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.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

This is Your Brain on Technology #ISTE17 #IGNITE

Access to our screens – and the information and connections those screens make possible – is an essential part of our personal, academic, and professional lives. But the amount of time we spend looking at those screens is having an impact on our brain development. Based on my research into neuroscience and my work every day in schools and classrooms, I put together this Ignite talk (5 minutes total, 20 slides, 15 seconds each) for the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education Conference.



It answers many of the questions we have about how much is too much and which uses of technology are worthwhile.


How are you incorporating screens in healthy ways at home and in your school? How are you working with all stakeholders – students, teachers, parents, administrators – in your community to establish a clear culture of healthy technology use?

The research and testing doesn't stop here. This is just the beginning. I'm looking forward to learning and sharing more in the coming months, and next year at #ISTE18 in Chicago.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Talking to Our Children About the President's Tweets

Click here to listen the the segments.
For adults this fast-paced tech-rich world can be intimidating. And yet, children are the focus of my work. Imagine how overwhelming this world can look to them!

While many dismiss that perspective and argue that they are "digital natives" for whom navigating our tech-rich world is easier, I know first hand that is it not.

Children are the focus of my work in 3 ways:

  • I'm the mother of 2 young girls who are eager to explore the media and opportunities of the online world.
  • My profession is educator and I work with teachers and students in grade 6 through 12 at St. John's Prep. We are focused on how to make the world a better place today and in the future.
  • I have a passion for advocacy of digital citizenship, literacy, and safety through writing, speaking, and organizing with the non-profit ConnectSafely.org.
Often, when certain events occur – like President Trump's tweets yesterday that focused on insults rather than substance – I'm asked how we can realistically insist that children, adolescents, and teens refrain from acting the same way online. 


The truth is that all of us, children and adults alike, are learning how to use the powerful communication tools the online world has to offer. This means that all of us are making mistakes and learning from them. I had the opportunity to talk with CBS News Radio this morning and share my advice for parents and teachers. Click here to listen to the interviews.

For more resources to help in both the classroom and at home, check out ConnectSafely.org's parent and educator guides here.


Friday, June 16, 2017

The Freedom (and Consequences) of Our Students' Digital Speech

In the past two weeks, two big news reports based in my home state of Massachusetts demonstrate how crucial it is to teach our children about the impact even the smallest online communication can have. Despite these stories with no winners, we shouldn't censor our children. We should encourage them to share their highest quality work online, and have ongoing conversations with them about being upstanders when "drama" happens among their peers online. Here are the specifics:



Harvard Withdraws Acceptances

Harvard University revoked the admissions offers of 10 incoming freshman – recently graduated high school seniors – who created their own messaging group. The creation of the group was not the problem. According to the report in the Harvard Crimson, the prospective students "sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children." The story made national news. It wasn't because of a few rescinded acceptances, a common practice for colleges this time of year. It is because of the reason for rescinding was new.

Michelle Carter's Verdict

Today, in a courthouse in Taunton, Massachusetts, Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter of Conrad Roy in a bench trial. Once again, it isn't the charge and trial that are shocking. It is the evidence and context for how Carter acted. According to the New York Times, "When he became sick from the fumes and stepped out, prosecutors said, Ms. Carter ordered him by phone [in a text message] to 'get back in.'” Roy was found dead in his car the next day.

In both cases, it was digital messages sent by teens in seemingly private contexts that led to serious public and life-changing consequences. When talking to your teens – whether they are your children or your students – about these two situations, here are some key messages they need to hear:

1. Be the Real You at All Times

Whether words are verbalized face-to-face or typed in a text message, they are representing your thoughts and your personality. What do you want people to think about when they think of your name? Are you someone who adds energy and positivity to a conversation? Are you someone who lifts others up? Are others grateful for the information and messages you share?

2. Take Care of Yourself and the People You Care About

At some point each of us will face a difficult situation due to online communication. Some of us will be a target, some of us will see a friend suffering as a target, and some of us will see a debate raging about an issue that touches close to home. Ask your teens: What will you do? Will you take action that matters without contributing to a toxic online dialogue? Will you stand up for the people who need allies? Will you show calm reasoned strength in the midst of a negative online tornado?

3. Nothing is Private. Harness the Power of Public.

Both of the examples above involve messages and media exchanged between teenagers who believed they had privacy. Whether our shares are in the form of public posts, DMs, or text messages, the Harvard and Carter cases both illustrate the risk we take when tapping Post, Publish, or the share arrow. Rather than taking in this information and feeling handcuffed, our youth should feel empowered to make great change with the tap of a keyboard. If nothing is private, imagine how many people could be reached with innovative ideas, new artwork, and fresh music. Use this power of sharing for good! Avoid getting bogged down in any negativity.

How will we parents and educators frame this new era of online communication – and consequences – for the children and teens we care about? Will we fill our conversations with warnings and negativity? Or will we share these stories so that our children can feel a sense of duty to better represent their generation and build a positive vibe that drowns out the negativity?

Perhaps you think my ideas seem naive. I assert that they are not.

The balance of sharing positivity and protecting against negativity is the key to cracking open the digital world we all want for the future.