We ask the students this question when we open our curricula on Digital Citizenship for the year. The lessons span Grades 2 through 8 and again in high school - and promote good behaviors and reputations online.
Students first decide what a community is, because first you need communities before you have citizens. We discover quickly that we're part of many communities both large and small. Our home, our school, our city, even state and country - and of course the world.
The next step is to help students connect the dots to the "wild west" of the Internet - a place where adults have generally needed a passport while students are natural born citizens.
Some of these connections are easy, and translate well for the students into their online arena. But then we start talking about the rules. Wait... who make the rules online? Where are the rules in my online communities? This is when things start getting confusing. Sure, there are agreements and terms of service, and sometimes there are guidelines.
But who is policing? Who are the people that care if I'm breaking the rules?
This is where we must step in. And it's a rather difficult concept, for impulsive girls and boys, to understand that in such a vast and unchaperoned space that what you do can really matter. But it does, and it's our responsibility - from the day that a child may access the internet - to begin talking about being a good digital citizen.
There are countless tips on helping develop your budding digital citizen (my favorites are all on www.commonsensemedia.org), and I can only summarize my thoughts on them with this short paragraph: Until a child can prove to be safe, smart and responsible online, there should be only moderated access. Yes, this means open doors and searching the 'net on dining room tables. It's something any child or adult cringes at, having to facilitate using any internet-enabled device at home. But - it's what we do at school: If students are in study hall or office hours, they may not use the internet without asking, and they must declare what they are working on. It's a no-nonsense approach, and despite the rolling of eyes and groans from middle grade kids - we know it's a must.
Paired with an agreement (at school we have a contract), and with open conversation (mainly so children feel open to talk with you in case anything were to go awry), this is the best approach for both parent and child - or student and teacher - to gradually earn trust.
Read more: Family Tip Sheets | Family Media Agreement / Contract
At the conclusion of the activities, discussions, posters / movies / songs about digital citizenship, we turn it on its head - and ask a new question: How can I make myself look awesome online?
Because any digital citizen - good or bad - leaves a digital footprint. These footprints are the behaviors we've made - from deciding on usernames, subscriptions to networks and channels, searching history, comments on blogs and videos, videos and photos we've posted... generally, everything we've done online (because every digital citizen who knows anything about anything - knows this: what you've done online, stays online).
Suddenly it becomes a race of do-gooders. If we can start now, even before middle school, to realize that we can begin creating a reputation for being AMAZING online - a chance to "wow" anyone that looks to see what we've done - then we're way ahead of the game. I bet there are a few college or job applicants that wish they had learned this trick before high school.
One way we promote this is the creation of e-Portfolios through the middle grades. Students are prompted to post their work - the best of their best - to a website that they have created. We'll soon have these ready for families to see, so get ready for your student to show off.
In closing: It's important, above all, to have the conversations. It's important to talk about "what if" and come to agreements, like any scenarios for growing up. With access to the internet on tablets and laptops well before given the tool in middle grades, children need the limits and guidance as they "learn to cross the street". They may not thank us when we ask them to leave devices outside of the bedroom overnight - but they will later. This was proven by a panel of high school students that visited a parent education night last year and professed their thanks for parents and teachers that moderated their use. Yours will thank you, too.
P.S. It is also "Connected Educator" month, and I am encouraging all the teachers to learn about professional development opportunities online, and promoting their own - or the school's - successes in our own networks. This is a great way to model digital footprints. How about you, parents? Are you at your best online? Can we model better for our children?