Depending on your classroom, your students, your school’s curricular requirements, and your whims (if such things are allowed by your administration), there are a variety of ways you can approach this subject.
The first element of this unit you must decide to incorporate or discard is the focus on describing the work and its outcomes in terms of soft skills. If you do not already do this in your class, then bringing it up here may be time-consuming and confusing to your students (and their parents). First, there is the question of which ones you may want to include (because there are many more than the four I describe above and a great deal of overlap between them), and then there is the problem of figuring out how to include them. So let’s begin our dissection of the teaching strategies portion of this unit with the suggestion that if you have not already have been incorporating them into your curricula, just ignore soft skills as a component of this lesson . . . for now. (Eventually, I believe, you will want to develop a soft skills curriculum because it may be the only thing that can bring your students back from the brink of digital zombie-ism . . . no, probably nothing will do that, but having kids understand the connections between what you are asking them to do and how this will develop the skills they need to succeed in the future will undoubtedly increase their intrinsic motivation.)
I like to begin each class with a journal entry, a writing activity that either gets the kids thinking about what we will be studying that day or transitions us from the material we covered last class to the work we will be doing next. With this particular topic, it can be a good way to identify what the students already know (or what they believe) and how they feel about the subject before introducing anything that might disturb their comfortable ignorance. It also helps to get them thinking a little more deeply before they engage in a conversation. To get them going, I usually write an open-ended question (or command) or two on the board and have them respond without prior discussion. They can focus on anecdotal experiences (e.g. “Describe a time when technology saved you; describe a time when it got you in trouble.”), ethics (e.g. “If you were a politician or a parent, under what circumstances might it be okay to lie? When would it be unacceptable to lie?”), imagination (e.g. “Describe how social media will evolve in the next twenty years.”). Then we discuss what we’ve written (if classroom management permits, I will also write on the topic) before exploring a text on the subject (poetry, fiction, or non-fiction). At the end of class, I will often have my students add to their original entries with any new ideas or perspectives they have gained on the issue at hand. These entries can later become valuable resources for larger/longer writing projects at the end of the unit (e.g. their letters to middles school students). If you prefer, or if you have more specific goals for any particular reading/writing assignment, that end-of-class writing can occur as an exit slip.
Before you begin your study of what might prove to be a topic that makes your students more defensive and depressed than delighted, you will want to introduce some basic cognitive biases and logical fallacies. This will allow them to examine this very personal topic with a bit more objectivity than they might otherwise possess. The two cognitive biases I would most recommend are confirmation bias (only looking for, finding, and/or accepting information that supports what we already believe) and the fundamental attribution error (believing our unhealthy behavior has perfectly understandable environmental causes – and may, in fact, not be unhealthy at all – while assuming that the same behavior in others represents some defect in character and a serious problem). You may know these biases by other names, but both could present significant impediments to your students understanding the nature of their own problems with technology. If you can construct a journal entry and subsequent discussion to help your students examine how they and the people around them occasionally succumb to these biases, that may help them better recognize their blind spots when it comes to modern technology.
The logical fallacies you choose to introduce could depend on your curriculum as well as which sources you intend to have your students read, but if you want your students to develop the critical reading skills necessary to discern valid claims from spurious propaganda, then you will want them to be able to identify some of the more common fallacies employed by pundits today (e.g. straw man, slippery slope, false dilemma, circular argument, appeal to ignorance, hasty generalization, etc.). Again, you may know these by other names, but after a bit of research (a quick Google search should provide you with plentiful articles, videos, and even cartoons explaining most fallacies) it should be obvious which ones are most commonly used in debates about the impacts of modern technology. It may be fun to have students not only identify these fallacies in passages from various texts and advertisements, but also create their own to sell an imaginary product or support a hypothetical position. Introducing these fallacies along with the basic elements of rhetoric (ethos, pathos, logos) should prepare your students to more carefully dissect what they are reading to determine if the source, and the information it contains, is one they can trust.
For my own class, I like to provide a reading list of articles (I have used many of those listed in the bibliography below) from which they can initially choose sources to examine. Depending on the level of your students, you may wish to design templates for taking notes and analyzing the articles they are reading. For this unit, I use a graphic organizer that highlights the rhetorical strategies employed by the author. This not only allows them to better identify the strength evidence used in the piece, but also prepares my students for greater success should they choose to take AP Language and Composition in the coming years. Other elements of the graphic organizer you create should reflect the specific goals you have for this unit (e.g. identifying logical fallacies or determining the best advice to offer middle schoolers).
We read and analyze several texts as a class, working together to complete the analysis sheets and making sure everyone understands (if not always agrees on) why an article is valid or questionable. I then have them read and analyze a few more articles in pairs or small groups – depending on the needs of individual students I will either select the pairings or let them choose their own groups. Once each pair or group has produced accurate analyses of two or three articles, I have each student pick one or two more from the list to read and analyze – this time their efforts are graded more strictly as they will be demonstrating what they have learned in the large and small groups. Finally, each student selects a specific subtopic in relation to cell phones and social media and finds two of their own articles to analyze – one that is credible and one that is of dubious quality. They must also offer evidence supporting their credibility assessments of each. The list I provide includes sources that are both pro and con on various issues related to cell phones and social media, and it also includes some sources that are highly questionable (and that make use of logical fallacies) so my students can develop their reading acumen. By the time we have gone through each of these stages, my students have (if they have done the work) read at least a dozen documents – this also helps make the point that no single source is sufficient for a thorough understanding of any topic.
The ultimate goal of all this research is twofold: developing healthier relationships with tech and giving good advice to middle school students to help them do the same. While still remaining in the larger domain of cell phones and social media, there are plenty of interesting subtopics to explore. Students can look at specific outcomes of overuse, specific social media sites, the role of parents or schools in creating and/or solving the problem, cognitive and biological effects versus social effects versus environmental effects – the opportunities for differentiation according to student interest or need are plentiful.
Having acquired a more detailed (and hopefully nuanced) understanding of their subject, the students can then decide how best to share this understanding with others. The idea I use is to have them write letters to middle school students in a kind of pen pal program that allows them to bond with somebody younger and share their sage advice on the subject of cell phones and social media. At the very least, these middle school kids will get some of the benefits of the research your students have done and be warned of the danger posed by digital devices without having to listen to another adult prattle on about how scary the world is and how unprepared they are to face it. At best, the middle school students might find a mentor who continues to be a source of support and sound feedback even after the project is over, and your students might develop a stronger grasp of the dangers as well as greater motivation to change their own behaviors as a result of their efforts. Of course, you and your students may come up with other culminating projects that would be even more exciting and worthwhile, so perhaps you will want to allow for more latitude when it comes time to create a summative assessment for this portion of the unit. There are many options for differentiation and catering to creative impulses as well as individual interests – perhaps they will want to create an app or social media site to warn others . . . and then you can teach them about irony.
The next section of this unit can be seen as a continuation of the first segment, or it can be used as a separate unit requiring perhaps only some supplemental non-fiction texts from the first part. If your class is more traditionally focused on literature and the techniques writers use to create a sustained narrative, then these activities will be better aligned with your curricular focus. In this part of the unit, you will have your students read a longer work of science fiction. I would use either Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury or 1984 by George Orwell, but there are plenty of other options you could choose, including collections of certain short stories and poems if that is more in line with your students, goals, or interests. The goal here is to examine an author’s predictions about the direction of our socio-cultural evolution with regard to technology and determine what he got right (literally or simply in the spirit of his prose) and what it looks like he may eventually got right. You can also examine what he got wrong and why he may have expected something other than the current conditions. By comparing and contrasting the descriptions in the book to the society in which they live, I find my students more invested and more capable of spotting important elements of the text. I have my students keep a reading log as we explore the book so they can keep track of the author’s predictions and have an easy reference for class discussions or later writing assignments. Some of the research students have done should be useful in their support of arguments about what elements of the novel have come to fruition and which ones may still be pending.
Finally, after a through reading and many discussions of the novel, as well as some complementary readings and perhaps a written assessment of the author’s efficacy in predicting technology’s influence on our modern society (depending on time as well as student needs and inclination), it will be the student’s turn to anticipate how technology will influence us in the future. To allow for differentiation, you can consider several forms or mediums for the production of this product – a short story, a poem, an essay, a video, an advertisement from the future, etc. The New York Times in currently running a series of “Editorials from the Future” in which they ask scientists and science fiction writers to contribute fictitious opinion pieces about life in 10, 20 or even 100 years from now8 – so perhaps you could select some of those as models for your students and have them create a similar project for the school newspaper. The ultimate goal being that they synthesize what they have learned into a culminating product that demonstrates their ability to take an understanding of the past and the present and turn that into a lens that allows them a view of the future, one that they can eloquently and effectively argue without falling prey to cognitive biases or relying on logical fallacies.