Thursday, May 25, 2017

What is the One Thing All Learners Need?

This time I'm going to give away the answer in the first line: Personal Connection

We know that student-teacher relationships are important when it comes to students' academic success. But, how does this apply to professional learning for educators?

Earlier this week I had the privilege of working with the teachers, therapists, and specialists at the Valley Collaborative School. They asked me to share both a high quality curated list of openly licensed digital education resources (OER) and an instructional design method to help their educators customize learning based on both those resources and the varied needs of the children they serve. Based on my experience yesterday, combined with the work I've done with a few other districts, I have developed a theory: When it comes to professional learning, there are 3 levels of participation. Each level serves an important purpose, but if we never dig deep enough to get to Level 3 then the learning needs of participating educators may never truly be met.

Level 1: Keynote to Inspire

Keynote addresses are exciting. The audience buckles in for an experience. They expect to laugh, wonder, hear Tweetable soundbites, perhaps shed a tear, and leave inspired by new ideas. As educators, we sometimes need our souls to be fed by the inspiring big ideas of a keynote speaker. I know I always have room for improvement, but I hope the educators yesterday felt a sense of urgency and energy when the keynote was done. Many times I have left a big conference theater or even the auditorium of my local school and hoped to bring the energy I felt from the keynote to my students.

But, how, exactly? What are the actionable steps we should take?

Level 2: Demo to Experience

Often, when hired by a district or brought on by conference organizers, a keynote speaker will facilitate an interactive follow-up session that demonstrates the theories and practices they highlighted in their address. In my case yesterday, this meant walking educators through the Start With a Question method that incorporated OER, digital formative assessment, and collaboration. The teachers were working together to tinker with online simulations, experiment with video and gaming, and teach one another about the most efficient uses of their devices. I saw them engaged, talking, thinking, and sharing. Educators deserve to experience the joy of learning in this way often.

But, when the demo was over, would this experience and my instructions truly affect their teaching and their students' learning?

Level 3: Personal Engagement to Connect

Although it occurs less often in formal professional development, educators might need to engage one-on-one with the speaker/facilitator. Thankfully, this is exactly what I was able to do during the last of the 3 hours I'd planned with the teachers at the Valley Collaborative School yesterday. As I moved from table to table and sat down with the different small groups of educators, I discovered there were questions and ideas I never would have heard if I hadn't pursued those personal conversations. Much like many of our students, some teachers are unlikely to speak up in a large group and ask questions.

Some educators were already running with the resources and tools I'd demoed for them. They were exploring, designing, and building lessons. When I sat down to talk to them I wanted to encourage them, point out more advanced features they might want to use, and answer their higher level questions about how my approach compared to others they were already familiar with. I loved these interactions!

A few educators were open minded and able to get started, but then got stuck. I could recognize them by their facial expressions of body language and made an effort to get to them as quickly as possible. In most cases, they'd found some great digital resources, starting building a lesson, but weren't sure how this activity would fit into their teaching. We chatted about what their classroom space looked like, their students' personalities and needs, and how they normally start and end a lesson. Then we worked together to brainstorm how the Start With a Question method could improve on both the teaching experience for them and the learning experience for their students. I loved these interactions too!

Finally, there were educators in the room who stalled before they started. Since quite a few of the professionals who work in education are actually specialists, therapists, and clinicians it is important to connect to their unique but vital roles in our schools. During these conversations I asked a lot of questions about their typical day, the children they serve, and the resources and activities they currently depend on. I had much to learn from them. As a result of talking and learning from one another, we were able to develop some new approaches to their work that incorporate digital resources, devices, and new kinds of interaction. I'm grateful for these interactions because I learned the most from them.

These Level 3 interactions helped the professionals make clear connections between what they do each day with children and the method, resources, and tools I was sharing. Without personal conversations, those connections would have either taken longer to form or may have never formed at all. The efficacy of that 3 hour professional development afternoon was enhanced because we took the time to talk to one another face-to-face. When designing professional learning in the future, whether it is in the form of a keynote, an interactive session, or a very small group, I'm going to make a concerted effort to set aside time to have as many of those face-to-face conversations as possible.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Vetting Student Apps Isn't Enough: Data Privacy for Teachers and Parents


If you're still skeptical that student data privacy issues are of the utmost importance in school communities, check out the latest information about the massive data breach from a prominent edtech company. Implementation of a vetting process for new apps or programs in school districts is essential to protect students' personally identifiable information (PII) and aggregated data. (If you're looking for information on setting up your own vetting policy, download this toolkit from CoSN and check out some resources from Cambridge Public Schools.) The alphabet soup of regulations – like FERPA and COPPA – can be dizzying, but they need attention. But once your vetting process is in place, it isn't time to relax just yet. Rather, schools and districts should push themselves even further.

As a teacher, I sometimes found it frustrating when I had to wait to get access to the digital tools I wanted my students to be able to use. (If I had decided that a video creation tool was great, I wanted my students to be able to try it out right away!) Now, as a digital learning specialist, I want to make sure the teachers I work with feel as little frustration as possible and develop an understanding of why short delays are sometimes inevitable. Based on my experiences as a classroom teacher and a digital instructional coach, I have some recommendations for the steps schools should take.

Above all, make sure your vetting and deployment process is thorough, but also quick and clear. Ideally, teachers should not have to wait more than a couple of days to find out whether a tool they have requested will be permitted in their classrooms. Even the best-laid lesson plans are constantly shifting. Teachers need their administrators and technology experts to remain cognizant of that reality. After developing your expedient vetting policy and process, here are the steps I recommend so that the entire school community is informed and on board:

Step 1: Informal Teacher Professional Learning

Start by informing classroom teachers about the vetting process within normal conversations in regular team or department meetings. Make sure it is clear that teachers are not responsible for vetting on their own, but that the information is being shared with them so they can be more informed educators and users of digital tools. To help calm any anxieties, emphasize that the research, investigation, and communication with companies will be handled by district technology and administrative professionals.

At this stage, I have found it is also helpful to highlight a few examples of what the vetting team will look for when they read privacy policies and terms of use for any new apps or programs.  (At my school this short list included ad tracking, SSOs with social media, and age restrictions among others.) At the end of these discussions, it might be helpful to send teachers off with a little more information to read and digest on their own. I recommend the Educator's Guide to Data Privacy from ConnectSafely and the Future of Privacy Forum.

Step 2: Formal Teacher Professional Learning

After allowing a few months – either a summer break or a quarter grading period – for the new policy to settle in and become part of the routine, it is time to share more sophisticated information about data privacy and digital citizenship with teachers. Here's why: It is no longer uncommon practice for educators to share information about their profession, school, or even students online. It may be shared in a professional blog post, as part of an education-focused Twitter chat, or just as a funny anecdote on their personal social media account. Teachers need to understand that their personal and professional online identities are not separate because of the way their data trail connects everything they do.

No teacher should be told not to use digital tools or social media. Their positive modeling for the students and parents in your community is invaluable. In addition to the Educator's Guide to Student Data Privacy mentioned above, resources like the Educator's Guide to Social Media, a free guide from Larry Magid and I, and BrandED, a new book from Eric Sheninger and Trish Rubin, are excellent resources to help you plan those formal professional learning sessions with your teachers. This video or this video from Common Sense Education might be a great way to kick off your session.

Step 3: Curriculum Integration for Students

Now that your teachers understand privacy implications (based on the vetting process for student apps shared in Step 1 and the implications for their personal and professional lives in Step 2) they are better prepared to inform their students. Here are my top privacy integration tips:

  1. Planned integration of data privacy concepts in regular lessons. For example, when introducing a new vetted tool for which students have to sign in, the teacher could take a few moments to skim through the Terms of Use with students so they know the highlights to look for before they check the box during the account creation process. 
  2. In the moment discussion. Teachers like to call these "teachable moments." For instance, if your school has a one-to-one program and fully manages student devices, students might question why they are not permitted to download certain games or apps. Teachers can seize on this question to invite discussion about whether students think about what developers do with the information we share when we download and start using new un-vetted programs. (Hint: Unless the privacy policy says they do not share or sell that information with advertisers and companies looking to target new customers, it is likely that they do.)

Of course, this should be part of a thorough digital citizenship school-wide program. Data privacy is an essential part of helping our learners understand how their behavior online can have an impact on their in-person lives.

Step 4: Informal and Formal Parent Education

As part of that digital citizenship school-wide program, parent programming should be prioritized. At my school we provide webinars that are both live and recorded, parent council presentations, and interactive experiences specifically for grandparents, incoming parents, and more. While some offerings are compulsory and others are optional, there is no way to offer too much parent education around digital health and safety in schools and at home. In my experience, parents are hungry for help when it comes to managing their children's screen time, online interactions, and developing a healthy balance of technology use. In fact, we are constantly looking for new ways to reach more parents and are hoping to offer even more programming next year.

Some of my favorite resources for parents include ConnectSafely's library of Parent Guides and Janell Burley Hoffman's iRules.

Now, in you district, the order of these steps might be different based on the interests and involvement of your stakeholders. This post is not meant to be a decisive solution. It presents options and ideas to provide guidance for schools that are in the midst of the process.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Three Little Words

There are these 3 particular words/phrases that are used often in my professional circles. As their use increases, so do the number of eye-rolls I've observed in reaction to their use.

Disclaimer: I've noticed myself both using them and eye-rolling in reaction to them.

In my recent column for EdSurge, I documented the education jargon that stops short of inspiring the educators in my PLN based on their responses to my Facebook post. By the end of the post, I suggested that we educators should think about the real intentions and actions of the person using the words instead of our own prejudices against them.

It is time to challenge myself and my own thinking. So, I'm going to go through that same process. What are the education words/phrases that have lost meaning for me? How can I look past my own jaded thinking and open my mind to ideas, even when the person proposing the new ideas uses those words?

Word #1: Innovate

When I hear speakers say or read blog posts demanding that teachers need to be more innovative, I'm sometimes less than inspired. While I was eager to try new approaches in my own classroom as a teacher and am eager to try new approaches to professional learning in my current role, I also know that it is frustrating to hear that my best might not be innovative enough. But instead of internalizing that word in a negative way, it is important for me to step away and think about the intention of the person using it.

I looked up the meaning of the word itself:

If the blogger or speaker uses innovate/innovation to describe new methods for solving ongoing problems and has ideas for how to investigate or implement those new ideas, why not listen with an open mind? In schools this could mean getting creative with the scheduling of the school day, using classrooms and other spaces in non-traditional ways, or even looking at high school curriculum with a thematic cross-curricular perspective rather than in isolated subject areas. There are countless other examples of education innovations that would shake up the way things are done, might create a little extra work and discomfort, but are also worth trying for the sake of solving ongoing problems.

Word #2: Amplify

In the music world, amplify means to increase the volume of a sound. In education, it isn't enough to think of amplify as a synonym for increase. For instance, it is doubtful that most teachers would advocate for amplifying/increasing the number of tests students have to take or the hours of homework they have to complete. In the definition of amplify, it is the third option that captures my attention most:

Something that is "more marked" is noticeable or hard to ignore. Of course we want our students' work to be noticed by their peers and even the community beyond our classrooms. When we ensure that our learners know why they are working toward a learning goal – sometimes referred to as the "so what?" of a lesson – the end result of that learning should be original creations that those students are proud to share. Those products should be "more marked" and harder to ignore than their previous work.

Something that is "intense" helps people feel emotions or sensations that they might not otherwise feel. If student learning is intense then they are experiencing that learning in a deeper way that taps into emotions and physical sensations. Our young learners are more likely to internalize a new skill or idea if the have experienced it, rather than merely memorizing it.

When we think about amplifying learning in terms of making it "more marked" or "intense" it is hard to debate the power behind the sentiment. (By the way, if you are looking for concrete ideas for how to amplify learning in your classroom, check out Amplify by Kristin Ziemke and Katie Muhtaris. It's a book. You should read it.)

Word (OK, Phrase) #3: Take it to the next level

When I hear this phrase tossed around in keynote addresses or in the titles of high-profile blog posts, I can't help but think – at least for a moment – like a jaded long-time teacher who has been forced to structure curriculum via predetermined levels, to choose levels for my students as they move on to the next school year, and to look at test scores as determining factors for student leveling.  As I'm sure you are already imagining – or as you have experienced yourself – these are not empowering or inspiring moments in one's teaching career.

But let's look at this phrase, and the word level, from a completely different perspective. Let's start with the definition:

What did you notice first? For me, it was the part that stated it referred to "something that is already successful." Well. Dude. That changes literally everything about my preconceived notions of the phrase.

We are no longer talking about forcing unique, talented, imperfect, genuine students into a leveling system that doesn't take their personalized needs into account. Instead we are talking about looking at a practice, lesson, or project that is already working and making it work even better for our students. So, did you try adding something new to your Civil War unit? It went OK! But now you're even more excited to change a few other parts of the unit next year. You are reflecting, researching, and planning. You are taking it to the next level. And there is nothing bad about that approach in education.

______________________

No more eye rolls. I promise. I might even use these terms in a PD session, conference presentation, or upcoming blog post. There are plenty of other little words that have gradually lost their charm in the education world. Rather than take a critical stance, perhaps we can take a deep breath and think back to why the words had power in the first place.

Harness that power.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

It's Here! And This is the Story Behind It.

As is typical on a weeknight, I'd just tucked my children into bed and was on my laptop plugging away on a project for school when my email inbox pinged. I skimmed the incoming message from my ConnectSafely colleague and CEO Larry Magid. In the email, he asked me to co-author a new guidebook on how to address fake news. Without hesitation, I replied, "YES!"

Here's why:

Biased and false reports are not new in this booming era of information technology, but the 2016 election definitely created urgency around the issue for more Americans. This urgency is especially great for educators and parents. Throughout the election cycle, my colleagues and I worked hard to respond to the questions of our adolescent and teen students with the right balance of compassion and impartiality. At home, my husband and I struggled to answer our young children's questions as they heard unfamiliar and confusing statements about what the future might hold.

Rather than blaming politicians or media outlets – which does not seem to change what we see or read online – the best approach is to get to the root of the problem: There needs to be a greater focus on teaching our children and teens to be critical, but not jaded, consumers of and contributors to the online world.

In short, we need to redouble our efforts toward improving media literacy.

So, when my ConnectSafely colleague Larry Magid asked me to co-author a guide on this very topic a few months ago, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only am I passionate about it because of my own experiences at home and at school, Larry's career as a journalist and my career as a teacher created what I felt was a "dream team" to tackle it. After months of independent research, expert interviews, a writing retreat on the west coast, editing from our respective homes in weeks that followed, and peer review, the result is the Parent and Educator Guide to Media Literacy and Fake News.


We are proud that this guide: 
  1. is free thanks to crowdfunding from our supporters,
  2. contains vignettes from renowned media literacy and emotional intelligence experts, and 
  3. is chock full of practical tips that parents can use tonight during dinner table discussions and educators can use today in their classrooms.
Those practical tips can help adults empower the young people in our lives to:
  • distinguish fact from opinion
  • identify mistakes versus lies
  • interpret conflicting reports
  • develop emotional intelligence
  • act with confidence when faced with falsehoods online

Please check out the guide, share it with your friends and colleagues, test the strategies, and let us know if you'd like to speak with us about the ideas it contains. We are happy to help and eager to hear from you.