PHS homeroom
Philomath High School teacher Bekah Titus discusses the digital citizenship project with students during her homeroom class on Jan. 24. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

High schoolers working on lessons for younger students as part of a ‘digital citizenship’ initiative

Advances in technology over the past 20 years have impacted day-to-day lives in a positive way. Just think about it.

Smartphones can connect a stranded motorist with an insurance company without hitchhiking into town to use a payphone. Social media provides a way for families to share the latest cute kid photos and videos with loved ones who live on the other side of the country. People can deposit checks without waiting in line at the bank, sit in on a meeting without physically being on location and “tweet” their thoughts about Saturday afternoon’s football game. And on and on and on.

But it’s not all positive. Online activity can lead to unsafe situations. The digital footprint left behind can have long-standing consequences. And it’s very easy to send, post or share negative, harmful information about another person or even directly to someone.

Philomath High School students are doing something about it.

About six weeks ago, an initiative kicked off to educate students about online privacy and safety, dangers of the digital footprint, cyberbullying and above all, just being a kind person. But it’s not just an assembly in the gymnasium. PHS homerooms are working on lessons about those topics to be taught to their younger counterparts at the middle school, elementary school and primary school.

“We kind of noticed that with everybody being out during the pandemic for two years, a lot of the skills of just being around people in school are kind of lacking like social skills,” Philomath High registrar Mandy Misner said. “It started out where we were going to start putting in some lessons about just being a kind person and just interacting better and then looking for activities.”

Misner said one of those activities involves having the “olders” teaching things to the “youngers” — and that evolved into the digital citizenship project. She hopes that it’s such a well-liked activity that it will occur annually.

“Even if some of the homerooms aren’t as involved this year, we’re hoping that next year, it’ll be even bigger and then it’ll just continue to grow,” Misner said.

A short video featuring PHS senior Reese Grube went out to students in mid-December to provide an overview of the challenge at hand.

“We wanted to make sure we had a student voice sharing with the other kids — here’s what we want to do and get them invested in the idea,” PHS counselor Maria Drennen said.

Said Grube in the video, “Just as you can be a good citizen in the real world, you can be a good citizen online. This is digital citizenship.”

The high school’s homeroom classes have been challenged to develop a 20-minute digital citizenship lesson or activity for K-8 students. The high schoolers were encouraged to be as creative as possible and could involve a variety of approaches from PowerPoint presentations to videos to social media campaigns.

PHS homerooms are set up by grade level with students meeting for about 25 minutes each Monday.

“We thought this would be a good avenue to do some of the SEL-type (social-emotional learning) lessons and get things out to the whole school — lessons that we feel like the kids need in general to grow and resocialize and come back into school and be good people,” Misner said.

“Being a good person, being a kind person really is what we’re after,” Misner added. “But then we feel like there’s so much that we can teach them about the online world, which is where they spend a lot of their time with their phones and their tablets and their computers. There’s a lot to think about there.”

In a video sent to teachers in December about the project, Drennen mentioned a physical fight that had occurred in front of the high school and said “prior to that incident, there was a lot of cyberbullying that was happening between our students.”

“We recognize with that one situation that there are things going on in the online world that we need to educate them on,” Drennen said. “Because if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it? We can’t just assume that somebody’s talking to them about how do you be a good digital citizen? I feel like we’re taking that on in the school setting and let’s do it K-12 because honestly, these kids spend so much of their time in the online community.”

An incentive to participate — beyond a prize of cookies from a local business — is to spread the word about student efforts with the digital citizenship project through exposure on the district’s social media accounts and its website, and on video monitors that appear around the high school.

Drennen said that recognition will show that the students “are making a difference in the lives of these younger kids and teaching them about these four really important topics and as we all become more and more digital citizens, these are important topics that have to be taught somewhere.”

Drennen also said, “We are going to make bracelets for everybody and you’ll see kids wearing those around town. We’re going to make them the school colors.”

Drennen believes that the project further connects the students from different age groups.

“A lot of classes have taken off with it … I’ve already heard so many good ideas,” Drennen said a few weeks ago. “… They’re going to see that they’re making an impact.”

Drennen said some students have even asked if they could actually go teach the lessons in person to the younger kids. Added Misner, “One of the best ways to learn is by teaching. It reinforces your learning when you’re teaching somebody else how to do it.”

Although winners will be highlighted and announced, Drennen said all lessons will be passed along to the targeted grade levels. Teachers will receive the information, ask any questions that come up and move forward from that point.

“It’s passing it to whichever grade levels those are for and having those teachers with the support of their administrators implement our lessons that the kids have come up with,” Drennen said.

Through the involvement of the middle school’s Jolene Latz, middle schoolers may then develop some of their lessons for the younger students. The goal is for the effort to become a districtwide campaign.

Kim St. Clair is part of the PHS counseling team that’s also involved with the effort.

When all of the projects have been submitted, a committee will meet in early February to go through them.

“Our goal is to select one grade level winner and then we’ll have a superintendent’s pick and Panico’s pick,” Drennen said, the latter a reference to popular middle school counselor Mike Panico.

“One of the nice things about Philomath is it’s a small community and a lot of the kids that are going to the middle school, the elementary school, those are their younger siblings or their cousins or family members or friends and they can really help teach the younger kids those topics … and have an impact on the whole community,” Drennen pointed out. “So they’ve bought into that, which is awesome.”

The digital citizenship initiative represents the first step in what Drennen said will evolve into a larger “say something” campaign, which was an idea that started with the “Sandy Hook Promise” — an organization founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The Sandy Hook Promise is an effort to empower youth to know the signs that can lead to taking meaningful actions in schools, homes and communities to prevent gun violence and stop the tragic loss of life.

“If you look at the Sandy Hook Promise, there’s a whole list of things that we have to teach kids to speak up about and really, the whole premise is to break the code of silence,” Drennen said. “We, I feel, as educators have an ethical duty to teach middle and high school students at a minimum every year … about this topic of ‘break the code of silence.’”

Added Drennen, “So if you hear somebody talking about suicide, you say something. If you hear somebody is being abused at home, you say something. If you hear there’s a weapon in the school, you say something. We know that kids always know what’s going on, and especially now with this constant ability to interact with each other 24 hours a day, they know what’s going on.

“And we could save a life here, we could help somebody.”