As tech use has grown pervasive among Berkeley students, like these Washington Elementary fifth-graders, BUSD has launched a curriculum on online behavior. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On a recent afternoon, a group of Washington Elementary students sat cross-legged on a rainbow rug in their school library, listening attentively to a lesson. The focus that day was not on books, but on computers, and how to use them safely.

“Just like I wouldn’t share my toothbrush with you, I wouldn’t share certain information with you online,” said Eric Silverberg, a teacher and librarian who works with classes throughout Berkeley Unified. (“Ew!” shouted one student.)

“And if I asked someone to squeeze out tubes of toothpaste, and someone wanted to scoop it back in, ya couldn’t. Just like when you share information — you can’t really take it back,” he said.

By fifth grade, the students are pretty familiar with this analogy. It’s used often in the “digital citizenship” lessons provided to Berkeley students in third through fifth grade, and as of this year, in middle school too.

Digital citizenship refers to respectful and safe online behavior, and topics covered in the BUSD lessons range from cyber-bullying and privacy to creative ownership and the accuracy of digital sources.

As BUSD has built up its stock of educational technology, and as more devices and software have come on the market, the district has tried to take a step back to assess how to most effectively and creatively use the tools.

At first, that meant simply training teachers to use software. Now, “our goal is to help teachers think deeply about the kinds of things tech can do to deeper meet kids’ needs,” said Allison Krasnow, BUSD instructional technology coordinator for K-8.

Previously a math teacher at Willard, Krasnow observed how technology could enhance lessons and reach students who had been left behind — if the programs were used thoughtfully. One favorite was math software that modeled concepts on the screen, and allowed teachers to project a student’s work to the whole class anonymously, to discuss it. Some humanities teachers use an audiobook program to allow a student who might be reading a book below grade-level to also listen to the stories his classmates are reading.

A Washington Elementary School fifth-grade class listens to Eric Silverberg give a lesson on digital safety. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The district has now purchased around 6,200 Chromebooks — Google laptops connected to Google education accounts — and many classrooms have one for each student. In order to use the devices, teachers had to complete a paid professional development course — and sign a contract with the district promising to teach three digital citizenship lessons.

The lessons on safe and responsible online behavior have always “explicitly been a part” of the district’s tech education, Krasnow said.

Even so, it can be a challenge for educators to guide and monitor students’ internet use and habits, especially when so much of the behavior in question happens not only off campus, but in cyberspace.

At the beginning of this school year, Berkeley High was rocked by the exposure of a student-run Instagram account featuring racist, anti-Semitic and ableist memes. In the aftermath, Principal Erin Schweng told Berkeleyside that the upsetting incident illuminated how education policy has not kept pace with student social media use, and how there is no rulebook on preventing and addressing problematic behavior. The administration ended up facilitating meetings with students who were involved and affected, disciplining some and providing restorative justice, while teachers across the school spoke with their classes.

There have been other related incidents at the high-school level, including a 2014 Instagram “slut page” displaying photos of female students.

But BUSD is starting digital citizenship lessons in third grade not because the schools want to instill these ideas before they become issues — but because some of the content is already relevant for the young students.

A 2017 survey by Common Sense Media, a Bay Area-based nonprofit, found that kids ages 0-8 spend more than two hours per day consuming media on screens, and the amount of time they spend on mobile devices has tripled since 2013. As kids age, that screen time increases — by a lot. In 2015, Common Sense found that kids ages 8-12 spend 4.5 hours a day on screen media, excluding school and homework use, and teens spend 6.5 hours.

When Berkleyside asked two of the Washington Elementary students if they used the internet often, they nodded their heads rapidly.

“I use it for Snapchat,” said one of the fifth-graders. Also, Netflix.

“In elementary school, digital citizenship issues can be everything from, ‘I see this photo on the internet and I really want to use it,’ to a student has a Youtube account and is posting videos of themselves, and other students are commenting in rude or disrespectful ways,” Silverberg said. “That’ll affect their learning in school. Is that a parenting issue? Is that a teaching issue? It’s sort of a whole community issue.”

Among Berkeley families, access to tech devices and policies governing their use vary widely, parents told Berkeleyside. Washington parent and PTA member Liz Schultz said her second-grader has a device kids can wear on their wrists and use to call their parents — and only their parents — with the click of a button. It also has a built-in GPS tracker.

Schultz is cherishing the last few years when that’s all her daughter is using.

“It’s terrifying,” she said. “She’s seven and she’s a very stereotypically girly-girl. I’m worried about all the social media stuff and the pitfalls. I’m trying to be as prepared as possible, but I also feel like these kids are going to be better at thwarting us. Kids are going to do what they’re going to do.”

Schultz has already heard scary stories, including the one about a Berkeley first-grader who rode the school bus with a fifth-grader who showed him a pornographic video.

Washington librarian Suzy Mead displays the school library homepage, full of links to research advice, Google Classroom and Worldbook Online. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For some veteran teachers and staff, there has been a learning curve when it comes to integrating technology into already jam-packed curricula, and figuring out what kids need help with, though most have embraced the challenge, Krasnow said.

Suzy Mead, the Washington librarian, who helped kids check out books after Silverberg’s lesson, has seen a lot of changes in the 15 years she has been at the job. For a librarian dedicated to opening kids’ eyes to the vast world of information and stories out there, much of the change is positive. If students can’t find what they’re looking for in a library book, they no longer have to abandon a research project. The school uses a search engine designed for educational use, and subscribes to a digital encyclopedia.

In Silverberg’s presentations and in classrooms, BUSD uses digital citizenship lessons adapted from a curriculum developed by Common Sense Media. Last year, Common Sense declared BUSD “certified” in digital citizenship.

In a third-grade lesson, students are quizzed on what constitutes private versus public information. The next year, they learn how images can be digitally altered, and discuss how doctored photos can damage self-esteem or help sell products.

By now, many kids can spout back the right answers to questions about safe behavior, but don’t always put the concepts into practice, said Silverberg, who has two kids in Berkeley schools himself.

“In terms of changes in behavior, we don’t know yet,” said Silverberg. “It’s hard to measure the effects of the work because it’s so messy and pervasive.” Plus, it can be futile for parents to preach restraint when they are glued to their phones and tablets themselves.

“It is really difficult to convey the difference between work, learning and watching cat videos,” said Madan Kumar, the Washington PTA president, in an email to Berkeleyside. He said he welcomes the digital citizenship lessons, which have been very helpful for his seventh-grader at King, and are slowly sinking in for his third-grader.

The student will have plenty of time to keep absorbing them.

“Teaching digital citizenship — it’s not a lesson or a unit,” Silverberg said. “It’s a conversation that’s ongoing throughout the year. It has to happen in the classroom and at home.”

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...