By Heather Chaplin
Last October, Anne McCoy of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), was the keynote speaker at a professional development day for the Rainy River District in Fort Frances, Ontario.
As community service coordinator for the OPP, McCoy has spent the last four and a half years traveling around her district speaking and building relationships between the police, parents, and educators in Ontario. The teachers there were used to working with police officers on issues like the importance of wearing a helmet while riding a bike, or substance abuse prevention. But a needs assessment survey McCoy had conducted with the school board showed that online safety and bullying was now the community’s primary safety concern.
And the death of a 15-year-old teen in British Columbia last week, who committed suicide after being the victim of cyberbullying, has brought even more attention to the issue. Canadian officials are now calling for the government to create a national anti-bullying strategy and to do more to protect minors online.
Digital citizenship education, McCoy said, has become like bicycle safety for the modern age. Kids need information on how to protect themselves, and educators need guidance.
During her talk last year, Constable McCoy told the assembled group that she was going to find a safety prevention curriculum that met these new concerns.
“I needed to find something new and exciting but that was credible too,” McCoy said.
What she found was Common Sense Media’s Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum.
“The fact that Common Sense Media already has a constructed curriculum, the fact that it was made by people at Harvard, the fact that it has assessment packages, and the fact that it was made to fit into education parameters, means that I can point at it and say, ‘look, it’s tested and true,’” McCoy said. “It means I knew it would be accepted in the teacher world.”
So McCoy chose Common Sense Media’s materials to present to educators in the Rainy River District. For her, it was an important first step.
“It’s like we’ve been giving kids licenses to drive cars before teaching them how to drive,” McCoy said. “Today’s kids have access to screens as soon as they’re born. We have to start teaching kids responsible, ethical behavior and the consequences of bad behavior. We need to teach digital citizenship.”
One of the people to whom McCoy reached out was Heather Campbell, director of education for the Rainy River District, which contains 14 K-12 schools and about 3,000 students. Campbell didn’t take much persuading.
“We have more and more technology in our lives,” Campbell said. “It’s not enough to just teach skills. It’s the values and ethics of how to conduct yourself with this technology we have to teach too.”
Adapting Lessons to Meet the Needs of Teachers
With Campbell on board, McCoy started crisscrossing the district, and stepping into classrooms to present Common Sense Media’s digital literacy and citizenship lessons.
For example, at the North Star School in Atikokan, in northwestern Ontario, she visited a second grade classroom to talk about “Going Places Safely,” a lesson that uses pictures of stoplights to help kids understand where online they should be going (green), where they shouldn’t (red), and where they should to be careful (yellow.) McCoy was struck by how a discussion on safety and privacy -- potentially dry stuff -- was made engaging for the kids by using the stoplight handouts and the videos. In fact, she was so pleased with the lesson that OPP designed posters using the stoplight motif for classrooms as part of their Cyber Awareness Prevention and Education campaign.
“When we approached Common Sense Media about using their curriculum they said, ‘by all means, go ahead, use if for professional development and educational programming,’” McCoy said. “But they also said we could have the freedom to adapt it to suit our needs. That made a big difference for us.”
In a tenth-grade class, McCoy used a PowerPoint presentation she had created based on the Common Sense Media lesson “Private Today, Public Tomorrow.” McCoy put the entire curriculum into her PowerPoint and used Common Sense Media’s handouts. She then followed up with her own talk on privacy, cyberbulling, and sexting.
Think Before You Click
McCoy was struck by the powerful classroom discussion that followed one of the examples in “Private Today, Public Tomorrow.” The lesson focuses on a student who posts her picture online in a pirate costume, holding a drink in her hand, under the caption, “Drunken Pirate.” In the scenario, the student is expelled from her department. The class agreed that the school overreacted and that the student shouldn’t have been expelled, but to McCoy’s mind, the important take-away was a real-world understanding of cause and effect.
“They started to understand the potential consequences of online behavior,” she said. “It’s not necessarily about right or wrong, but understanding the ripple effect of your choices. Think before you click.”
From September through March, McCoy traveled the district, giving her presentations and working with teachers so that they could incorporate the Common Sense Media materials into their curriculum. She’s been working toward something she calls “community mobilization,” which means having the police lead the initiative on digital safety and citizenship but then turning the reins over to other people.
“We want to say, ‘hey, here’s this great, trusted resource you can use,” McCoy said. “Now go mobilize.”
Her outreach includes talking with school board members, teachers, youth organizations, victim services, and seniors. Next up: parents. This year, community service officers at the OPP plan to host parent/school nights, work with parent councils and do general evening seminars for parents, grandparents, and caregivers.
Aligning With The Curriculum
Back in the classroom, Tanya Kroocmo, a new tech coach for K-8 in the Rainy River District, had learned one thing quickly: “It’s hard to get teachers to adopt a new lesson if they don’t think it’s covering their curriculum expectations,” Kroocmo said. Teachers already have more than enough on their hands. So Kroocmo showed teachers how media literacy and Common Sense Media’s lessons specifically could help meet existing grade-level curricular benchmarks.
For example, as part of Ontario’s third-grade media literacy curriculum, students must learn to identify or understand who produces selected media texts and why. Kroocmo put Common Sense Media’s lesson “Things for Sale” in a digital binder for teachers. In the lesson, students examine commercial product websites and learn that the purpose of the site is to encourage buying the product. Kroocmo not only liked that she was helping teachers meet their curriculum goals but also that the lesson facilitates classroom discussion.
Kroocmo said the province’s standards stipulate that seventh graders should learn to understand whose point of view is presented in a media text and learn to identify missing or alternative points of view.
To help with this requirement, Kroocmo provides teachers with the lesson “Cyberbullying: Be Upstanding,” which addresses why kids may not be able to stand up for themselves online. Students learn about the difference between being a passive bystander versus being a “brave upstander” in cyberbullying situations.
According to Kroocmo, though, digital citizenship is about more than just defending yourself from cyberbullying. “It’s more all encompassing than just that. It’s about learning to be literate in a digital world,” she said.
According to the district’s director of education, Heather Campbell, the Rainy River District will be ready with its community-wide mobilization, centered on Common Sense Media’s curriculum, by December.
“I feel it’s our responsibility to do this,” Campbell said. “We in the schools see students the most during the day. We have the opportunity to instill good values and behaviors. By heightening our students’ awareness of what it means to be a safe and responsible digital citizen, we’re helping our students in their role as global citizens.”