ANN ARBOR—Eighth-grade students in one group, arms intricately linked, try to move as a unit without breaking loose from one another.
At a table nearby students toss a skein of yarn to classmates, creating a web-like structure. Each student that passes the yarn to another offers a compliment or gets to ask a question of the receiver: "I like your shirt." "Who's your favorite teacher?" "What's your favorite color?"
The no-tech icebreaker activities would seem to have little to do with the reason University of Michigan students are at Scarlett Middle School in Ann Arbor for a unit in their course on teaching and technology. But today's activity is focused on the idea of being good digital citizens, which starts with having basic respect for others, the U-M interns explained.
"We are teaching them not just how to use technology but how to be safe online, how to be empathetic people online, and how to behave online," said Clare Williams, an Elementary Master of Arts with Certification major. "Being a civil person, being kind, compassionate and respectful doesn't end when you go online."
The master's students are sharing these lessons with eighth-graders so that the younger students can become ambassadors at Scarlett, to spread the word about this growing problem in the nation's schools.
"I am so excited that every Scarlett student will have an opportunity to talk about being a digital citizen so that we can set the stage for this school year, to make sure we're not only good citizens in person but also when we're online," said Sarah Andrew Vaughan, Ann Arbor School District English Department chair.
DoSomething.org says 43 percent of kids have been bullied online, with 1 in 4 saying it's happened to them more than once. The website notes 81 percent of young people think it's easier to get away with online bullying than to do it in person. Girls are twice as likely as boys to be victims and perpetrators.
School districts across the nation, including Ann Arbor, have incorporated cyberbullying into their school codes of conduct and teachers are considered critical to addressing the growing problem. This is why Liz Kolb, clinical assistant professor of education technologies at the U-M School of Education, incorporated the project into her course.
"A lot of schools struggle with how to teach digital citizenship," Kolb said. "This gives U-M students an opportunity to see the complexities of what it is to teach in middle school, and allows us to talk about technology with them."
Scarlett student Anthony Stewart said the focus on digital citizenship has made him think about his online behavior.
"The biggest lesson I've learned is to think about how other people feel before I say or post something," he said. "Even though it might be funny to other people or it might not seem offensive, it can be offensive in many different ways."
Kolb is known across the nation for her approach to teaching prospective educators about best practices for using technology in the classroom. She believes technology can be a boon to K-12 teaching but not without a thoughtful approach that puts pedagogy ahead of purchasing.
Most schools get that backwards, she said.
"The way that technology is best integrated is to think about instruction and learning goals first," she said. "What are our needs? What are the needs of our learners? And then think about what technological tools will add value to that."