Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tyler Clementi, Facebook and Learning Communities

Rutgers Suicide Video
Tyler Clementi and the five other gay teen suicides this past week have the nation reeling. Debates are taking place about whether our national discriminatory policies and laws contributed to the deaths. Vigils are being held. And scarily, the death toll keeps rising: last week, five kids had died because of bullying online. This morning it is six.

As an information specialist and the mother of a gay kid, I am heartbroken. I am so fortunate to have been a member of a liberal Jewish congregation in a liberal part of a relatively liberal town. So is my kid. She grew up going to gay rights marches, spending Thanksgiving and Pesach with a two-mom family and hearing messages all around her of inclusion and acceptance. She still didn't come out to us until she was fifteen years old. Some of the suicides killed themselves right after coming out to their accepting parents. It would seem that parental acceptance was not key in these kids' sense of their place in the world. Unsurprisingly, it was more likely the attitudes of peers, teachers, the larger world and its attending information conundrum that drove them to kill themselves.

I can't solve our country's discrimination against its LGBT citizens here. But I can offer some thoughts about information and its uses and maybe, some better ways to keep our children safe.

Print information in our time is ubiquitous. The Library of Congress is now cataloging tweets. Our kids don't talk on the phone for hours as we used to anymore, and they don't even email that much: they text and Facebook each other. They communicate in print. They are busy content developers and that is a good thing.

Let's be clear: online bullying is NOT the fault of technology or Facebook. Facebook, like money, can be used for good or evil. It's only a tool. Educators around the world are using it increasingly in the classroom as an effective tool for teaching history, literature and more. It connects people whose purposes are good: for mutual learning, for keeping up with loved ones, and its uses are still developing.

However, as we know, our yetzer ha-ra and our yetzer ha-tov are not always in balance. Combine that with adolescence and poor impulse control and you have a potential train wreck. Add in parent and teacher inertia and you have a dangerous situation indeed. That's what I mean when I say information conundrum. As educators and parents, we are often unsure of ourselves. How much control of our kids is appropriate? Can we even keep up with our digitally native kids, when computers for us in 1980's high school meant a green screen with yellow letters and a blinking cursor?

We would never put our middle school-age children on a train and send them into an international city like Paris by themselves. It wouldn't be safe. I am asking, no, IMPLORING parents to REQUIRE that their children "friend" them or accept their "friend" requests in order to have a Facebook page. In the education world, we know children need support in order to succeed in educational tasks. We use the Jewish educator Lev Vygotsky's term scaffolding to express this. Scaffolds support workers and buildings as they are built. It is our job to provide support to our children as they build their online lives and their digital footprints. Some HR departments are searching people on Facebook before they hire them. Many Google people before interviews. DEMAND your child "friend" you. This way you can become aware of what is happening for them online. Adolescents need adult guidance in their lives. When what they say and do is in print, as much of their lives are now, they can and do make mistakes. These mistakes, as we have seen, can impact others enormously. Can we control all the information our kids are exposed to? No. Should we try to be aware of what our kids are doing in cyberspace? Yes.

I have made a firm policy NOT to allow children who are my current students to "friend" me, as I felt that too much shared information about my life was just TMI for them and for me. However, I am rethinking that position. Facebook is a vehicle I use primarily to learn and to share information. I don't use it to share minutia about my life or to, god forbid, offer secrets to the world. If I were to accept "friend" requests from my current students, I would be in a position to gently guide them online in a way I can't currently. This makes sense to me. It offers a safety net to them. The responsibility lies with me, then, to tell them that if they "friend" me, I will offer them quiet, one-on-one advice via email should they post something inappropriate. I will also tell their parents if I think it is truly over the line. This course of action feels proactive and positive for my students. However, I can't keep kids safe by myself. Parental involvement is necessary. Help me. "Friend" your kid. Let's create a safe learning community together that helps our children better balance themselves in a digital world.

NYT article on Gay Bullying and Teen Suicide

Pre-Crime Comes to the HR Department

Using Facebook in the Classroom

Education, Social Media, and Ethics: Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education