Wednesday, March 2, 2016

That Moment When Your Students Find You Online

Note: A teacher at my school stopped by my office this morning to tell me this quick story, and it ended up being so inspirational that I felt moved to write about it and share it. I have her blessing, of course.

Drawing by a middle school teacher
from when she was in middle school herself.
Middle school students are a wonderful combination of curious, mischievous, and sweet. Sometimes it seems as though the mysteries they are most curious to investigate are the personal lives of their teachers. At this adolescent stage they have finally come to realize that their teachers don't sleep under the desk each night. Since our students now have devices in their hands that can quickly find information, they tend to search for anything they can dig up to help unlock the teacher mystery.

One of our middle school teachers comes from an artistic family and was eager to create her own art when she was in her own adolescence. She was hungry to get feedback on her work and to learn from other artists. She looked online, found a positive artistic community, and joined. There, she looked at the art of others and shared her own work as it developed. At some point, she lost her password and ended up locked out of her account. But her art remained.

Well, those curious seventh graders, unbeknownst to her, searched their teacher and found her artwork. Bursting with pride in their research skills and their discovery, they eagerly showed her before class. At first, she was embarrassed. As an adult professional, she certainly holds herself to a higher standard today. When she was telling me the story and showing me what her students had discovered, though, I couldn't help but smile. To my untrained eye, the art was beautiful and a perfect representation of a middle school girl looking for ways to express herself. I thought it was beautiful! But it was what she told me next that really took me back.

What We Do Online is Permanent

She used this opportunity to admit to her students that she knew the work was there, but never thought anyone would find it since she ended up pursuing a subject other than art academically and professionally. (You might be surprised to find out that she is not an art teacher.) So, while she was slightly embarrassed at first that her students found this bit of her adolescence, she was also glad. She talked to them about how everything they post at this moment in their lives could be found by their friends and colleagues when they are adult professionals. The students paused and nodded, seeming to really digest that concept of "digital tattoo" a bit better.

Take Care to Secure Your Online Accounts

She admitted to her students that she had lost the password to her account in that online art community long ago. Even when she tried to contact the site host, she was unable to get it back. If she had followed through the way she intended with her online art portfolio, she would have added pieces consistently and continued to show growth in her work. Instead, the portfolio only contains about 8-10 pieces and then stops abruptly. Without knowing more about her, someone who finds this doesn't know that she continued to draw and her talent evolved and grew. She encouraged her students to think carefully about tracking their passwords and securing their online identity so that they can maintain control of it. Again, her young students absorbed the message.

I think I was most proud of this teacher when she told me she intends to use this unintentional lesson in a very intentional way next year. After she has had the opportunity to carry out her embedded digital citizenship curriculum during the first few months of school, she is going to challenge her students to find evidence from her middle school years online. Perhaps it will be an extra credit challenge, perhaps they will be intrinsically motivated because of that adolescent curiosity. Either way, her students are lucky to have her and many educators can learn from her story.

Many of us have something we posted years ago that is partially forgotten. Can you share it with your students and seize the opportunity to teach them this lesson in a personal way? I guarantee your students will remember it better because you taught it this way and not with a cookie cutter curriculum. Those curricula have their places, but lessons are more powerful when they are personal.

After reading this post, the teacher who inspired it asked that I share her name. Please reach out to her @DeannaStocker. She is a gifted educator.