Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Busy Times

Just a quick update to let you know that we're still here! School projects have kept us both very busy lately, and we look forward to sharing with you some of the recent things we've learned along the way. For now, however, we'd like to direct you toward our Facebook page and Twitter feed, where we are able to share resources, research and articles quickly, with small commentary on occasion.

We haven't fallen off the grid! More in-depth writing will be coming soon.

Also coming soon? Sam and I are scheduled to do a few of our "Parenting in a Digital World" talks for the community in January and February. We will be coming to the Gig Harbor public library and Wheelock Library in Tacoma. We'll keep you posted on our schedule and hope you can join us!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bias and Bullying

I'm a few weeks overdue with this apologies!

October 14, during the PNAIS Fall Educators' Conference, I had the opportunity to attend a "Bias and Bullying" session led by Rosetta Lee of the Seattle Girls School. Given the work we do with kids around digital citizenship, my personal interest in bias and messages in the media, and as a representative of our school's Diversity Committee, I really wanted to hear her speak. I was not disappointed! Links to Rosetta Lee and the break-out session contain all of her many resources, so I would encourage you to follow them. I don't plan to hash out her entire presentation, mostly because I don't think I can, but I will bring attention to a few key things that I thought were important enough to write down, though my attention was much more on participating than note-taking. Overall, the goal of the session was to help us see bias in our everyday interactions with each other, learn where the cycles of bias come from, and how to address bias and bullying when we see it.

Thing 1
Bullying and bias are closely interrelated. Check out the slides at the beginning of the presentation that show the cycles of systematic oppression (slides 5 & 6). Ms. Lee talked us through slide 5, where "stereotypes become prejudice, prejudice becomes discrimination, discrimination becomes oppression, and oppression becomes internalized oppression" using gender bias as a model. I didn't write down every stage of the cycle (kicking myself now, I was too busy nodding my head and thinking, "THAT sounds familiar!"), but we arrived at systematic oppression with the example of a study showing how men and women are promoted for jobs. Men, it was found, were promoted on the PROMISE of greatness, where women were promoted on the PROOF of greatness. What began as a stereotype of "men are more suited to _____ profession," became an institutionalized policy of promotion inequality. That becomes internalized when women don't even bother trying to get promotions because they don't think they'll get them anyway. I'm oversimplifying here, and perhaps completely botching the story, but that's the gist of it.

The cycle of bullying is much the same, with social capital and power as the centerpiece. "Bullying is about limiting a person's potential and choice in the world," Ms. Lee said.  It's about power and influence.

Jump ahead quickly to slide 9 where Ms. Lee references the 15-15-70 dynamic. Fifteen percent of all people believe stereotypes are true, 15% don't ever believe them, and 70% are on the fence, and will most likely follow those who are the loudest. The largest group, in the middle, has the potential to have the most influence, power or voice, but we tend to follow the 15% on the extremes because they make more noise and draw more attention.

Apply this same dynamic to bullying by looking at bullies, victims, and bystanders. Rosetta Lee uses the terms agent, target, and ally, which I love and am completely borrowing from now on. A full 85% live in the bystander/ally camp, yet many of our anti-bullying campaigns focus on the agent and the target. We already know this isn't very effective because it requires that kids see themselves as mean, or conversely, as powerless. And they just won't go there. In the 15-15-70 dynamic, once again, the largest group has the potential to be the loudest voice and effect real change, so that should naturally be where our focus lies, rather than addressing the bully or victim all the time.  Programs or discussions that empower the bystanders stand a great chance of being successful.

This doesn't mean that change is easy or will be pain-free, but a substantial group of people have the "opportunity to cut a new path." (She used a brilliant carving-a-new-path-through-the-brush metaphor here...following the existing path [of least resistance] is easy, and the first time cutting a new path you're going to get scratched up, but you have the opportunity to find a better way.) Imagine if the 85% felt empowered to find that better path, and had the influence really get it done. The culture of a school, or any group for that matter, could change to one of caring and acceptance, clearly sending a message that negative, mean behaviors are not tolerated.

Thing 2
Sam and I recently talked about the power of words with students, sharing with them some findings from an MTV/AP Poll about slurs online. Kids often use derogatory remarks around their friends because there is a culture of acceptance around those who know each other well.
When the question is asked broadly, half of young people say using discriminatory words is wrong. But 54 percent think it's OK to use them within their own circle of friends, because "I know we don't mean it." And they don't worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble. (Seattle Times, 9/20/11)
During Rosetta Lee's session, we had time to participate in two different activities, "Who's on the Inside/Outside?" and "Have You Heard? Put-Downs and Isms." Wish I'd had the put-downs and isms activity when we were talking to students back in September. I'd like to try it out in the future, as it went right along with the discussion of offensive language online. First, we were asked to make a list of the slurs we had heard recently, and I must say my ears were opened to few new ones I hadn't heard before. Yikes. Second, we were asked to try to identify the "ism" to which the slur related. For example, "that's so ghetto" reflects racism; "that's so gay" -- heterosexism; "that's retarded" -- ableism; "stop being such a girl" -- sexism. The put downs are connected to these societal isms, and whether you mean it or not, these words have power, and they help perpetuate the stereotypes. If you're wondering just how powerful the words can be, Ms. Lee suggests you insert your own name in there instead of the put-down. "That's so Holly," or "you're being such a Holly," or "you look like such a Holly," said with the same inflection as these put-downs, doesn't sound so nice and starts to hurt. If we don't challenge the societal norms, things stay the same. So what is a kid/teen to do? Ms. Lee's advice:
  1. describe the behavior
  2. tell them how it made you feel
  3. request a different outcome
This is extremely hard to do in reality, but modeling and practicing "When you _____, I felt ____" could help.  In our discussions with kids, we've asked the questions as if kids are giving advice to someone else. What would you tell a friend in this situation? What would you do if you saw something like this [bullying] happening to someone else? This starts the conversation, however, it's much harder to find the words when it's happening directly to you and your feelings have been crushed. Do I have the strength to say something? If I ignore it, will it just go away? Will it get worse? "When you _____, I felt ____" could be used as an actual script, giving kids the words they need to help themselves out of a situation.

Carving the new path might lead to a few scrapes and bruises the first few times, but if enough people follow (and there are 70-85% who might!), it becomes the new path of least resistance, and behaviors can change.

Thing 3
On October 20th, the Oprah Winfrey Network aired "Miss Representation," a new documentary  recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. The trailer contains some rather graphic images, so I've linked to it rather than embedding it here. As a mother of two young girls I am very concerned about messages the media are sending to/about women. Having spent time in Rosetta Lee's session, and having felt and observed the impact of gender bias myself, I plan to see the film and digest the message it sends. I'm no film critic, but I'll happily share my review here. Have you already seen it? Share your thoughts, please!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How Do We Talk to Kids About Bullying? For Starters, Don't Call it Bullying.

A few weeks ago, another teen suicide...another child bullied and tormented to the point where he thought he had no way out.

No more, please. NOT. ONE. MORE.

Last week, Microsoft researchers Alice Marwick and danah boyd published Bullying as True Drama: Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark in the New York Times. Also, with their colleagues at the Social Media Collective, they published The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric complete with links to a research paper on teen "drama" in networked publics. First, let me say that we are so grateful to have this resource as we fine tune our talks with students and the activities or sessions that address digital citizenship. These are tough topics, and research has shown that few, if any, "anti-bullying" programs are having a noticeable effect. Why not? A notable quote:
For most teenagers, the language of bullying does not resonate. When teachers come in and give anti-bullying messages, it has little effect on most teens. Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive. (Marwick & boyd, 2011)
Honestly, what teen (or what person, for that matter) would want to acknowledge that they are powerless? Or hurtful to others? Especially in front of a group of peers?

Last year when we surveyed our students about their online behavior, we asked purposefully vague questions about getting in arguments or "messing with" someone online. We had already learned how quickly conversations shut down, or become distinctly uncomfortable, the moment the B word comes into play. A few weeks ago, we spent time with 11th and 8th grade students. We asked them ahead of time to share with us (anonymously) some "tech ethical" dilemmas they might have experienced, and then as we shared some scenarios with the groups, we asked students to try and "give advice" or offer suggestions as to how they might handle any of these situations. Not surprisingly, after our initial overview and introductions, the mood of the room palpably changed the moment we started talking about real behaviors, many of which could be classified as mean, hurtful, or aggressive. do we realistically and effectively talk about this issue in a way that a) doesn't shut everybody down or b) leads kids to simply say what they think adults want to hear?

Well, as we suspected, and as the research now makes clear, language matters. The way adults talk about behavior is very different from the way teens talk about it. From the research paper's abstract:
While teenage conflict is nothing new, today's gossip, jokes, and arguments often play out through social media like Formspring, Twitter, and Facebook. Although adults often refer to these practices with the language of "bullying," teens are more likely to refer to the resultant skirmishes and their digital traces as "drama..." [This allows them to] retain agency - and save face - rather than positioning themselves in a victim narrative...Understanding how "drama" operates is necessary to recognize teens' own defenses against the realities of aggression, gossip, and bullying in networked publics. (Marwick & boyd, 2011)
So what, exactly, is the difference between drama and bullying? To adults, not much. To teens, however, there are clear distinctions. One girl cited in the study defines drama in a "bidirectional" manner, saying "there's two sides fighting back," whereas bullying is one-sided and directed. If you defend yourself, it's no longer bullying because you are now participating. "Unlike bullying, there are no victims in teens' model of drama. To avoid drama, teens are expected to simply refuse to participate, while it's assumed that they cannot avoid being bullied."

As I read through this research paper, I could hear the dialog of "drama" in my head, and I even remember students using the word when telling stories, as in, "oh that's just drama." Sam and I both knew that the language of cyberbullying wasn't getting through, that bullying was starting to get equated with tragedy. The more frequently stories appeared in the media about teens driven to desperate actions because of bullying, the more kids were able to say, "We don't see THAT kind of behavior online. THAT is really mean," as if true bullying had to end with a national news story. My questions to them became, then, "does bullying have to equal suicide? How did it get there? What were all the little behaviors along the way that, when added together, became something unmanageable and unbearable? When did it cross the line? Where is that line?" While this stream-of-consciousness reasoning made perfect sense to me, and connected the dots between bullying and drama in my mind, it still wasn't effective with the kids. Though I knew that on some level, or more accurately I could feel it, Alice Marwick and danah boyd's research now gives me the language to understand it more thoroughly. Labeling a series of text messages, Facebook updates, and rumors as drama allows a teen to "save face by minimizing the conflict's impact, rather than seeing [one]self as a victim."
Dismissing a conflict that’s really hurting their feelings as drama lets teenagers demonstrate that they don’t care about such petty concerns. They can save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as desperate for attention. Or, if they’re the instigators, the word drama lets teenagers feel that they’re participating in something innocuous or even funny, rather than having to admit that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Drama allows them to distance themselves from painful situations. (NYT, 9/22/11)
Wow. I'm starting to feel like we all need advanced degrees in psychology to really get this. On a purely personal and emotional level, I remember how drama feels and completely understand a teen's reluctance to wear the mantle of victim or mean girl. Furthermore, I think this personal connection to the behaviors is what makes most adults so intolerant and/or dismissive. We write off these incidents as petty and ridiculous even more quickly as adults than we did as teens. "I survived, so can you" is one typical reaction, but it sends a message that we are unwilling to listen and acknowledge kids' feelings. How does that genuinely help our kids in the here and now? What opportunities for growth and learning are we missing? How do we build empathy and understanding?

One group receiving attention, by many anti-bullying programs, has been bystanders. Particularly if kids are unwilling to see themselves as bullies or victims, we can talk about what to do when you are the third part in this equation...the person watching it happen. "Don't stand by, stand up!" has become a new catchphrase, and Common Sense Media has added a 4th group to the mix of bullies, victims, and bystanders: UPstanders. I've noticed even CSM refers to cyberbullying as "online cruelty" in their lesson plans in an attempt to use language that kids understand and relate to. MTV's A Thin Line campaign has taken a similar approach. (see video above)

Is this all just semantics? Do the words we use really make a difference? Our experience shows that words matter. And when it comes to talking with our kids about their behavior, both online and in the real world, the more tools we have at our disposal the better. Though we were all teenagers once, our perspectives naturally change as we mature, and we can forget what it's like to be dealing with this stuff on a daily basis (or, sometimes we're just grateful to have the hard work of being a teenager behind us and we don't want to relive it). Lumping all this behavior into one convenient category and labeling it "bullying" is closing the door on meaningful conversation. Get kids talking and you may very well hear them describing behaviors most adults would recognize as bullying. But be aware of what that label may cost a teenager. It means feeling like a victim, or the bully. Marwick and boyd say, "They do not want to see themselves as victims or as aggressors, but as mature individuals navigating their world competently."

We have to find a way, and the language, to help them do that.

Marwick, Alice E. and boyd, danah, The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics (September 12, 2011). A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, September 2011. Available at SSRN:

More resources cited in this post:
Bullying as True Drama, NYT 9/22/11

The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric, danah boyd | apophenia

Social Media Collective - "The Social Media Collective is a group of researchers at Microsoft Research New England, led by Dr. danah boyd. The collective consists primarily of social scientists and humanists looking to understand how social media is shaping and is shaped by society."

Common Sense Media

A Thin Line

Larry Magid's article,
Cyberbullying Is a Serious Problem, but Is It an Epidemic? suggests "exaggeration can increase risk." Great advice in this article.

Should We Rethink Our Anti-Bullying Strategy?
Meredith Melnick, Time Online, 9/28/11

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What's Your Digital Footprint?

"Digital footprint" is the term used to describe the trail one leaves through cyberspace. Just about everyone has a digital footprint nowadays, and it's important to understand what it means and how much control you have over it. For our kids, this is especially important because they don't always think long-term, and their concept of privacy is very different than that of older generations (see this video for parents and teachers, from Common Sense Media.) Our tendency (well, mine anyway), when we hear scary/embarrassing/shocking stories about online shenanigans, is sometimes to overprotect, saying, "just don't put yourself out there like that." Is that the answer, though? Upon more reading and reflection, I don't think so.

For one thing, many of our kids are already online, and it's too late to say "just don't do it." What's more, that attitude closes the door on meaningful teaching and learning, and open communication. The scary/embarrassing/shocking stories are teaching opportunities and conversation starters. "Don't put yourself out there like that" is a legitimate statement, but very different from "don't put yourself out there" at all.

Secondly, we need to teach kids, in an ongoing fashion, some very important critical thinking skills. Your digital footprint is absolutely something you have some control over and can build in your favor, therefore, thinking before you post information is essential.

From A Parents' Guide to Facebook
Reputation Point: There is nothing wrong with having a
digital footprint – hundreds of millions of people do now – but parents want their children’s digital footprint to be a positive reflection on them. It’s vitally important to be aware that we’re leaving a trail of information and careful about what we say online. It’s also good to be aware of what others are saying about us. The key to having a positive reputation online is being a good digital citizen: behaving civilly and respectfully toward others online and sharing positive information about oneself in blogs, social networking sites and other social media.

While we're on the topic of Facebook, let me interject here...There is a reason that Facebook requires users to be 13 years old. The privacy settings inherent in this social environment are different when you're under 18, and more protections are in place for users at an age when they don't necessarily understand what is in their best interests. If you have a child that has falsified his or her age in order to have a Facebook account, your child may be missing out on some of these built-in protections. Reading A Parents' Guide to Facebook, particularly the "Reputation Points," can help you/your child figure out the best privacy settings to use, and guide you in some discussions about the digital footprint you are/your child is creating.

So how can one take control of their digital footprint? Or figure out what it is in the first place? The first thing to do would be to Google yourself, and see what comes back in the search results. Is it a surprise? Next, I would recommend you read this, Controlling your digital identity is as easy as 1-2-3, from one of my favorite bloggers, The Innovative Educator. It may be more information than you need right now, but if you get anything out of it at all, it's worth the read. After all, your digital footprint is growing every day, even if you aren't aware of it...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Try it! You Just Might Like It!

On the menu: black bean salad and elk lasagna

The diners: Max, age 4 and Evy, age 7

The challenge: Get the young people to eat the food

This was the situation I was presented with while visiting my niece and nephew this summer to celebrate the birth of their new sister, Rose.  I'm sure many of us have faced similar predicaments. We all have tactics that work, and some that don't, but my strategy involved ice cream. No, not for use as a bribe (though the thought might have crossed my mind). Rather, I reminded the kiddos that at one time, perhaps so long ago they can't remember, they had never tasted ice cream. What if they decided not to? What if they were content to munch on blueberries, nibble on crackers and were perfectly happy tasting the same chocolate chip cookies for the rest of their lives? They didn't know they'd love ice cream until they tried it.

What  does ice cream, elk lasagna and black bean salad have to do with digital ethics and technology? A lot!  What if we'd never gotten an email address, purchased something online or even signed up for Facebook? Many of us found things we love to do, that we couldn't imagine would be better than what we had before.  But, at the same time we all find comfort in the familiar. That is as true with what we choose to make for dinner as it is with the technology we use every day.  We're Mac people or PC people. We love our iPhones, and disdain all others. We're addicted to our Blackberries. We text, but don't tweet. We read online newspapers, but think blogs are are just extra fluff and not worth our time.

I admit to finding the pace of technology overwhelming at times. Just when I think I've got a handle on the newest, most cutting-edge item, something even more new and cutting edge shows up on the horizon. It would be easy to throw in the towel, trusting what technology I've already adopted to see me through.  But what would I be missing? Is ice cream just over the horizon, waiting for a first taste? If I don't try, I'll never know and I won't have a voice in the debate. Perhaps there's something new out there that isn't such a great idea. If I remove myself from the new, I also remove my wisdom from the conversation. Having an opinion about something I've never tried isn't as powerful as sharing wisdom and knowledge gained from a new experience.

So, that's going to be my goal for the year. I resolve to taste more new things and lower my anxiety about the pace of technology innovation.  Keeping up with what's going on will help me be a better contributor to the discussion. It will also help me engage youth in the debate. We are constantly telling our students, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." In the context of tasting elk lasagna for the first time, I want students to make it a habit to think critically about the technology they use and why, and I need to model that through my own experiences. Not everything is bad, but it isn't all good either. I can't expect students to listen to my thoughts on ethical uses of technology if I'm not constantly tasting what's new out there; trying it for myself rather than making judgements based on conjecture.

So, what was the outcome of the black bean salad and elk lasagna stand-off? Both of the little darlings tried something they hadn't eaten before.  Evy was particularly reluctant to try the black bean salad. In the end, she did have a little bit.  But, by the next day, she was enthusiastically using it as a dip for her tortilla chips. The elk lasagna was a hit... and later we had ice cream.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Engaging With Students

Sam and I began this project with the goal of sharing resources with students, teachers and parents. We have collected and shared via Twitter, Facebook, Diigo, and this site's sidebar many valuable links for folks who'd like to read more about navigating the digital world ethically and responsibly, or would at least like some help talking to their kids about it. It occurs to me, however, that when it comes to writing actual posts for the blog (where we get a chance to develop our thoughts more thoroughly), I can read all the articles I want and summarize them to my heart's content, but what I can actually speak passionately (and knowledgeably) about is my experience with kids every day. Sam has done so recently with her posts about the MockiPEDIA project (1, 2, 3), and I think it is pieces like this, that share actual real-life experiences, that can be most meaningful. As she and I embark upon more projects with students, we are getting better at spotting the teachable moments to address the themes of digital citizenship and making good choices. Our students are so familiar with our mantra now ("Just because you can, doesn't mean you should"), we are hearing actual evidence that they are stopping to THINK before they ACT. YAHOO!

Here is an email Sam and I received from a student last week:
Is it illegal to use YouTube to Mp3 converters to put song on to your iPod? I've done some research, but I haven't found a definite answer.
How great is that? We both had an opportunity to respond, and while Sam went into great detail on the issues of copyright, illegal music downloads, getting permission from the owner, etc., I had only to chime in with, "Everything Ms. Harris said is right." I felt it was important, in addition, to thank this student for contacting us in the first place. She had done some preliminary research on the issue, and when she couldn't find solid advice one way or another, she asked for help. It's exactly what we would have hoped for, and I was so impressed that she took the time to do so.

The second recent example came in the form of a quick email from an 8th grade student who had "heard some things" about how Facebook handles your photos and was concerned about protecting her privacy. Rumors fly through cyberspace at the speed of light, and it seems we can never keep up with all the things for which we should be watching out. In this instance, what impressed me was that this student contacted a trusted adult for help when she wasn't sure what to do. It takes me time to figure out what's accurate and what are false rumors, so I can only imagine the perception of a 13-year-old when confronted with the latest "WARNING" about privacy settings and the sharing of information not intended to be public. It's tricky to navigate all the various settings, and even then, it's tough to know if they are actually working the way you thought they would. When emails and stories start showing up online, or your "friends" post them to your Facebook page to help you out, it's important to take the time to get the facts. But even in this instance, as I looked for evidence to support the claims being made, I came across several years worth of Facebook rumors related to this same topic. So was this just the latest panic about an issue that surfaces at least once a year? Or did something change and this is now a legitimate concern? Our best advice to students is to keep checking their privacy settings on a regular basis. Things change regularly, and we need to be aware of how those changes impact us. Search legitimate news sources for clarification, and do your best to keep yourself in the know. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's not a good excuse for making big mistakes with personal information.

Having said all that, I can't imagine these questions being raised a few years ago. I'm sure the questions existed, but kids weren't asking for our input. However, we have now spent the last two years having some fairly in depth conversations about behavior, online privacy, digital footprints, and making good digital choices. Talking to kids works. Building relationships with them works. Engaging with them at their level, and discussing sometimes uncomfortable topics with them, works... And the best part?

It doesn't feel like work. :)

Friday, May 13, 2011

MockiPEDIA Part 3: What a (crazy, amazing, worthwhile) mess!

Rich teaching and learning experiences are usually messy. They don't come in workbooks or on worksheets. They aren't quiet or reserved and they don't fit within the lines. Sometimes they even involve actual mud. The MockiPEDIA is a mess, but the good, creative, fantastic, fun sort of mess that evolves into an inspired work of art. The MockiPEDIA project is winding down and I'd like to share a few highlights and challenges faced along the way.

First, to get the icky stuff over with, let's talk about the challenges:
1000+ emails   Hundreds of daily emails demanded a chunk of my time each day. I'm not going to lie, it was a daunting task and felt overwhelming more than once. That said, I think the process of email notification of site updates as a tool for tracking student contributions was beneficial. Not only did I have an understanding of how each student was contributing, I also had the opportunity to identify where students were finding success and where they were struggling. The process also gave me a window into the process of working on the project from a student's perspective. Humorous updates were also abundant. I still giggle a bit about a couple of creative phonetic spellings (bi-ass instead of biased) and unintentionally funny wrong-word errors (a scrotum is not an ancient roman battle weapon).
Dealing with the "P" word   I started this project reminding students about good note-taking strategies and some to avoid (no cutting and pasting!) in order to limit instances of plagiarism. Unfortunately, there were incidents when a student copied something word for word, or close to it. Part of me was angry, and the other part of me wondered if there was something different I could have done either in the structure of the project or in the way I managed student contributions. I also worried about the student writing that seemed to be a simple regurgitation of facts rather than an 8th grader's interpretation and explanation.
I identified one teaching misstep right way; students were not required to submit research notes. I made a quick adjustment in the 7th grade project and did require students to submit notes each week as an indicator of progress, but I can see the difference it would have made in the MockiPEDIA with the 8th grade.
In addition to requiring notes for the 8th grade next year, I also plan on demonstrating the pervasiveness of plagiarism is on the Internet by demonstrating how frequently the same paragraph of text is repeated on various web sites. Plagiarism is something that is probably going to happen at times, regardless of the project, but it does remind me how important it is to keep talking with students about strategies to avoid it.

Now, on to the highlights!
Digital citizenship in practice    Watching students navigate a collaborative writing project has been interesting, to say the least. Some handled difficult situations, such as editing the work of a peer or having work deleted, with tact and maturity. Others at times disregarded the impact changes they made would have on the whole project, or on the feelings of a classmate. Rather than consider these incidents challenges, I instead view them as being rich in the possibility to impart wisdom and experience.† Student with concerns were coached on the best strategies to move forward and those that needed it were reminded of their responsibility to the group.
I learned something new every day   One of the best things about this project was that the students drove the direction of the research. Topics they chose to add to the MockiPEDIA were sometimes surprising, always interesting and, at times, intriguing. I learned about historical figures I never new existed and I became fascinated by topics, like the Black Panthers, that got lots of attention.† Students found connections between historic events, people and places without needing to be lectured on it by a teacher. They read much more broadly on the topic of African-American history than they would have had they been stuck with one topic for two weeks.
True collaboration, with all the advantages and speed bumps    Our learning specialist mentioned that some of the students she works with didn't contribute as frequently to the MockiPEDIA because they may were concerned about others seeing work that wasn't polished. I agree! I find myself at times hesitant to comment on blogs, online articles and other social media sites because I'm afraid of what others might think or that I might not communicate clearly the point I'm trying to make. This is a legitimate concern, but one we must overcome to participate in an increasingly digital world.  
A study on Wikipedia found that over 85% of the contributions are from men. This is concerning on a number of levels and is likely true in other areas of participation on the Internet. Life experience tells us that the more we practice something, the more comfortable we are joining in. The students who participated in the MockiPEDIA have an experience they can mine when they run into similar opportunities now and in the future. I'm particularly impressed with a student who struggled to contribute in the beginning. However, once she got started she wrote an article and then found connections between the topics she researched and two others. In the end, she met her point requirements well before the deadline!

To conclude, it is clear, at least in my mind, that the benefits of this project far outweigh the challenges and I'm sure that I'm only touching on some of the benefits here. As the project concludes I plan on getting feedback from students about their challenges and highlights. I hope it will help us build a better project next year (and I really hope they liked it too!).

To read the first two posts on the project, click on the links below:

MockiPEDIA Part 1
MockiPEDIA Part 2

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Bully Project

One of the most anticipated films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, "The Bully Project" premiered on April 23rd. Watch the trailer:


Directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker, Lee Hirsch, The Bully Project is a beautifully cinematic, character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. The Bully Project follows five kids and families over the course of a school year. Stories include two families who have lost children to suicide and a mother awaiting the fate of her 14-year-old daughter who has been incarcerated after bringing a gun on her school bus. With an intimate glimpse into homes, classrooms, cafeterias and principals’ offices, the film offers insight into the often cruel world of the lives of bullied children. As teachers, administrators, kids and parents struggle to find answers, The Bully Project examines the dire consequences of bullying through the testimony of strong and courageous youth. Through the power of their stories, the film aims to be a catalyst for change in the way we deal with bullying as parents, teachers, children and society as a whole.

Bullying behavior has been such a focus in recent months with teen suicides being reported, ongoing discussions about social media and its impact, and from my perspective, just a general feeling that we've all finally hit the point of critical mass, where this is just not acceptable any more. Even our President has spoken out:
“[Let’s] dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not,” said President Obama. “Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it’s not something we have to accept. As parents and students; teachers and communities, we can take steps that will help prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all of our children can feel safe” -President Barack Obama

The Bully Project is just one more movement that has begun toward that end. In these cases, the power of social media is amazing, as so many diverse groups are able to mobilize, share resources, and make a statement. Sam and I continually post resources not just here on the blog, but via our Twitter feed, and now on our own Facebook page (we still need more folks to "Like" our page so we can get a real URL, so your help there would be most appreciated). Utilizing social media, we are able to connect with and follow other organizations that bring you even more information. Please join us!

The Bully Project has a list of some wonderful resources on this page, among them two great articles by Rosalind Wiseman: advice on why you should NOT just tell your child to "ignore the bully," and a great article on empowering bystanders. As you find helpful resources or articles yourself, please share them with us via the comments.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

MockiPEDIA Part 2: 500 emails and counting...

It is now the beginning of the third week of the MockiPEDIA project. To call the last few weeks exciting would be an understatement. The project has taken off and Rob and I have learned a whole lot along the way. Read on and feel free to offer suggestions!

Learning to let go

The most exciting thing about this project is also the most challenging for the instructors. Inherent in constructivist theory is the idea that the creativity, desire and initiative of students be the conductor of learning. In traditional classrooms it is the teacher that controls, leads, sets the pace and doles out knowledge and information. Constructivist theory sees the teacher as facilitator, assisting students as they pose questions, run into road blocks and, in some cases, go bushwhacking through uncharted territory. That said, Rob and I have been teaching for a while and we tried to anticipate areas where students would need some guidelines. Even with this structure the student experience is much farther along the continuum toward constructivism than a typical project.

While monitoring the contributions that students make, sometimes I've been tempted to step in and make suggestions. It is difficult to hold back when I notice an incorrect interpretation of an historical event or research going in what I perceive as the wrong direction. So far, I've usually refrained from offering feedback. One of the goals of this project is to create instances where students must decide when and how to correct each other, provide feedback and work collectively to improve the site. Learning to do this tactfully is an important part of becoming a positive digital citizen. If I step in at every instance I notice an error or problem, I'm denying students the ability to manage themselves and work through the conflicts that can arise when critiquing the work of peers. Rob and I are available for advice, support and suggestions as students bring concerns to us. So far, they have stepped up to the plate and gone beyond initial expectations. Students have handled conflict well and haven't been shy at all about editing the work of their peers, two areas I was fearful would hinder work on the project.

By taking the initiative to move beyond, and deeper, than the initial set of topics we laid out on the site, students have begun to mold the MockiPEDIA into their own creation. I'm learning right along with them as they explore new events, discover little-known historical figures and dive into topics that inspire their inner historical detective. By this time in a typical research unit, I'm trying to help kids fight the effects of topic-fatigue. Instead, I'm happy to report that their interest is still growing. They are also learning about a much broader range of topics than they would have focusing their research in just one area, another goal of the project. Hooray!

Keeping students accountable

To monitor the work completed on the MockiPEDIA site, I've subscribed to changes using Google Apps. Each time a change is made and saved on the site, an email is sent noting the change including any additions and deletions. The email also lists which user made the changes. It's the primary tool we are using to track the work each student contributes to the site. Both the students and I are keeping a list of contributions on a chart, to be compared at the end of the project. So far, the amount of time needed to keep up with all the MockiPEDIA update emails in my box (500 and counting!) has been substantial. In the end, I suspect I'll spend more time managing site updates than I would have spend on a traditional project evaluating research notes and bibliographies at the conclusion of the unit. However, the extra time spent now is allowing me to see each student's progress and when the project is complete, the evaluation (and hours of grading) will be as well.

While I monitor site updates, Rob checks the "live" site to get a picture of the overall state of the MockiPEDIA. This is important because I am typically a few hours to a few days behind the current site status in checking the changes via email. In many cases a problem has already been addressed by the time I've noticed it in an email. I've been able to curtail my need to step in and offer suggestions because students have been handling the situations rather well on their own. Lagging behind them in checking email has actually been beneficial in allowing students time to notice and fix errors.

Which is more important: content creation or editing?

One of the dilemmas Rob and I are facing relates to student accountability. As we expected, some students are drawn to research and writing and others to editing tasks. When we set up the evaluation method for the unit, we took this into account and are requiring students to contribute in a variety of ways to earn points. However, each individual student has a lot of flexibility in how he or she contributes to the site. In a couple of cases, students have taken on the role of editor to a much higher degree and have spent the majority of their time and effort editing the work of their peers. Some of the edits are designed to make the formatting consistent and others focus on word use, sentence structure, grammar and spelling. The question we continue to ask is how important is one type of contribution compared to another. My teacher-gut really wants to emphasize content creation but other types of contributions may be just as valuable. Some students certainly believe so and have put significant effort into "policing" the site.

Will we still be as excited in another week? Stay tuned for next installment - MockiPEDIA Part 3: The Plagiarism Police

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To Kill a MockiPEDIA: An Experiment in Constructivism - Part 1

For the last five years, Rob Scotlan, the eight grade English teacher, and I have been co-teaching a research unit focusing on topics in African American history that contribute to the experiences of the characters in the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Each year, the goal of the project is to go beyond researching a single topic. We achieved this goal, sometimes more successfully than others, by finding ways for the students to share their research with their classmates. When they finish reading the book they use their research and that of their classmates to write an analytical essay incorporating historical context in their analysis. Oral reports, individual and group work, PowerPoint presentations and Moodle tools have been used as research project "products" to try to meet the goal of sharing information and understanding found during the research process. This year, we tried something new, but may have stumbled upon the perfect solution in the process.

One school-week ago we launched To Kill a MockiPEDIA. Using the Google Apps for Education platform adopted this year, and building on skills already learned during a previous research and web site project in 8th grade history, we created a site and invited the entire 8th grade to edit it collaboratively. To give some guidance and to build a framework that would meet the goal of the project, we created a "skeleton" of the site by dividing topics in African American history by eras and adding sub-pages with topics we've used in past years. Students were provided a rubric with a list of different ways to contribute to the site with associated point values and expectations. We want each student to make a variety of contributions to a number of different topics. We expect them to use expert sources, as they would for any research project, and we value quality over quantity. Students will work on the site in class one day each week for the next seven weeks while also reading and discussing the book the rest of the week. Rob and I explained all of this to the students and then set them free...the results so far have been inspiring.

This project, more than any I've worked on before, follows a constructivist model. Rob and I are truly facilitating rather than instructing. Students are making decisions about what topics to research, adding new topics when they deem it necessary, identifying possible incidents of plagiarism, and negotiating speed bumps inherent in any collaborative project. Rob and I are enjoying our roles as advisers and facilitators. Although keeping students accountable and tracking their contributions has necessitated a bit of extra time and effort, the positives have far outweighed any negatives. Students are engaging in a real-world experience that has already created teachable moments in digital citizenship. Today, two students were working on the same topic and discovered information differed depending on the source they used. We discussed how to work through the problem and they decided whether to trust one source over the other or address the discrepancy within the article they were writing. Another student had to decide what to do when a paragraph written about one of the topics sounded very much like something he'd read in an article on a subscription database. Was it plagiarism or an accident and how should it be handled? We've coached all the students to view editing of their work by classmates not as a judgment or criticism, but simply a different perspective that will make the collective product better in the long run.

I plan to post an update each week on the progress of this project and the very similar seventh grade Shakespeare unit, Et Tu, PEDIA? (yes, they are studying Julius Caesar). Wish us luck and join us in our grand experiment. It's been a wild ride so far!

Next week: What we've learned so far and tracking student contributions...

The Impact of Media on our Children

Dimitri Christakis
Seattle Children's Hospital
Media Matters: What Parents Need to Know
Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH
George Adkins Professor of Pediatrics, UW
Director, Center for Child Health, Behavior & Development @ Seattle Children's Research Institute
Attending Pediatrician @ Seattle Children's Hospital

Spring Break was a welcome interruption to the work flow around here, but it's time to get back to business! March 23rd I attended Dr. Christakis' lecture referenced above at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. Though I can't write by hand faster than I can type, I wrote as many notes as I could on some borrowed paper balanced on my knee. This was a fascinating lecture, on a topic near and dear to my heart. Though much of the content was focused on early childhood and predominantly the influence of television, "media" comes in many forms, and I think that much of what was presented will only be exaggerated when we add all forms (besides television) to the mix. So here are my notes, the things I thought worthy of writing down to share. It's going to be presented here as a bullet list of highlights and quotes, and as I read through my own notes, I realize that they are not nearly complete and there are many holes. Some of these can be filled by the links I've added to journals, studies, articles, and the doctor's bio and book. If you have further questions about a particular topic, please leave a comment!

3 things we should get out of the presentation:
  1. Media is a real and powerful influence
  2. Media should be a tool, not a crutch
  3. Don't feel bad or guilty about using it, but use it wisely
Other facts and statistics to consider:
  • in 1950, there were 85 children's programs on television per week, 40% of which had NO ADVERTISEMENTS (can you imagine?)
  • by 1956, 75% of households had a television
  • today, 30-50% of preschoolers have TVs in their bedrooms
  • 1959 - 25 prime time kid shows per week
  • 1960 - rise of Saturday morning cartoons
  • 1970 - 75% of all programming is now on the weekends
  • Childhood has been "technologized" - in 1970 kids started watching TV around the age of 4, today it is at 4 months of age
  • "Media can have a profound impact, both good and bad."
  • the brain TRIPLES in size from birth to 2 years (how does exposure to media at early ages affect this development? Dr. Christakis is known for his studies on Baby Einstein videos and their detrimental affect on language acquisition)
  • ADHD currently affects 10% of US children
  • though ADHD certainly has a genetic component, Dr. Christakis' team conducted research based on the following hypothesis: preconditioning the mind to expect high levels of stimulation at early ages will lead to inattention in later life. Evidence supports this hypothesis.
  • boys are more affected by violence on TV than girls are
  • 100% of G-rated animated films contain violence
  • "All television is educational television...the question is, what is it teaching?"
  • TEENS: higher functioning is the last area of the brain to develop
  • planning, impulse control, and judgment are not developed yet
  • teens rely on the emotional rather than rational part of their brains
  • sexual scenes on TV have doubled since 1998
  • TV provides teens "scripts" for language and behavior. 50% of 10-13 year olds think that alcohol commercials depict real life
  • Develop a strategic plan: what do you want to get from media? What do you NOT want to get?
So this is what I wrote down amidst charts and graphs, video clips of Mr. Rogers and SpongeBob Squarepants, clever cartoons, and clever rats and mice exposed to media in the lab. My notes clearly attest that I'm spectacularly bad at multitasking (in this case, listening and writing at the same time), particularly when the content is moving quickly. So what to make of it all? Well, the quote in red above gets to the heart of the matter. Be aware of what your children are watching or where they are spending their time online. Watch television with them, so you have the opportunity to process what they are seeing, what messages they receive, how advertising is targeted at them, how television depicts violence, sex, relationships and conflict resolution.

Though Dr. Christakis didn't mention it, I would like to point you to Common Sense Media, a site that allows you to look up reviews and ratings for popular television shows, books, movies, music, apps, websites and video games.

Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology.

We exist because our nation's children spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school, which profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and physical development . As a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, we provide trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume.
What I like about Common Sense Media is that it doesn't just provide the ratings and reviews; it also provides "talking points" around which families can discuss these things at the dinner table. For example, here's one review for a popular Disney Channel show, recommended for kids age 9 and up:

This review of The Suite Life on Deck was written by Emily Ashby
Parents need to know that, like its popular parent series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, this show is filled with content that's bound to entertain tweens but might leave parents rolling their eyes. The largely unsupervised teen characters engage in lots of mischief, discipline is virtually nonexistent, and no problem arises that can't be solved by the time the credits roll. One of the twins is pretty flirty and makes mildly suggestive comments, while another main character constantly gloats over her family's wealth and uses money and expensive gifts to control her peers -- her manipulations are played for laughs, of course, but they're still grating. Tween fans may need to be reminded that little of what they're seeing is relatable to most people's reality.
As a parent who notices the unsupervised teens and nonexistent discipline, I definitely fall into the eye-rolling category. Attached to the review, however, is this:
Talk to your kids about the media in their life. We have more tools and tips that can help
  • Families can talk about how real life differs from Zack and Cody's world. How is their lifestyle like a fantasy? Do they ever seem affected by anything serious -- like money, illness, or family struggles?
  • Kids: Do you ever worry about those things? Is there any part of Zack and Cody's life that you can relate to?
  • Tweens: Do you think you'd enjoy living in another country? If so, where would you go?
Television provides so many opportunities for conversation, sharing and learning. If our kids are watching it on their own, we are missing those opportunities.

More to come on this topic!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Words Matter: Bullying terminology and its effects on the conversation

Bullying is a loaded term. It is defined differently depending on circumstances, the role a person plays in an incident, age and experience. It can also be polarizing and a conversation-ender. How then do we discuss bullying without destroying the dialogue before it starts? In a recent student survey we chose to get at the issues surrounding bullying by asking questions using a variety of terms and circumstances. Instead of only asking if a student had experienced cyberbullying, we also asked if he or she had ever gotten in an argument using technology. In addition, we asked if students had ever teased others using technology or if they had been embarrassed, upset or uncomfortable by something that occurred online. What was most striking in our survey results, was that the more vaguely we defined the behavior, the more kids admitted to having experienced it. "Have you ever been bullied online?" received a 9% response in the affirmative. But watch the numbers grow for our other questions:
  • Have you ever made fun of, harassed, or messed with someone by email, text, etc 16%
  • Have you ever received an email, text, IM or comment that made you angry, hurt, embarrassed or upset? 37%
  • Have you ever gotten in an argument via text, email, online, etc? 47%.

Now, does getting in an argument constitute bullying? Not necessarily. And in virtually every classroom where we presented our survey results, there was visible discomfort in the kids when the word "bullying" came up. We got several comments like, "what do you MEAN by bullying?" What is it? For the past several months in the media, much has been shared about the extreme consequences of unchecked bullying, and we have had the sad misfortune of hearing seemingly endless reports of teen suicides and criminal consequences for extreme behavior. However, when talking to our 8th graders, for example, we wanted them to think not just about the end result of bullying in these cases, but all the little steps that led to such tragic consequences. How does bullying start? How do we recognize it?  If statistics that say "less than 50% of kids who are bullied will tell an adult" are correct, how do we help our kids reach out to those that can help them when they are unable to handle it on their own?

Looking at the broader issue of relational aggression is one way to approach modeling and teaching skills to young people. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors of the book Nurture Shock have written extensively about parenting methods relating to relational aggression (see Chapter 9).  Modeling ways to handle conflict between adults is an important step. I think we can all agree that the saying, "do as I say, not as I do," simply isn't realistic. If we handle conflicts in ways that promote problem solving, civility and respect, young people will be more likely to do the same.

Discussing issues surrounding bullying before they occur is another method that works. We would never wait to explain the proper way to cross the street until someone was injured. We explain and demonstrate and role play with young people all the time. We can do the same with bullying. Talk about the different roles in a potential bullying incident. Discuss the smaller incidents that might lead to bullying, and don't label an argument, a mean email or text as bullying immediately. Those smaller incidents might combine to create a situation that warrants the label, but even if they don't, students need to know how to react. Role play with young people strategies for handling situations if they are a victim, accused of bullying and, most importantly, a bystander. Knowing what to do as a bystander and feeling empowered to do something about it may be one of the most important skills we can teach. It is almost always the case that a peer can influence behavior more rapidly than that of an adult.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Teachable Moments: Building Good Digital Citizens

I'm sharing with you today my own "teachable moments" in hopes that it will help you think about some of these topics as they arise in your classroom (or in your home). As you know, our focus here has been the concepts of digital citizenship, ethics, and responsibility. Another focus of mine has been the development of a curriculum for our students, in all grades, that address these topics. This is an ongoing process, and though I am developing lessons that could stand on their own, I believe we need to embed the concept of digital citizenship in everything we do with students. When teachable moments arise, jump on them!

I have the privilege of teaching 3rd graders once a week, and they amaze me with their skill, adaptability, and fearless approach to using technology. But they're 9 years old. How much life experience do they have? How capable are they of seeing the long-term consequences of their actions? It is my job to help guide them in the digital world and get them to think about some of these things. And I will continue to do so until they are sick of me, or they get the message. For the next 9 years. :)

For the last few weeks we have been teaching the kids how to use Comic Life. I began with a simple poster project, asking them to design a poster of themselves to accomplish a couple of things:
  • how does Comic Life work?
  • what are all the features I can use?
  • how do I take pictures of myself to use in the comics?
  • WHY would I choose to use Comic Life (or a comic format) instead of a simple document? what are the benefits? limitations?
The project requirements were designed to get them exploring all the features of the software: use a template, create a text banner with your name, include 6 images of yourself, 1 thought or speech bubble, 5 descriptive adjectives about you, comic effect applied to at least one photo, and color effects. Today, after assessing what they turned into me last week, I asked them what THEY thought the purpose of the assignment was. First response? "To have fun!" I love these kids, because they make teaching fun. Of course, that wasn't the point, but "Did you have fun?" I asked. "YES!" Mission accomplished. What else, I asked? Believe it or not, when given time to process and think about it, they were able to elaborate, to think about the project more deeply and reflect on what they had actually learned. They mentioned everything in my list above. Now it was time to share with them a hidden purpose most teachers have...measuring a student's ability to follow all the directions.

Upon reviewing what was turned in, and assessing them based on the checklist, I did not have one student who did everything I asked of them. TEACHABLE MOMENT #1. Why not? What happened during the process that got us off course? What decisions did we make along the way that led us to forget some of what was required? This part of the conversation was skillfully led by the kids' homeroom teacher, and when we got back to revising and editing our work, each student had their checklist beside them and worked a little harder to make sure, step by step, that they had met all the requirements. Now, I could have let it slide, because the kids actually did learn to use Comic Life. Their posters, even in an unfinished form, demonstrated that. But why have standards and expectations if you're not going to hold your students to them? What message does that send? "I expect this of you, but if you don't really do it that's okay." Huh? From that perspective, it's not okay. So I wanted to give them time to finish thoroughly and turn in their very best work.

As I assessed their work the first time, I started to notice a few things that fell into the digital citizenship category as well. A few students chose adjectives to describe themselves like dumb, evil, demented, and dead. Placed next to snapshots where they made some silly faces, some of these descriptors made a little sense. But...TEACHABLE MOMENT #2. In addition to the purpose of the assignment, let's step back for a moment and consider our audience. Who will read these? What is the message we are trying to send? We chatted a bit about the words we use online, and what they might mean to those who don't know us personally. It was my intention to publish their posters on our class website, so theoretically, anyone in the world might see them. While I found each poster engaging, entertaining, funny, and representative of their level of humor, how would a stranger (or your grandma , or the headmaster, or a visiting family) interpret the words you used to describe yourself? Is that the image you want to portray to the world? I get the joke, because I have a personal relationship with each of these kids. But to the average viewer, they might not understand the words a child chooses, in humor, to describe a picture of him or herself. And my 9-year-olds had certainly never thought about anyone looking at these other than me (though I told them I'd publish them online). Clearly, the bigger concepts of publishing to an authentic audience, choosing words that help build your positive digital footprint, and being careful about what you say about yourself are things we will discuss over and over as they grow and mature. But man, was I grateful to have an opportunity to start the conversation now. For a simple project, designed to introduce a new tool and help kids get familiar with it (for use on a more academic project for their class), the built-in lessons in digital citizenship were amazing. And the 9 year olds got it. At least today.

I'm not sure a few years ago I would have seen it the same way, nor might I have taken the time to really talk about it to the kids during a one-hour class in which so much needs to be covered. But I could not ignore what was staring me in the face, and in fact, this project provided me the perfect opportunity to engage them in a meaningful conversation about digital behavior. Consider your audience. Think before you act. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Sneaky, huh?

One more thing...this exercise also gave them one last chance to work on their grammar and spelling before publication. :) Bonus.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bookmark list for parents

The service I once used to collect resources and bookmarks from the web, Delicious, will soon be gone, and I have been searching for a replacement. I have decided to use a cloud-based service called Diigo, where I can not only bookmark my favorite resources, I can add annotations, notes, and highlight portions of the text, and share them all with you. This is the first attempt at publishing a list of bookmarks for you to peruse, as I'm still working out the setup. I have collected hundreds of bookmarks, and have been categorizing them to put into lists. Below are the contributions thus far to my "Parents" list. The Delicious menu in the sidebar has gone away, replaced by the five most current bookmarks in Diigo. You can always click the Diigo badge and see my entire collection of resources for parents, students AND teachers, or you can just look over the ones I specially mark for parents. Even better, if you visit the list, you can subscribe to its feed, so every time I add a new resource, it will automatically come to you!
Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.