union Elementary School District, a K-6 district, is taking that mantra and translating it into the bones of the way they teach their students about how to navigate technology. Using the teaching models of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advocates for safe media and technology use, AUSD is fostering a culture of digital citizenship – the responsible use of technology and the internet.
It began when AUSD adopted a one-to-one policy. One internet-connected device – a tablet or laptop – per student. Integrating digital citizenship grew naturally from the surge of internet-connected technology on campus and in students’ homes. “We wanted to help create an understanding between teachers, students and parents that technology isn’t just about cyberbullying and too much screen time. It can be helpful in the classroom and it can be a useful tool,” says George Lopez, an AUSD teacher on special assignment.
The district teaches cohorts of 20 to 30 teachers at a time about how to embrace technology in the classroom. There are also workshops and webinars for parents, in both English and Spanish.
Kindergartners get lessons in why the poop emoji or the middle finger emoji isn’t an adequate way to express their emotions. Older kids get lessons on things like how to recognize sexting or how to use Google filters to search for valid and trustworthy news articles.
“Our kids, whether we like it or not, are growing around technology,” Lopez says. “Obviously, kindergartners can’t read or write yet, but by the time kids are in fifth or sixth grade and we’re teaching this stuff to them for the first time, they’ve really missed the boat.
“We teach [digital citizenship] in the classroom so they’re not being expelled or suspended for being irresponsible online or plagiarizing when they’re adults. We want to make sure they’re allowed to make mistakes here and now in a safe environment.”
Lopez understands the internet can lure ostracized and isolated kids into hate groups, and notes there is never a shortage of racist rants and trolls on the internet. But that risk runs alongside the benefits of a bigger, more connected world: “We are in a school district where 90 percent of kids are Latino; we can use the internet to open up their perspectives to other ways of life and thinking.”
Common Sense Media sees this risk too, and has a dedicated lesson plan on hate speech, digital drama and cyber bullying. It includes practical tips to remain vigilant and continuing to foster a healthy exchange of ideas, such as urging any internet user to THINK before they post.
The acronym is short for a series of questions: Is the post True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind? If the majority of the answers are true, then the post will likely be productive and add to a conversation rather than target or minimize a stranger behind a screen. It also encourages students to be “upstanders.”
The equivalent of see something, say something, it’s the online version of taking action, whether it be flagging or reporting the post or telling an adult.
“It is about building empathy,” Lopez says. “Part of it is that you don’t just have to witness it, you can do something.”