RI school wants kids to be smart about smartphones

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Curriculum teaches 'Digital Citizenship'

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EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — School districts across Southern New England have various policies when it comes to cell phones in the classroom.

But the Gordon School in East Providence is going beyond telling students they can’t be on a cell phone during class.

Realizing that cell phones and social media are pretty much inevitable, the school is incorporating a program called “Digital Citizenship” into the curriculum.

“We just want to be really intentional about what we’re doing and why we are doing it,” said Gabe Burnstein, the director of Gordon Middle School. “And making sure the most important connection that middle schoolers have is to each other.”

Students take the class once a week beginning in the third grade.

In the class, they discuss how technology impacts relationships, smart media consumption and learning how to be a critical consumer of news and information.

“I will teach a class on who you want to be online and how you want to represent yourself so that could be one of the topics of we’ll talk about bullying and digital drama,” said Marlon Henry, director of technology.

Eyewitness News formed a panel of Gordon School 6th graders to discuss this addition to the curriculum and the schools no cell phone policy.

“I think it’s really good because us as kids we need to learn how to hold conversations,” said Nia Johnson, a sixth-grade student. “And speak to each other so that we don’t become socially awkward and we don’t’ have this big disconnect.”

Cell phones have almost become a teenage right of passage.

Surprisingly, after being a part of the digital citizenship class, the students had some interesting things to say about getting their first phone.

Student Ben Harrison expressed he was unsure because, “I don’t really call people and I don’t really bring my iPad other places.”

Staff members aren’t surprised their students – who have watched older siblings or even their parents grapple with finding the right balance – are becoming a little wary about the emotional challenges social media can create.

“This isn’t about telling them what not to do,” said Carly Allard, director of health and wellness. “It’s about empowering them with what they can do with technology and media so it’s a combination of things. If they hear it in second grade, third and fourth. By the time they are in middle school, it’s in their core.”

While the school does embrace certain technology in class, like “Google Docs” and online math to track student’s progress and growth, teachers hope having “smart” discussions about “smart ” phones will make a positive impact as these students transition into teens and young adults.

“We’re trying to raise the next generation to think critically about these pieces,” Burnstein said. “Why do I want to spend so much time on a screen rather than face to face engaging? We don’t’ really want to discard it but really want them to have some balance in how they use it.”

Rhode Island is working to implement statewide guidance that would be a “sample policy” for all schools, according to the Commissioner of Education’s Office.

“It wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all policy, but rather a framework for how districts and schools can have that conversation locally,” the Commissioner of Education’s Office said in a statement.

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