Teaching Digital Dilemmas in 7th and 8th Grades

Dave Hickman, Head of Upper School

This spring, the upper division Literacies Block team (Bonnie Nishihara, Dave Hickman, Chad Forrester, Fernanda Pernambuco, and Gaelle Gordon) has undertaken advancing our digital citizenship curriculum with a 7th and 8th grade unit on Digital Dilemmas. The focus has been to help kids recognize, think through, and then consider how to respond to challenging situations in the digital world using the skills and awareness they have cultivated throughout their Mark Day School SEL experience starting in Kindergarten.

A true dilemma is difficult to craft, and when done well, is also a powerful teaching tool. True dilemmas do not have easy or obvious answers. Any course of action a person might undertake in a dilemma may have both a potential advantage and a potential cost.

Our 7th and 8th graders have been guided through some hypothetical but realistic dilemmas that occur online with students their age. For each dilemma, students consider possible courses of action, evaluate the potential impacts of those choices, and share the diverse array of their ideas in a guided class discussion. The unit culminates with students developing their own dilemmas that the teaching team can draw from for future lessons.

A starting point source for our curriculum in this area has been Common Sense Media. They have developed a range of curriculum for different topics at different ages. Our teaching team for Literacies Block in the upper division took that curriculum and added our own angle to it in order to maximize relevance to the larger arc of digital citizenship curriculum that has been thoughtfully developed over the years at Mark Day School. This included asking students to think about the differences between the online and the face-to-face versions of these dilemmas. Themes in the dilemmas include topics such as taking sides in "public" conflicts in group text chats, avoiding vs. accessing social media when preparing for a test, or how to respond to the posting of images of classmates shared without consent.

A crucial reflection for me as a teacher and leader is the importance of empathizing with the students as they experience these dilemmas. Students are faced with choices in these digital moments, much as they are in face-to-face social situations, in which there are rarely straightforward, proscriptive, obvious solutions. These dilemmas often pose difficult challenges to students in terms of balancing their sense of loyalty with their inner, developing ethical compass. Students are going to make mistakes with what they say or don't say, and what they might choose to do or not do. Our role is to continue to understand their experiences and design learning moments and activities that help them genuinely raise awareness, reflect, and draw on their deep well of SEL skills to make thoughtful decisions and learn from their mistakes along the way.