Sunday, February 12, 2012

Twitter Blues

On Friday, I had an opportunity to speak to the whole grad class at our school about their use of twitter, and I thought it would be appropriate to follow up with a message for all of our students.

There has been a problem building for months among students, that many don't seem to realize. Twitter is 100% public by default -- your tweets are being read not only by students but also by your families, employers, coaches, neighbours, and school staff. Much of what we see is "normal" teenage banter, often humorous, sometimes in bad taste, sometimes quite poetic and insightful. Twitter is an amazing medium that gives voice to frustrations, celebrations, and whatever is on your mind. I have often felt recharged and even inspired some of the positive things students share on public social media. Keep that up!

We also found a significant amount of disturbing content -- tweets about sex, porn, binge drinking, violence towards others, taunts, insults, and an endless stream of f-bombs from a few of our students. I think this is a problem for perhaps 20% or about 150 of our students. These kinds of tweets speak to your character and integrity, and don't speak highly of you when they are profane or offensive. For those uses of public social media, I encourage you to think about how your words reflect your values.

Even more troubling, though, are the tweets from an even smaller group of our students that create a hostile environment for others at D.P. Todd, maybe 10% or about 75 students, and not defined by gender, race, age, social or economic status. While we all have freedom of speech in our society, there are also other legal rights that limit the freedom of speech. Our school district has a legal obligation to provide a harassment-free workplace for staff and a safe learning environment for students. This is threatened by tweets that are homophobic, racist, sexist, or related to drugs, vandalism, assault, and slander or bullying against students or staff. For that use of public social media, we need to insist that you think about how your words affect others and relate to both the law and school policies.

Since giving the speech on Friday, I've talked with some Gr. 12 students who took the lead to show some class on twitter, and made me proud how they took ownership of their online presence and turned an unpleasant experience into an opportunity to show their strength, character, and integrity. They reminded me that this is an issue for all students, not just a few. Awesome -- I have tremendous respect for how they handled this. They also taught me about some of the contexts for how students tweet, including the importance of music and how lyrics often drift into their tweets. That's a great point that I will think more about.

Not everyone will agree with what I've been saying, or need/want to change the way you tweet, but I think most can agree that our school should be a safe place to work and learn. I appreciate the support for this from teachers since Friday. As a result of this awkward but important issue, some have had great conversations with their classes last week about social media and how it affects students and our school, and where it crosses the line. One teacher told me about how community employers have had to deal with regrettable twitter in the workplace. Another teacher shared that students, perhaps reluctantly, actually want some guidance from their teachers and that if we don't care enough to act on our beliefs, who will? Yet another colleague tweeted to me "not every positive learning experience is a feel good moment." We live and learn.

As I said to the Grade 12s, in high school you are laying the foundations for many of the most important relationships in your life. What do you want that to look like? To read like? I am proud of what you have accomplished. We share a space that I think is about intelligent questions and meaningful ideas. I want you to write the story of your life to be about the same thing -- big questions and great ideas. There's room in that narrative for funny and weird and sometimes even rude, but you have to put some craft and thought into the parts of your story that are so painfully online.

I wish you all the best as you consider how your words and actions have power. Your teachers & school staff care about you; I care about you, and we all care about the school and its culture. I think each one of you is valuable, and that you deserve to treat each other like each one is valuable. I'm not asking that you censor everything you post in social media, just asking that you put a limit on the tweets that threaten the working and learning environment at our school.

Mr. Thielmann


Katherine Trepanier said...

Great letter! I will share this with my daughter (a grade 10 student at Duchess Park), as it raises many excellent points.

Thank you,

Katherine Trepanier

Anonymous said...

in the news today

Anonymous said...

All good points.

Thielmann said...

yes, well done!! here are some more reasons why it matters:

Thielmann said...

Thanks Katherine. I've had some cool feedback from teachers and parents on this and only one person that suggested that "if I don't like it, don't read it." Student conversations were interesting, too, with some but not all telling their teachers that it was a big issue that they are glad is more out in the open now. With PINK SHIRT day coming up in 2 weeks, I think it is good to recognize that cyberbullying has evolved and takes place daily on twitter. I was pretty blunt (e.g. some controversy) with the Gr. 12s on Friday, but worth the risk, I think.