In September of 2014, Huntington Middle School (HMS), in Huntington, WV, began plans for our yearly Title I Parental Outreach programs. Following contact with Mr. Jason Jackson, WV 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 yearlong program that provides all the materials for facilitators to engage and encourage their student and parent bodies in using connected technologies safely and successfully. For more information about the Connecting Families program, visit Common Sense’s site here. In the time leading up to the scheduled event on November 13, 2014, HMS completed groundwork to find the stakeholders 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. In consultation with our grade-level teacher teams, we came up with a list of potential candidates for interviews before the final selection of the panel.
Even though HMS has a population of approximately 690 students, only 10 to 14 students were needed to obtain a representative sample. Since these students would be taking part in the discussion, they had to represent the various aspects of our population. The socioeconomic profile of HMS is quite varied. A large portion of our population participate in the federal free/reduced lunch program, classifying HMS as a Title I school. In addition, a number of students at HMS are middle- to upper-middle class and we have a small minority population from several racial and ethnic groups as well. Taking these factors into consideration HMS selected a truly representative sample of our student population.
In the weeks leading up to the event, HMS worked to make the community aware of our event in hope that it would entice them to attend and hear about the digital lives of the students directly from them. The Parent-Teacher-Student Organization of HMS was invited to take part and offered their assistance in helping to make the event a success as well.
Local members of the news media were contacted and offered their help in covering the event to spread the word about the goal of producing great digital citizens. A story about our event was featured in the local newspaper (http://tinyurl.com/nn6pwnm). Mr. Jedd Flowers, Cabell County Schools’ Director of Communications, worked to spread the word to the entire district in hopes that it would bring in a larger audience for such an important, and unprecedented, event for our area (http://tinyurl.com/nc3o7h4).
In the short week leading up to the event, time was spent prepping the participants to ensure that they were ready to take part. Several possible questions were rehearsed with the students in a mock session to help make them at ease in talking about the various topics being addressed on the panel. This proved to be a tremendous success, as the students were forced to stop their conversations in the preparation meetings due to time constraints.
The parents, teachers, and community members of the school were very responsive in helping to promote the event. Flyers were hung throughout the building to make the students of the event and were sent home several days before so that parents were notified as well.
It was chosen to present the event with more informal constraints and setup. The students were seated at eye level with the audience to eliminate the sense of “being on the stage.” This added to their comfort and willingness to be open and discuss the questions without any fear.
During the event itself, the students were very thoughtful and detailed in their responses to the questions presented to them by Mr. Jackson, who moderated the event. For example, they were asked, “Do you feel social media has made your, and others’, lives better or worse? Why?” Based on the preparation work with the students certain responses were expected, but they went much deeper with their replies. One student discussed how social media has made it easy to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime using any connected device, but then pointed out a negative side effect; cyber-bullying.
The topic of cyber-bullying was one of great discussion during the panel event. The students, almost, unanimously defined cyber-bullying in a very interesting way; they likened it to traditional bullying, but in a more cowardly way. They discussed the idea of using the keyboard as a mask, or hiding behind it, as their justification. In their opinion, it has become so easy for individuals to bully another in this way because they no longer have to see them face-to-face as they are doing it.
The parents, teachers, and community members in attendance were unbelievably attentive to the students. They showed them tremendous respect by not being judgmental of their comments or observations during the event. It was apparent that questions would arise from the panel discussion, members of the audience were provided pens, and index cards to write down any that might come to mind during the discussion. Time was allotted at the end to address these questions directly to the students to see what type of response they may get from them.
One community member asked the students if they had noticed anyone, be it a close friend or just a classmate, who had reported cyber-bullying to a teacher or administrator and then faced negative consequences from the bully. Our students were tremendously honest and said that they had, but admitted that they knew of a number of others who simply did not report it because they were afraid of that very thing happening.
The students also surprised many in our audience by getting them to see that not everything they do online with social media was negative. Not everyone shared nude pictures or “sexted” all the time. They pushed the idea that it was not a common practice for cyber-bullying to take place in their own digital lives. This really hit home with the audience and saw an almost immediate response of genuine elation.
In the social time provided following the event, the discussion and comments about the evening were positive and overwhelming in support of conducting the follow-up session on “Conversation Cases” as a part of the Connecting Families program. Because of the great reaction of the audience, HMS have made that commitment and will be rolling out an evening session 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.
(This blog post is also featured on the Graphite Blog from Common Sense Media – https://www.graphite.org/blog/connecting-families-in-action.)