Digital Citizenship 2.0: How One Teacher Helps Students Share Their Passions Online

Many of us can remember at least one teacher who changed the way we thought about learning, our capabilities, and our place in our communities. I remember my third-grade teacher who was so captivating that she made me want to do my best. Decades later, I still remember her style, humor, and passion for teaching. She made it cool to be smart, and she changed the way I thought about school.
She crossed my mind again recently when I spoke with Jason Shaffer, a high school education technology teacher for the North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, FL. Jason is on the leading edge of educators who want their students to use social media. He is an inspiration to his students, encouraging them to present the best of themselves and their work online.   
Jason has been teaching for 12 years. About six years ago, the director of education and information technology asked him to lead an iPad pilot program. He worked with a team of educators to develop a new, more immersive tech curriculum, and then was asked to teach the course. He took the opportunity to bring 21st century digital skills to the classroom.
Today, Jason doesn’t just replace textbooks with tech, but teaches students to use technology for its ultimate capabilities — to create, share, collaborate, and connect.

Online Branding 101

 In 2012, he launched the course Personal Branding and Digital Communications, which students can take any year of high school but is required to graduate. Students were initially skeptical, thinking that they did not need to learn to use social media from school, and they did not want to hear another lecture about cyber-bullying. They soon discovered this class was designed not to scold them on what not to do online, but to teach them how they can use the digital skills they already possess to promote their interests and share their stories.
First, Jason had to deconstruct an outdated computer class focused on programs such as PowerPoint and Microsoft Word. He thought, “How can we take a technology class that is required for graduation, really update it, make it personal, make it relevant for the kids so they are learning the skills they are going to need as they enter the workforce?” The goal became to first encourage his students to respect themselves and discover their passions, and then use the powerful connection capabilities of social media to showcase this to the world.
In effect, his Personal Branding and Digital Communications course does deter the students from the risky behavior we typically hear about with teens online because they are taught to want potential schools and employers to Google them. The new course revolves around digital storytelling and how to use the social tools available to express the students’ personal interests and goals. Jason instructs the students on creating an page, using Twitter effectively, setting up a LinkedIn profile, starting a blog, and connecting with others.
By the end of the course, the students have designed an online presence they can be proud of — one that attracts the right kind of attention from college admission officers and potential employers. “I’m embracing the power, and really giving them the tools that they already love” to reflect themselves, their character, and their story online for all to see, Jason said. He’s found that this approach is the best deterrent to making poor and impulsive online choices, such as sexting, cyber-bullying, or hate-filled speech. Watch my entire interview with Jason Shaffer here.

Students’ Takeaways

I am sold on this approach, but how do the students feel? To find out, I spoke with two. Samantha Hreschak, 17, took Jason’s class her sophomore year. On the first day, she realized “it was not just an internet safety class,” she said.
Her biggest takeaway? The class was “built around us and what we are interested in.” Through the “Who am I” digital storytelling exercises she discovered more about herself and her artistic passions in drawing and acting, and learned how to share those interests online. “Hiring managers are looking you up on the internet so it is beneficial to students to be professional online to get where you want to go in the future,” she shared.
Samantha said she uses Instagram to post her art, Twitter to connect with colleges (she was surprised how easily she was able to connect with colleges of interest to her, and draw responses) and her personal website to share her skills and professional experience.
Then, there’s Spencer Gitlitz, 15, who’s entering his sophomore year. He enrolled in the class as a freshman, also believing it was an internet safety class. However, by the second week, he understood it was “about marketing yourself online.” Before taking the class, Spencer was not a big social media user, only using it minimally for fun.
Spencer’s big takeaway? The need to “hone in on your interests and present yourself online.” Spencer shares his interests in finance, robotics, and fishing on his personal site. He also learned practical skills like “how to properly caption a post” and “the best things to post online, how many posts, and spacing out what you are posting” to get the best outcome. He tweeted to a college he is interested in attending and quickly received a “like,” initiating a powerful connection that was not possible for applicants before the internet and social media.
Spencer’s message to his teacher: “Thank you for giving me the experience on how to use social media to my advantage… and how you have impacted my life.” His personal website shows this firsthand.

Using the Internet’s Full Power

More than a year ago, I wrote about how I hoped the digital citizenship community could move beyond lecturing kids on what not to do online, and instead focus on how they could use the internet to its full potential — for connection, community, and collaboration.
For example, think about your kitchen. You don’t teach people how to cook by telling them not to put their hand on the hot stove. You teach them the fundamentals of planning, measuring, and using the right tools, ingredients, and utensils to prepare a balanced meal. During this process, you inform them of dangers they might encounter and show them how to safely navigate around the kitchen.
It’s the same online. We should not teach our kids about cyberspace by scaring them; instead, we need to show children and teens how to use the internet for information, entertainment, connection, and communication so they can reap the benefits of using it appropriately.
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Denise Lisi DeRosa

Denise Lisi DeRosa is the founder of Cyber Sensible, LLC.