On March 3, 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Alicia Danyali, the Dean of Students and Head of the Lower School at The New Century School, presented at an important and now exponentially more relevant conference: The Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools (AIMS) annual Learning to Lead event, this one on the theme of “Handle the Pressure: Building Social Media Leadership in Our Students.” The impetus behind the conference was this:
Social media continues to transform the educational landscape in our schools, as well as the emotional development of our students. These young people are being asked to grow up faster, and the implications of their decisions now have grand consequences that can affect their social lives, mental health, academic performance and, in some cases, college matriculation and career path. Never before have our young people been faced with such pressure to be perfect … in every way.
Now, with shelter-at-home orders in place across the state, many students are spending even more time online to varying degrees, whether it’s for entertainment or educational purposes. TNCS students, for example, are attending virtual classrooms, which is a wonderful thing (read all about it here). But this often dramatic increase in screen time has some parents wondering, “Are my children practicing safe online habits? What is their level of social media literacy?”
The Social Institute
The 2020 conference was hosted by the Severn School in Severna Park, with Laura Tierney as the keynote speaker. Ms. Tierney founded The Social Institute, whose mission is to “. . . empower 1 million students nationwide to navigate social media and technology in positive, healthy, and high character ways. As a team of digital natives, we bridge the digital divide between students and adults by offering schools a comprehensive, student-led curriculum and presentations that students respect and embrace.” The Social Institute is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of social media, Ms. Tierney “has created a dynamic curriculum that inspires leadership and reinforces smart-decision making through a positive, growth mindset.”
“The audience was about 80% middle and high schoolers, and our focus was to give them tools to be school leaders,” said Ms. Danyali.
Self-Care, Self-Discipline, and Self-Reflection: Three Principles to Guide Your Online Presence
“Ms. Tierney and her group basically talk to students about healthy relationships and what character means as well as how that translates into their everyday lives,” explained Ms. Danyali. Three concepts she focuses on are self-care, self-discipline, and self-reflection. “She emphasizes that how they present themselves on social media can affect them long term, such as when it’s time to apply for college or get a job. Regarding attitude in general, how do you send positive messaging? How do you still remain friends with people that you don’t agree with on social media? All of those things that they’re going to face challenges with.”
After the keynote presentation, the audience broke out into four groups to workshop some of these concepts related to social media. They were given a quiz about their habits and privacy, which Ms. Danyali hopes to replicate for TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders to help them investigate, for example, what their habits are and what habits they might be looking to change, what has benefited them or improved their lifestyle.
One of the benefits of attending a conference like this is networking. During one of the breakout sessions, Ms. Danyali describes connecting with a representative of WESchools, “an innovative series of experiential service-learning programs that engage educators and youth globally to empower them with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to bring positive change in themselves and the world.” Sound like something Ms. Danyali would be interested in? In fact, she plans to partner with them in the near future, possibly for extracurricular activities.
“Generation Z and How to Forge Accountability”
Ms. Danyali, who has been teaching TNCS elementary and middle school students about social media literacy for years, was an ideal presenter—one of only two, in fact. Her talk was titled “Generation Z and How to Forge Accountability.” Although she has spoken on this topic before, this time, she says, she approached it a bit differently. “I started out asking whether anybody was able to cultivate accountability from somebody else, whether it was a personal or professional relationship. How did that play out?” She got a lot of response, and students shared their school social and emotional learning experiences. She explains, “Where I was going with this is, most of these independent schools, including TNCS, use four or five words to describe what they hold as their Core Values—but how do you actually cultivate those and how do you hold the community accountable for upholding them? How are they represented in your school in a way that contributes to people taking responsibility for their actions?”
For example, one of TNCS’s core values is Service. Ms. Danyali recounts how Ms. Lee’s 2nd- /3rd-grade class assembled hygiene kits to donate to the Baltimore Rescue Mission, an authentic and worthwhile service initiative. But they took it a step further and shared their experience of why they undertook the project and why it was important with the much-younger students in Ms. Mosby’s primary classroom to help establish this concept with them, so they can build on it meaningfully as they grow. That’s how TNCS brings it full circle. “But some educators confessed that they never talk about the actual words,” said Ms. Danyali, “and I think they now see why they should perhaps start doing so, such as by relating the values back to books the students are reading. It can be that simple.”
In some schools, such as the Park School, social and emotional learning even becomes part of the student’s assessment. Although it’s certainly subjective to evaluate someone’s degree of, for example, empathy, Ms. Danyali says that’s how you not only “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk.”
“I wanted my talk to open the door for more conversation, which is how I presented it,” said Ms. Danyali. “This is just planting a seed that maybe resonates with you as relevant or so that you can pick the conversation back up in your school house with your colleagues or with your family at home. I want the conversation to be ongoing.”
Speaking of ongoing, Ms. Danyali will bring many of the valuable insights she gained by attending and presenting at the conference home to inform new initiatives for TNCS students. One example is the One Love foundation, which also focuses on healthy relationships. She wrote 20 words on a chalkboard and asked members of the TNCS 3rd and 4th grades to circle which ones signified a healthy relationship. “We talked about the words,” she said, “but what was striking is that they were able to do it without picking any of the wrong ones.” After this “test drive” of One Love, she will undertake some of these initiatives with the older students as well.
To bring all the various threads in this post back together, in this time of increased socializing via screens, let’s make sure we—and our kids—are being who we want to be, both in real life and on social media.