In September of 2014, Huntington Middle School (HMS), in Huntington, WV, began plans for our yearly Title I Parental Outreach programs. After speaking with Jason Jackson, West Virginia education manager for Common Sense Education, HMS chose to kick off our work for the school year with the Connecting Families Program. Connecting Families is a free year-long program from Common Sense that includes everything parent facilitators need to encourage their schools and communities to use connected technologies in ways that are both fun and safe. The program kicks off with a Teen Panel, which puts the voices and experiences of teens in your community at the center of the conversation. We scheduled ours for Nov. 13, 2014, and began the process of getting the stakeholders in place to take part.
We learned from Mr. Jackson and the Connecting Families facilitator's guide that an effective Teen Panel must reflect the diversity of the student population. The student profile of HMS is quite varied: A large portion of our population participates in the federal free and reduced lunch program, a number of students are middle- to upper middle-class, plus we have a small minority population from several racial and ethnic groups. Taking these factors into consideration, HMS selected a truly representative sample of our student population. Even though HMS has around 690 students, we only needed 10 to 14 to represent our student population.
In the weeks leading up to the Teen Panel, we worked to make the community aware of the event. We invited the Parent-Teacher-Student Organization at HMS to take part, and they offered their assistance. We hung flyers throughout the building and also sent flyers home several days prior. We contacted local members of the news media, and they agreed to cover the event and spread word about our goal of producing great digital citizens. The local newspaper featured a story about the event. And Mr. Jedd Flowers, Cabell County Schools’ director of communications, worked to spread the word to the entire district, emphasizing that this was an important and unprecedented event for our area.
The week before the Teen Panel, we prepped participating students. To make sure they were ready to take part, we rehearsed several possible questions in a mock session. It was helpful for the teens to practice. They became more at ease with the potential topics of conversation, and also were made aware of the time constraints that would be imposed on their conversations.
The Teen Panel
We decided to set up our Teen Panel to feel a bit more informal. The students sat at eye level with the audience to eliminate the sense of "being on the stage." This made them more comfortable and willing to discuss the questions.
Mr. Jackson moderated the Teen Panel. The students were thoughtful and detailed in their responses. For example, Jackson asked, "Do you feel social media has made your, and others', lives better or worse? Why?" Based on our prep work with the students, we expected certain responses, but they went much deeper with their replies than we anticipated. One student discussed how social media makes it easy to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime using any connected device, but then pointed out a negative side effect: cyberbullying.
The topic of cyberbullying was one of the richest discussions of the panel event. The students almost unanimously defined cyberbullying in a very interesting way: They likened it to traditional bullying, but more cowardly. They discussed the idea of using the keyboard as a mask, or hiding behind it, as their justification. In their opinion, it's become easy for individuals to bully others in this way because they no longer have to see them face to face as they're doing it.
The parents, teachers, and community members in attendance were unbelievably attentive to the students. They showed tremendous respect by not being judgmental of the teens' comments or observations during the event. We knew audience members would have questions during the panel discussion, so we provided pens and index cards for them to write down anything they wanted to ask afterwards. We allotted time at the end for a Q&A with the panelists.
One community member asked the students if they knew of anyone, be it a close friend or just a classmate, who reported cyberbullying to a teacher or administrator and then faced negative consequences from the bully. Our students were tremendously honest and said they did, and admitted they knew of others who didn't report it because they were afraid of that very thing happening.
The students surprised our audience with their assertion that very little of what happens online with social media is negative. Not everyone shares nude pictures or “sexts” all the time. They pushed the idea that cyberbullying isn't a common practice their digital lives. This really hit home with the audience; we saw an immediate response of genuine elation.
In the social time following the Teen Panel, the discussion and comments about the evening were positive and overwhelmingly supportive of following up with "Conversation Cases" as a part of the Connecting Families program. Because of the success of our Teen Panel, we have committed to moving forward with the Conversation Cases this spring to keep the discussion about digital citizenship and the digital lives of our students alive in the school and community.