The children we teach are the first of a new, crashing wave. The modern world is full of possibilities, but there are new and unforeseen hazards as well.
These children are the first who have been born into a broadband society, with wifi in their bedrooms, iPhones in their schoolbags and a community of friends and vague acquaintances on Facebook.
When they are adults they will do it all online: shop, bank, sell, buy, date, find work, book tickets, watch films, hear music, read books, insure their possessions, keep in touch with family, create photo albums, read newspapers, build scrapbooks, and make connections with the world. It is a fluid and ever-changing monster. Children should be open to its potential but also aware of the pitfalls.
In days gone by it was junk mail – colourful envelopes pouring through the letterbox, offering free dream holidays and fortuitous lottery wins.
Most of this gaudy nonsense ended up in the bin, but there were those sad occasions when people were tricked into disclosing their bank details or security passwords. The internet makes such scams far simpler, cheaper and quicker to carry out.
I gave a class of 12-year-olds a selection of genuine spam emails and asked them to write down what their replies to these would be.
It mostly purported to be from a distressed Nigerian monarch living in exile looking for a friendly Briton to share a fortune with. Some of the kids quickly twigged and wrote sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek responses.
But a few of them seemed genuinely intrigued and happy to enter into correspondence; others tried to negotiate the terms to make more money.
It was this naivety and innocence that I wanted to address in students. They had to become aware of the dastardly tricks people may try to make them fall for.
As an English teacher, it was important to zoom in on the persuasive language techniques used in spam emails. By the end of the unit pupils could tell you that spam emails use terms of endearment to hook in the recipient, include hyperlinks to news articles to make their stories more plausible, describe accidents or impending threats to generate sympathy, and specify tight deadlines to make the deal seem juicier.
We looked at BBC footage of victims of romance scams, and it became apparent that this was an area the kids could get their teeth into with misplaced glee.
I was asked by one rather opinionated student why we were studying spam emails in English rather than in computing. The simple answer was that in our lessons I wanted to teach the pupils about persuasive language, and the serious threat which will only intensify as they grow older.
But there are massive opportunities for cross-curricular lessons here, with computing teachers covering anti-virus software, IP addresses, Trojan horses and other forms of hacking. The geography department could explain to pupils why most spam emails originate in poor African countries. There are countless possibilities for that lovely buzzword: interdisciplinarity.
In our series of lessons the students produced three pieces of work. The first was a written task – either a newspaper article or a letter to a relative. The pupils also worked in groups to design posters and then script, rehearse, perform and record television adverts.
At the end of the unit there was a screening of all the videos, with the pupils basking in the chance to see one another’s theatrical offerings and show off their own efforts.
The class enjoyed the unit; it was unexpected and related to the real world – they could see proper meaning and purpose behind the lessons, and for that reason I felt the unit was a success.
Although I do fear that in a few years’ time I’ll have prepared a fiendish army of slick, persuasive spammers, and that we’re all horribly doomed.
• Alan Gillespie is an English teacher in Scotland. He has just finished teaching at a secondary school in Glasgow and is about to move to a small High School in the Highlands. You can read his blog here or follow him on Twitter @afjgillespie.