Eighth grade students in one group, arms linked, try to move as a unit without breaking loose from one another.
At a table nearby students toss a skein of yarn to classmates, creating a web-like structure. Each student that passes the yarn to another offers a compliment or gets to ask a question of the receiver: “I like your shirt.” “Who’s your favorite teacher?” “What’s your favorite color?”
The no-tech icebreaker activities would seem to have little to do with the reason University of Michigan students are at Scarlett Middle School in Ann Arbor for a course unit on teaching and technology. But today’s activity is focused on the idea of being good digital citizens, which starts with having basic respect for others, the U-M interns explained.
“We are teaching them not just how to use technology but how to be safe online, how to be empathetic people online, and how to behave online,” said Clare Williams, an Elementary Master of Arts with Certification major. “Being a civil person, being kind, compassionate and respectful doesn’t end when you go online.”
The master’s students are sharing these lessons with eighth graders so that the younger students can become ambassadors at Scarlett to spread the word about this growing problem in the nation’s schools.
“I am so excited that every Scarlett student will have an opportunity to talk about being a digital citizen so that we can set the stage for this school year, to make sure we’re not only good citizens in person but also when we’re online,” said Sarah Andrew Vaughan, Ann Arbor School District English Department chair.
Understanding the problem
DoSomething.org says 43 percent of kids have been bullied online, with 1 in 4 saying it has happened to them more than once. The website notes 81 percent of young people think it’s easier to get away with online bullying than to do it in person. Girls are twice as likely as boys to be victims and perpetrators.
After the icebreakers, the young students meet in small groups led by the U-M interns to address how to confront cyberbullying.
They use the term upstander to refer to a person who helps put an end to bullying behavior. U-M student John Heaton asks his group how someone can be one of these.
“Tell people to stop talking about him and stuff,” one student suggests.
“Help somebody out,” said another.
“Take down the video,” one more offers.
School districts across the nation, including Ann Arbor, have incorporated cyberbullying into their school codes of conduct and teachers are considered critical to addressing the growing problem. This is why Kolb, clinical assistant professor of education technologies at the U-M School of Education, incorporated the project into her course.
“A lot of schools struggle with how to teach digital citizenship. This gives U-M students an opportunity to see the complexities of what it is to teach in middle school, and allows us to talk about technology with them,” Kolb said.
She said many of the U-M students are surprised about a lack of empathy at first in the 8th graders and how far they come in three days.
“What they see from Day 1 to Day 3 is a change in the way the students think about what they’re putting online, what they are saying and, more importantly, how they are talking about others online,” Kolb said.
Scarlett student Anthony Stewart said the focus on digital citizenship has made him think about his online behavior.
‘The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to think about how other people feel before I say or post something. Even though it might be funny to other people, or it might not seem offensive, it can be offensive in many different ways,” Stewart said.
The U-M students learn a great deal about digital citizenship as well. Even before the unit at Scarlett Middle School they focus on their own digital footprints—and not all of it is positive.
“Even though they’re digital natives, in a sense, they’re younger, they supposed to be part of that generation, they’re often surprised at how large a digital footprint can be,” Kolb said, noting that once they find out the older students often go online and clean up their own digital trail.
Teaching and technology
Kolb is known across the nation for her approach to teaching prospective educators about best practices for using technology in the classroom. She believes tech can be a boon to K-12 teaching but not without a thoughtful approach that puts pedagogy ahead of purchasing.
Most schools get that backward, she said.
“The way that technology is best integrated is to think about instruction and learning goals first. What are our needs? What are the needs of our learners? And then think about what technological tools will add value to that.”
The U-M students said they didn’t enter the course as big users, and some admit they don’t care much for it, but all agreed the class has opened their eyes about how to use technology effectively.
Bryan Parsons, who came to the course with six years of teaching English in South Korea under his belt, said he had used various programs as teaching tools in classrooms but never used technology as a social tool to engage students in the content and with one another.
“It’s not that the students are constantly staring at a screen. It’s not replacing a teacher,” said Parsons, Elementary Master of Arts with Certification. “It’s not replacing the face-to-face interaction that students are actually having in the classroom. It’s a way to interact with the material.”
“That’s what I really appreciate about this class. It’s not just saying technology is the best thing ever and you have to use it,” said Amanda Kortz, also an Elementary Master of Arts with Certification student. “We really step back and think, okay, is this useful? Does this technology add value to the classroom?”