My motto and philosophy for my school library is “expect the miraculous.” Inspired by my favorite author, Kate DiCamillo, I encourage students and educators to keep their eyes open to the world around them to find the miraculous things that happen all the time. But this can be especially hard for educators faced with embracing new technology every year.

Instead of focusing on the negative connotations around technology, I want to shine a light on how it can empower students and schools to be digital leaders. By expecting the miraculous, I believe we can begin to appreciate the little miracles that happen when we teach our students not just digital-citizenship but digital-leadership skills.

Taking digital citizenship one step further
As a media specialist, I begin the year with the idea that students hold the key to unlocking technology’s potential. I use past examples of student work where extraordinary things have happened and projects have reached beyond the walls of the school to inspire others. It’s stories like those that help students see the impact they can have.

I start by asking my students, “What do you think digital leadership means?” The responses are usually along the lines of, “Digital leadership means not doing bad things online.” Sure, they’re not entirely wrong, but there’s so much more to being a digital leader, especially at a young age. A digital leader:

  • Uses social media to share ideas and empower others
  • Connects and collaborates with others to learn together
  • Is not afraid to show their work and share their creative outlets for the greater good
  • Is willing to share their thoughts with an open mind and respect for others

Many children have been taught what to not do, instead of how to use the internet to learn in a way that’s effective and meaningful.

Modeling digital leadership
I try to be public with students when sharing what I post online and why I’ve said something. That way, students can see positive ways to use these outlets. I’ll even let them be a part of the conversation and write their own message, under my supervision. We can’t follow students’ home and see what they’re doing, but we can make “what a digital leader looks like” part of the conversation while they’re at school.

When trying to find a balance between talking about the positives of technology and keeping kids safe, start with an open and respectful dialogue. Last year, this was a big focus with our upper-grade kids. A lot of them already have cell phones, and many are using those devices unsupervised and using apps that are designed for older users. Even though they aren’t using those devices in school, we have an opportunity to promote a safer use of the devices while also encouraging students to find their positive voice online.

Using projects to inspire digital leadership
My teaching style varies from feeling like teaching digital leadership funnels through me to letting the student take charge (and maybe even teach me a lesson). A recent example of this is a project called Student Book Budget. Students in grades 3 through 5 researched and collaborated on a list of books they wanted to buy to update the library. They created Google Forms to ask other students what they wanted to read, and then we invited vendors to meet with the kids and create purchase orders. When the books arrived, they decided how they would market the books to the school.

A couple of years ago, a student really ran with this project. She put her chosen books on display in the library windows for students to see. I took photos of her and put them on social media. The publisher of the books, Capstone, responded and started a conversation about what some of her job duties would be as a marketing employee on their team. They even sent her a certificate as an honorary marketing intern. It was a really empowering experience for the student, who saw how using social media as a digital leader led to learning more about a real career, from a real company.

Teaching students digital leadership skills can be a daunting thing to do, but the skills they learn today will transfer not only in school, but outside those walls in their everyday lives and careers. Every single job requires knowing how to use technology. Companies look for employees who are tech-savvy and can find a balance between work and social interaction. To help our students learn those skills, we need to encourage them to be digital leaders that aren’t afraid to share their ideas, connect with others, and truly have an impact on the world. To start, educators need to be digital leaders themselves.

About the Author:

Andy Plemmons is the media specialist at David C. Barrow Elementary in Athens, Georgia. He was named the 2017 American Association of School Librarians Social Media Superstar for Sensational Student Voice, a 2016 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, a Google Innovator, and an NSBA “20 to Watch” honoree. Find him the Barrow Media Center blog, or on Twitter at @plemmonsa.