Viral Kony Video Is A Teachable Moment

I’m not sure what moves faster, middle school kids or viral videos.  This past week, schools across the country have had the chance to witness the speed with which global issues travel across the Internet and around the globe, in addition to seeing young people herd toward trying to help thwart the atrocities perpetrated by the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.  The trigger:  Invisible Children, a 30-minute YouTube video highlighting the horrors of child abduction that has now had over 100 million hits.

How should schools handle the tidal wave of emotion, euphoria and “clicktivism” that has consumed the interest and attention of students?

I first learned about the video from an 8th grade student, who described the video in vivid detail.  Next, I was approached by our Dean of Students, who said a group of 6th grade girls had stormed his office wanting to know if they could show the video at an assembly and raise money for Invisible Children.  Then, a 6th grade science teacher wrote me asking for some advice about an issue that had arisen in his class:  the Kony video.

He explained:

“As part of the study of water, particularly drinking water, the science class has been discussing multiple perspectives about clean available drinking water from around the world. I showed a short DVD called “Ryan’s Well” about a 7-year-old boy from Canada and the amazing story of his learning about people dying from drinking poor quality water in Uganda.

Ryan raised enough money to drill a well for a school in Uganda, which then spiraled into over a decade for his organization, Ryan’s Well Foundation, helping over 600,000 people in developing countries acquire clean drinking water. An incredible story! During that time Ryan struck up a pen pal correspondence with a young person named Jimmy in that first school in Uganda.

As we were discussing the incredible work that Ryan is doing, several students in every class brought up a YouTube video that has gone viral this week about the horrific situation in Uganda where young children are being abducted and forced to perform atrocities. In class discussions we pieced together the fact that Jimmy (Ryan’s pen pal) had been abducted and his brother and cousins killed. Jimmy escaped and now lives in Canada with Ryan’s family. Needless to say, this was an amazing learning moment for me and the students.”

To the teacher’s credit, he started to ask questions and look into the Invisible Children video.  He learned about what makes videos go viral and he examined the authenticity of the Invisible Children foundation, learning that their practices are not as clean and clear as the students had led him to believe.

And, most importantly, he contacted the parents to let them know the buzz around the video, and he included links to articles and explanations.

Not surprisingly, many parents had heard their kids talking about the video but did not really know or understand what all of the buzz was about.  One parent wrote:  ”I was very confused because my son was talking about child abduction and death.” The communication home from the school helped the parents gather more knowledge so that they could talk about the Invisible Children video at home with their child.

One parent captured the challenge and opportunity of the Kony video:  ”I’m so glad you shared all the links and explained what has happened. I think parents will appreciate all the information. Just yesterday I was having a conversation about how the world is changing right before our eyes.

Here is another example. I think we need to think hard about how to evaluate it all. No small task. Experience will be a great teacher. But now the pace of change is so incredibly fast, is there enough time for understanding and reflection? I think we just have to adapt. Understanding what is out there helps. Thanks for including us in the conversation.”

A teacher wrote:  ”I hadn’t heard anything about this, but it seems like this was handled beautifully.”

More and more, schools face the onslaught of social media, and it can be overwhelming to the adults, both teachers and parents, who are often the last to know or find out about a new viral video or cause.  Schools need to loop the parents into the conversation so that kids know that the adults in their lives are paying attention and helping to educate kids around the exciting, yet sometimes thorny issues surrounding social media, that include authenticity, globalization and smart consumption.

I’m still not sure we’ve caught our breath from the energy of the last week around the Kony video, but at least we know more about the issues and passions that it has ignited in kids.  Thanks to the kids for teaching us to learn quickly.

Matt Levinson is the Head of the Upper Division at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, CA and is also the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey.