It is my own personal opinion that 4th grade is too young an age to be in public chat rooms. However, that is not my decision; it is their parents'. Many of my 4th graders have already been chatting in public chats at home, in sites like Runescape. So whether I think it's appropriate or not, many of them are already there, or about to enter such an environment. I need to help my students learn to be safe and appropriate in chat rooms, whether it be for their current or future usage, and I believe that proper online behavior must be taught explicitly rather than leave it to chance. I do this by bringing my students into a safe, closed chat, protected by a password.

The thing I find most interesting when starting this unit, is that no matter how much preparation goes into talking about norms and expected behavior, or reminding students to stay on topic and purpose, the whole experience goes down the drain almost right away. Here's a common example of what many students type once set free in the chat room:

fjskfasdfjasdf asdfjsdfkl sadfjsdfkl sdfjsdf jsdfksdfl jsadfksdflsdf;dfssdf

I let this go on for a bit and watch the chat as person after person starts filling the screen with crazy, random typing. Soon, other students start getting frustrated. They call out across the room for the perpetrators to "stop the madness." I remind them that they can only talk in the chat room and can't use their voices, and the reprimands go to text, but now with students using each others' real names (breaking Rule Number One that we have just discussed and have known since 1st Grade: Never Give Out Personal Information).

Sometimes the chat experience is able to be corrected and the group finds itself back on track by working through the problems within the chat. More often, however, I have to call a time-out and bring the group back to a "vocal" conversation, asking them to examine how the norms and expectations have eroded. Usually, I only have to do this once. Students reiterate the rules on their own, identify all infractions without my support, and remind each other what's expected. It's smooth sailing after this.

The first time this happened, I was surprised, but I no longer am. It's almost like it has to happen. These students have never been in a chat this size, and usually never with their F2F peers. It's almost like they have to run as close to "the edge of chaos" as they can in order to come back to where they should be. Perhaps through making mistakes early on, they identify the limits and boundaries of the chat room. Perhaps this makes it feel more manageable and under control; more safe. What better place for our students to have this opportunity of making mistakes and "working things out" than with teachers who will guide them in a safe environment, where they can practice and learn appropriate netiquette in a "low risk" setting? Many of us (teachers) "cut our teeth" in chat rooms early on in their existence. Mistakes we made were probably corrected in a more forgiving environment than what exists today. Not only is chat more prevalent in our students' personal lives these days, but undoubtedly, much of their future work will be carried out in chat spaces or similar online collaborative environments.

How are you helping to prepare your students for proper netiquette? I'd love to hear your ideas and projects in the comments below!