Thursday, December 15, 2016

What should educators do about fake news?

The fake news phenomenon has been developing alongside the growth of social media for years, but it is getting more attention presently because of the important role accurate and inaccurate information can play in a presidential election. Since 50% of young adults get their news primarily online, and teachers observe their younger students doing the same, many educators have growing concerns about their students' abilities to identify the real from the fake news on the internet.

The most alarming statistics came recently from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, 82% of middle schoolers were unable to distinguish between "sponsored content" and a real news story on a website. When these young learners do academic research and find out about the broader world through the internet, are they be able to tell the difference between real and fake?

Together with my colleagues at school and my peers in other schools, I am developing strategies and plans for addressing fake news with our students. Before we start talking with students, however, it is important to check on our own ability to accurately identify fake and real news. Pew Research Center released a study today that, among other information, shows one in four adults have shared fake news.

What's more, the results of an Ipsos Study released last week showed that, when tested, adults rated fake news as "somewhat" or "very" accurate at least 75% of the time. They even broke down the percentages of adults who recognized and believed certain fake news headlines were true.

Source: Buzzfeed

This data about adults' abilities to identify fake news is concerning. It means that we have to remain vigilant and provide ongoing professional learning for teachers on fake news. Not only is it important for our students to be critical consumers of media, it is essential that teachers remain up-to-date with the new and best methods for evaluating information.

Here are a few resources that educators can use to get started:

1. DigCit@SJP - Deep Dive: Communication & Responsibility   
Developed by my colleague Julie Cremin and I, this page is part of a larger website that served as training modules for our faculty on digital citizenship and continues to serve as a resource for our entire school community. The page linked above is full of our favorite resources – including Snopes, Common Sense Education, ConnectSafely, the Harvard Berkman Klein Center, and more – for helping students understand the importance of being critical consumers and of being honest and positive contributors to the internet.

2. Stanford History Education Group - Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning 
Start by reading the executive summary from the Stanford study mentioned at the top of this post, but continue scrolling to see the activities researchers used to carry out the study and samples responses. It is a powerful read and it would be rather easy to use the same activities with the adults and students in your school community to help get the conversation about fake news started.

3. PBS NewsHour - Lesson Plan: How to teach your students about fake news
Not only does this lesson plan realistically tackle fake news in a 50 minute class period, it is full of links to studies, articles, and websites that you and your students can reference as you work together to evaluate online information moving forward.

4. ConnectSafely - How and why to avoid sharing fake news 
This short article explains what fake news is, how to help yourself and your students recognize it, what to do once you've spotted it, and how we can all work together to combat fake news and make sure the information we find online in the future will be grounded in fact and analyzed with honesty. 

Although Craig Silverman has been consistently warning us about fake news on Buzzfeed for the past 6 months, it is an issue that all of us must take responsibility for as consumers and creators of online media. School administrators and teachers can work with students to help them understand the difference by recognizing that research and information gathering has changed in the past decade, paying attention to media patterns as they shift over time, and giving students ample opportunities to be critical consumers.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

How to Talk About Sexting

The advice for the past few years from parents and educators everywhere has been clear:

Don't do it. 

That advice has been less than effective.

So, here we are. Sexting is still going on and may even be "the new first base" for teens. In fact, 80% of adults admit to sexting within the last year. The reasons that adults and teens engage in sexting behavior is often different, and schools and parents are usually rocked by scandal when teen sexting comes to light in their community. In the mean time, many adults are afraid to talk about it because it seems so taboo and uncomfortable.

This post is meant to provide enough information to empower educators and parents to start talking to their adolescents and teens about sexting proactively. The discussions need to happen before the scandal breaks and in an effort to prevent it, not in reaction to the scandal. This information should make adults feel empowered, not frightened.

Also, as a disclaimer, this post is not meant to be the ultimate and final guide to sexting. There is much more to the topic than can fit in one blog post. Many educators and parents just need a place to start. This post might be that place.


For some girls, sexting seems unnatural and unimaginable. We should never assume our daughters or female students are engaging in this behavior and open with accusations. But, if and when these girls show interest in boys and start communicating with them using messaging technology like iMessage or Snapchat, it is not unreasonable to assume they will be asked for "nudes" from those boys. (Worth noting: "Nudes" can be spelled almost any phonetical way such as "noodz" and many others.) We can start by asking them what they have heard about sexting and if anyone they know is sending those kinds of pictures.

According to the research of Nancy Jo Sales, girls are caught in a tough spot. If they refuse to send a naked picture, they are called "prudes" or even blackmailed with personal information they do not want others to know. If they do send that naked picture, they lose control of it and it can be copied and shared widely by anyone who receives it. Both options are a potential black hole for their reputations to fall into. It might be worthwhile to listen to the podcasts and read through the articles on Sales's website and choose one to share with your daughter. Ask her what she thinks and if she is worried about that happening to her. Let the conversation happen organically and go from there.

What we do know, as Teen Vogue's recent article makes clear, is that telling girls "just don't do it" is ineffective and tends to make them less likely to be willing to talk with their adults about sexting and the social pressures that go with it. Sometimes a girl is so consumed by these pressures that she might send "nudes" even when they are not requested because she thinks that is the expectation when she likes a boy and wants him to like her back.


For some boys, the idea of asking a girl for "nudes" or of sharing a "dick pic" (an unprompted penis picture) is way outside their comfort zone. Not all of our adolescent and teen boys are engaged in sexting culture or even have a desire to be. We should not start the conversations about this topic with accusations, but that does not mean we should not be having the conversations at all. Start by asking what they know about sexting and if they have heard other boys, even their friends, talk about sending, asking for, or receiving naked pictures.

Based on information from Dr. Powell-Lunder, who calls it Clark Kent Syndrome, boys are programmed from a young age that being the alpha-male – a sort of superhero status – is what they should strive for. Even boys who are quiet and unassuming in person can act out that ideal on social media or via private messages. If a boy who is shy in-person can contribute "nudes" to a "slut page" – an Instagram, Facebook, or Dropbox where teens collect nudes that have been sent and shared – then he can help make progress toward the superhero ideal.

It is important to note that some boys do not initiate the sexting and are pressured into exchanging "nudes" by a girl. Ask your son about these dynamics, what he has heard about or seen, and how he feels about it.

Where to Go From Here

It all starts with the courage to ask questions and the patience to listen. Most of the time these conversations will not end with answers that you or your children/students are comfortable with. In fact, most of the time the conversations will be a little uncomfortable. After all, there is a lot at stake and the people involved care a lot about each other. For this reason, a couple of resources I like are ConnectSafely's Tips for Dealing with Teen Sexting and Common Sense Media's Guide to Sexting. Both resources acknowledge that there can be legal consequences involved, but in many scenarios that might not be the best path. They also state up front that there are many relationships affected when sexting happens and there are no easy answers.

Ignoring sexting because it is scary or because we adults are worried about what we might find out will not help our children/students navigate this complex and mature topic. Starting and continuing conversations with our children and students in a way that lets them know we care about them is the best way to get started.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

My child knows more about #edtech than I do!

A common concern I hear from parents is that their children know more about the devices and technology used in school than they do. Even parents who work in technology-rich careers may not be familiar with education technology. As a result, day to day monitoring of what their children are doing is awkward and difficult. Sometimes it isn't until their child is hooked on a video game or social media platform that they initiate any discourse about healthy technology use. When families wait until there is something wrong to have these talks, it is bound to be tense and unpleasant.

Some parents have reached out to our school's technology team to ask for advice on monitoring apps or software, parental controls, and other easy fixes. Our response to these requests is consistent with the message we have shared at parent orientations, parent council meetings, and parent webinars:
  • Have proactive conversations about twice a month.
  • Open these conversations by asking, "Can you show me how you use your Chromebook, iPad, laptop, smartphone to do school work?"
  • Follow up questions might include, "What have you created?" or "How do you keep track of everything on this device?" or "Do you ever get distracted by text messages/games/social media when you're trying to work?"
Much like parents have proactive conversations with their children about healthy eating, dressing appropriately, and how to treat others, parents can and should have proactive positive conversations about healthy technology use.

One parent recently contacted us – my fellow digital learning specialists Julie Cremin, Elizabeth Solomon, and I – to let us know that she decided to have one of these conversations and to tell us how it went. Here is her account:

Inspired (and reminded) by the Digital Learning Specialists/Super Heroes, I sat down last night with both of my boys to get a tour of their iPads. Fun!! One bonus that had not occurred to me was to do it with both of them at once. As my junior whipped through his apps, talking about features he liked about one or another, my freshman, kept interrupting: "Wait, how did you do that?" or "You can do that?!" I slid into the background as the junior started lecturing him on the importance of collaborating with his classmates by setting up group chats for every class, creating shared Quizlet decks (for world languages in particular), and arranging study sessions before and after school.

One item that stood out for me was the diagram below. My junior was studying physics with a friend before school. He has Mr. X, his friend has Mr. Y. My junior liked his friend's Mr. Y notes, so he took a picture of them and put the picture in Notability. Then, during his Mr. X class, he took a picture of the board, and pasted it onto the same image (lower right corner). And finally, he had a few extra notes he wanted included, so he wrote them in himself (note the different handwriting on the right side that begins with 'avg speed').

My junior is a kid who struggled academically in his first year and a half in high school, and now he's learned to harness the tools that are available to him to really excel (an A+ in Physics, and straight A's and 1 B first quarter).

Thanks for the work you do!
No parental controls or monitoring apps could accomplish what they accomplished with this conversation. It is certainly possible that one of their sons may struggle with healthy technology use at some point in the future, but because these parents have engaged them in positive conversations about how they use technology for school work, it will be easier for them to have those tough discussions later. Their teens appreciated an opportunity to teach their parents something and will be more likely to share what they are doing in school moving forward.

As educators, let's encourage our students to share what they are doing in school with their parents at home, and let's communicate often with parents to give them conversation-starters to help them initiate those discussions. As parents, let's practice what we preach with our own children and share our successes and struggles. Every family and school community is learning how to navigate this new connected era. Parents, children, and educators can work together to be proactive, positive, and to make progress.