One day I went to teach five seventh/eighth grade classes with five more to follow the next day. I was going to introduce our digital classroom to the groups, run them through a quick writing exercise and have them set the rules for engagement.
I walked in a few minutes early -- 8 a.m. Seven kids were hovering around the computers in the back. I went over. The screens all had a whirling wheel that kept going and going and going...
"How long has that been doing that?" I asked.
"Forever," said one boy. "Our network sucks."
Time for Plan B. We used pencils. And paper.
I had them write a response to the prompt "I like ..." They could make a list or a long, run-on sentence (teacher did some brilliant run-ons that were highly entertaining). This is, by the way, a wonderful prompt to do in the safety of your own home, particularly if you are in a bad mood.
Then we had them share. The responses were wonderful. "I like goin' out in my four-wheeler and hittin' the mud." ... "I like deer hunting." ... "I like drinking Mountain Dew and playing video games." ... "I like reading." ... "I like soccer and basketball and baseball."
After each student read I asked a question. Soon, I was able to nudge the kids to ask questions about each other. And when we were done, I asked them what they thought about the process.
"I learned that Dylan likes to do beat-boxing," said one girl.
"I learned a lot about people I didn't know," said one boy.
So I told them that's exactly what they will do on their digital classrooms -- share and ask questions and comment and learn about each other.
"What should the rules be for commenting? You decide," I said. As has always been the case in this process, the kids, in two minutes, established rules that every adult would want. Fact is, youths want civility and kindness and purpose online, so they're happy to set their own rules around that. And the beauty of this is that they are the kids' rules and it's easier for the teacher to hold them accountable to their own rules.
Several days later, when the network was fixed, the teacher introduced the real Young Writers Project digital classroom to the kids. It went very smoothly because the kids understood why they were doing it and embraced the purpose because of what they had done with pencil and paper and the commenting rules before they logged in.
This was a learning for us. So we now recommend that teachers use this process when introducing their kids to new digital spaces.