Determining “Just Right” Digital Citizenship Lessons for Kids

by Karri Adams

Before I became an instructional technology facilitator, I was an early elementary school teacher. A great portion of my time was allotted to reading instruction.

One critical skill that I taught students, as well as their parents, was how to choose a “just right” book—one that wasn’t too easy or too hard but was perfectly matched to an individual’s reading interests and abilities. As I now try to teach parents and teachers how to gauge the appropriateness of digital citizenship lessons for kids, I use a technique modeled after choosing “just right” books.

The Value of Context

I would first ask a child to look at the cover of a book. If they could read the title, I asked them to do so. Then I would ask, “Does this look interesting to you?” This question established the context and relevancy of the text to the child. If there was no interest or drive to read the story, it was likely that no new meaning would be derived from the words written inside. Similarly, the first step toward determining age-appropriate lessons in digital citizenship instruction should be selecting a topic that is relevant to the population you’re trying to reach.

Does your group of students have a great interest in gaming? What about social media? Tap into those interests and use them as your springboard for raising an awareness of good digital citizenship. If you try to teach digital citizenship out of context, students will probably fail to sense the importance of the concepts, inadequately form connections to background knowledge, and ultimately disengage from the topic once it has been taught rather than putting the practices of positive digital citizenship into action.

The challenge to spark an interest is real, and it is hard! Rest assured, however, that it isn’t impossible. Figure out what your kids like to do online, and then connect your digital citizenship instruction to it.

Addressing Difficult Topics

One critical, yet under-recognized, factor in determining “just right” books for kids is what happens to the characters as a result of their choices. Adults are better at sensing that a certain topic could be age-appropriate for kids, but how does that translate into digital citizenship? Sometimes students in my class would choose a book that was written on their academic reading level, but the premise of the story was still too mature. Such is the case with digital citizenship.

Often, when I talk with teachers and parents about how to get at trending issues such as sexting or the posting of inappropriate images, they express an overwhelming feeling of discomfort in discussing these issues with students, wondering: Will they become frightened? Will other parents be angered that such topics were brought up in class? Will there be questions about this topic that I am unable to answer?

Unfortunately, these concerns can stifle a good digital citizenship lesson before it even begins. The key to overcoming this particular obstacle is in the premise of the story. If you recognize that younger elementary school students aren’t ready to hear terms and explanations related to a topic such as sexting, yet you still want to raise an awareness of inappropriate content, you can teach a lesson—for example, about not talking to strangers on the Internet—that differentiates feelings of being safe and unsafe, just like they are taught in real life.

By making the topics age-appropriate, teachers can more comfortably lay a foundation for the delicate and controversial topics that are going to surface later on, so that kids can have a general sense of what is safe and what is not, regardless of the specific incident.

Good Teaching Is Essential

Real-life digital citizenship stories are powerful teaching tools. Telling those stories, the good and the bad, brings the context needed to establish both importance and relevancy. As educators, it is our job to bring those stories to our audience in a way that is developmentally and age-appropriate and that can be heard by our students.

Reading is a complex cognitive ability. A colleague of mine with a great deal of literacy training recently told me that “our brains weren’t designed to read.” Basically, humankind was built to survive—the higher cognitive processes we’ve acquired over time aren’t innate behaviors. Similarly, we aren’t born knowing how to be outstanding digital citizens. We must be taught those behaviors, see them modeled by those who have already established competency in them, and practice them repeatedly before they become a real part of who we are.

Determining “just right” digital citizenship lessons for our kids is paramount, and while many of us teaching this new literacy can mark the day when the Internet became available to us for the first time, our youth have been immersed in it since birth. Whether they can be truly safe in the area is up to us.  

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Karri Adams is an instructional technology facilitator for Wilkes County Schools. She works in middle and elementary school classrooms supporting teachers and students in digital learning. She also teaches in the elementary education undergraduate program at Lees McRae College. As a Common Sense Education Ambassador, Karri aims to raise awareness of teaching with technology and digital citizenship.

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