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I had the good fortune of hearing Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell speak this past weekend.  I’ve devoured all of his books and am just beginning his last Inspector Wallender book, The Troubled Man. Mankell is a marvelous speaker and knows how to regale an audience with subtle, yet powerful anecdotes.

Among the many topics he discussed, ranging from Mugabe to Mozambique, Mankell talked about art as the “search for friends to take into reality.”  He shared the story of meeting a man in the early 1990s in Sweden.  The man asked Mankell whether Mankell’s most renowned character, Inspector Wallender, was in favor of Sweden joining the European Union.  At that moment, Mankell noted, he recognized that Wallender had become this man’s friend who had entered reality.

This got me thinking about kids and digital media, ranging from social networking to gaming.  Kids love to create online identities, living with a mulitplicity of names, in different realities.  The question is how kids navigate between the real and the imagined, and which identities enter reality for them.

Instead of art being the search for friends to take into reality, for kids is it gaming and social media as the search for friends to take into reality?

I love the character of Inspector Wallender and as the woman who introduced Mankell explained, Mankell’s characters have a way of staying with you and the stories are ones that still have you asking questions months and even years later.  Do the characters and identities that kids are creating online have the same depth of connection?

Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken argues for the need to invert reality into a game, and leverage the power of game thinking and design to solve global problems.  She writes:

“What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?” (p. 7)

McGonigal shares the story of David Sudnow’s 1983 memoir on gaming, Breakout.  She shares Sudnow’s “neurochemical activation” from the immersion of gaming:

“This was a whole different business, nothing like I’d ever known, like night and day…Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.” (p. 40)

Sudnow was “working at the limits of his abilities,” according to McGonigal.

Scavnger Founder Seth Priebatsch has spoken about this decade as being the decade of the game layer.

In the book Teaching 2030, the authors argue that teachers of the future need to be prepared to “Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual reality games and can find out almost everything with a few taps of the finger.”

The key is to figure out how to create depth in the learning experience with digital media in the way that Mankell has in his understanding of art and literature. Mankell understands how to build and sustain connections with his characters and with his readers.

I hope that we can still hold onto the magic of books, like the ones Mankell writes, to hold the imagination and feed the “search for friends to take into reality.”  I would hate to ever lose that to games and virtual learning environments.

The Digital Gaffe

The Digital Gaffe

There is no shortage of resources to tap into to address and teach digital citizenship to students these days.  Not a day passes when a headline does not jump off the front pages of the news that stirs and disturbs the notion of safe, smart, and civil engagement online.

From UCLA student Alexandra Wallace’s ill-timed, insensitive rant on You Tube, in which she slammed Asian-American students for talking on their cell phones in the UCLA library, in the wake of the devastating news of the Japan earthquake, to the front page New York Times article about the viral cell phone picture of an 8th grade female student, to the Israeli government demanding that Facebook remove an incendiary Facebook group that fanned the flames of extremism, it is frankly not possible to escape the perils and challenges of living in the digital age.

As educators and parents, how are we to address this deluge with kids?

Well, we can’t turn the other way, and hope that the digital gaffe will disappear.  It won’t.

But where is the space where kids can wrestle with and talk through the complexity of these issues, without fear of reprisal and punishment?

First, parents need to create a safe space at home for open conversation to happen.  When confronted with digital missteps by their kids, parents need to remain calm, catch their breath, and avoid visceral responses.

Second, schools need to talk with kids about digital citizenship.

Schools need to make judicious use of Advisory programs, social and emotional learning, history, civics, and writing classes to provide opportunities for dialogue to occur in smaller settings with a genuine back and forth about the subtle and blatant problems that emerge with ill-advised technology use.  Kids also need to feel that adults will listen to and identify with the challenges kids face with media.

As these lessons and discussions take place, schools need to communicate with parents to help continue the conversation in the home.  This can happen through follow-up letters and resources sent home to parents, or through parent education evenings, where parents can share and strategize about how to handle the online environment at home.

Schools and parents need to work together to build and maintain an above ground culture with kids.  When an incident arises, schools need to approach the student and family to work with them to help resolve the situation, in partnership.  As we all know, particularly with technology, information travels with speed. It is critical to help kids figure out ways to reorient situations that start to arise.  Schools need to take the time to talk through scenarios and think out loud with kids the steps needed to reach successful outcomes. Kids cannot do this alone and need the help and guidance of teachers and parents.

As a response to Alexandra Wallace’s YouTube rant, Jimmy Wong, an Asian-American, flipped Wallace’s rant on its head with a catchy ditty “Ching Chong” that went viral and “leveled the playing field”, as writer Dave Pell shared on NPR. “Sometimes it’s about being smarter, funnier or more creative,” Pell writes.

Not every kid will have the tools to invert a digital gaffe, in the way Wong did, but every kid needs and deserves the space to voice and devise an antidote to digital gaffes. And the last thing parents and educators want is for kids to go underground, and have to do figure out solutions to the digital gaffe on their own.

In The New York Times, in an article titled, Erasing the Digital Past, Michael Fertik of Reputation.com, highlights the stakes of posting online:  “The Internet has become the go-to resources to destroy someone’s life online, which in turn means their offline life gets turned upside, too. We’ve reached a point where the Internet has become so complicated, vast and fast-paced, that people can’t control it by themselves anymore. They now need an army of technologists to back them up online.”

Kids don’t have the good fortune of having an “army of technologists to back them up online”, and they can’t pay services like Reputation.com to guard their online identities. But kids can expect that the adults in their lives are the go to people when they make or experience a digital gaffe.

Go Figure

Think before you post.  No doubt former UCLA student Alexandra Wallace has learned this valuable lesson.  Her ill-timed, insensitive rant on You Tube, in which she slammed Asian-American students for talking on their cell phones in the UCLA library, in the wake of the devastating news of the Japan earthquake, fast went viral, and her life is forever upturned.  All it took was one click and one post, and her identity went public, from what appeared to be a private conversation with herself in the bed of her dorm room.

Her video sparked a deluge of responses, from a You Tube rebuttal by the UCLA chancellor, to a ditty by Jimmy Wong, in which he flipped Wallace’s rant on its head.  Remarkably, the Asian-American Wong has forgiven Wallace for her racial diatribe.  On NPR, Wong commented: “I was pretty offended at first, but then I realized that this is just someone going on a rant — we’ve all done it before. My visceral reaction to the video would not have been as appropriate.”  He goes on to say: “I would like to tell her that I totally forgive her. I would love to meet for coffee and give her a big hug.”

This is a great opportunity for schools to use Wallace’s You Tube gaffe as a teaching tool to help kids understand the power of the post.  Here is a possible teaching plan:

Start by having students watch the Wallace video. As they watch, break students into 6 groups, and adopt the perspective of the group, and plan a response to the video from that perspective.  The groups are

(1) The University – the Chancellor, (2) an Asian-American student at UCLA, (3) the American Civil Liberties Union, (4) The New York Times, (5) Common Sense Media, and (6) The Daily Bruin.

Have students share their responses in their groups and then switch and partner with a student from another group to share their perspective.  Rotate two or three times so they have the chance to hear a few different perspectives, then open up the discussion to the whole class.

Then have students watch the UCLA chancellor’s You Tube response.  Have them consider its effectiveness.

Then, have them watch Jimmy Wong’s You Tube song response.

Which is more effective, the song or the Chancellor? Why?

The New York Times in an editorial on the subject shares the following:  “Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment scholar at U.C.L.A., counseled why Ms. Wallace’s video is “clearly constitutionally protected,” no matter how obnoxious. A purpose of the American university, he said, is to debate major decisions about social and other policies — to build consensus and the foundations of community. To assure worthwhile debate, it’s necessary to protect some worthless, even hurtful, opinion.”

Have students debate whether the video should be “constitutionally protected.”

Finally, should Alexandra Wallace be punished by the University?

She ended up withdrawing from the university.  She suffered a natural consequence.  Here is her letter of withdrawal, from The Daily Bruin.

Here is a wonderful story from NPR, titled, “Jimmy Wong Saves The Internet.” It hits on a creative way to address cyberbullying.

Check out my letter in The New York Times on children and social media.

From The New York Times:

LETTER: Children and Social Media

A response to an article about children creating fake identities online.


Here is Alexandra Wallace’s apology to the Daily Bruin and the New York Times editorial on the controversy.  Also, here is the New York Times story on the controversy. This is a great opportunity to open conversation with students about the importance of thinking before you post, and the concept of public by default and how quickly things can go viral.

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