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The View From Here: What Teaching Sex Ed Taught Me About the "Digital Citizenship" talk

Sean Freese, Director of Technology
This may feel a little awkward and uncomfortable but it's time to talk about "the talk." No, not the birds and the bees (though we'll get to that soon enough)—I'm talking about the digital citizenship talk.

I've been a technology educator in Independent Schools for over fifteen years, and every school in which I've worked has had some form of the digital citizenship talk. Like its more risqué cousin, it's often an awkward and wholly unsatisfying affair for all involved: Some unlucky adult trudges through a horror gallery of poor online choices and their life-altering consequences before imploring young people to talk to an adult if they or someone they know is getting bullied or worse. Thematically, it's not much removed from the "Blood on the Asphalt" movies that used to be shown in drivers ed classes and it's received by students in much the same way that "Reefer Madness" landed with baby boomers. 

Over the last ten years at Sonoma Academy, I've tried numerous iterations, experiments and tweaks with our freshmen -- group discussions, project-based learning, learning in-context, taught as a separate class -- to try to get around the fundamentals that make digital citizenship curriculum such a dud, all to no avail. Most recently I did shift the emphasis from citizenship to wellbeing, a helpful frame that got me out of the "Reefer Madness" trap but something was still missing. And with each passing year, the stakes of online participation continued to rise for my students, for adults and, indeed, for our whole society.

Then I taught sex ed.

Last summer, I had the immense privilege and awesome responsibility of covering the entirety of the Our Whole Lives 7-9 curriculum for a group of middle schoolers in the span of a week. OWL, as it is affectionately known, is a comprehensive human sexuality curriculum developed by two progressive religious organizations, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Non-sectarian and used in many independent school health programs, OWL is radically inclusive, unapologetic in its embrace of sexuality as a fundamental part the human experience and, most importantly, grounds its frank discussions of this enormous topic in the development and exploration of each young participant's personal values:

When it came time for me to meet with the incoming freshmen again after teaching OWL, I realized just how much human sexuality and digital wellbeing had in common. First, they're both subjects concerning youth behavior that inspire a lot of anxiety and hand-wringing among adults. They're also both fraught in ways that adults haven't fully figured out themselves (see: the news). Both play out in spaces largely unburdened by adult supervision and where social pressures can easily overwhelm expectations set by adults. Maybe as a result, many attempts to address these subjects fall into the trap of being driven more by fear of student behavior than by respect for student experience. And, of course, online pornography looms large over both topics.

At the core, questions of both human sexuality and digital wellbeing require young people to make critical decisions in relationship to others with potentially far-reaching consequences. And the choices made by young people in these situations are healthier when they are shaped by a set of clearly-understood personal values.
Inspired by Our Whole Lives, I redesigned the digital wellbeing lesson that makes up one component of our Health and Wellness curriculum with the freshmen. Like OWL, I started from the understanding that students are most likely going to engage with others online and that the focus of any discussion should be on helping them do so in a safe and healthy way. From there, I reframed the aspects of digital wellbeing I had already identified in the past as a series of questions to be answered by every person who participates online, highlighting both the challenges and opportunities presented by each aspect. Finally, I adapted OWL's Circles of Sexuality (itself adapted from the one developed by Dennis M. Daley at the University of Kansas) as Circles of Digital Wellbeing, with the all-important question of personal values at the center:

The benefits of this model were immediately obvious. First, it freed me up to admit that we adults don't have this stuff all figured out, either, which earned the trust of the students. Second, framing each aspect as a question to be answered for oneself empowered the students and allowed us to move way beyond a list of dos and don'ts. The students were much more engaged throughout the presentation, responding to my questions and posing their own. Last, the values framing led more naturally into the second half of the lesson, a small-group discussion of real-life experiences facilitated by health and wellness TAs in the senior class. Feedback from the freshmen, the senior TAs, and even the adults who participated was all very positive.

It's too early to tell whether this initial conversation with the freshmen will have an impact on how they engage online. These are complex topics and the question of values is one that we will need to return to repeatedly over our years together in order for it to make a difference. I'm committed to keeping that conversation going, though, and for the first time in my career, I'm confident that this is the right way to start.
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