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Using Common Sense for K-12 Digital Literacy


As an educator, I have never felt more desperate for a comprehensive curriculum to teach digital citizenship than the day after January 6, 2021. 

I was a school library media specialist covering a year-long pandemic leave of absence. The position offered no written lesson plans and the curriculum coordinator for the district had left to take a position in another state on the first of the new year.

It takes time to sort through resources and build curriculum, but more on that later—I was in panic mode. I needed a unit, four weekly lessons at least, to teach kids as young as five skill sets on Internet safety, parental consent, and protecting private information. I needed a more advanced unit to help older students spot misinformation and avoid cyberbullying. And suddenly, it was clear that the adults in their lives needed to join the conversation. That’s when I found Common Sense.

“Is it Free?” Isn’t Enough.

There are plenty of free educator lessons and resources online: some are funded with distracting ads, some are professionally designed by wealthy business foundations harboring political agendas, others are mission driven nonprofits funded by donations. Simply asking, “Is it Free?” is not enough for curriculum decisions.

Common Sense is a non-profit founded in 2003 by Jim Steyer, a California civil rights lawyer and constitutional law professor at Stanford University. Steyer’s advocacy for safe youth media dates back to the 1980’s. He has written two books on regulation and parental oversight of the media industry, and he edited a third, Which Side of History? How Technology is Reshaping our Democracy and Our Lives, Chronicle Prism, 2020. Everything about Steyer’s history emanated trust and expertise on the topic, so I waded into the resources on the Common Sense website.

Common Sense offers three platforms within their mission “to build a more healthy, equitable, and empowering future for all kids in the digital age.” Each one focuses on a different audience.

For Parents: Commonsense offers a robust media ratings and reviews tool to help adults select children’s media. Their evaluators use a 14-point rubric to assess the transformative learning qualities of each resource. Caretakers can filter this 40,000+ database by genre for traditional media like books, TV, and movies as well as online games and apps. The platform keeps pace with innovation with reviews on podcasts, YouTube channels, and most recently, AI tools. Those with a registered account can bookmark selections for a particular child or young audience.

For Education Professionals: In 2008, Common Sense partnered with Harvard University’s Project Zero to develop a K-12 digital citizenship curriculum. Education professionals who create an account access their entire curriculum for free. Each media literacy topic offers a clear, standards-based lesson plan, PDF worksheets for independent assessment, and handouts for at home discussions. Engaging 2-5-minute videos feature a set of animated characters, named after the body parts, which students will use when making decisions about media use. Heads, Legs, Guts, Heart, Arms, and Feet offer advice to think about what’s true, stand up for others, feel safe, be kind, balance usage, and leave a good footprint when using the Internet. Their colors, concepts, and connections are brilliant.

For Advocates: Common Sense lobbies to protect youth using technology. They helped strengthen the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to make it illegal to allow children under 12 to provide personally identifiable information without parental consent. They introduced erasure legislation requiring social media companies to provide user controls to delete unwanted posts, pictures, and personal information from their online accounts. They support ongoing research at Harvard on the effects of media on youth. And, perhaps most importantly, they gather policymakers in the field to bolster an ongoing national and global discussion on sustainable safeguards to ensure technology is equitable, healthy, and good for society.

Working With Common Sense

By March 2021, I had my four-week digital citizenship units ready for 1-2, 3-4, and 5th graders. I grouped the materials for each lesson, video link, worksheet, and parent handout within a simple calendar chart for each grade, emailed the chart to my supervisors, then began introducing the clever Common Sense characters to students and families.

  • Head in Blue – To sort true statements from falsehoods.

  • Legs in Purple – To stand up for others.

  • Guts in Yellow –  To monitor uncomfortable feelings and make safe choices.

  • Heart in Pink – To practice a kinder online.

  • Arms in Green – To balance time with media.

  • Feet in Orange – To think about our digital footprint.

After the first two weekly lessons with second graders, I assessed each classroom on their understanding of private information with a few group questions. Would you give your phone number when using an online game? No! Would you give your babysitter’s phone number? No! Can you reveal your favorite food? Yes! Can you reveal your home address? No!  In that moment, they all became my kids. I was so proud of their confident chorus and clarity about information that reveals identity and information that does not.

Panic 2024

As I reflect in January 2024 on my panic in January 2021, I can say with certainty that it wasn’t the threat of insurrection that triggered my curriculum panic. And it wasn’t the elevated sense of doom in the air during that pre-vaccine period of the pandemic. I know this because I am still uncomfortable.

What I experienced was the realization that citizens of all ages could be in serious danger without the skills to spot misinformation about government and health issues. I knew those skills only came with training, and it was my job to provide that training. 

Jim Steyer of Common Sense and others are out there doing their part.  As the non-profit celebrates 20 years of impact, they launched a national Healthy Young Minds Campaign to address the rising numbers of youth experiencing technology related mental health issues by featuring a powerful town hall discussion with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. They support research on AI’s effects on learning. Steyer was personally thanked in the acknowledgements of Frances Haugen’s 2023 book The Power of One: How I Found the Strength to Tell the Truth and Why I Blew the Whistle on Facebook for his support during her difficult decision to stand up for citizen safety over Facebook’s corporate culture.

But to amplify these powerful efforts, our school curriculum professionals – rather than individual, panicked educators – need to ensure digital citizenship training is reaching students and caretakers consistently with vetted resources and whole district coordination. It’s only common sense.


Maureen Mann is a consultant for civic education and digital literacy living in Massachusetts. She can be reached at Civic EDU: Education Designed to Unite


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