Cyber Civics lesson at Waldorf School

MARIA MERCIECA
Correspondent

In a school known for avoiding technology, a new program has emerged that helps students approach the digital world. On April 11, Lake Champlain Waldorf School teacher Rebekah Hopkinson gave a presentation and led a discussion on the topic of Cyber Civics at the high school campus, drawing local parents eager for guidance on how to handle the modern-day challenge with their children.

Cyber Civics was developed by Diana Graber, an educator, media producer and mom from southern California. Graber penned the book “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology,” a companion guide to the digital literacy program. Currently, Cyber Civics is taught in 42 U.S. states, as well as internationally. The Waldorf is one of two Vermont schools participating, and one of 25 schools in New England. The middle school curriculum spans three years with a different focus for each: Digital Citizenship, Information Literacy and Media Literacy.

Hopkinson shared her experience as a sixth grade teacher. Digital Citizenship focuses on social and behavioral skills, reminding kids and adults alike that even though the internet is a virtual space, the participants are still actual human beings and should behave accordingly. Information Literacy helps the students with research projects, how to correctly find and analyze online information and use it effectively to reach their goals. Lastly, Media Literacy is examined, looking at identifying fake news, avoiding stereotypes and warning young people about the dangers of sexting (exchanging sexually explicit material, including photographs, across digital platforms).

The four major areas that the program centers around are reputation, screen time, privacy and relationships. With reputation, kids understand and consider that their online activity can affect their future both positively and negatively, such as a college admissions department visiting an applicant’s social media profiles to help in their decision. Screen time speaks to the addictive nature of phones and video games, while privacy urges kids and parents to take the time to read the terms of use for each platform and app they plan to use to fully understand the extent of the digital data they are releasing. In relationships, students study and discuss the effects of online behavior on in-person situations. They also learn to distinguish the difference between “cyber bullying” – repeated, malicious activity that can be harmful and dangerous – and digital drama – unintentionally hurtful online actions, like posting photos from a party that a peer was not invited to, which can be resolved with face-to-face conversation.

Attendants at the talk were asked to split into small groups, divided by the ages of their children, to discuss their personal obstacles and share ideas on what methods work for each of their families. The goal was to draft a household set of guides, like allowing kids to help decide whether or not a photograph can be shared on Facebook or Instagram. Other thoughts included discussing the use of electronics when adolescents go to friends’ houses, eliminating the presence of phones at the dining table and, in general, not posting anything on social media that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

“How to be a thoughtful, ethical and responsible digital citizen is a question of our times, not just for my middle school Cyber Civics students,” Hopkinson said. “Lake Champlain Waldorf School recognizes that parents and educators across the country are looking for ways to navigate an increasingly complex digital society. We want to open up a conversation with the whole community about this, which is why we welcome all to freely participate in ongoing workshops and discussion groups.”

Indeed, a common struggle for many parents is their own dependence on phones and how difficult they find it to model the behavior they expect from their children. A method discussed in Graber’s book is to say out loud what exactly you are doing when using a phone around your kids. For example, as you tap on your browser, you would announce, “I’m going to look for a banana bread recipe” or “Mom is checking her work email real quick.” This narration helps bring consciousness to how often and why you are using your phone, while involving your child in the moment.

Parents also encouraged each other to take the pledge to “wait until 8th,” an agreement to not give your child a smartphone until they are in the eighth grade. The idea is that if enough people in your community agree to delay the milestone, then both parents and kids will feel less pressure from the “but everyone else has a smartphone” mentality. Social media platforms require a minimum age of 13 to sign up for an account, making eighth grade the ideal time to give your teen this responsibility.

The hour-and-a-half Waldorf School event concluded with everyone standing and reading out loud three sentences written on the blackboard: “In this virtual age, let us sink our hands into what is real. In this age of lightspeed communication, let us learn how to use our inner voices. In this age of increasingly powerful machines, let us learn how to use the incredible powers within.”

Hopkinson’s class recites these mantras daily.

“This is an important time for students to use this technology responsibly and safely,” she said. “These students are the digital leaders of the future.”

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