How can educational leaders lead in the area of digital citizenship?

The school year is starting, and once again, digital citizenship is trending. I’ve spoken with different Principals, and when social media is brought up, eyes roll or sighs happen. Some principals try to deal with the behaviors that can come with it, others ignore it and say to their parents it’s not a school issue. But no matter what policies or how administrators deal or do not deal with their students on social media, the topic of helping students become healthy, engaging digital citizens is a hot topic.

Often people share that being a digital citizen is a list of don’ts. In 2020, CEO of ISTE Richard Culatta shared an excellent argument on why it’s a list of do’s. Yet, I have continued to wonder, what is our definition of being a citizen? Specifically a healthy engaged citizen. How does that transfer to the digital world?

Let’s first define citizenship.

As well as the last 35 years in education, I’ve spent the last 10 years as a community connector in a non-profit. My role was to bring people together. Help people make new friends who connect through hobbies, topics, and activities. Sometimes a person would come to me and say they just can’t find the right group. After some time talking with them, it usually came down to a group of people not knowing how to welcome in a stranger so that the person feels like they belong. Yet, there were other times I found that when people served in a group, they felt like they belonged. I wondered what that was all about.

So I did some informal research. I started talking with group leaders, visiting different groups, and joining some myself, just to see if I could understand the communities better. What I found was interesting. People like to be with people who are like themselves. Often clicks are just a group of people who like each other and are either afraid of outsiders, intimidated by them, or just don’t want to have a lot of friends. There is safety in a click. But we all know that clicks are what keep outsiders from belonging. It’s more than just fitting in.

From the Cambridge Dictionary, belonging is:

“a feeling of being happy or comfortable as part of a particular group and having a good relationship with the other members of the group because they welcome you and accept you”

Being a citizen does not mean you just fit into a country, city, or community. Being a citizen means you belong someplace.Often when you belong, you then contribute. When you don’t feel like you belong, you can feel like your thoughts, talents, and abilities are not valued or welcomed, or you are not accepted. On the other hand, true belonging often inspires service.

Where does actual belonging start? What does this have to do with being a digital citizen?

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.” Mother Theresa

Most of us have seen a rock being thrown into the water. The ripples go far and wide. Belonging starts with one person being kind — inviting an outsider in — they in turn invite others in. Belonging happens when you have been invited in and given space to thrive.

In some ancient writings, there is a story of a man named Zacchaeus. He climbed into a tree because he was short. He wanted to see what was going on as Jesus, a miracle worker, was walking by. Jesus ended up calling him by his name. The story goes on that then Jesus went and ate in his home, and Zacchaeus became a follower.

When someone is kind, they call them by name, and a friendship forms. That person feels like they belong because a simple act of kindness was extended. Zacchaeus, as the story goes, was a bad dude during his day — a tax collector. Yet Jesus extended kindness to him. Even went to his home for dinner. Zacchaeus felt welcomed, and then welcomed others. Jesus engaged the community and later so did Zacchaeus. Kindness gives more kindness. — Ripple effect

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address inspired children and adults to see the importance of civic action and public service. He said, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country?” This is owning your citizenship. Instead of complaining about our country, state, or city — ask ourselves what we can do. This is citizenship. When we contribute, we start the ripple effect.

Digital citizenship is the same. We can spend hours scrolling, searching, reading, and taking in content. But how do we engage? What can you do to invite others into a life-giving community on the internet? A friend of mine said, “A healthy citizen considers the needs of others. They value their community and seek to build it up.”

How do we create a community of healthy digital citizens?

How do we create a community of healthy digital citizens?There are a series of Principals and Administrators entertaining us, yet bringing joy, good, and education to their communities. They make the web a better place to be. They engage with us. Speak to us and invite us into their world. And many make us laugh.

  1. Tyler Tarver (@tylertarver)

Just to name a few. These educators are creating spaces in the digital world that bring joy and education. We’ve seen other pages where people are posting happy, soul-warming pictures that bring joy.

How do we help students belong in online spaces?

Start by modeling.

Have you seen the video on dogs barking through a fence?

Most people don’t want to fight. For whatever reason, they get worked up and triggered. This triggering gets them going at each other. What if we modeled something different? We do have the power. Just because popular people are on social media stirring the pot and putting people against one another, does not mean we need to pick a side and join them. We can model to our staff, parents, and students something different.

Decide what you want to give.

In digital citizenship, you must make a conscious choice to be engaged in a healthy manner. You use the technology in your hands for civic engagement, to solve problems, and be a light in virtual communities.

You can decide not to get triggered, but instead to solve problems. For you, what does that look like? Sure, it’s okay to give your opinion, but what is your motive behind it? Ask yourself ‘what kind of ripple do I want to create?’ I find this to be noble and compelling.

Next, ask:

“How can I be gracious and admirable?”

Let’s model to our students and teach them how to be gracious and admirable in online spaces. When we go online, what spaces are we creating and contributing to? It’s fantastic to start with beautiful quotes and pictures. They can be inspiring. But we can also create an online space where people belong with you. Think about a hobby that you might have. Come up with something engaging. Most social media influencers have one theme and that theme only. This grabs us and draws us in. Find your theme that will invite your staff and students to follow and take in the joy you are bringing to the internet world.

How are your active listening skills? When posting, are you inclusive and welcoming? Part of being gracious is being an active listener. Are you open to hearing and respectfully recognizing multiple opinions? How can you engage with others online with respect and empathy, love and kindness? In many relationship counseling sessions, the first place you start is teaching how to be an active listener. This is being gracious and admirable. Gordon training has excellent resources to help schools, parents and students learn how to become active listeners. Active listening is a crucial skill today.

What are your gifts? Where can you bring excellence that lifts others up?

I used to think there was very little I was excellent at. I have joked that I’m a jack of all trades and a Master of 1. I have a masters in educational technology. Yet, all of us have gifts and talents that are various. All of us have an incredible purpose for the lives we live. It’s an incredible calling to be an educator and use your gifts to impact children’s lives. That is excellent and praiseworthy.

When being a digital citizen and contributing life-giving materials, think about your gifts and talents. Maybe you are amazing at finding funny memes? Or maybe you love reading books. You could learn how to create memes, or share a fantastic one each day with your school. If you love to read books, do book reviews, or tackle a problem and tell a story about it.

Be informed.

When engaging, are you informed on the topic that is being discussed? We teach students how not to plagiarize, and give credit to where credit is due. We also teach how to find accurate, peer-reviewed research. We can model the same in the digital world. People are paid to write inaccurate articles. I love copyrights and the skills they have to write. We must evaluate what we are reading. What is their motive behind the article? Make sure you are evaluating the accuracy, perspective, and purpose of your writing. Copyright can be to get the SOS engines running in their favor.

Create spaces where conversation happens.

Ask questions and invite engagement. Model conversations for your families and students. Whatever your theme or space you have created, make room for conversations where people can engage with you. Invite them into your online world.

Invite your school staff, students, and families to belong in digital spaces. Give them a place to belong.

Belonging is crucial. It’s why people spend so much time on social media. It’s why younger and younger children are finding groups online to connect. Give them a place to go. They will be online. So let’s create incredible safe communities where students can belong and see others modeling and contributing to the community. Being a healthy digital citizen starts with us. Our students and children are watching, and it can be a wonderful thing. We’ve got this!

Where can you be a healthy, engaged digital citizen? I can’t wait to see it.


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