You know the old joke about being given The Mushroom Treatment, right: kept in the dark and fed a steady diet of shit? I sometimes wonder if kids aren't subjected to that more than we realize. While I understand that there are some topics that might not be considered age-appropriate or school-appropriate, there is also a regular assumption that kids can't be burdened (enlightened?) with things which do affect them.
For example, plenty of my students are frustrated by the internet filters at school, but no one has ever talked to them about the ins and outs of these decisions.
I asked them to tell me the kinds of sites/programs to which they didn't have access at school. I wrote them on the board, grouping them into two categories (which I didn't label until later): those things that would be required under the Childhood Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and those which were just a district choice.
The things that fell into the CIPA category included pornography, gambling, illegal drug use, making oneself an easy target for child predators. All of these are pretty fuzzy, mind you. In fact, we talked some about "pornography." Now, before you start getting all nervous, I didn't ask for any details. What we did talk a bit about was that "porn" is hard to label. There are diagrams of naked people, sex organs, etc. in their biology book---does that qualify? Why is that any different from a photograph of a nude person? They hadn't thought about this much before; however, because gambling, porn, and other things are not available to them (or shouldn't be) until they are 18, they don't mind the blocked access at school. I'm sure some of them figure that they can just look at those things at home. Kids do have their own range of what they think is and isn't "school appropriate." We also talked a bit about the magic age of 18. Most of my students were turning 16: the magical age for getting a driver's license. I promised them that no one was going to sprinkle them with some sort of fairy dust at the moment between their last day of being 17 and their first day of being 18...dust which would confer all manner of wisdom. There's no special part of the brain which unlocks when Poof! You're 18! But as a society, we have to draw lines somewhere and this is the spot we've agreed to. Other countries or cultures do different things based on their own interpretations of the word "adult." Anyway, this part is okay with them.
In the other category were listed things such as MySpace, Facebook, wikipedia (and all other wikis), e-mail, GoogleApps, Flickr, blogs, twitter/plurk, etc. I asked them what all of these had in common. Ah---social networking possibilities. Now, one could make the argument that Flickr, Photobucket, and other such sites could be blocked due to CIPA. After all, the district has to restrict access to pictures, not written content. However, as long as one can do image searches using Google or Yahoo! or other engines, I'm not so sure what good it does. Meanwhile, most of us have likely had the experience of using a perfectly plain search term and getting back some not appropriate for school suggestions. This happened to me at the end of the year when I was using Flickr to find something for the word "Pride." Most of what I got were pictures from gay pride parades---many of the photos containing painted nudes, having a wonderful time. The pix were great, my search term as innocuous as they come, and the lion's share of the results weren't what I needed for school. Anyway, the fact is that with new social networking tools coming out daily, it seems foolish for any school district to think that they will be able to ban them all. It's going to be like pushing back the ocean with a broom.
We also talked about kids' ideas of what "public" and "private" is. Most of them have a "public" MySpace page. Is it their intention that anyone with internet access read it? Are they truly putting content there for everybody? They were a bit taken aback with this idea. Of course they aren't. "Public" for them means their friends or others who know them and might have an interest in what they post. They feel the information should be considered "private" for all others. This is, of course, part of the issue The District worries about. What they post is public from our perspective...but not theirs. However, instead of talking with kids about this and how to be safe with information, we just tell them to do it at home where we don't have to see or think about what they're doing.
I told them that The District is choosing to block these sites for a couple of reasons. One is the concern that they might read something "obscene." In other words, we can't use wikis because someone somewhere might edit the wiki to include a bad word or lewd comment. The district doesn't operate from a standpoint that if given a choice, people tend to do the right thing. But more importantly, as described in Here Comes Everybody, the reason why wikipedia and similar sites have been so successful is because of the sheer volume of people out there who want them to succeed. Sure, you can go in and create something stupid---but all of your efforts can be erased in seconds...and there are far more people interested in doing that than in damaging things.
The other reason The District wants to eliminate access is a very Big Brother one: they can't control the content. If a student uses MS Word to write a paper and saves it on the school's server, the school can read, delete, or do whatever it likes with the work. They can't do this with GoogleDocs. There, a student's work belongs to the student.
My little mushrooms enjoyed the conversation. I brought them into the light a bit and fed them a nicer diet. The question, of course, is where do they go from here. They can't fight the CIPA stuff---and really, they don't seem to want to. What they do need to do is use the social networking tools to take some action...and I think we'll have to get their parents into the mix. (Is their Right to Freedom of Assembly being impinged? An interesting thought, to be sure.) For now, I'll do what I can to make sure that they aren't being treated as mushrooms. Our kids deserve more respect than that.