Monday, September 18, 2017

LGBTQ Cyberbullying: Real Data and Real Advice

While I am a fierce advocate for free speech online, I'm also an educator who works every day in my own school community – and by writing on this blog – to spread awareness among students and teachers about how to practice positive and helpful digital citizenship online. Since my passion and my work bring me back to cyberbullying quite often, it has become clear that certain groups of young people are targeted more often than others.


This data makes it clear that our students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are particularly vulnerable to bullying, discrimination, and abuse. The way we use digital tools to communicate also makes them vulnerable to cyberbullying.

This is why my work with ConnectSafely.org is so important to me. While I can make an immediate impact in my school by working with our teachers and students everyday, it is my hope that some of my contributions to ConnectSafely can have a broader impact nationwide. I'm proud of our new guide.


Specifically, you can look for advice and expertise on:
  • The benefits and risks of online interactions for LGBTQ youth.
  • How parents can support their children before, during, and after they experience cyberbullying.
  • The importance of sustained positive school culture to support students.
  • TONS of action items and resources to help schools figure out what to do next.
  • A review of legal protections and case law.
  • A section specifically directed at children and teens to help them learn to protect themselves from and cope with cyberbullying if necessary.
Not ready to read the whole guide just yet? Check out the Top 5 Questions to kickstart your thinking and the Resources Page to learn more about organizations and materials available to you beyond our guide. When you do read the guide, feel free to comment and let us know what you think, how you're planning to use it, and share your story to help bring more power and positivity to the online world for all youth.

Monday, September 11, 2017

When is learning truly authentic?

It is not uncommon for educators to bristle a bit when asked whether they engage students in "authentic" learning. Without providing more context for the term, some might think they are being accused of developing and delivering lessons that are not genuine, or are fake. In education, authenticity means much more than genuine over fake. According to the Buck Institute for Education:
In education, the concept has to do with how “real-world” the learning or the task is. Authenticity increases student motivation and learning. A project can be authentic in several ways, often in combination. It can have an authentic context, such as when students solve problems like those faced by people in the world outside of school (e.g., entrepreneurs developing a business plan, engineers designing a bridge, or advisors to the President recommending policy). It can involve the use of real-world processes, tasks and tools, and performance standards, such as when students plan an experimental investigation or use digital editing software to produce videos approaching professional quality. It can have a real impact on others, such as when students address a need in their school or community (e.g., designing and building a school garden, improving a community park, helping local immigrants) or create something that will be used or experienced by others. Finally, a project can have personal authenticity when it speaks to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives.
Upon gaining better understanding of what authentic learning is, most teachers buy in immediately. They recognize that students will be more invested and engaged in their own learning if they see the tasks and content as authentic. Many educators, however, need examples to help them get started with creating authenticity in their own project and lesson plans.


Melissa Greenwood, editor at SmartBrief, recently asked me for examples of authentic learning at my school, St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts. Here is my response:
At St. John’s Prep, students often use such tools as Adobe Spark, iMovie and Notability to create clean, professional-quality media. Their quote graphics, videos, animations and infographics are clean and beautiful and demonstrate content mastery. By creating the digital products they see adults sharing online, they are more invested in learning. What makes these authentic creations even more exciting is that they are encouraged to share them beyond our classrooms. Our digital portfolio program gives our students that chance to share their work broadly if they wish. But perhaps even more important, through the portfolio process, they have the chance to reflect on what they've learned and why they are proud of their creations. Their authentic learning experience is twofold: They will create what adult professionals create, and they will get to share their graphics, videos, designs and writing with the world beyond our school if they choose.
The resulting article brought together four unique stories of authentic learning from teachers all across the country. My three co-contributors are certainly educators I admire: Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 Teacher of the Year; Alice Chen, a brilliant and well-known technology coach; and Bryan Christopher, a journalism teacher and Teacher Voice Fellow. Click the image below to read the full article. Share these examples with your colleagues and encourage them to add more authentic learning to their lessons and projects this year.



How do you bring authentic learning to the students in your classroom. How do you support teachers who are looking to add authentic learning to their lessons and projects? Comment below! The more examples we share, the more our students will benefit.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Power of School Culture for New Teachers

Throughout the month of August, shiny brand new teachers have been preparing their classrooms, reviewing curriculum, planning welcome activities, and tossing and turning the night before that big day. (OK, let's be honest, veteran teachers are doing these things too. But first year teachers' hearts are beating a little faster.) Everyone wants these newbies to be successful: the administrators and colleagues who were on their hiring committees, the students who enter their classrooms, the parents of those young learners, and all of us who want them to breathe new life into our education system.

Where We Are

Sadly, recent research shows that new teacher retention is poor. Nashville, Tennessee loses half of its new teachers within 3 to 5 years. Even worse, in Oakland, California schools 70% of new teachers leave within 5 years.

The top recommendation for retaining these teachers is to build meaningful and sustainable mentorships. Most schools and districts have mentor programs in place the formalize the feedback and support loop between new and veteran teachers. These programs can be effective, but perhaps the greatest indicator for their success is how the mentors feel about their profession and their school.

The Data on New Teacher Burnout

A new study shows that the climate of a school and burnout level of veteran teachers in school is perhaps the greatest factor in predicting the longevity of early career teachers (ECTs). The Infectious Disease Advisor reports:

Jihyun Kim, from Michigan State University in East Lansing, and colleagues examined factors associated with burnout levels of 171 ECTs in 10 school districts in Michigan and Indiana. The authors assessed the impact of burnout levels of ECTs' mentors and close colleagues in a social network influence model. 
The researchers found that ECTs' burnout levels correlated significantly with the social network exposure term, indicating that ECTs' with mentors and colleagues with higher burnout levels were more likely to be burned out at a second time point.

Those of us who are veteran educators should pause here. We make up the in-person social network of early career teachers. The words we use to describe our profession, our body language and facial expressions in the hallways and copy rooms, and the tone of our farewells on Friday afternoons have a deep impact on the newest colleagues in our schools. We teachers and administrators have the power to shape school culture, and therefore shape the chances of success of our new colleagues.



Who We Are

The teachers and administrators who work together to serve students in a school are all leaders. Students look to them as learning leaders. Parents look to them as academic leaders. And, of course, early career teachers look to them as leaders of the profession. In Learning Transformed, a new book from ASCD by authors Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger call upon education leaders, whether they work at the classroom, school, or district level, to be LBAs. Here's the rub:

LBT = leader by title
Murray and Sheninger write, "LBTs often exhibit... defining characteristics such as egos, power trips, ... ruling by fear, and insecurity when their ideas are challenged in the open."

LBA = leader by action
According to the authors, LBAs are those who have "taken action to initiate meaningful change in their classrooms or schools. These leaders don't just talk the talk; they also walk the walk."

Murray and Sheninger go on to write:
In our opinion, the best leaders have one thing in common: they do, as opposed to just talk. Leadership is about action, not position of chatter. Some of the best leaders we have seen during our years in education have never held any sort of administrative title. (p. 34)

The remainder of the book is a treasure trove of research strategies to practice the mindset needed to be a leader for positive progress in education. The authors go on to address many opportunities that can help new and veteran educators alike: creating intentional learning experiences, designing learning spaces, providing personalized professional learning, and collaborating with colleagues and community members. As we embark on this school year, think about who you are as an educator. It important to plan for impact we have on our students, but also the impact we have on the other learners in our school: our newest teacher colleagues. Learning Transformed is a key resource toward this honorable goal.

As the school year begins and you welcome new educators into your school, remember that what you do and the disposition with which you do is a form of leadership and can have a long term impact on their success. Even if the school year has been rolling for a few weeks, take time to reflect on how much energy you had during those early days. Is it sustainable? How can you build on it instead of letting it wane?

Your contribution to school culture will shape the experience of your new colleagues. Help transform learning and teaching for them by being a force for good each day. When teachers feel supported and empowered, so do their students. At the end of the day, we are all there because of the students.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Generations Will Not Be Destroyed by Smartphones


This article from the Atlantic appeared multiple times in my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter feeds last week. The author is a professor of psychology and experienced researcher with a focus on generational differences. Her title claims that smartphones are destroying the post-Millennial generation. This paragraph is perhaps the clincher:
"Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy."
My concern is that the author, although certainly qualified to utilize the mental health data given her background and experience, is connecting her conclusions to the phones themselves. Her focus is misplaced. She should be more focused on people's behaviors when using their phones, not the phones themselves.

A couple of days later, a response to the Atlantic article appeared on JSTOR Daily. The author is also a published researcher and she encourages readers to shift the focus of their blame away from phones. She claims GenXers, the parents of those post-Millennials, are really the generation facing destruction. Her overall message is captured here:
"...you know what smartphones and social media are really great at? Tuning out your children.
I know, we all really enjoy reading articles about how it’s those evil smartphones that are destroying our children’s brains and souls. It lets us justify locking their devices up with parental monitoring tools, or cutting off their mobile plan when they fail to make the grade.
Fellow parents, it’s time for us to consider another possible explanation for why our kids are increasingly disengaged. It’s because we’ve disengaged ourselves; we’re too busy looking down at our screens to look up at our kids."
At least this author is focusing on behaviors. She is calling out parents to be models of healthy technology use before pointing fingers at their children. I do agree with that concept, but I'm still concerned about the blame game.

What do educators think?

When educators read articles like these two is it easy for us to think, "If my students are hooked on their phones, it isn't my fault. The data shows that the phones themselves are the problem." Or, if we are more likely to believe the second article, educators might think, "If my students are hooked on their phones, it isn't my fault. Their parents are the real problem." The purpose of this post is to reject those two mindsets emphatically and remind educators of what they already know:

Placing blame does not solve problems. Taking action does. 

And, what's more, simply banning students from accessing smartphones and social media at school is not going to work. Actually, according to a new study from the University of Pheonix and Harris Polls, educators' social media use is clearly trending up.
  • 41% of teachers use social media at school, up from 32 percent in 2016.
  • 28% of teachers don't use social media in the classroom, but would like to.
This data seems to show that more educators are recognizing at least the potential value of social media use as part of their work in education. My hope is that we also recognize that our learners will not develop healthy social and technological habits with their devices unless we intentionally teach them. Just as we work hard to teach our students skills like keeping notes organized, managing their time, and how to write a lab report, we need to teach them how to leverage social media to help them learn and share in positive and productive ways. The children we serve will not learn these skills unless we recognize our duty to model them and teach them.

How will educators step up?

  1. It starts with cultural norms – not disciplinary rules – that all community-members agree to be held to. Yes, even adults. At St. John's Prep we have developed these and are rolling them out intentionally this year. Our infographic was even designed by a student and is posted in every classroom all over campus. 
  2. Bring parents into the conversation. Share the data on parent screen use with them and ask them to hold themselves accountable as well. Provide them with practical tips and resources, like these we curated for the parents in our community at St. John's Prep. Offer consistent opportunities for them to come together and talk about successes and struggles as they raise, and you educate, their children in this brave new world.
  3. Take tech risks with your students! When they are excited about a new tool or a new way to share their learning using their smartphones, embrace those ideas. Be sure to help them learn about privacy and security when trying a new app or program, but as long as it is safe students should be able to get creative even using tools you are not familiar with.
We will not get caught up in the blame game.
We will not succumb to a fatalist attitude that we are already on an inevitable destructive path. 
We will not make the mistake of oversimplifying the solution and imposing unrealistic bans.
I'm confident that educators will step up, be the voice of reason, and get to work making the meaningful changes that we need so that all generations develop healthy proactive habits.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Home School Communication: It's Not About Progress Reports


Each afternoon during the last school year, my daughter's 2nd grade teacher sent a few cell phone photos and a 2-3 sentence explanation of what they showed. It probably took her no more than 5 minutes to snap the shots of her students, type up the words, and hit send. About once per week I would dash off a few sentences in response thanking her for the photos or letting her know what my daughter had said about school that day. These seemingly mundane quick interactions helped me build an everyday relationship with my child's teacher. The benefits of building that relationship went far beyond a teacher fulfilling her contractual obligations to communicate student progress. There are 5 specific scenarios that come to mind in which her quick photos and messages created a lasting benefit for my daughter and for my husband and I as her parents:

  1. It made it easier and more natural for me too reach out to her one night early in the year when my daughter left her homework at school. Together we were able to come up with an alternative assignment that my daughter enjoyed and also helped her practice the skills she was working on.
  2. That everyday relationship made me think to ask her about her favorite online educational games so that I could direct my daughter's at home screen time toward positive activities.
  3. At one point in the school year, a new class seating assignment created a little social conflict for my daughter. I helped her brainstorm potential solutions. She went to school the next morning ready to advocate for herself, but I also know I could send her teacher a brief email to keep an eye out as my daughter navigated this tough situation.
  4. When we ran into her and her family in town, we were able to talk effortlessly about the exciting things my daughter was learning and doing in school. These conversations didn't turn into awkward impromptu parent-teacher conferences. They were more like pleasant small talk.
  5. Speaking of those parent-teacher conferences, I actually had a tough time scheduling one this year due to our busy schedules. Because of all of our communications throughout the year, though, I could just up the phone or email my daughter's teacher anytime I had a question. No need for a special conference to touch base.
I hope my daughter's 3rd grade teacher takes a few moments each day to use the devices at her fingertips to help build a relationship, too. It is likely that throughout her elementary education experience I will get that kind of communication. But will it continue in the upper grades?

It isn't about nightly homework checks

There is a common practice to hold back on daily updates to parents as learners mature. Usually, the philosophy behind this shift is that as children get older they should take more responsibility for their own learning. But I'm not talk about daily communications that include each night's homework assignments or regularly scheduled progress reports. Rather, as a parent I want to know what my daughters have tried, learned, read, and discussed each day. That way, when they get home we can share and discuss in a way that is more meaningful than, "How was school today?"

Adolescents and teens can be help accountable for their school work without sacrificing teacher-parent communication. The more parents know about their child's day, the more likely they are to be positive proactive forces in their child's education. Every teacher needs as many parent allies as possible, and every parent wants their child to have a healthy and strong relationship with her teacher.

How educators can make it happen

This year, I'm happy to be a part of the #Pledge100 campaign to reach every parent during the 2017-2018 school year. Much of this post has been about my experience as a parent, but as an educator I also saw great benefits when I stayed in constant communication with my students' parents. As a middle school teacher, I kept up a class website where parents could find the class calendar and all materials. Additionally, I sent home personal emails to 3-4 students' families each afternoon letting them know about how their recent experiences, successes, and struggles in my classroom.


These emails took me no more than 15 minutes to write each afternoon. The benefits were two-fold:
  1. Parents knew that I thought about their child as a unique individual who deserved an education that fit him best.
  2. My end-of-day daily reflections helped me think more carefully about how I spoke to and served every student every day. I believe I grew into a better teacher because of this practice.
As a high school teacher, I kept up a similar class website, but also sent home weekly detailed emails with links to examples of student work. These links featured student videos, podcasts, and even ebooks authored by entire classes. Parents enjoyed the celebration of their teenager's learning and I found that the rapid-fire 5-minute parent-teacher conferences we held once a year were much more relaxed.


Start this summer

We even got a message late last week - in the dog days of summer - from my daughter's teacher reminding her former 2nd graders to read. I was so impressed. I showed it to my daughter and she said, "I can't wait to go back to school so I can visit Ms. W and Ms. R. They will be so happy to see me and I can tell them about summer camp!"

If you haven't communicated with your former students yet this summer, don't underestimate how powerful and positive it can be for them to hear from you. The fact that you thought of them during your vacation time will mean to world to them.

And, of course, reach out to your incoming students as soon as possible. Hold off on homework policies and class expectations. Share a little about what you love about being a teacher and how you used some of your summer to get ready for them. Reassure them that you are excited to meet them and get to know them. Perhaps you could even encourage them to write back to you.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Beautiful Learning

"I use the term beautiful work broadly: ...Always, in all subjects, there is a quest in my classroom for beauty, for quality, and we critique all that we do for its level of care, craftsmanship, and value."
-Ron Berger quoted from Buck Institute

Recently a colleague of mine, a grade 7/8 math teacher, emailed me with his reflections from reading a book he borrowed from the bookshelf in my office. After a discussion about homework quality and quantity with his colleagues during the final professional learning day of the school year, he stopped by my office to share his thoughts about what makes student work worthwhile. I handed him An Ethic Of Excellence by Ron Berger and encouraged him to read it and dig a little deeper into those thoughts. About a month and a half into summer, he emailed me with his thoughts:

"Beautiful work is the idea that schoolwork is about the process of producing something beautiful. In that process learners learn the lesson. It is beautiful not because it's neat or colorful or artistic, but because it represents the very best work of that individual, with the assistance of their classmates along the way. Schoolwork isn't something that we just have to get done and move on. It's an iterative process and our learning is in those several iterations."
-Glenn Blakney

Glenn pointed out some things that I've been thinking about quite a bit: 
  1. School work should feel just as valuable and worthwhile to students as work feels for adults in pursuit of their careers and/or passions.
  2. Valuable learning does not happen entirely in collaboration with others, but it also does not happen entirely in isolation as an individual. The feedback we get from others is just as important as the reflections we do on our own.
  3. Learning is in BOTH the process and the product. We learn from making mistakes and finding out how to fix them. We also learn from feeling the satisfaction of creating a product that we are proud to share.

Near the end of his email to me, Glenn wrote, "This is what genuine and effective Project Based Learning looks like." It just so happens that, as part of my preparation and planning for our upcoming in-house school conference, I was reading articles and watching videos about some of the hottest education theories including PBL. I came across this video from Edutopia on rigorous PBL and it really captured the elements of beautiful schoolwork for me.


Besides the aesthetics, what would be the elements of beautiful schoolwork in your classroom? How would your students, their parents, and the community beyond your classroom know that your students' learning is beautiful?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Time to Change the Vocabulary of #EdTech Leadership


Often when administrators are asked about the current state of education technology in their school or district, they make declarative statements:

  • We are 1-to-1.
  • We use Google Classroom.
  • We adopted Microsoft 365.
  • We have a makerspace.

I've learned that those are unfinished statements. The sentiment they express is not the vision or leadership that educators and learners need. I'm shifting my perspective. Here's why.

The "roll-out" of new devices or tools is often the first edtech goal an administrator has for her district, but it should not – it cannot – be the last. A roll-out is all about strategy and planning. Once equipment, software, and programs are in place, the work has just begun. How will student learning be affected? The statements above should look more like these:

  • We are working toward...
  • We are excited about...
  • Our plan is to...
  • We have started to...

Each of these 4 statements should be finished with phrases that include the words "student" and "learning" in some way.

Education is a moving target. As soon as a district team writes a goal, that goal is both outdated and worth pursuing. It is outdated because district leadership needs to achieve that goal while planning for what comes next. It is worth pursuing because it is a necessary and big step along the journey of progress toward the best possible student learning.

While it is essential for education leaders to celebrate the good work that is being done, it is just as essential for those leaders to communicate an inspiring vision that includes tangible benchmarks to measure progress, especially when it comes to measuring the value of any type of technology in schools.

To help me think more deeply about what technology in education might look like in 5 or 10 years, I recently read LeiLani Cauthen's The Consumerization of Learning. Cauthen skillfully explains the past, present, and potential future of our learning and growth as educators in a world that blends digital and analog at every turn. Some of her predictions are jarring, but others are inspiring and even comforting. When creating a vision and the benchmarks that will be a part of the journey, school and district leaders should consider the possibilities Cauthen shares in this book. For instance, when it comes to the continuum of education progress, is your school in the:

  • Strategy Years?
  • Tactics Years?
  • Sustainability Years?
  • Analytics Years?
  • Design Age?
  • Age of Experience?

Cauthen's advice for each stage is worth considering. Be aware of where your school is, but remain focused on where it needs to be. Her vision for a more personalized (a.k.a. consumerized) education experience for students and teachers is exciting. Educators may not agree with everything in this book, but it is a very good thing that these ideas are now part of the discourse about how public education needs to change.