As a comment on how things have changed since I started teaching English 10 years ago, my freshman now have to complete a blogging unit. As a blogger myself, this is one of my favorite units. I show the kids different examples of well-written blogs. We read some writing advice articles about ways to appeal to readers and organize thoughts. I let the kids choose any topic of their own interest. I teach them how to upload images, links, and embed videos. They get to play around with photo-editing apps and catchy titles. It’s a fun unit and this year the kids really got into it.
Then we come to the end of the week.
Students have written 3-5 posts and they all upload their blog’s URLs to a google doc. I share the document out and they are able to read and view each other’s posts. This is a day that causes me much anxiety. I remind them repeatedly that what they are writing is public and others will be able to read it and yet, I worry about their emotional safety. Will they treat each other with kindness? Acceptance? Will they respond to each other in an intelligent and thoughtful way? Will this assignment empower their young voices or crush their spirits? So far, things have gone pretty smoothly, however, I notice that they only click on and read the blogs of their friends and, despite giving them specific guidelines for commenting, they still write general, “Great blog. I agree” types of things.
This year, as “read and comment day” approached, I considered nixing it altogether. Was there any educational value? Was it worth the 2 class periods it usually takes? Could I trust them to just read each other’s’ work without the requirement of commenting?
As a blogger, I love comments. Nothing makes me happier than to hear feedback on my thoughts and ideas. I feel validated when readers appreciate my thoughts and challenged to think deeper when readers disagree. I wondered if they kids would feel the same way.
I was still mulling this over when I found myself in a Facebook thread with someone with a vastly different opinion than myself. This person was making the “all Muslims are terrorists” argument and I was making the “you can’t judge an entire faith on the actions of a few” and he responded with “Andrea, you are a dumb idiot” and then proceeded to berate my intelligence (which he attributed to public education – gasp!) and that’s when I knew that the commenting lesson wasn’t optional. In fact, as I prepared for the lesson I spent a significant amount of time reading Facebook threads and comments on a variety of articles from a variety of websites. This only reinforced the notion that we needed to have a conversation about this small section of human society.
For example, I read a story about a school that had recently been vandalized. I assumed the comments there would be generic and it was a topic teenagers could relate to and hoped I could find some examples to screenshot and use in a lesson. I shocked to find how many posters seemed to find this a place to unload some really awful, racist thoughts. Comments ranged from “Gee it happened after a basketball game…and we all know what kind of people play basketball. Why is anyone surprised?” to things like, “A perfect example of why inner city schools should not receive extra funding or grants – they don’t know how to appreciate nice things.” These forced me to reread the article about 3 times. The article said NOTHING about race or type of neighborhood. Unless the commenters knew something I did not, they were simply MAKING this a commentary on race and class.
Originally my plan was to set aside 25-30 minutes to discuss the “art” of commenting. I found a great article that listed some concrete guidelines and planned to screenshot some good and bad examples. Unfortunately, I found that most of the comments were not only bad examples, but they were so offensive I didn’t dare use them in class.
Instead, I recounted my experience. I told the kids how hard it was to find examples of quality dialogue. I told them that I read articles ranging from politics, to education, to celebrity news, to local events and that in most places I was overwhelmed with name-calling, hate speech, and general ignorance.
Look, I’m not Pollyanna, I’m not under any illusion that we, as a population, have solved racism, sexism, or any -ism for that matter. I understand that anger, hate, ignorance, and fear exist are are running rampant, especially during this current election cycle. And yet, even I was shocked, not so much at the subject matter, but the sheer quantity of awfulness.
So I asked the kids, “How many of you have ever posted something on social media that you probably should not have and that you know you wouldn’t have dared say in person?” About 80% of the class sheepishly raised their hands. And I did too. I have found myself feeling pretty confident sitting safely on my couch, behind a computer screen. I have justified to myself that the person on the other end isn’t a “real” person anyway – just a name on a Facebook thread. I’ve had moments where I’ve forgotten that we are all the result of a collection of experiences and that these experiences are what shape who we are and what we believe. I had forgotten that we as individuals come to the table (or computer) in different points in our own lives and that we sometimes, unwittingly, apply these feelings of frustration, anger, depression, and fear to our social media threads.
And the kids had their own stories. Stories of comments they’d seen, or been on the receiving end of, regarding sexual orientation, physical appearance, race, and intelligence. And the lesson that begin with my intention to tell the kids about a trend online, turned more into a round table discussion about a problem in our contemporary society. At the end of the hour one student said laughingly, “I love how we just spend an entire hour discussion internet comments.”
How this all played out, was the kids ended up with a day or two to read through each other’s posts and comment. This yielded A LOT of conversation. Many of them took disagreements, even respectful ones, personally and wanted to fire off snarky responses. Some were disappointed when they didn’t receive any comments at all. I was surprised how much conversation the kids had about the comments they received.
In the end, I decided this whole comments activity was worthwhile. I told the kids that their generation was inheriting the internet next and that maybe they could be the ones to change the comments sections from “place where society’s sludge settles” to “place of valuable discourse.”
THAT may be wishful thinking, but at this rate, I’m willing to take the gamble.