How It’s Done: Incorporating Digital Citizenship Into Your Everyday Curriculum

As in many states, students in Illinois are required to receive a certain number of hours of instruction each year dedicated to Internet Safety. While the idea is noble, the parameters are sketchy. Some schools have an “Internet Safety Day” or some such “special occasion” but too often these “occasions” serve no purpose other than compliance with the requirement and very little learning occurs.

Community High School District 99 decided to challenge the idea that Internet Safety just refers to “Cyberbullying,” and instead focused on “Digital Citizenship.” This involved creating a program that would be meaningful to students and help make a real difference.

The program became the Digital Citizenship Project, where students learn about cyberbullying awareness and prevention as well as strategies to protect themselves if they are victimized. The Digital Citizenship Project partners high schools and middle schools across the country; the older students mentor and guide the younger students on anti-bullying best practices.

To begin the project, the school used social media outlets like Twitter to engage educators across the nation, specifically targeting middle school teachers whose students might be interested in having a “cyber mentor.” The school received enthusiastic responses and, to date, nearly 20 elementary and middle school teachers now participate in the Digital Citizenship Project.

How It Works

The Digital Citizenship Project was first deployed in the Spring of 2011. The main topics selected were Netiquette, Digital Citizenship, Cybercrime Prevention, and Managing Digital Tattoo (Footprint). In addition to being embedded in existing classes, it was decided that all curricula would be projectbased, with a focus on creating for an authentic audience.

For a Personal Safety unit, high school sophomore health students research the causes and ramifications of cyberbullying and pose essential questions. Using “literature circles,” students read and discuss cases taken from “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” (Jacobs, 2011). The award-winning health department from Downers Grove South, including Debbie Bruns, Vince Garramone, Lauren Hoel, and Jon Stapleton, would be the primary catalysts for spearheading this project.

Armed with this new understanding, students then post letters on blogs intended for middle school students, including personal anecdotes and suggestions for cyberbullying prevention and protection. Blogs are sent to participating middle school teachers and students. Middle school students read 2-4 posts and respond by commenting and asking further questions. Serving as “cyber mentors,” the sophomore students continue the conversation, displaying good Digital Citizenship to their “proteges.”

There are now more than 1,000 students participating nationwide in the Digital Citizenship Project. There are numerous examples of students sharing incidents that either happened to them or, in some cases, when the students themselves have been the bullies. The responses of the middle school students are jaw-dropping. They show empathy, are willing to open up themselves, ask questions, and are truly interested in what the high school students have to say. The “final exam” is how the high school students respond to the younger students. In other words, are they being “good digital citizens”?

Why It Matters

This project matters for two reasons. First, instead of merely completing a study guide or worksheet, students create a document intended for an authentic audience and purpose. In addition to learning cyberbullying protection, students can figuratively look in the mirror and ask themselves, “Am I behaving responsibly?” The high school mentors guide their protégés, pose and answer questions, and engage in authentic discourse with those who genuinely want to know more. Second, both groups of students are assessed, not only on their knowledge of the topics, but also on their practice of the behaviors.

The first benefit for the high school students was the amount of voluntary revision that was done. High school students wrote and revised more when they knew their audience was younger students. Another benefit was the knowledge gained about the legal ramifications of cyberbullying. High school students scored significantly higher on assessments measuring knowledge about the legal consequences of cyberbullying after participating in the project.

There were also numerous benefits for the younger students. Middle school teachers reported that their students were impressed that high school students cared enough to write to them. As a result, they were more prone to continue discussions in a safe, familiar environment, knowing they could trust their mentors. In at least one case, middle school administrators are reporting a decrease in known incidents of cyberbullying after students participate in this project.

Next year, the Digital Citizenship Project will be bigger than ever. Middle school students from Europe and Africa will be participating to give the project a true “global” perspective. If you are interested in participating, please visit

Jon Orech is the Instructional Technology Coordinator for Downers Grove South High School, IL. He is also a regular presenter at Tech Forums and blogs at the Digital Learning Environments (

Sample Digital Citizenship Exchange

In this sample mentoring exchange, high school student Matt shares information about cyberbullying. Notice how Matt handles the exchange with two other middle school kids with empathy, but also encourages taking the “high road.”

Middle school student 1, “Alex”: One time i made this girl very mad by sending her a text message. Then she went to show the text to her boy friend and the guy came to chew my butt out. I said my sorry and he said that is not sorry. So the guy made the girl come and talk to me and she said it better not happen again or i will have my boyfriend come and beat you up. I said ok i’m sorry i won’t do it again.

Middle School student 2, “Katy”: Wow I can’t believe you did that. I know I’m not making it any better but as a girl i feel strongly about this stuff. I personly would make you feel guilty, then ignor you, then beat you. (that was a joke) But in the end (like all guys) you FINALLY came out of stupidity. I don’t have a facebook or phone. My moms smart. So I’m noy bullied that much. It’s mostly verbal.

High School Student, “Matt”: Thank you for sharing your story, Alex. Also, thank you for apologizing to the girl for cyberbullying her. While the fact that you did cyberbully her is not good at all, at least you have mended it a bit by apologizing to her and promising not to do it again. However, the fact that they had threatened to hurt you is also a form of bullying, and they were also in the wrong. But if all is said and done, walk away and move on. Don’t bother them anymore and you won’t have any problems.

Katy, I understand your strong opposition to cyberbullying and certainly agree with the belief, but the fact that you’re saying things like how you would make him feel bad and guilty about doing it, then saying how he is stupid (along with all other males, according to you), in essence, is a form of cyberbullying. I appreciate your feedback but must ask you to keep from saying things like that.


The CyberBully Hotline from SchoolReach has announced the CyberBully Hotline grant program. This newly created program for K-12 schools and districts will award $100,000 in grants to support the implementation of an anonymous bullying reporting solution to help schools reduce and prevent bullying and cyber bullying episodes.

Entries for the CyberBully Hotline grant must come from districts or schools that have a high (31-50 percent) or very high (50 percent+) Free and Reduced Lunch rating.

Where to find grant applications:

Deadline: October 31, 2012.

New York Governor Signs Strict Measure Fighting Cyberbullying in Schools

In a recent Huffington Post, Joseph O’Leary reports that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed a measure, effective July 1, 2013, to crack down on cyberbullying. The law puts in place a number of steps designed to help prevent cyberbullying, both inside and outside of schools.

O’Leary reports that a school employee who witnesses or learns of online harassmentmust notify the school’s administration within one school day, and must file a written report within another two days. The law also requires that teachers be trained in identifying and mitigating bullying incidents.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center (, every state except Montana has a law in place to prevent bullying. Forty-two states have laws that include electronic harassment, and laws in 14 states include cyberbullying.