My teenage daughter Stephanie sits across the table, and the phone sits in neutral territory between us as we enter another discussion about digital responsibility . . . or do-the-right-thing-with-your-tech.
The conversation is getting old, and she’s had her phone for only a year. This scares me, since there are three more soon-to-be teenagers living in our house. I’m not sure how to help her learn digital citizenship.
She does things that make my blood boil. She texts me demands. She’s rude to her friends. She posts pictures with telling information. She chats with strangers during English class. I remind myself she needs to go through this learning process and it is a good thing she is learning to make wise choices with her phone. At the same time I want to rip it out of neutral territory and hide it until she’s 37 and doesn’t text 17 messages to her crush. (Yes, I know, only old people say “crush.”)
The part that makes my head spin is that she’s a great kid. She’s thoughtful and considerate. She does the dishes and folds the laundry. Her homework is always done on time, and she communicates meetings and schedules like an adult. She is a classic oldest child . . . until she gets a phone in her hand. Then her brain turns to mush.
We’re bumping through this together. She’s learning to live a story in the midst of social media, and I’m learning how to empower her to share her story while at the same time protect her as she does.
Social Media Alters the Stories We Tell
I have figured this out: social media alters our stories. My youngest son, Sam, is nine. There are times when I snap a picture and he says, “Don’t post that on Instagram.”
I smile and say, “Oh, come on, it’s really cute.”
His face is straight. “I don’t do cute on social media.”
Other times, Jay, age ten, will say, “Mom, come take a video of this for Mamaw. You can post it on Twitter too. Your followers will love it!” He has a sense of sharing our stories with family in another state, as well as with a larger, global audience through my Twitter feed.
I asked Stephanie when youth group is this week and she said, “Check Instagram or Facebook. That’s where it’s posted.”
Our classrooms are full of kids who know there are stories on social media, and they want to join in.
What is everyone else doing? What does everyone else think? What’s worth telling? What do I have to hide? These questions alter the stories we tell. As we consider how to entice all writers to put their voice into the world, we also must be aware of the power and danger of social media. Story has the incredible ability to connect and affect the world for the better, and it also has the power to hurt and harm. More than any other time in history, as writing teachers we must learn to navigate this terrain with students.
In much the same way as I’m learning alongside my daughter about how to empower her to be a responsible digital citizen, teachers are learning alongside students about how to use their words to uplift, inspire, and empower social change rather than harm and endanger reputations and hearts.
Technology Influences Writing Process and Products
My own writing process is dependent on technology and social media. Instagram is a sort of writing notebook for me. I often turn to my feed for a start to a story or blog post. Twitter also serves as a writing notebook, collecting articles and notes for my own writing about teaching writers. Google Drive allows me to collaborate with other writers. I create digital texts—websites, video lessons, and blog posts.
As a writer, I find that technology changes my writing process and changes my writing products. The same ought to be true for writers in classrooms. There isn’t a right way to do this work. Technology changes too fast. It is a journey we walk alongside of our students. As we depend on our understanding of developing strong citizens and begin to enter into social media platforms as classrooms, we can apply our understandings and learning to empower our students as responsible digital citizens.
I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from the middle grade novel A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban. The book has nothing to do with digital citizenship, but everything to do with being the kind of kid who is secure in her story. Zoe, the main character, wants to be a concert pianist more than anything, but she has to make do with being an organist because her father bought the Perfectone M-60 organ and she received six months of lessons. At the Perform-O-Rama competition, Zoe realizes it’s not just about getting the notes right, but about the heart too.
Urban weaves the story with these words:
Perfection itself is imperfection.
That’s what Horowitz [a famous pianist] said.
I heard it on that show I watched with my mom. The voice-over guy said that Horowitz meant that it wasn’t enough to get all the notes right. When you play the piano, you have to get the heart right. Which is harder than getting the notes right.
Each note can only be right in one way. A B-flat is a B-flat is a B-flat. A robot can get a B-flat right.
But getting the heart right is something only a person can do. And the ways to do it are as many and as different as there are people in the world.
In writing workshops, it’s not just about getting the instruction right. It’s not about a canned program, or a great app, or a lockstep process. It’s about getting the heart right. It’s about building writers who use technology as part of the writing process, as well as a way to create products. It is about touching hearts, walking the journey together, and pulling students into the possibilities their stories have for changing the world. And the ways to do this are as many and as different as there are teachers in the world.