I have been and continue to be a strong advocate for using social media in the classroom to empower students. I have been an active user of social media since 2011 and have never encountered any of the negativity I have heard people associate with it. I mean, not ever in the 12, 696 Tweets and various Google +, Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn posts! I always put out positive and it always seems to come back to find me.
Early this morning, I wavered slightly when I was the target of online threats.
It happened on Blab at 2:30 a.m. I had only recently explored Blab as a tool for possible integration in the classroom a couple of weeks ago. I was a guest panelist for, Good Brings Good: Harnessing the Power of Connections for Social Change, as part of EdCamp Global, featuring Matone de Chiwit and Calliope’s Fran Siracusa. Also on air were Sean Robinson and Tracy Brady along with Manel Trenchs and Fabiana Cassella as well as others who joined. We all stayed up for the time slot to share our enthusiasm for the powerful connections made with our classes and the young inventor Karishma Baghani around the topic of water scarcity.
And then the harassment started. It began with negative comments put forward by “Dawn” who we later realized was not a real person, but a fake account created by someone on Twitter for the purpose of joining Blab to be negative and anonymous. There were extremely anti-male sentiments and harassing statements directed at Sean. I proceeded to say in the chat box how disappointed I was that such an important topic was being sabotaged by negativity. Fran was able to remove “her” and we continued.
Shortly thereafter, another “user” entered the Blab and spewed hateful anti-male sentiments towards both Sean and Manel Trenchis i Mola, who joined us from Barcelona. I firmly believe it was the same person under the guise of a different username. The abuse was along similar lines. Fran tried to remove the user once again, but this time, it wasn’t working. I tried to post positive comments but as I continued to do so, the user sent me threatening messages–directed not just at me, but clearly the person had looked at my Twitter profile and realized that I had two daughters and threatened them.
Fran and the panel of guests addressed the issue but also continued on with the presentation remarkably well. Because Blab does not record the chat, a viewer would find it difficult to tell when this all started.
In the subsequent hours, (between 3 & 4:30 am ET), we each set out to Report and Block both of the users. I emailed Blab, contacted Twitter. Fran meticulously deleted all of the negative comments so they couldn’t be seen in the replay. The group of amazing educators who had been in on the planning for the Good-Brings-Good Global Edcamp session got together on our group chat (Direct Message on Twitter) to talk about what happened and to support one another with words, Bitmojiis, and images. The conversation then extended to Voxer where we continued to support each other and where we talked about what we could have done differently next time.
In my case, even before I woke up, my husband had already talked to my 13 year-old about the incident. When I came down for breakfast, she told me that she had gone into all of her accounts and checked to make sure nothing was unusual. She had also checked my 16 year-old’s phone (as she is in Ecuador) and made sure nothing untoward was happening there either. She told me that she had also strengthened her passwords “just to be on the safe side”. Then she asked if I was ok. I just about sobbed. My biggest fear was that somehow the threats made could actually happen, despite knowing that it would be extremely unlikely that someone would harm my kids from afar.
I don’t tell this story because I want to frighten you. I don’t tell it because I think we should all swear off social media. I tell it because as distressed as I was, I am more convinced than ever that we need to help and guide kids to navigate these spaces together. This negative experience has probably pushed my thinking more than has been possible when I’ve only known the positive. Sean Guillard shared the image below on Instagram and it immediately resonated. What happens in the classroom when a wrong note is hit? Being thoughtful and proactive will ensure that the next note is good.
Anticipate that something may go wrong.
Do you have children? If you do, you will be familiar with this scenario. Your child falls and you react extremely negatively, you screech or cry out or gasp. What does your child do? Sobs and wails uncontrollably. But what happens when I purposefully suck in my breath, carry on, offer support in a very even keel voice as if nothing really frightening has happened? My children miraculously brushed themselves off and continued to play. The most important thing to do when something unexpected, unfamiliar, or negative happens when using social media (really apply this wisdom to anything) is to stay calm and think things through logically. If you watch the Replay of the Blab, you will see Fran as the model of composure even though she was panicking to block and eject the offender. You will see Sean continue to talk about the power of student voice even though he is being attacked in the chat box. Your calmness will in turn instill calm. Your panic will make everyone anxious and fearful.
When I presented at the GAFE Summit in Kitchener this past Spring, I decided it would be a good idea to do a live Google Hangout. As you can imagine, anything that could go wrong, did. Nothing was working, then I shared the wrong link and had to eject someone (not because he was being inappropriate, but there was audio interference). Even though I was shaking in front of a rather large audience, my literacy background must have kicked in because I engaged in a problem-solving-think-aloud. That is, I explained what I was doing to solve the problem in a methodical and practical way. Many people later shared how important that was and how much they appreciated me thinking through and problem-solving out loud as they saw what they would do if the same thing happened to them. As I was thinking about what I would do if a negative incident happened in the classroom, it would be important to say these kinds of things as you are doing them:
- “First I will look for a way to block this user because this is extremely inappropriate and uncomfortable. Blocking them will make sure we don’t see them anymore.
- “I will take a screenshot of the username and the negative things being said so I can have a record of it”
- “I will need to report this to the company and talk to the principal about this. I can send the screenshots I took.”
- “I think I need to change my password and make it stronger, just in case this person tries to get into my accounts.”
- “I wonder what we could do differently next time so this doesn’t happen again.”
Making this thinking visible will give them a frame for when this might happen to them as they personally engage in using social media (which we all know they are doing at younger and younger ages).
Plan that Something will go wrong
In an ensuing conversation with Marialice Curran, I spoke about overcoming the feeling helplessness with a proactive action plan. She made the analogy of a Fire Escape plan which makes so much sense.
We have kids engage in Fire Drills & Lock down drills. We don’t wish for these things to happen, but when we anticipate that something could go wrong, and talk about it as a class, we empower our students to act in the event that action is necessary. And we do this to keep them safe. A simple question like, “What might go wrong if we use this tool and what will we do about it?” may suffice. In the case of Blab, Fran reflected that having more than one moderator/host would have been helpful since only a moderator can remove participants. This can be true for other live-streaming tools as well.
It may also help to include the following elements in your action plan:
DO NOT ENGAGE
As much as I always give everyone the benefit of the doubt, someone who is being negative on social media is not likely going to turn around and be grateful to me for helping them to be more positive. Trying to reason with someone who is negative is futile. It definitely didn’t work for me–in fact in retrospect, standing up to the person is what prompted the threatening messages. It is important to continue as if nothing is happening and not engage in any way.
DROWN OUT THE NEGATIVE WITH POSITIVE
One of my favourite quotes by George Couros is this:
He coined it after he had a potentially negative situation arose in front of a live audience of students. I vividly remember him sharing his story with me and it was all I could think of during the Blab, but unfortunately, I was the only one who was putting in positive comments and because I was also trying to take screen shots, the effort was not enough. I keep thinking how different it would have been if we had talked about this beforehand, and how much more effective and powerful all of us would have been at drowning out that one hateful voice. This was a strategy kids came up with when we had a negative situation on Yik Yak as well. To me, this is the most important thing we can do to empower our kids in a negative situation.
Jennifer Williams, who also reached out, said this: “Breaks my heart to think that there are people out there that are hurting so badly that they intentionally try to cause harm to others. Just another reason to spread in our world the best we can.”
MAKE THE COMPANY ACCOUNTABLE
Some apps really have no idea that educators are thinking of innovative ways to incorporate them; thus they are not being created with kids and safety in mind. If something negative happens, talk to the class about what action they’d like to take.
“Should we contact the company with our suggestions about how this tool could be safer?”
Again the intent is to empower. Kids need to know that if there is something that needs to be fixed that they can be part of the solution. It could very well be that the company had never even considered the suggestions that the kids might come up with. They often surprise us and learning should lead to action.
FORGE A POSITIVE CONNECTION WITH PARENTS
If an incident happens in class, it is important to communicate this with parents and families about how to help. It is also important to think about what and how you communicate. Parents need to know that something happened that made everyone uncomfortable, and what steps that could be taken at home, but it is also extremely helpful that the tone (or the words) reflect the fact that there are important lessons to be learned by engaging in the guided use of social media together as a class which their child will take with them when they navigate the tools on their own. If your tone wavers to suggest that you should not have been using this tool in the first place, you are just opening up yourself for trouble. Parents need to be assured that the choices you make in class are for the goal of learning. A summary of the learning goals and what the children have decided as a plan of action moving forward would also help parents feel that the teacher and the school are being thoughtful and diligent about the choices being made.
MAKE WISE CHOICES
Having said, that, using technology as well as social media always requires critical thinking on the part of the teacher. Once you establish your purpose, you (or the kids) select a tool which would most easily and effectively help you arrive at your learning goal. Blab is a great tool for discussion and debate. Periscope is a great live streaming tool. But both are public and anyone can jump in. The time of day probably matters too, during the school day, you may be less likely to have someone come in than if it’s in the evening (or at 2 am!) Though it’s never the tool, but the user(s) of the tool which make it negative, you may not necessarily want to engage in a public Blab with kids under the age of 13 or at least practice using it as unlisted first. If you choose to use a tool, awareness and collaborative conversations are necessary.
Here is an article with some tips for online abuse on Blab which may apply to other tools as well.
The topic and Blab itself was a demonstration of the positive! Despite what happened there was powerful sharing about how students were positively impacted by a project which allowed them to become passionate about a project that could helps make the lives of others better. Whatever else, getting involved in this project will provide. Sean’s blog is a great place to learn about this and other Connections-based learning projects. And check out the Our Blue Earth project in collaboration with Karishma which is still ongoing for the next school year.
I leave you with the sentiment expressed by Manel at the end of the Blab as he is being harassed in the chat:
“There is a lot of work to be done to help use social media in a good way”
Indeed there is. We can’t let negative experiences prevent us from engaging in these online spaces with kids. I shudder at the thought of a child or teen going through what I went through all alone because we just don’t feel comfortable going there. I am grateful to the community of friends that reached out to me and to Sean after this incident.
And I am ever mindful that it is a community of friends whom I know mostly only virtually: by way of social media.
School should be that safe community for kids and so should their online spaces.