The Techy Teacher / Creating a Safe Digital Space - ASCD
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October 1, 2015

The Techy Teacher / Creating a Safe Digital Space

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When teachers talk about ensuring that students feel safe and supported, we usually focus on what can be done in the physical school environment. Before the school year starts, we create welcoming hallways and make our classrooms warm and comfortable. During the first few days of school, we establish clear expectations for behavior and engage students in community-building activities to ensure that they feel safe, respected, and valued.

But this focus on setting up a safe environment in the physical classroom addresses only one of the many spaces that our digital natives inhabit each day.

Students today must navigate many different spaces. Each environment comes with its own norms, expectations, and challenges. This complex landscape can be stressful and scary. So when we think about making students feel safe, it's crucial that we also consider how we can support students' mental health and well-being in their online spaces.

Teaching Skills Proactively

Despite the frequency with which most students interact online through social media, many never see the impact of their words on the faces of the people reading their comments, texts, or Snaps. It's easy for hastily written comments to hurt feelings or alienate people—which is one reason many teachers shy away from embracing online collaboration and asynchronous discussion tools.

I understand the rationale behind this decision, and I harbored many of the same fears when I first began working with kids online. That said, I don't believe we should allow our apprehension to limit our potential as educators or our students' potential as learners.

Instead, we need to be proactive. After all, school is a natural place to teach respectful online communication; when students communicate online with classmates, they know that they'll see those classmates the next day in class and that there will be real consequences if they've been unkind.

When I first transitioned to a blended learning model, I knew that I needed to dedicate as much time to creating a safe space and building community online as I did in my actual classroom. Here are some steps I take to ensure that my students' online interactions are safe and productive.

Establishing Norms

Although students spend much of their personal time online, educators should not assume that this experience translates into proficiency in an education environment. The skill sets needed to navigate informal, personal social media exchanges are quite different from those needed for academic conversations and collaborative tasks. To highlight the different expectations for communicating in different spaces, we might begin by giving students an opportunity to discuss communication norms with their peers.

At the start of each school year, I post papers labeled with four modes of communication on the wall in the corners of my classroom: (1) face-to-face conversations, (2) text or instant message, (3) photo-sharing apps with commenting features, and (4) e-mail. Then I break students into four groups, one in each corner, and ask them to discuss the following questions: How often do you engage in this type of communication? What are the norms for this type of communication? What is considered polite or rude behavior when communicating this way? and, Describe a time when your feelings were hurt by something someone did or said when communicating this way. How did you handle this situation?

Each group of students spends 10 minutes in each corner engaged in conversation, and then they crowdsource a list of do's and don'ts for each type of communication. This exercise is always enlightening for me as a teacher.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways. Students say it's rude to repeatedly check one's phone when talking face-to-face. (This strikes me as ironic because I often see students do this.) Students say that e-mail should be reserved for formal communication, "like when you need to say something really important"; most students report that they rarely use it. When using Snapchat, Instagram, or other photo-sharing apps, they warn not to over-post or post pictures of other people without their consent, and they encourage one another to "like" photos and post compliments.

Text messaging generates the most do's and don'ts of all four categories of communication. Some of students' do's include "respond quickly" and "reread your texts to make sure they make sense." They warn not to respond to a long text messages with a short response, like "K," and not to respond when you're angry.

I use students' conversations about communication norms to transition into a discussion of appropriate online communication for school-related interactions. I begin by providing students with a list of guidelines for online academic discussions, and then I invite them to add to my list. Here are some of the do's and don'ts on my list. 1

  • Use names. Using a person's name when you respond to his or her postings creates a friendly online tone.

  • Read questions and conversational postings carefully to avoid unnecessary confusion.

  • Compliment your peers when they post strong responses or contribute original ideas to the conversation.

  • Ask questions. If anything is unclear or you want further information or insight on a topic, just ask.

  • Be considerate. Remember that your peers cannot see your body language or hear your tone of voice, so you need to keep your language direct and respectful.

  • Respond instead of reacting. Do not write a response if you are angry or upset. Instead, wait until you have had time to calm down and collect your thoughts.

  • Critique the content, not the person.

  • Don't use all caps when writing. It is interpreted as yelling.

Instead of just distributing their own list of guidelines, some teachers may want to have students participate in creating a class contract of agreed-on online behaviors. Such a contract can create a stronger incentive for students to maintain a safe online space. And sharing the contract with parents and administrators can help reduce their concerns about online engagement.

Building an Online Community

Once we've established the norms for online communication, I engage my classes in online icebreakers to build community. I post fun discussion topics like, "If you could have a superpower, what would it be?" or "If you could travel in time, where would you go?" These icebreakers give students a chance to practice appropriate online communication while getting to know one another. Building strong social relationships is a crucial element in motivating students to remain respectful and supportive online.

Once students have engaged in online icebreakers, I take samples from their online work and ask small groups to critique what was done well and what needed improvement. This encourages students to look at their interactions with a critical eye and revisit the expectations for online communication. During these small-group critiques, students often notice and correct mechanical errors or point out places when a reply did not begin with a classmate's name.

This activity also gives me the opportunity to gently correct missteps before we dive into academic conversations. I share examples of strong responses that clearly answer the question, and I show examples that lack development and highlight ways the responses could have been stronger. I point out instances of informal text talk—like "lol" or emojis—reminding my students that this type of informal communication is not appropriate for an academic setting.

From Safe Spaces to More Meaningful Learning

When we ask students to share their ideas and take intellectual risks, we need to make sure we've created a safe space that fosters encouraging and constructive interactions among students. This safety is even more important online, where we as teachers are not physically present to enforce expectations. As we blend online elements into our teaching and learning, we must approach online student work with the same mindfulness we apply to work done in our physical classroom.

End Notes

1 For an expanded list of do's and don'ts and more tips on creating expectations for online interactions, see my book Blended Learning in Grades 4–12: Leveraging the Power of Technology to Create Student-Centered Classrooms (Corwin, 2012).

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