HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Modeling Positive Speech and Other Jewish Values in Connected Learning

by Devorah Heitner Issue: Rising Ed Trends
TOPICS : Technology

Day schools have the responsibility—and opportunity—to lead their community in demonstrating respectful norms for tech and social media use. Heitner offers helpful guidance in this area.

As school’s increase their incorporation of 21st century learning, teachers and administrators often approach me with questions about keeping kids safe online. Parents also are filled with questions. Third graders want iPod Touches, and fifth graders are asking for smartphones. Schools are supplying technological devices such as Chromebooks or iPads, or asking families to purchase them for their children. Teachers and administrators want to create opportunities for students to engage digitally but they are concerned about some of the negative messages they have heard about screen “addiction” or online cruelty.

One thing both teachers should keep in mind is that the technology may be intuitive for kids, but using it for its best purposes still needs to be explicitly taught. Both teachers and parents can do a lot of great modeling for responsible, thoughtful and caring communication both digital and face to face. However, parents may find that they have few opportunities to model good communication for children and mentor them to be good communicators using cellphones, computers and other digital media. When today’s parents were children, they heard their parents’ phone calls because phones were in public spaces in the home. Even communication that was supposed to be private could sometimes be overheard. Today’s children are more isolated from adult communication because so many communications take place via email or text or on a phone in a private setting. School can be an excellent space for kids to learn about digital community because unlike a worldwide community such as Twitter or Google Plus, a class or school online community is of a manageable size where people interact both on and offline.

Day schools have the opportunity to translate Jewish values into rules for student digital engagement. For example, positive speech—avoiding lashon hara—is a value that we would all do well to remember in person and online. Because rapid and massive sharing makes any derogatory speech potentially much more damaging, our contemporary world makes avoiding negative speech much more important. Making that explicitly part of classroom digital community, and having the students work together to define derogatory and positive speech, is a great first step toward teaching this crucial lesson. Civility can be modeled and made explicit.

Conflict resolution is another area where educators have an opportunity to mentor students by addressing the tendency to avoid dealing with difficult emotions in person, and to feel disconnected and less empathetic when behind a screen. We all know that sometimes we say things online that we would not say in person. A sixth grader recently showed me all the texts that precipitated her breakup with her best friend, texts she had saved since the fight months before and reread frequently. This demonstrates the need to talk explicitly with students about how to decide when to talk in person and when digital communications are appropriate. It is especially important for students to be aware that it can be hard to repair an emotionally charged situation without communicating in person. Choosing a communication medium wisely and not out of fear is part of the skill set of conflict resolution.

If parents suggest that their children are struggling with distractions when completing homework on a tablet or laptop, educators can work with the parents and students to figure out how to tame the distractions. Acknowledging that this is a challenge that teachers also face is a good first step. Sharing productivity applications like “Freedom” and “Leechblock” that block online distractions for a certain period of time could be a real gift to students and parents at your school.

Some other important reminders for educators as we teach the next generation of digital mentsches:

Use technology as a window, not a mirror.

How can we use the incredible opportunity for instant global communication for something more important than finding out what our friends are wearing or where they went on vacation? Inviting experts (including student’s parents or relatives) into the classroom via Google hangout extends the classroom community and gives students opportunities to engage with people around the world.

Encourage creation over consumption.

Consuming content is not bad. Educators don’t want students to stop reading. But we also want to encourage students to design, blog, play games that involve creating their own storylines and experiences.

Don’t assume the worst.

Start from the assumption that students want to do the right thing, they just don’t always know how. In some cases, students themselves can decide what the negative consequences of a digital misstep should be. Sometimes the experience itself is a consequence.

Don’t count on filters or monitors to keep students “safe.”

They need adult engagement. Filters are a VERY blunt instrument. It’s not that these tools have no place, just that they shouldn’t be the first go-to method for teaching digital citizenship or keeping students safe. That said, young children do not need any unsupervised Internet access. If a device is in a classroom at a “station” used by younger students, it should be locked into the app or apps that have been chosen for them. Don’t assume five-year-olds won’t open something else. They can, and they will!

Look for applications that are “digital playgrounds” vs. “virtual playpens.”

Here I am citing the research and terminology coined by Tufts early childhood technology scholar Marina Bers. Bers argues that open-ended software that gives a child autonomy allows the child to accomplish developmental tasks, whereas applications and software that merely have children perform rote tasks, while not harmful in small doses, fail to offer the autonomy that children need for their developmental and educational progress.

Encourage collaboration and creating parts of a whole.

We talk a lot about collaboration, but having a group of students take turns editing an essay on Google docs is a different experience from in-person, real-time collaboration. Try different methods of collaboration for different projects and give students a space to reflect on how these experiences worked.

Cultivate your own digital literacy.

For example, if your students play Minecraft, play with them, or at least learn enough to understand and engage with them about it. Learn from colleagues on Twitter. Play around with Instagram.

By creating learning networks infused with the values of positive speech and lovingkindness, we are preparing students to participate in the social media world in a positive and engaged way in school and beyond. When our classrooms open up by sharing work, bringing in global guests to “hang out” digitally, or through collaborative research, we are demonstrating the true potential of connectivity. We can create a digital ethic that makes it feel wasteful to use the incredible gift of connectivity for navel-gazing.

Teachers should feel empowered to teach and model respect and boundaries in the digital world. When we ask our student’s permission before we share their work (on our blogs, at faculty meetings, in conferences, etc.) we are modeling respectful communication. Our connected world means students and parents have more access to us beyond the school day. This has many advantages, but it is also acceptable to set limits. As the boundaries between our work lives and home lives become more permeable, teachers can let students know when and how they want to be contacted. Students often have no idea of what is acceptable and are relieved to have expectations clarified.

Finally, educators are at the forefront of a huge paradigm shift that can make adults feel overwhelmed. Teachers play an important role in helping parents recognize that they don’t have to feel helpless or clueless; rather, they need to engage with kids and ask them to talk about their experiences. Educators can also remind overwhelmed parents that adults have more social wisdom than their children, even though the children are digitally savvy.

Young people need and desire a chance to share what they are discovering in their work with both parents and teachers. The digital world provides unprecedented opportunities for our children’s learning, for families and schools to connect across distances and for us all to share and collaborate, but we need to show our students thoughtful and responsible ways to do this, even as we give them space to innovate, experiment and create.

Devorah Heitner is the founder and director of Raising Digital Natives, a consulting and professional development resource for schools wishing to cultivate a culture of responsible digital citizenship. devorah@raisingdigitalnatives.com

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