Why we need controversy in the classroom.

Ask any teacher about teaching about a controversial topic, and most will tell you to avoid it at any cost.  School administrators hate controversy and will often discourage teachers from discussing hot topics in their classrooms at all.  Teachers routinely get fired or reprimanded for opening discussion in their classroom about ideas that some may take issue with.  Teaching subjects like art, literature, theater, and even history and science can be fraught with difficulty, as teachers navigate minefields of potentially offensive ideas, and images.  And since teachers often have less protection than teachers in the past, allowing controversy into the classroom can come with truly nightmarish consequences.

But in this day, when even the most high ranking officials are saying and doing inappropriate things in the public eye; when our nation is starkly divided and intolerance creates a constant “us -versus- them” attitude among social groups, NOW is when we need to be teaching students how to deal with controversial subjects, and how to cope with plurality of ideas and identities.  Here are just a few reasons we need teachers who will tackle these subjects:

  1.  We need to teach students how to cope with diversity.  Years of keeping controversy out of our classrooms has created a society that doesn’t know how to deal with diversity.  But, at age seventeen or eighteen, we send kids out into a world full of diversity — of races, religions, and gender, but also of ideas, methods, and perspectives in the workplace.  Being able to deal with diversity of people, but also plurality of ideas, perspectives, and work methods is crucial to being competitive in the workforce, especially in higher-paying fields. Many companies now include questions about candidates’ attitudes toward diversity in their interviewing processes.
  2. We need to teach students how to respectfully disagree.  How can you teach students how to disagree if students never get an opportunity to discuss things they feel passionate about?  The “safe” way of teaching students how to disagree by giving them non-controversial topics to share pro- and con- arguments about doesn’t work, because students don’t have ownership of these opinions.   Students need to debate things they feel passionate about, even if those things are controversial.  It is important that students have a safe space to test drive their ideas and learn to see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as invalidation.
  3. We need to teach positive digital citizenship.  Because so much of our information-sharing happens online, we can’t neglect the digital world and all its controversy.  Rather than blocking controversial subjects online, we should be teaching students how to find trustworthy sources, identify false information, and to share information responsibly, online. We also need to teach students how to deal with online disagreements, including cyberbullies, trolls, and others who create unsafe online situations that can have dire offline consequences. Teaching students how to be discerning consumers of online information is crucial to have an informed society in the future.
  4. We need to give students a voice.  “Student voice” is a phrase you will find over and over in academia.  It’s good that students are being encouraged to share ideas through speaking in class and  through structured dialogue, but we also need to promote students’ creative voices.  Arts programs have long been the ideal forum for student voice and exploration of sometimes controversial ideas. Art is a great way to introduce students to appropriate ways to approach debatable topics, because artists have, throughout history, used art to express things they could not say with words. As fine arts programs get cut in favor of more math and ELA programming, students have fewer opportunities to share their ideas, especially those they may not feel comfortable sharing in an oral presentation or written paper. Though it’s best not to cut fine arts programs in the first place, core subject classrooms could learn a lot from arts programs and offer creative options for students to express their voices through creative means. And, with all the creative tools available at our fingertips through mobile technology, like digital movie making apps, digital art apps, tablet/phone cameras, and animation tools, students can express themselves in creative ways that used to be solely accessible to those with access to expensive digital studios. Bonus: students will develop important digital skills. Whenever students are expressing their voices creatively, they’re building the skills they need to express themselves verbally, too, so it’s a win-win for everyone!
  5. We need to connect students to the world they live in.  Schools are cut-off from the rest of the world for some very important reasons.  Student safety is our number one concern, and we use locked doors and internet filtering systems to keep our students away from those who may want to hurt them.  Due to safety and budget constraints, field trips have become fewer and far between. It is easy for students to feel entirely cut off from the rest of the world, especially if we avoid discussing current events.  But the news, now more than ever, seems to be full of controversial topics, from the president using derogatory terms to describe certain people or nations to an athlete taking a knee during the national anthem.  But, when we avoid talking about current events and allowing students to delve into the controversy, we rob them of opportunities to see the connection between themselves and the world they live in.  These things do affect us all, whether we are in school or out.
  6. It’s all controversial, anyway.  Let’s face it, even the most trivial topic could blow up into a controversy.  It happens all the time.  An elementary teacher could spark a controversy about climate change just by having students change the weather board during circle time. Almost every teacher has a story about teaching something they thought was completely safe until one comment by a student turned the discussion into a dispute. Since it’s a given that, at some point, controversy will find its way into every classroom, why not build classroom norms and procedures for dealing with controversy, rather than shushing it away?  That way, students will be better prepared to cope with it outside of school, when they don’t have adults around to make the controversy disappear.

cover image by ExLeper on Deviantart


EDLD 5316 — Reflection

In EDLD 5316, we learned about digital citizenship.  While this concept was not new to me, this course was eye-opening because it brought attention to the breadth of the issue and the lack of attention being paid to digital citizenship in my school (and many schools, unfortunately.)

Much is said of digital citizenship when things go wrong.  The news is full of terrifying stories of teen suicides motivated by cyberbullying, identity theft, plagiarism, fraud, and digital addiction.  Just when we start to understand all the dangers of digital use, a new technology is born that creates new problems for keeping ourselves and our children safe online.  It’s difficult enough staying safe in the physical world; now we have to consider the digital world, too.  This is frustrating for so many reasons, especially for teachers, who are already overwhelmed with the many things we must do on any given school day.

But it is precisely because we are overwhelmed that we must find time to educate ourselves about digital citizenship and turn our attention to these threats.  Digital problems occur when we are unaware of the threats and ignorant of their consequences.  Cyberbullying happens online, where parents and teachers can’t (or don’t know how to) supervise.  Digital fraudsters and identity thieves thrive in an atmosphere of ignorance because people don’t know how to protect themselves.  Plagiarism takes over in an academic setting when teachers and schools don’t teach and enforce positive digital habits (or know how to check).  And digital addiction — like any other form of addiction — requires parents and students to stay educated and vigilant about healthy digital habits.

Kids and teens, because of their lack of maturity and life experiences, have difficulty navigating digital spaces.  Because their online identities are often obscured by usernames and anonymous posting, it is easy for them to experience deindividuation (where they feel they are part of a larger group of people who are acting a certain way, and it’s not just them) and disinhibition (where they feel less inhibited because they are anonymous).  It is easy for young people to fall into bad digital habits, especially when it comes to cyberbullying.  Bullying has always been a problem with kids and teens, but the problem is especially troublesome when it happens in a digital environment.  In the past, the victim of a bully could go home to escape the bullying.  Now, the bullying can happen anytime, and can be repeated over and over, each time a person reposts, forwards, or “likes” a bullying post (Hinduja, 2015).  Adults often assume that since cyberbullying doesn’t result in physical injuries, it is just a case of “kids being kids,” but the growing data about cyberbullying shows that it can have very severe consequences to young people’s mental health, even resulting in suicide.

We can’t protect kids from everything, but by learning about digital citizenship, we can prepare our kids to stay safe, healthy, and happy online and off.  We can also benefit in the same way by learning as much as we can about digital citizenship and practicing good digital habits, ourselves.


Made with Padlet





Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying beyond the schoolyard: Preventing and responding  

to cyberbullying. (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Marshall, T.H. (1950). Citizenship and social class: and other essays. Cambridge, MA:

University Press.


Ohler, J. (2010). Digital community: Digital Citizen. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship in schools: Nine elements all students should know. (3rd

ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology.


The Digital Bully

I remember my first bullying experience.  I was in sixth grade.  I was an early bloomer, and much to my embarrassment, needed a bra before any of my friends.  I didn’t want anyone to know — it was bad enough having a sore chest from growing in unusual places and from wearing this itchy, uncomfortable new undergarment.

Melvin* was the new kid.  He was the typical schoolyard bully.  He lived to mess with me — probably because I was the easiest kid to make cry in our whole class.  He made gym class excruciating, and pretty much every recess left me crying at the picnic table to any one of the teachers unfortunate enough to have to deal with this issue day in and day out.

One day, Melvin overheard me telling my best friend about my bra.  It was hurting and I didn’t like it.  He immediately jumped up and announced to the entire lunchroom that I had one (and if you yell something like it’s completely scandalous, it must be, so everyone reacts accordingly).  He reached over, between our tables, grabbed my bra strap through my shirt, pulled it back, and — WHAP!!!!! — flipped it into my back.  It hurt like mad, and I was mortified at having any attention drawn to my delicate situation.  Melvin got his payoff — the tears came fast and furious.  But then the rage came.  I jumped up, grabbed a handfull of mushy peas from my lunch plate, and smeared the peas into Melvin’s face, while screaming in his face all the things I wish I had said for the several months of torture that I had endured that school year.

Imagine if that situation had played out today.  Melvin would have made a post about it on Twitter.  Maybe he would have included a picture, which may or may not have been about me, but would have been associated with my name in the post.  This post and picture might have been posted on a ghosting app, like Snapchat, so it would disappear before any adults could find out about it — although tech-savvy kids could screenshot it and post it elsewhere.  The message would have gone far beyond the lunchroom within the first ten minutes of posting.  It could have been circulating through the entire school, and even beyond the school walls within that very lunch period.

That day, back in 1985, I went home (after serving detention for smearing peas in Melvin’s face) at the end of the day, and that was that.  The next day, when I returned to school, there really wasn’t any drama left.  Melvin had to serve detention the rest of the week, and found someone else to pick on.  If this had happened today, the event would not have ended when I left school, because the pictures and messages would still be being shared, reposted, commented on, “liked,” remixed, and re-posted.  Every new interaction with the post would be like getting bullied again.  Melvin probably wouldn’t let it go at the end of the day, because each new interaction would send a notification to his device and invite him to get involved in the taunting again.  The bullying may never end, because these images, once unleashed on the Internet, exist indefinitely.

Though the intensity and duration of cyberbullying is much more severe than bullying before the Internet, the presence of adults who can intervene is dramatically lower.  Most parents and teachers have no idea which apps and websites children are using to bully one another, how to intervene in cyberbullying situations, or how to find out what their own children are doing when they’re online.  Parents don’t want to intrude into kids’ private spaces, for fear of creating trust issues, and children often find ways around any blocks so they can participate in off-limits computer use.  Many kids are (literally!) addicted to their devices, and have extreme reactions to losing access.  (My own child bought a cheap “burner” phone to use to access texting and Internet when I confiscated his phone).  Parents often feel clueless and ineffective when their children are not using the Internet appropriately.

This is not the time to throw up our hands and say “what can we do?”  Depression, anxiety, legal issues, suicide, problems with school, alcohol and drug use, and other major problems have been linked to cyberbullying.  Now is the time to start educating ourselves.  It is imperative that adults educate themselves about the Internet, and to have a strong presence on the sites their children and students use.  Instead of blocking sites, parents and schools should be teaching students to use those sites correctly and to protect themselves from the extreme consequences that can affect their physical lives that result from going online.  We can’t stop the Internet from becoming the locus of many of our person-to-person interactions.  We can, however, embrace the Internet, educate ourselves and our children to become better digital citizens, model and enforce good Digital Citizenship, and provide our children with the knowledge and support they need to navigate the Internet and keep themselves and others safe.  It is a tall order, and would require a huge commitment from everyone who works with kids, or has children of their own.  But the alternative is to continue allowing our children to wander around the Internet, unsupervised and unsupported, and leaving them to deal with the consequences, alone.


Brewer, G., & Kerslake, J. (2015). Cyberbullying, self-esteem, empathy and loneliness. Computers i  in Human Behavior, 48, 255-260. Brewer_Cyberbullying_Self-esteem_Empathy_Loneliness.pdf

Essex, N. L. (2016). School law and the public school: A practical guide for educational leaders. (6th ed.) (pp. 107-110). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.  Essex_Bullying.pdf

Essex, N. L. (2016). School law and the public school: A practical guide for educational leaders. (6th ed.)   (pp.111-114). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc. Essex_Cyberbullying.pdf

Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying beyond the schoolyard: Preventing and responding to  cyberbullying. (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


No, I will not paint Pete the Cat on your wall — but let’s do this instead.

As an art teacher and professional muralist, I get a lot of requests to paint murals in my schools.  I absolutely love painting murals, especially when I can involve students in the process.  Buy some paint, give me a wall, and I am totally happy to turn your boring wall into a work of art.  Sadly, I have to decline most of the requests.  Why?  Most of the time the requests are to put copyrighted work in a mural.  I can almost tell, when the email comes up in my inbox with an attachment of a cute kid’s book illustration or cartoon character, that I’m going to have to say “no.”

I know, I know… probably 90% of schools in America are filled with murals of beloved children’s book characters.  They’re adorable!  We love those characters, and putting pictures of them on our school walls encourages students to want to read the books.  How could anyone be against anything that encourages kids to read?

The first, and biggest problem is that those images don’t belong to me.  In fact, they legally belong to another artist and they’re protected by copyright law.  This means that using these images is illegal, and breaking the law has some pretty expensive consequences.  Using these images is literally stealing from another artist.  You may think to yourself, “who is going to come after a school who is using these images to promote something wholesome, like reading?”  Actually, yes, some copyright owners would (and have been known to) seek legal action against schools who have copyrighted characters in murals.  In 1989, the Walt Disney company ordered three schools in Florida to remove murals depicting their characters.  Harsh as it sounds, it is their right to do so.  They own the copyright, and though there is a limited arguement that the use of the characters meets Fair Use requirements, would you really want to have to fight The Walt Disney Company in court?  I didn’t think so.

Secondly, we need to model good digital citizenship to our students — now, more than ever, in the digital age where it is so easy to download, remix, and publish images.  Just as we have harsh consequences for students who plagiarize writing from the Internet, we need to take a stand against copying art, too.  Stealing from artists is just as egregious as stealing from authors — and has equally dramatic consequences!  When we put copyrighted images on our school walls, we are telling students that it is fine to copy artwork. By teaching student artists to respect others’ intellectual works, we model good digital citizenship, and we also teach students how to protect their own works and be successful creative entrepreneurs.

In addition, it’s just insulting to ask an artist  to copy someone else’s work.  If an artist is talented enough for you to trust them to copy someone else’s work, imagine how amazing your mural would be if you gave artistic license for them to create something just for your space!  When creating a mural, artists consider more than just the cute characters in the picture — they consider the use of the space, the existing structures and design of the space, the history of the location, and the tastes of the people who will be interacting with the space.  Asking an artist to create a one-of-a-kind mural designed for your space will yield much better results than asking an artist to copy Pete the Cat onto your wall — and it will be all yours.  It won’t be the same as every other school with Pete the Cat on the wall.

Also, when you ask an art teacher to just copy something onto your wall, you’re missing an opportunity to connect students to your project.  When we give students an opportunity to turn their ideas into a work of public art, we give them choice over what the finished product will look like, which is important because they are the beneficiaries of this project.  We also give them ownership of the project, by giving them that choice and the ability to express their artistic voice, not mimic another artist’s.   We give them an authentic learning experience, by involving them in every part of the planning, design, execution, and exhibition of their artwork.  But, most importantly, when we allow students to create art on a big, public canvas like a school wall, we tell them that they are worthy of the title “artist,” and that their creative work is worthy of such a prominent space.

If you’re worried that a student mural will look like… well… kid art… maybe you should consider who the mural is actually for.  Is it for the adults or for the kids of the school?  Besides, a good art teacher has plenty of experience making a room full of students with art supplies work to produce beautiful art, and will know how to manage this project in such a way that you don’t end up with a Jackson Pollock-style wall (and floors, and ceiling…) in your public space.  Also, your art teacher will have plenty of experience listening to your needs and concerns and working with you to come up with an idea that makes you happy and works within the constraints of the project.  That’s kind of what art teachers do.

I love Pete the Cat.  I also respect the creator of Pete the Cat, James Dean, and his ownership of all the great illustrations of that fabulous feline.  And, of course, I really love not breaking the law!  The next time you think about adding some color to your space, please consider asking your art teacher to turn the mural into a student-led project.  I promise, the results will be much more impressive than any character copied onto the wall with a projector, and the payoff for students will be Pete the Cat- level awesome!



Chicago Tribune.   “Cartoon Figures Run Afoul of Law.”
27 April 1989   (p. 26).

Dean, James. (n.d.).  “James Dean, The Man Behind The Cat.”  Retrieved from:  https://www.petethecat.com/

Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship in schools: Nine elements all students should know (3rd ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education


Net Neutrality Means Access for All


If you feel you need to ban technology, you probably need DigCit, instead.

Recently, Susan Dynarski wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about why she bans laptops in her lectures and meetings.  Her writing inspired very strong responses on both sides of the issue, and it makes sense.  Anyone who has ever tried to teach a room full of students with technology has fought this battle.  As an advocate for educational technology seeking a Master’s Degree in this field, I, too, have had fleeting moments where I would love to take all the cellphones and Chromebooks in my classroom and toss them into the bay — especially when my students hack around the filtering sites so they can watch Netflix all day and jam the bandwidth.  But is banning technology in a time when technology is so much a part of all of our lives really the most responsible thing to do?

How did we get here?  Many of us grew up going to school in a time when computers were nonexistant in school, or relegated to a computer lab in another part of the school or back of the classroom.  We did not have access to 24/7 technology for every task we do. Our students, on the other hand, grew up with a gadget in hand from the first minute they could express boredom.  Technology has always been part of their lives.  If we did successfully ban technology from our classrooms, students would leave school, and before reaching the bus stop, would have their cellphones out, and probably doing several online tasks at the same time without missing a beat.  They will probably use their technology for the rest of the evening, and check it first thing after waking up in the morning.  They work, play, communicate, and perform monetary transactions online.  These students are citizens of a community that didn’t exist a generation ago — a digital community that is the space where many of the transactions that used to take place in physical space now occur.  Whether we love technology or hate it, this community is as real as the ones we live and work in every day, but it comes with some unique benefits and deficits, depending on how we exist within it.

When we ban technology, we might get the immediate payoff of students appearing to be more focused in class.  But by banning technology in our classrooms, we deprive students of opportunities to learn and practice good digital citizenship, which will equip them to be more responsible users of technology in their adult lives.  We are already seeing the consequences of having a generation of students grow up with banned and blocked technology and a lack of training in positive digital citizenship.  Plagiarism is on the rise in our society, with scandals affecting everyone from adacemics to news outlets to the White House Technology-based distraction at work is a huge problem among businesses.  Online threats to children’s physical safety are everywhere.  Being distracted by technology is so common, it even affects our personal safety.  There are so many problems with hacking that I don’t even know how to sum it up into one sentence for the purposes of this blog post.  In fact, there are so many problems with the online community that I can’t even begin to list them all here.  But that online community is not going away, and as more and more of our daily interactions and business transactions move online, we miss huge opportunities to both equip our students to stay safe and productive with technology, and to contribute to a better online world by being creators of these future online spaces.

When we block and ban technology, we fail to exist with our students in these online spaces and model positive digital citizenship.  We don’t prepare students for interacting and working in an online space.  We don’t help them work through issues like cyberbullying, trolling, and intellectual dishonesty.  We don’t help them learn to balance tech use with mindfulness in the physical world.  In fact, we don’t know what threats they face, because we aren’t there with them.  Blocking technology for our students when they have access to it at home is like driving to the worst part of town, kicking the kids out of the car, and driving off.  It is not only irresponsible to drop the ball with digital citizenship, it sets our students up for real life danger, and it ensures that the future of these online spaces will continue to present the same kinds of dangers to others.

A positive digital citizenship plan with consistent modeling and enforcement is the only good way to handle the frustrations of having technology in the classroom.  Though I understand Dynarski’s perspective on the frustrations of digital distraction in the classroom, (that photo at the top of the page is from a student caught watching Netflix in my classroom during instructional time) I also see our common problem as an opportunity to work with students who are exhibiting a lack of good DigCit norms, and who will simply leave our classes and be distracted someplace else.  My suggestion to her would be to have an honest discussion with her students about digital citizenship and to create better norms for balancing technology and non-tech learning –– and then to advocate for better DigCit norms at her University, too!  This is exactly what I’m doing in my own school.


Digital Citizenship

Most people who know me are surprised that I’m passionate about technology in education.  Sure, I grew up as an 80’s kid, when computers were first gaining importance in education.  I had my own computer at home and taught myself to code in BASIC, just for fun.  I played “Oregon Trail” and “Zork” at school when I got free time.  I’m in that interesting group of Americans that grew up with computers, but wasn’t quite a “digital native.”

But my discipline isn’t a “techy” one.  I teach art, which is often the last place schools invest in technology. My journey to my Digital Learning and Leading master’s program really only started when I bought an iPad on a lark as a solution to being a mobile teacher with a tiny budget, and I discovered that it provided learning opportunities I never had, before.  Now, only a few years later, technology has become so intertwined with education, it’s impossible to talk about one topic without the other.

But in our move from traditional to technology-driven education, one topic is often missed, especially in our focus to provide student with “21st Century Skills” and improve test scores.  But this topic is so important that, in our failure to address it, we are creating a bigger problem by not preparing students to work and interact in a digital world that does not work like the physical world.  This one concept, Digital Citizenship, is such a simple idea, but it covers a vast number of issues presented by an online world.

Digital Citizenship is merely the idea of applying our concept of citizenship to the digital world.  According to Marshall, citizenship is a status given to all full members of a community.  Citizenship has three components:  civil, political, and social (Marshall, 1950).  The idea of Digital Citizenship came about much later, after the invention of computers, and when more and more of our interactions with others started happening online.  It became apparent that, while there is a definite parallel between the online and offline communities, digital interactions produce some unique considerations.

Ribble (2015) broke the concept of Digital Citizenship down into 9 elements, making it much easier to look at the issues of citizenship in our digital lives.  These elements are:

  1. Digital Access — being able to access digital information and workspaces
  2. Digital Commerce — buying and selling goods online
  3. Digital Communication — interacting with others online
  4. Digital Literacy — knowing how to utilize technology 
  5. Digital Etiquette — the rules and norms of online interaction
  6. Digital Law — the legal implications of online interaction
  7. Digital Rights and Responsibilities — the protections and consequences of online interaction
  8. Digital Health and Wellness — the ways technology use can affect us, physically
  9. Digital Security — staying safe as we work and interact online

According to Ribble (2015) these elements can be combined into three basic areas, depending on how they affect our lives at school:

  • Directly affect student learning and academic performance – access, literacy, communication
  • Affect the overall school environment and student behavior – etiquette, rights and responsibilities, and security
  • Affect student life outside the school environment – commerce, health & wellness, and law.

He then further simplified this concept into a three word slogan, “Respect, Educate, and Protect” or REP:

Respect Your Self/Respect Others

  • Etiquette
  • Access
  • Law

Educate Your Self/Connect with Others

  • Communication
  • Literacy
  • Commerce

Protect Your Self/Protect Others

  • Rights and Responsibility
  • Safety (Security)
  • Health and Welfare

As we develop online spaces for learning, working, and interacting, it is especially important to include Digital Citizenship in our teaching and our planning, in order to prepare our students to be good digital citizens.  Any initiative to include technology in our schools must prioritize the ways we teach students to respect, educate, and protect themselves and others in order to ensure their safety and success in a world that didn’t even exist when we were in school.


Marshall, T.H. (1950). Citizenship and social class: and other essays. Cambridge, MA: University Press.

Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship in schools: Nine elements all students should know (3rd ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education

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