Reading, Writing, Cyber Civics: Schools Grapple With Creating Good Digital Citizens

Jun 4, 2019

Teacher Tim Connolly teaches cyber civics at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork. "I do think it's tougher to grow up with this," he says about the technology his students can access.
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

Faced with problems like cyber-bullying, fake news and social media addiction, schools are dedicating class time to teaching students how to use digital tools responsibly.

While the approaches of schools in the Roaring Fork Valley may differ, they share the same goal of teaching kids to be good digital citizens.

Tim Connolly and his 6th graders are talking cyber civics at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork today. He reads scenarios about things like creating fake Snapchat accounts or responding to hurtful online comments.  They jump in to discuss.

Kids face questions like these every day.

Student Nina Villafranco says her older sister is on the phone all the time, and it’s hurt their relationship.

"I don’t talk to her as much now that she’s on her phone. When I do want to talk to her, I make her put it down," she said.

Cyber civics isn’t about making students afraid of the Internet. But students like Henry Hendrix say that they have learned to be cautious.

"To be really careful with who you friend and stuff," he said.

At the Waldorf School, these students are pretty much tech-free, with no phones or computers. Seventh- and eighth-graders might use the internet for some projects, but that’s about it.  Teacher Patty Connolly says, it’s not that the school is anti-technology.

"Our approach really isn’t no tech. It’s slow tech," she said.

The cyber civics curriculum starts in 6th grade. It gradually introduces things like learning about how nothing you post on the Internet ever really goes away, and distinguishing between legitimate sources and ads while researching.


Diana Graber wrote the curriculum. She says it starts when kids are 12, because that’s when they are ready to grapple with right and wrong, something that she says is required to negotiate the internet.

"You know, do I upload a picture that’s going to hurt someone’s feelings?  Do I download music I haven’t paid for?" she said.

Graber thinks it’s clear that a healthy childhood doesn’t include a device in kids’ hands all the time.

"Kids haven’t changed.  They still need hands-on experiences and face-to-face contact," she said.

Both the World Health Organization and the American Pediatric Association agree that use of technology for young kids should be limited, even though there’s not a lot of data on this yet.  The iPad, after all, is barely ten years old.

"Concerns about screen-time and concerns about overuse of technology are legitimate concerns, but we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater," said Ben Bohmfalk,the technology integration facilitator for the Roaring Fork School District. It’s his job to get students ready to live in a digital world.  

He’s led the charge in giving every student in the district in fourth through twelfth grade access a simple laptop called a Chromebook. Next year, third graders will have them too.

He knows that it would be careless to just put technology in their hands without any guidance.

"When we’re saying any student in third or fourth through twelfth grade is going to have access to the internet, we have a responsibility to make sure they’re armed with the ability to make good decisions," he said.

The Roaring Fork School District has classes similar to the cyber civics curriculum at Waldorf. The district has also screened documentaries looking at the effects of social media, and hosted discussions for parents.

But schools can only teach so much.

"People focus on how kids are addicted to their phones. Well, so are adults," Bohmfalk said. He believes adults have to take a hard look at whether they’re modelling healthy tech habits.

Cyber civics curriculum author Diana Graber agrees.  One of her assignments is for kids to go on a 24-hour tech vacation, and parents are invited.

"What I hear back from the kids is, 'Oh, there’s no way my mom could do it,' or, 'My dad has to get his text messages,'" she said.

She says with just a little education, younger generations could use technology more responsibly, and with more perspective.