As a 6th-grade teacher who grew up just before the internet took over society, I have often felt like an immigrant in the land of digital natives. However, when more and more of the students at my school started to get smartphones and Snapchat accounts, their online behavior started to spill into their offline lives, and I had to learn to speak the language pretty quickly. My school quickly realized that the lessons we were teaching them about how to interact respectfully in person were not necessarily carrying over into their online interactions, and it was clear that something would have to be done. So my school’s technology team decided to pilot an online course on Digital Citizenship and Jewish Values, and they tapped me to be one of the teachers.
I taught an abbreviated version of the course, and my students generally had two assignments per week. In the first assignment, they explored a specific aspect of digital citizenship and often posted about their own experiences. For example, when my students learned about internet privacy, they were invited to share about what they would do if their personal privacy was compromised. Then, after reading an article explaining how the Torah and Talmud addressed privacy rights in biblical times, they had to match the different ancient quotes and laws with modern scenarios—for example, what would the Torah say about reading the email on a computer that has been left open on a desk? Finally, they each chose which quote was the most meaningful to them and shared their responses with their peers in an online discussion forum. In each lesson of the course, students were required to connect, to interpret, and to share their ideas with others in a collaborative online space.
One thing that really struck me was that although some of the digital citizenship content was new for many of the students—particularly the lessons on plagiarism and source attribution—students were, for the most part, quite advanced in their understanding of how to navigate the digital world. However, it had never occurred to them to apply Jewish texts and teachings in this context, and that, at times, could be quite eye-opening for them.
In a lesson on cyber-bullying, for example, students examined four quotes about gossip from the Torah and Talmud and connected those quotes to sharing information on social media. One student remarked that “the idea of cyberbullying is relatively new. But the idea of hurting others with words is a common theme in the Torah." One of my favorite things about this course was watching students connect something like Talmudic thought, which can seem so ancient and remote, to cyberbullying, which is something that many of them have—unfortunately—either personally experienced or observed.
When reflecting back on the course, another student said that she “enjoyed connecting Judaism to online safety.” There were a number of other topics—online shopping, plagiarism, even computer ergonomics—that students would never have thought could be related to Jewish teachings, and this course helped them to see the continued relevance of Jewish texts in their own lives.
It’s always a struggle to be relevant, especially when the generation gap can make it feel as though there are a million miles between my students’ lives and my own experience as a teenager, where the worst trouble I could get into was prank phone-calling random strangers and forgetting to block the caller ID. And let’s be honest—sometimes Talmudic texts aren’t exactly page-turners. But somehow, by connecting the two concepts of digital citizenship and Jewish Values, this course has managed to break some new ground for my students—and hopefully, build a foundation for healthy, respectful, and menschy behavior in all aspects of their lives.