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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Talk About Life Online

Tips for teachers to help students be safe on the Internet.
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Social-Networking Sites Draw Teens In."

Diane Crockett, a teacher at the Brevig Mission School, in Brevig Mission, Alaska, population 278, decided to tackle social networking as a class topic after she saw some of the MySpace pages created by her 12-year-old daughter's friends. She noticed background graphics showing marijuana leaves, public comments that revealed highly personal information, and photographs of kids in sexy poses. "They were misrepresenting themselves and their identity, and it seriously concerned me," Crockett says.

To encourage more critical thinking about life online, Crockett developed a multipart digital project about identity, which helped her win a statewide technology award.

The project integrated a variety of Web 2.0 tools and addressed academic standards, particularly writing. Crockett says it also gave students opportunities to "practice making good choices online. They won't do this automatically. We need to be by their side." She adds, "Throughout the project, I could just feel the learning happen."

Crockett says teachers can use in-class discussions about social networking to get students talking about the following topics:

Identity: As the entry to the project, Crockett had each student create a speaking avatar called a Voki. Doing so required students to think about issues relating to identity and culture. Then they wrote and recorded a short script to introduce themselves.

Some of her students who are Inupiaq Eskimo at first wanted to portray themselves online as African American rappers. Crockett asked them, "You may love rap music, but how could you show more about who you are, more of your own culture?"

Privacy: How much information should friends reveal online? "At first, students weren't distinguishing between what's public information and what's private information," Crockett notes. "I needed to help them understand the difference. They learned that you can reveal valid information about yourself and your interests without disclosing your personal identity."

Community: At the culmination of the project, Crockett had her students create personal pages on a social-networking site called Bebo. As they built an online community, she says, she encouraged them to think carefully about "the messages they're sending out through posts, wording, and images." She directly addressed topics such as cyberbullying and online safety. Crockett's students invested hours in personalizing their pages, often showing up after school to use the computer lab.

"We developed a sense of classroom collaboration that I hadn't been able to accomplish with topics that weren't quite as fascinating," she says. "Students were helping one another every minute. That was a really good side benefit, and it has carried over into other work." Crockett was also pleased to see that nobody rejected another student's friend request. "This is a pretty inclusive community," she says.

The teacher eventually gave up, however, on trying to use Bebo for more traditional academic assignments. "It was clear that students saw this as their playground," she explains, "not the place where they wanted to discuss American history."

Suzie Boss, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for Edutopia.org.

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