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Students weigh ethics of Facebook at West Side Collaborative

Dasbry Enriquez doesn’t have a Facebook account. But if the seventh-grader did, she said she would refrain from posting personal information about her friends to the site without their permission.

“It’s not my business,” she said.

Her classmates agreed, but several noted that if someone else posted personal information, it would be hard to ignore, especially if it said somebody they knew was hurt or in trouble.

Enriquez was among two dozen students who spent Tuesday morning debating the finer points of Internet privacy and social media ethics during their English class at West Side Collaborative Middle School. The lesson was planned for Digital Citizenship Day, meant to educate young people about the right ways to use the web.

Almost all of the students were in agreement how to handle a number of hypothetical dilemmas that social media users might face. But they also acknowledged that the most ethical course of action is not always obvious, or easy to take.

Their teacher, Novella Bailey, asked them what they would do if a friend created a Facebook page railing against a teacher who gave him a tough homework assignment. The students said they would resist the temptation to join the page. But what if a student copied some of their ideas on an assignment after it is shared online?

“There’s no way this is not plagiarism,” one student said, looking at the example Bailey gave them.

“But it’s not copyrighted like music is,” another reasoned. Other students said the copied assignment was a form of plagiarism, but it wouldn’t have been if the second student credited the original work.

The crash course in copyright ethics is part of Bailey’s annual efforts to help students navigate the countless unsupervised, online interactions they will likely have with each other between middle school and college. Asked how many have identities on social media websites, every student in Bailey’s class raised his or her hands.

In a column on the white board labeled “ethical,” Baily wrote “apologizing,” “taking down posts,” and “trustworthy,” as the students brainstormed behaviors they could use to combat Internet bullying. Unethical online behaviors, they said, included lying, “not respecting privacy,” and “telling someone’s business.”

Bailey’s curriculum came from Common Sense Media, an education nonprofit that creates lessons in digital literacy and developed Digital Citizenship Day. Within New York City, 615 public and private schools have registered to use the group’s resources.

Visiting for the lesson, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott applauded West Side Collaborative’s efforts to teach students about the pitfalls of technology use and make them more aware of their behavior online. The school has a laptop for each student, making the digital ethics lessons all the more pressing, Principal Jeanne Rotunda said.

Earlier this year the city updated its social media policy, which stipulates how teachers should interact with students online. Rotunda said the changes to the policy have not affected her school much because she has instructed teachers to be judicious about their digital interactions with students for years.

And for the past three years, teachers have led orientations on Internet use during the first weeks of school. Rotunda said students who have had the training are more willing to seek advice from teachers when problems arise later in the school year.

“Those students … were making really unwise choices with digital media both inside of school and outside, and we were spending a tremendous amount of time addressing those issues,” she said of graduates from before WSC began training students on appropriate Internet use. “We’ve seen an incredible decrease in that. Now, it’s a part of our world. All the teachers are trained in it and involved in doing it.”

Bailey said the digital curriculum is also helping students prepare for upcoming research assignments. New curriculum standards, known as the Common Core, require middle school students to complete more nonfiction reading and research assignments than in past years.

“The lessons line up with the Common Core really well,” she said. “We did one where they had to analyze videos on the Internet for fair use, and how to cite evidence to support your ideas and be clear with your argument. It all fits together.”

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