POP Group Shapes Middle School Technology Culture

What is POP at BB&N Middle School? POP stands for Positive Online Presence, a new collaboration between students and faculty, led by Sandra Cortesi from the Berkman Center at Harvard. Its mission is to make real and substantive changes to the digital media culture at the Middle School. Educators and parents often wonder, and sometimes worry, about the effects of technology on the lives of young people. It’s a ubiquitous influence on students’ attention that affects how they approach schoolwork, entertainment, and relationships. For years the Middle School advisory curriculum has included units dedicated to online safety. The POP initiative is all about flipping the conversation from a teacher-centered, finger-wagging list of things not to do on the internet to a student-generated curriculum dedicated to thinking about the internet use in creative, positive ways. The question for students about technology shifts from “How can I protect myself from the dangers of the internet?” to “How can I make the best use of the internet?”

Sandra Cortesi, Fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard and Director of the Youth and Media Project is the POP project leader. At Youth and Media, Cortesi works closely with talented young people and leads researchers in the field as they look into innovative ways to approach social challenges in the digital world. Twenty Middle School students, Director Mary Dolbear, and Technology Specialist Svetlana Grinshpan now join Cortesi to make our POP initiative a reality at the Middle School. The students are a mix of seventh and eighth graders, including the elected student council members and several eager volunteers. Mary Dolbear is enthusiastic about the progress they have made since the beginning of school. “This technology is deeply embedded into the lives of our students,” she says. “It is most productive to engage them in conversations about their usage of technology to create their own ‘Positive Online Presence.’”

The POP group has identified and is pursuing two interrelated goals: The first goal is to give students voice in shaping the tech culture of the Middle School in terms of norms and rules. How do students currently interact with digital media during school hours? Given what students already do, what rules and guidelines make sense to both faculty and students in order to create a healthy culture of learning? Students are proud of their leadership and take the responsibilities seriously. Maia Pandey, a seventh grader, knows that her work will have lasting impact. And the exercises during POP discussions have been a valuable stretch for her emerging leadership skills. She reports with pride, “During one E block we were assigned different roles, like students, teachers, parents, and heads of schools. There were different tech rules projected on the board, and we debated why or why not the rule should be put into place. Taking the roles of different groups helped us see the complication of putting a rule into place at the school.”

The second goal is the creation of a digital media curriculum for the entire student body. The POP students have brainstormed and are in the process of developing specific topics most relevant to explore with their peers. These students, rather than the faculty, will do the actual teaching during several sessions in January. The student-generated topics are: research collaboration, phone usage, social media (technology how-to), and social media (norms and behaviors.) These days, each meeting is devoted to the creation and trouble-shooting of these lessons. Eighth grade POP member Armeen Golshan says, “I was overjoyed to be a part of a group that could voice student opinion and actually make a change. We are going to create a new online technology policy that has bipartisanship between both the faculty and student body. The school will be different because before students would groan when we had our technology learning. Now, with the help of students and Sandra Cortesi, we are able to change the online policy in ways that will be beneficial and enjoyable.”

How did POP start? At a technology conference, Grinshpan heard Cortesi speak about the culture of youth and digital media. She was impressed by Cortesi’s innovative, forward-thinking approach to technology in schools and invited her to work with our students. Cortesi was excited about the prospect of this collaboration. Although Cortesi has presented at conferences and met with government officials about youth and digital media throughout the United States and the world (most recently Malaysia, Argentina, and Colombia) she says, “No school in the United States has done this. BB&N Middle School is pioneering this model of student advisory board about norms expectations in their school.”

The Middle School will be a better place because of the POP program. Because students will have had an integral voice in shaping the norms and guidelines around technology usage, everyone in the building will experience the impact of this program every day. Perhaps of equal importance is the fulfillment of our mission to foster leadership skills in our students. Dolbear sees the benefits to the students already. “Nurturing student leadership is inspiring and critical to a healthy school culture. We already have a number of ways in which students contribute and lead in both formal and informal ways within our community, but this initiative is different. It is a significant and ongoing time commitment from our students, and it’s real work.”

To learn more about the BB&N POP initiative and to see profiles of the student participants, visit the Harvard Youth and Media website:

~ Harvard Youth and Media website

Story by Betsy Canaday, Teacher and Chair of Middle School English Department