My school has a notoriously strict content filter. This isn't surprising, considering I teach in rural, conservative northern Iowa. I've complained about the filter in the past, but that usually tends to fall on deaf ears. We can't allow kids access to a wide range of websites- there's too much dangerous stuff out there! Don't get me wrong: I know there are plenty of things that I don't want our students to see, or that is potentially harmful to them on many levels, but I feel like a strict content filter is our way of avoiding some responsibility as educators. It takes the "teachable moment" away by pretending it doesn't exist. There are major problems with that.
First, you can't block everything that's bad on the Internet. It's an impossible task. When my students research Venus (the planet) during my science fiction unit, someone, at some time, is going to run into something referencing the Roman goddess of love, which also appears to be a pretty popular name for companies and sites that sell sexy bathing suits for women. Do I shut down and ignore that? Do I wave my arms in front of their impressionable young faces or slap their iPad cases shut, thus guaranteeing that they will look up "Venus" later to find out what was so "bad"? No. I use it as an opportunity to teach them about successfully attempting to narrow down a search so that you are getting responses related to your actual topic. A "planet Venus" Google search brings up an entirely different list than just "Venus". This requires some trial and error, and it means teachers need to be prepared for possibilities that may arise. We need to be prepared to teach kids right from wrong on the Internet as much as we do when they're in the hallways or on the playground.
One of the biggest ways a strict content filter infuriates me on a daily basis is for lesson planning purposes. I constantly use the Web to search for lesson ideas and resources. While most major education websites are open to me (teachers have the same filter in my district as students), quite a few useful sites are blocked. This ranges anywhere from some news websites to almost all blogs and social networks (Twitter is currently open, and I'm so shocked that I'm keeping my mouth shut in hopes that it can continue to slip through the cracks). I keep track of things to look at when I get home, but honestly, there are times when I give up on a certain aspect of a lesson because it shouldn't be this difficult to access information as an adult professional at work in the digital age. Not to mention the feeling of frustration that as an adult I am on the same level of filter as my students. Only secretaries and administrators in my building have "open" access. What does this say about how we view teacher professionalism? Teachers need resources to plan: it's what we do, and as respected professionals we should have a certain amount of trust from our districts. Yes, in my district teachers can ask permission and justify why we need certain sites unblocked for our use, but really? Should I have to? Shouldn't I just be trusted unless I've shown that I can't be?
I'm not the only person in my building to complain about these things, and at the beginning of the year our Tech Coordinator came to speak to us about CIPA and why we have to be so strict. I admit I'm ignorant here: I know very little about CIPA because I'm too busy worrying about the million other outside rules and regulations that impact my classroom on a daily basis. Basically, the talk at the beginning of the year scared me into not complaining anymore at the risk of breaking the rules under CIPA. So when I saw this article on Twitter the other day ("Straight from the DOE: Dispelling Myths About Blocked Sites") I loved it. It reinforced many of the topics I'd been thinking about in regards to our content filter, and the trust we place in educators to do their jobs.
For me, strict Internet filters are guided out of fear. And when schools are afraid to teach kids, then we have a major problem. They are online at home and in public, and if no one is teaching them how to navigate this new world, then it is very much our responsibility as educators to face down fear and do our jobs without unnecessary restriction holding us back.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.