November 16, 2017

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Choosing Kindness Online | Tips & Tools

“ ‘Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’…Kinder than is necessary. Because it isn’t enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.”

—R.J. Palacio in Wonder 

Roasting. Burning. Bullying. These behaviors have invaded our students’ physical and digital spaces. When devices and social media make it so easy to be cruel to others, how can we teach our students kindness?

After reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, I’ve been reflecting on this question, particularly as I developed a new middle school digital citizenship curriculum. Digital citizenship for these students is simply citizenship—their online and offline lives are intertwined, and they don’t see them as separate. With this in mind, I decided to focus on personal identity as a theme for the seventh grade course, helping students navigate the intersections of their actions online and offline. Our overarching questions: “What is my personal identity? What do I want it to be?”

I’ve challenged these students to be kind. Each week, we start class writing a weekly reflection. Prompts for the reflection focus on raising awareness of habits and actions on devices. Following an activity in which students wrote appropriate and inappropriate captions for photos, they reflected on and were surprised by some of their comments about people they’ve never met. Why were they so mean? Because it was easy. Because it was anonymous. Because they could be.

So how do we teach our students to be kind digital citizens? Here are a few suggestions.

Tips

  • Focus on the positive aspects of using social media, not the negative. Yes, scary things can happen online with teens as well as adults, but most students recognize this. Talk with students about how social media can be used in positive ways to help others, raise awareness of issues they care about, and communicate with people around the world.
  • Discuss appropriate use of and balance of devices with students. Stress the importance of unplugging from devices as well as maintaining healthy friendships in-person and online.
  • Talk about rules regarding device use as you would any other school or home rules. When students recognize that who they are online is also who they are at other times, they can reflect on their actions holistically. Are they caring individuals or do they tend to be unkind? Does the medium matter?
  • Model kindness. Our students observe adults every day in numerous interactions. When they see teachers or parents bullying or gossiping about others, they follow suit.
  • Ask students what apps they are using and why and how they are using them. Create an environment where students feel safe to have open and honest conversations about social media without fear of punishment or judgment.

Tools

  • The Choose Kind campaign, associated with Wonder (both the book and the movie), offers many free resources and activities for educators.
  • Screenagers is a documentary about teen life in today’s digital age. Last spring, the entire faculty at my school watched and discussed the film. We also recently held a showing for parents and hope to show it to students soon. If you can afford the fee, this is a terrific way to open up discussion among faculty, parents, and students about device use. The film producers also have a blog; Tech Talk Tuesday is free to subscribers and offers articles that address screen time, popular apps, and strategies for managing device use for adults, teens, and younger children.
  • Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership by Jennifer Casa-Todd focuses on how teens and adults can use social media and devices in positive ways. It encourages educators and parents to embrace the technology students use, not ignore it. Use the book for an all-faculty book group, summer read, or parent/faculty reading discussion.
  • Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying by Naomi Drew includes activities on choosing your words, being an upstander, and managing conflict. While middle school is the primary audience, these lessons can be modified and adapted for all age levels as well as used with adults in a professional learning setting.

Managing social interactions is tricky for students regardless of the medium. Starting with a foundation of kindness provides students with the awareness and tools they will need to navigate ever-changing modes of communication.

How will you teach digital citizenship through the lens of kindness? How will you raise awareness among students of their actions and behaviors online and off? How will you model kindness in all aspects of your life?

Jennifer Hanson is director of library services at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts.

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