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One Teacher's Approach to Digital Citizenship

In the beginning

When I began teaching digital citizenship in 2010 it was an innocent time. We were only worried about the students believing all websites were real. I directed students to The Dog Island website, where you could pack up your dog in a crate and send him off for a week long romp on a beach. The site was very believable; pictures of the dogs, and even information about how to ship your dog. There’s other sites too; you can learn how to save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from extinction. They’re cute, but harmless. There are other sites though that drift a little into the lunatic fringe; Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie will prevent aliens from getting access to your brain, thank goodness. This site would start a conversation about questioning resources.

I would tell the story that Alan November wrote extensively about; a student working on a Holocaust report used a website created by a Northwestern University professor. The problem was the professor believed that the Holocaust didn’t happen and the concentration camps were lice disinfestation treatment centers. That was the beginning of the dark side of the internet for me.

A year later I found BrainPop which had a great unit of Digital Etiquette. It was free, so I loved it. It was also great because BrainPop is used by all subject teachers, so any teacher could discover it and use it in their classroom.

Digital Citizenship

In 2012 I noticed my students were behaving irresponsibly online. It wasn’t malicious behavior, it was more not knowing any better, like using simple passwords and leaving them around for other students to see. I found Common Craft videos that explained Digital Citizenship concepts in simple straightforward ways, and they’re awesome. I created a worksheet with items to locate from the videos and my first true Digital Citizenship lesson was born! Since then I’ve gotten fancier. Today my students create a slideshow from what they learn in the videos., but it’s still a solid lesson I use every year.

I kept looking and finding more and more resources. It was nice to see the educational community addressing the issue.

CommonSense came along, and they rolled out Digital Citizenship curriculum and I was in heaven! They review all media for children, so they know their stuff. They’ve broken it down into eight topics and leveled it for grades K-12. There’s lesson plans, games, worksheets, even resources for parents; you can get it all from their site.

I also use Everfi, they have a Digital Citizenship online module that students can complete at their own pace. It’s relevant for today’s student; one piece has the student trying to convince their friend to put down their phone and concentrate on driving. I like assigning it for homework so parents end up sitting down next to their kids and learning a few things too. The quiz at the end of the module is great for assessing them and makes them accountable for the learning. has even done their part! In their coding curriculum, they have included a few key pieces about Digital Footprints. In one lesson, the students stalk a few fake social media sites to see how much information the fake teen has shared. It really models for them what they should and shouldn’t be doing online. It hits home with many of my students.

Google recently released their curriculum, Be Internet Awesome, which approaches the subject from an empowering viewpoint and not a scary everyone-is-out-to-get-you approach. The games are fun, and the students learn as they play. I haven’t mastered the games yet so I still have work to do.

Just last year, I was part of the team that created Digital Citizenship resources for NYC teachers. We made infographics and activity books for teachers and parents to use about the rules to follow when using the internet in school and at home. It made me really think about how best to approach this subject as a student, teacher, and parent.

From all these years teaching Digital Citizenship, my philosophy could be boiled down to this. Students will live online for a lot longer than we will, and they will be creating a digital footprint that could follow them for decades. Trying to keep them off the internet until they're old enough is as dangerous as keeping them in the backseat of a car and then handing them the car keys on their 18th birthday. We need to guide them as they learn to navigate the internet, allowing them to make small mistakes now rather than big ones later. I encourage them to put as much positive stuff out there as possible. They need to create their own digital footprint, or someone else will do it for them. Avoiding the issue is not the answer. Play offense, not defense. They should develop their voice and share it with the world. That’s what I try to instill in my students.

So Digital Citizenship is not a subject that is required yet, but it obviously should be. I’m hoping it’s a subject that any teacher can master, as long as they have the support and training that’s needed. It’s too important of an issue to just hope for the best. We’ve come a long way from just worrying about Aluminum Foil Beanie websites, and we will be constantly trying to keep up. We owe it to our students to prepare them for wherever they will go.

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