How I walked three middle schoolers through the aftermath of a war of words.
I received an email a couple of weeks ago alerting me to some harsh expletives and slurs being exchanged between some of our students on Discord. The email contained a screenshot of a particularly offensive exchange.
The same morning, I received a phone call. I heard more concerns about the nature of these interactions.
Then another email, with more screenshots.
It was clear that hurtful stuff was flying back and forth between some of our students.
Here’s the thing. Our middle schoolers use Chromebooks during the school day. Phones and personal devices are prohibited and cannot access our school’s wifi network. A network filter restricts access to gaming and social media sites.
So it’s fair to say that students are not on Discord during the school day. They’re not accessing it with school devices, and they’re not using it with personal devices on the school’s wifi network.
Yet this is the third consecutive year that student behavior on Discord has made its way to my vice-principal’s desk.
What IS Discord?
It’s funny: the word discord actually means disagreement, or fighting. Older versions of the Bible warn about those who sow discord like seeds. Their gossip, slander, and insults can take root and grow into serious strife and division between friends.
I have a Discord account, technically. I don’t use it often, but it exists. I think it’s a good platform with a nice interface — despite the shaky choice of name. I’m simply not a gamer and I don’t have many friends who use it.
If you work in a middle school or high school, you’ve at least heard of Discord. Created in 2015, the app originally gained popularity in the gaming community as a way for gamers to chat by voice and text.
Today, the platform’s membership continues to grow beyond the gaming community as the platform goes up against messaging giants such as MS Teams and Slack. I hear YouTubers, podcasters, and business leaders like Gary Vaynerchuk inviting followers to join them on their Discord servers.
Like I said, I’m not a gamer and I don’t use it often. But Discord is a big deal, and it’s an especially big deal for our students.
Schools can’t referee online activities happening outside of school
Let’s be clear: it’s not the role of schools or educators to referee what is going on in online spaces between students on evenings and weekends. To try to do so what be an infinite task, a fruitless mission, and a terrible use of the time that we are entrusted with.
Parents, that stuff is on you. And on me — I’m a parent of teenagers, too. Digital literacy for families is a massive topic and challenge worthy of its own blog post.
Online strife has a way of spilling into the classroom
On the other hand, educators hold a professional duty of care to the children that we serve each day. Like it or not, we can’t turn completely deaf ears and blind eyes to the online exploits of these young people who rely on us for guidance, growth, and mentorship.
The online word wars have a way of entering our spaces. And sometimes, we have to face them head on.
How I addressed the latest discord on Discord
So it was with some sadness that I called a meeting with three of the lead Discordians involved in the latest conflict.
The online exchanges that had been shared with me were too bitter, too mean-spirited, too inappropriate to simply ignore and move on. These were students who worked together, learned together, and shared the same physical spaces with each other. Feelings had been hurt and some anger was clearly simmering near the surface.
We needed to address the harm caused, restore relationships, and commit to doing better together.
Here was the outline I followed for our conversation.
1. We started by naming the harmful online behavior.
I didn’t want to park here for long, and I certainly wasn’t interested in conducting an in-depth investigation of every line, every word, every term that had come to my attention in the screenshots I had received.
The point here was to simply name it: I wanted each student to acknowledge that their words had crossed some lines. Thankfully, they did so willingly.
2. A reminder: our online behaviour has a way of sticking around.
I told them the recent story of a would-be politician who was haunted by screenshots of his social media behavior. The candidate’s hateful tweets from eleven years prior had been discovered and were being circulated by his political opponents.
His campaign was toast as a result.
Twenty-five years into the internet, there are countless reminders like this one. Comments made online have a way of sticking around indefinitely.
It’s a good reminder to all of us: be kind to future You when you conduct yourself online today.
3. Just as corporate logos bring values to mind, we each have a personal brand.
I showed the students some major corporate logos and asked them to name the values that came to mind.
What do you think of when you see the Apple logo? How about Nike?
When I showed them the golden arches of McDonald’s, we agreed on words like tasty, salty, greasy, and fast. But we also agreed that customer service doesn’t belong on that list, or at least not as a core value.
4. A post-it writing activity: What are the core values that you want to be known by?
We had just finished brainstorming the core values that come to mind when we see the logos of some of the world’s most famous companies.
Now it was the students’ turn.
What were the values that they wanted to be known by? What were the words that they wanted to come to mind when people saw their face or read their name?
We took 2–3 minutes of quiet reflecting and writing to consider this question. I participated, too.
Then we went around the circle and shared our responses. It did my heart a lot of good to be reminded of the values that my young friends actually aspire to. And I think it was good for their classmates to hear those values, too.
5. Committing to do better by aligning our values with our online activities
We concluded our time together with a round of commitments. What would each student do differently, I asked, to make sure that their online activities aligned with the core values that they wanted to be known by?
What would that look like at school? What would that look like on Discord?
Again, students participated willingly. Perhaps a good portion of their answers were performative — that’s somewhat inevitable.
But I think it’s important to actually say out loud what we intend to do differently, and to do so in front of others that we’ve wronged.
Our mission of growth continues
With that, I warmly thanked these students for our discussion and sent them on their way.
This won’t be the last time that discord on Discord makes its way to my task list, but that’s just part of the job.
It’s part of the job because it’s part of our mission: supporting the growth of the learners in our care.
And in 2022, that growth includes responding to discord on Discord.