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Reading, writing and digital citizenship: Teaching elementary students to safely and confidently navigate the online world 

Reading, writing and digital citizenship: Teaching elementary students to safely and confidently navigate the online world 

A new question has begun to show up in the elementary classroom setting with what students see on the screen of their devices or classroom technology: Is this actually real or isn’t it?

It’s a question that teachers and students in District 191 are beginning to ask more and more as they start to use and understand Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the classroom.

AI is just one of the ways in which technology—established and rising—is being used to educate students beginning as early as kindergarten. Although technology has been used in district classrooms for well over 30 years, the speed and intensity at which new technology is being developed and introduced has increased dramatically. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, the need for technology and ways to improve its use to educate students became a major priority for educators. 

“Technology impacted how we educate and how students learn in a very powerful way,” said Shonita Harper, a digital learning specialist at Harriet Bishop Elementary School. “This district has jumped on a wave of technology in a positive way, and our students are better for it. The technology we’re using makes students more engaged. They’re collaborating with each other, listening to different perspectives, and they creatively communicate with each other. They’re learning how to solve problems collaboratively using digital tools.”

While technology continues to grow at an exponential rate, our elementary students and families are learning the basics of how to stay safe and think critically while using new tools and software.

The software students use isn’t limited to basic word-processing platforms anymore. Beginning in elementary school, students are using Adobe Express, Book Creator, We Video and Tinker CAD. Students have used the software to create their own digital avatars and digital citizen pledges as well as collaborate, get questions answered, creatively solve problems and learn to decipher between actual images or facts and those that AI generated. 

Lessons from COVID-19 and the impact on students' mental health led the district to use materials from Common Sense Education (CSE), which promotes the smart and responsible use of technology and digital citizenship. That’s a large part of technology lessons, especially in the early grades. Across the district, all students in kindergarten through fifth grade engage in multiple digital citizenship lessons focused on preparing them for a life with evolving technology.

According to Jon Abrahamson, a digital learning specialist at William Byrne Elementary, digital citizenship and responsibility are embedded not just in technology classes but also in grade-level classrooms.

“The big thing for them is digital citizenship. As a school, we see that teaching kids to be good digital citizens is important,” Abrahamson said. “They’re using technology all the time, and they need to know how to be safe, and how to be a good digital citizen online.”

District 191 elementary schools and elementary school digital learning specialists were recently recognized by CSE as Common Sense Schools. To earn this designation, staff at the eight elementary schools participated in professional development about digital literacy, taught three digital citizenship lessons across three grade levels and shared multiple digital citizenship lessons with families to strengthen the connection to home. 

Equally important is the need to be aware of how online activity can affect students' mental health. To address that, William Byrne Elementary Principal John Bonneville has brought in online mental health expert Erin Walsh to help staff and families understand how technology and online activity affect students’ mental health.

Students aren’t the only ones learning how to properly use and work with technology. CSE includes a component that reaches out to parents to keep them informed about what their children are learning in the classroom and how to keep their children safe online.

“Educating families when it comes to tech is so important,” said Abrahamson. “We’re at a time in history where we need to learn how to navigate that as parents and as educators. How do we find that balance? What they don’t know they don’t know, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to help support them and the mental health and wellbeing of our students. If there are no boundaries or limits set, it’s dangerous to our students' mental health.”

Parents have been very receptive to learning about these new technologies so far.

“It’s been a great start. As educators, we can only do so much at school to teach kids social skills with tech. The other part has to come from families and parents at home,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see any impact until we see this continued learning from parents happens for a couple of years. But it’s important for families and teachers to partner. It’s something that can’t just be done at the school.”

While technology continues to grow at an exponential rate, our elementary students and families are learning the basics of how to stay safe and think critically while using new tools and software. 

“This is important because students spend a lot of time on the internet,” said Harper. “They need to know what is real and what is not real. They’re learning that things are faster. They can go online and find answers they can do the research. But they also have to think critically about what they find. Is it real? We’re helping them to answer that question.”

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