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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thank you, Lowell Elementary!

Sam and I had the privilege of presenting to the Lowell Elementary PTA this evening, and some guests from other neighboring schools. We are so appreciative of a receptive audience, great questions, and issues to ponder as we all work to raise our kids in the digital world. The slide presentation is embedded below, and I've added some quick links to other resources shared. Thanks so much for having us!


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Gary Kovacs Ted Talk: "Tracking the Trackers"

Browser add-ons or extensions:
Simple Profanity Filter (for Chrome)
Ghostery (identify and block trackers)
Lightbeam (for Firefox)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Digital Citizenship Resources

CSM + Edutopia =  AWESOME!
We have a lot of resources listed in our sidebar to the right, and we hope you will check them out! Two new additions at which you should definitely take a look...

Common Sense Media has teamed up with Edutopia to curate a Digital Citizenship board on Pinterest.  Yahoo! You now have two educational powerhouses contributing their expertise on these very important topics. And since it's Pinterest, it's presented in a fun, visually engaging way. It's easy to spot good posters, infographics, or images that you can share with kids.

Another new addition to the resource list is A Platform for Good. PFG's About Us page could have been written by us! It's right up our alley:
Our vision for A Platform for Good is to start a dialogue about what it means to participate responsibly in a digital world. While recognizing the potential risks, we will celebrate technology as a vehicle for opportunity and social change. We hope to achieve this goal by providing parents and teachers with the resources to learn about and interact with new technologies, and by giving teens the ability to engage and teach their peers, family members, and educators. Through this approach, we hope to encourage good digital citizenship, responsible online behavior, and the use of technology for positive change and making a difference.
 Explore the site, visit its resource center, and tailor your results for parents, teachers, or teens.
Screen Shot of A Platform for Good
As we all know, the internet can feel like a firehose of information, and we just want someone to help us slow it to a manageable trickle. To that end, we try to share the best resources we can find. Have a suggestion? Leave us a comment!

Monday, September 30, 2013

What the Scrap is Digital Citizenship?

A new school year has begun, and the very best parts of my job are back in the classroom with me on a regular basis. As a technology specialist, I spend my time with kids in grades 3 through 9 teaching technical skills, finding great ways to incorporate technology into curricular projects, and best of all, really getting to spend time talking to kids about what it means to participate in our digital world.

Though it's quite easy nowadays to do a quick Google search and find millions of results for this term to help us grasp the concept, creating authentic experiences for our students (or your kids) to actually practice digital citizenship is essential for true understanding to take place. Horror stories abound depicting all the negative consequences of unchecked social media, including cyberbullying, sexting, hate speech, ruined reputations, poor decision-making and the like. Far too often we read stories of adults who have relinquished their responsibility in this realm by writing technology off as something "they don't get."  Well, Sam and I can tell you that the more we work with kids and digital tools, the more we talk to them about behavior. You don't have to "get it" to talk to your kids about the kind of people they are growing up to be. Behavior isn't really about technology at's about the choices we make. Technology just gives us more opportunities to make choices, and sometimes, unfortunately, those choices have bigger consequences because they create a digital trail.

So how do we talk to kids about this in a way that makes sense to them? I've learned, sometimes the hard way, that talking isn't enough. Kids need PRACTICE. But they also need language that they can understand and remember. With my youngest students, I explain to them that technology vocabulary is like learning a new language. Words that mean something in our daily usage of English have a different meaning when it comes to computers. Take the word "menu," for example. When I ask them to find a particular menu,  I'm not asking them to order me an entrée, amirite? If we need to find something in the dock, I'm not talking about a place you tie up boats.

Thank you technologyrocksseriously!
Language matters!

Last year, when we solicited advice for youngsters from our 8th graders, many groups responded with something like, "Think before you post online."  GREAT advice, right? But what does that actually mean? Think about what? How do I stop and think about the future impact of my decisions when I'm not developmentally able or ready to do that? Looking for help, I found this great infographic from a generous and sharing educator. Breaking down what it means to "think" into smaller elements, and a series of questions that kids could easily understand and answer, helped them get it. And this year? They've seen the posters and read the words, and when I ask them what Digital Citizenship is, they say, "THINK!"

I love that.

So knowing that this whole acronym thing works pretty well with kids, and that I have a new group of bright young minds to introduce to Digital Citizenship, we went back to the drawing board with our official definition.  I shared this with my 3rd graders:

Being a good "digital citizen" means using technology...
  • safely
  • responsibly
  • critically
  • productively
We will spend a great deal of time picking this apart and really figuring out what each part of the definition means in practice, but first we need to remember the words. So let me share the genius of one particular student in this introductory phase.  Having seen the T.H.I.N.K. poster, she looked at my definition of Digital Citizenship and said, "You know, the letters in that almost spell SCRAP." Indeed they do, so we quickly did a little adjusting:

Being a good "digital citizen" means using technology...
  • Safely
  • Critically
  • Responsibly
  • And
  • Productively
I feel another cool poster coming on...

Of course, I still need to figure out some brilliant metaphor for SCRAP in the digital world. The definition doesn't easily lend itself to my cause.

If you have an idea, please share! But for now, we're going with it. Kids tend to remember safe and responsible pretty easily, but we need to really dig into critical and productive to find all the great ways we can use technology for our own learning and to make the world a better place. If SCRAP helps, so be it. 

That's my little scrap for you.  (I tried...)

Monday, July 22, 2013

This Is Not Trayvon Martin

This is not a picture of Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on February 26th, 2012:
An image of the rapper Game, not Trayvon Martin
Neither is this:
An image reported to be of a different person also named Trayvon Martin,

Both photographs have been used in countless blogs, status updates, chain emails and tweets as evidence that the 17-year old was complicit in his own death and much more sinister and threatening than his portrayal in the "liberal media." The fact that a 17-year old black kid in a hoodie is considered even remotely sinister is clear evidence that we are not in a "post-racial" America, but that's a discussion for another time. I want to talk about the power of images and the responsibility we share in communicating accurate, truthful and ethical information. 

It took me exactly 30 seconds, using an article on, to determine that the images I saw all over Facebook, some blogs and other media sources, were not actually of Trayvon.  Also not true is the assertion that the most frequently used image of Trayvon is five years old. That image was only taken six months before his death, prior to the beginning of the 2011/2012 school year.  

So, what's the big deal?

Images are powerful. They convey intense emotions and some of the most compelling have become symbols of major events in our history. A man standing alone in front of a tank? Tiananmen Square. A young boy standing in front of his family saluting a casket? The funeral of President John F. Kennedy. A woman, dust blown and haggard, sitting with her cowering children? The dust bowl and Great Depression. Images really are worth a thousand words. It's because of their power that their misuse is irresponsible, and when we re-post, share and forward images we haven't taken the time to consider with a critical eye, we are complicit in this irresponsibility.

It's true that posted a correction to the article that first shared false photos of Trayvon Martin, but the damage was already done. Those looking for a reason to fault Trayvon in his own death, or to promote the opinion that George Zimmerman acted in self defense, latched on to the photos as proof that Trayvon was dangerous. They shared them on Facebook and forwarded the images in emails. They 'liked' posts and photoshopped comparisons between Mr. Zimmerman and a supposedly older Mr. Martin. The people that used these inaccurate images of Trayvon Martin as evidence, contributed negatively to an already heated national debate.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but in the world of social media, posting inaccurate, extreme, or unethical images is commonplace. Images are used for bullying (drama, general meanness, etc.); they are used to generate 'likes' (like this is if you care about ______, scroll down if you are a jerk);  they are re-posted without permission, sometimes creating conflict even when the intention is benign  (Hey, look at this picture I posted of your awkward phase in middle school!). You can find an image of almost anything using a Google image search and then that image can be downloaded, shared, modified, re-shared, tweeted, posted, emailed and more. Should you like and re-post an image of a soldier tearfully reuniting with her family?  It depends, and we should take a moment to consider our intent, the impact on others (did the family want the photo shared in the first place?), and whether the image is of what we actually think it is.

There are many ethical issues to consider when it comes to images, and Holly and I have had some lively discussions with our students about some of them. Young people wonder if and when they should be asking permission to post photos of their friends. They think about what an image says about their values and character. While working on documentary-style projects, they've been asked to use a critical eye when deciding whether images should be used purely for shock value - a consideration I wish both our mainstream media and everyday social networking users would devote some time towards.

So, what do we do about it?

Step 1: Use a critical eye, even if it was posted by your very, very best friend/sibling/parent. If it seems shocking or too good to be true, do a little fact-checking before you "like" it. and are helpful, but a simple Google search will usually root out controversy and almost-truths. I'll also add that with the abundance of random pages now on Facebook, if you aren't sure who the original poster was, it's a good idea to do a little investigating before you "like."

Step 2: Use experts to back you up. This is the single most important skill I hope my Middle Schoolers gain during their years of academic research. Experts come in all shapes and sizes. They're newspaper reporters and eye witnesses, they're doctors and lawyers, they're Master Gardeners (shout out to my sister, Amy McIntyre at the Idaho Statesman), they're authors of books and peer-reviewed journals and they're easier to find than you think. Before you voice your opinion, make sure the sources informing you are accurate and you've taken bias into consideration.

Step 3: Talk about it. Your teen "liked" an image on Facebook that makes you uncomfortable? Discuss it. You're about to post photos from your family reunion? Ask your family (and kids) permission before you do and tell them why you're asking. You just listened to pundits talk about photos of Trayvon Martin again? Start a conversation about what images do and don't tell us about people.

Perhaps if enough of us take these steps, we'll slow the spread of misinformation, or at least help build good habits for ourselves and our families so that a critical eye can become the first defense against bias and propaganda.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Gender Issues, part 5 - The Merida Makeover, Ignorance, Trigger Warnings, and pretty much everything in my life (right now)

This will be the final post in the Gender Issues series (see 1, 2, 3, 4 if you need to catch up) for several reasons. One, when I began writing back in February, I chose the most boring title on earth, and when I write about this in the future, I'll come up with something more relevant and snazzy. Two, I am so overwhelmed by my own thoughts and emotions since I opened this Pandora's box of topics that I need to do more reading, thinking, and processing. Friends and family currently ask, "What are you up to?" and I launch into a meandering diatribe of a billion different issues (all having to do with gender roles and stereotypes, mind you) that leave me feeling scattered, like I haven't found my own "personal thesis statement" on all this yet. You may experience this in a minute...sorry. I want some clarity. Third, though there is never really a "break" from reality, I need to step away from some of this for a while and concentrate on other projects. The end of a school year is never a leisurely respite, and my attention is needed elsewhere. However, since I can't stop being a female human, I will continue to read, watch, listen to, and digest the many resources I have found over the last few months. Just with less fervor.

So let me wrap up some loose ends...


the Disneyfication of an anti-Princess
I mentioned in my last post the controversial Merida makeover launched by Disney in the lead up to her coronation into the Disney Princess Hall of Fame. One has only to Google "Merida Makeover" to see the response out there. Most important to me, however, was the reaction of my students, since most of them have seen the movie and many were fans of the character. I began with a brief review of our lesson on altering images and why it's done or for what purpose. When I unveiled the Merida before and after shots, the response was overwhelmingly negative. "WHYYYYYYYYYY DID THEY DO THAT!?" Big ugh.

What was wrong with the original Merida? Why did she have to change to fit into the Disney brand? Upon further reflection, one student actually made the observation that Merida's entire character was changed by this makeover. What she looks like fundamentally changed who she is. I found this to be an interesting point to explore, particularly since Merida was changed into something her character in the movie actively did NOT want to be, which was a princess-y princess.  This led to an interesting back and forth about our appearance and what it says about the kind of person we are. (Dress codes are another hot topic lately, but that's for another post) I pointed out that I changed my clothes and looks to come to school in the morning...I wouldn't show up for work straight out of bed still in my pajamas.  Does that change who I am on the inside? No, they responded.  So why or how is this different? The kids were quick to point out that this characterization of Merida was more than a simple change of clothing and the addition of makeup. The movie Merida hated that dress and getting all "done up" out of obligation to her familial and royal status. This dramatic change stripped that spunky, independent part of her character away and made her into the mold of a proper Disney princess.

Overall, I'd say the big reaction from the kids was disappointment and wonder at why it even happened in the first place. I'm impressed that they have begun to question motives. Though it felt strange to be discussing the digital alteration of a cartoon character, they could see clear parallels between this and the magazine covers of real people we had analyzed in the Picture Perfect lesson. Why does the media insist on presenting these "idealized" images of people? Will the money-making juggernaut that is the Disney Princess collection finally bend to the pressure of activists pushing for change? [To its credit (maybe) Disney has acknowledged the controversy, and a few changes have actually been made.] For an interesting take on the potential role of the Disney Corporation as leaders for change, read this post by the Girl's CEO Connection.

The Luxury of Ignorance

Gary Howard with Benjie Howard and Maketa Wilborn
Our Diversity Committee brought the New Wilderness Project (Benjie & Maketa, right) to our school this year for a wonderful inservice day of learning and sharing. The founders of this group are the sons of Gary Howard, author of We Can't Teach What We Don't Know. They asked us how the dynamics of dominance show up in our school culture, and to really dig in, they provided a framework for discussion around three key concepts:

  1. The Legacy of Privilege
  2. The Assumption of Rightness
  3. The Luxury of Ignorance
In the face of our past and present, many white Americans simply choose to remain unaware, a luxury uniquely available to members of any dominant group. (Howard, 2003)
Though Mr. Howard's work is predominantly focused on race, the idea of the "dominant culture" certainly applies to everyday sexism. The luxury of ignorance concept has stayed with me in the months following our inservice day, and I keep coming back to it again and again. Those who don't  experience sexism, or racism, or any -ism, have the luxury of not being acutely aware of the problem. They do not see it. This doesn't automatically make them bad people, but it means they cannot be fully aware and understanding of a challenge that they never experience. I'm grateful for the reminder of how ignorant I have been about many things. I absolutely have this luxury as a privileged white person. I also have this privilege as a woman in many regards. I certainly have the luxury of ignorance if we start talking about sexual violence and abuse. Having not experienced those things myself, I was ignorant to the need for a *TRIGGER WARNING label on certain stories, videos, or images in the media. I have seen more trigger warnings than I care to count lately. They are designed to let people know that sensitive or graphic content could trigger very deep and powerful feelings in them, particularly if they've been victims of assault or aggression. Though I am saddened that such a thing is necessary, I respect its power, and the bravery of people who continue to work toward justice for others despite what wounds they may carry.

Humor or Hate Speech?
My work as an educator and a technology specialist often leads me toward stories involving social media and its use by and impact on our kids. The most recent trigger-warning-worthy story has involved a social media campaign to call out Facebook's misogyny problem. The trigger warning is on the story, but I'll throw it in here as well. In asking Facebook to more clearly define and enforce its own content moderation policies, people have been pressuring companies to stop advertising on Facebook until pages that depict graphic and sexual violence against women are taken down. The content allowed, often times in the name of "humor," is utterly shocking and disgusting, so be warned if you choose to take a look. How much of this extremely graphic content do our kids see? I have no idea. But they are confronted with the more subtle references to gender roles in our culture every single day.  Do you recognize and acknowledge it when you see it? Via social media, our kids share, on a massive scale, that which they deem to be shocking or funny. The blatant misogyny called out by WAM is so far from humorous it is being labeled "hate speech." But it was long before this campaign began that I saw "date rape humor" floating around online, and in real life as I am reminded once again of the "it's not rape if you like it" comment I heard a year ago.

I am happy to report that Facebook has finally acknowledged the problem in its standards and is revamping its policies on content filtering.

If you follow this link to Women, Action, and the Media, you will see something amazing. Within a week, this campaign worked. Several companies (whose ads showed up on some of these horrendous pages unbeknownst to them) responded to the boycott and pulled their advertising to pressure Facebook into action.  This is social activism at its finest, people! And social media, through a massive Twitter campaign as well as direct appeals to Facebook, made it possible. Technology can be used for good every bit as powerfully (and hopefully more so) than it can be used to spread hateful and shaming messages. The trolls don't win if we don't let them.

Bottom Line 

I have woken up. Though I have been aware of sexism, discrimination, sterotypes, gender roles, and media portrayals for a long time (and even experienced some shocking street harassment myself recently), I guess I've finally hit my tipping point and acknowledged my own ignorance. I'm more actively educating myself and sharing my thoughts with others. I'm not willing to sit silently any more, nor am I willing to fear being labeled a "crazy feminist." Bring it on. Feminism is not a bad word, and any label that suggests I care deeply about human rights is fine by me. I care about this, I can do something about it, and it is absolutely my responsibility to do so. This writing series began out of a reaction to things happening around me and my perceived need to address it for the sake of my children and my students navigating the difficult social landscape of the digital world. [In fact, it began with an article entitled, "To my male relatives on Facebook who 'like' sexism."] It became, however, an intensely personal journey of discovery that I am sure to be on for the rest of my life.

Join me.

(By the way, I'm still keeping track of resources on the Gender/Social Health Pinterest board. Please send suggestions my way!)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gender Issues, part 4 - Picture Perfect

I've been using Common Sense Media's Gender and Digital Life Toolkit with my 3rd graders this year. We spent a couple of weeks studying a unit called "Selling Stereotypes," where we looked at advertising specifically marketed to either girls or boys. You can read the full story here, but the gist of it was that the kids spotted the stereotypes fairly easily. The interesting part came in trying to figure out how we feel about it and why it happens in the first place. The Lego lesson resources were brilliant in this regard because it was so easy to spot the stereotypes in them.  But where else are our children "sold" an image of something that requires a critical eye?

Real or fake?
The second lesson in the unit, called "Picture Perfect," asks the essential question, How can photos be changed on the computer, and how can that affect our feelings about the way we look? The second half of that question is much deeper and more abstract, so before we got into that part, we started by simply looking at an image.

Take a look at the lemon on the right.  While it was projected on the screen, I asked the kids, "Is it real or fake? How can you tell?" This discussion actually took a little longer than I thought it would. Though it probably looks like a complete fake to most of us, not everyone was convinced. I showed it to the kids two ways, first without the caption underneath and then I revealed the caption to see if that changed anyone's mind. The words definitely made a difference in whether or not we felt like we were being manipulated, and the conclusion many drew was that we should try it ourselves to test whether or not it is even possible. Hilarious results below...

What I loved about this exercise was that we started with an image that was altered for artistic purposes--not a person, just a pretty lemon. It's a beautiful picture, isn't it? The initial response from kids was, "That's cool!" Photos can be altered to create things that could otherwise exist only in our imagination.

Once the caption was revealed, however, the skepticism creeped in. Is that really possible with food coloring? We became motivated to test it ourselves. My Results = Yikes! I withstood a few accusations of "I really think you could have been more careful, Ms. Gerla," but after this, we felt pretty comfortable with our conclusion that the Colorful Lemon Visual was fake. It's still a cool picture all by itself, but reading the caption made us feel manipulated.

Now it was time to turn to advertising and the photo manipulation that occurs all the time. Altered images are commonplace, in fact the norm, in visual advertising, and this can range from simple touch ups to extensive alteration. So, if we spend all of our time looking at people who don't actually exist in real life, how does that make us feel about the way we look? Or how we should look? The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has been going on for several years now, and you may have recently seen the viral video where they had a forensic artist draw portraits of women from their own descriptions of themselves and then from someone else's description of them. I suppose this represents the end result of distorted views on beauty...women highlight all their flaws and don't see themselves as beautiful. But I'm dealing with 8 and 9 year olds here, who hopefully don't care too much about that yet. So we watched the original "Evolution" video (which we also share with our 8th graders every year when they're about to start their Photoshop unit in Art class).

Interestingly, before I showed them the video, I was walking around holding my papers for this unit and they spotted the photo below on the back, so I projected it:
They had NO IDEA that the girl in Photo 1 was the same person in Photo 2. Of course that is the point of the whole exercise, so we were definitely on the right track. Simply making them aware of the alterations is an important first step in being a critical consumer of media. How often are we being sold something that isn't real? What is the billboard at the end of the video even advertising? If I buy the beauty products being sold here, will I look like this model? Once her neck got digitally stretched out and her eyes reached inhuman proportions, most of the kids thought she looked pretty creepy. I agree. One student even noticed that once the digital alterations were done, her ears were in the completely wrong place (I had never noticed that in 5 years of viewing this video). So where do beauty ideals come from? Why is this done to someone who looked just fine in the first place? Does it happen to men, too? 

[I should note here that there is a corresponding video of a male model, but it's longer (about 4 minutes) and he appears shirtless, so I opted not to use it in the elementary classroom.]

real life
magazine cover
cover vs. real life
We then looked at images of magazine covers compared to images of the people featured in real-life. Singer Kelly Clarkson was featured, as well as tennis star Andy Roddick. In pairs, the kids compared these images and answered a few questions about the type of products they might expect to see advertised in these magazines, what kind of messages the magazine covers send about how men/boys and women/girls should look, and how they might feel about themselves after looking at these magazines. The first two questions were challenging, but doable. I'm not sure they were ready for that last question, however. Answers varied, and may have been written down AFTER a group discussion to share ideas and help clarify, but here are two samples.

One pair of boys struggled to answer "How might a boy or a man feel about himself after looking at this magazine?" It really is hard to conceptualize and imagine how others feel, so I changed the question a litte bit.  "How do you think Andy Roddick felt when he saw that picture of himself?"  I mean, here you have a world-class athlete in the best physical shape a person can be in, yet they had to bulk him up for the magazine cover. The boys responded at the same exact time, "I bet he didn't like it/I bet he felt awesome!" 

In fact, here's what Andy Roddick thought:
The tennis player Andy Roddick apparently thought that his biceps had been enlarged so conspicuously in the photograph of himself on the cover of Men’s Fitness that he mocked it on his blog, In an entry posted Tuesday, Mr. Roddick wrote that he was “pretty sure I’m not as fit as the Men’s Fitness cover suggests” and “little did I know I have 22-inch guns,” referring to his biceps. He also noted that a prominent birthmark on his right arm had been erased. (NYTimes)
 Meanwhile, for Kelly Clarkson, Self editors said they altered her image to make her "look her personal best." Well, one reader responded:
"Taking out red eye and airbrushing a pimple would be making her look her personal best. You completely changed the way her body looked. Why even bother asking Kelly Clarkson to pose in your magazine if you didn't think her body fit into your idea of what was best?" (People)
I don't know precisely what impact all the airbrushing and altering has on kids who see these things everywhere.  It has certainly influenced my own thoughts on "beauty" and what is "ideal" in our culture. The lesson itself is designed to point out the correlation between what we are shown constantly and the impact it can have on our self-image. While that concept might be beyond a 3rd grader's understanding, I at least want to help them learn to look at things with a more critical eye. And not just images! Our 4th graders are currently debating whether or not chocolate milk is good for you, as they tackle a writing unit on argument essays. They are seeing/hearing/reading so many conflicting opinions, distorted facts, and biased arguments made on both sides. Through articles, radio broadcasts, and videos, we are asking them to wade through several different resources. How do they know what's real? How do we get them to the point of considering the source of information and the motivation behind it? This idea of being critical is imperative to their processing and research. And it is a skill that will serve them well far beyond the walls of school.

For now, I'm excited to share the latest "altered image" controversy with my students in a few days. Disney is elevating Merida, from the movie "Brave," to official princess status. So she got a makeover. UGH. Why, Disney, WHY?? Was this really necessary? (petition to "Keep Our Hero Brave" already underway at

Friday, May 3, 2013

Gender Issues, part 3 - Girl Rising, Rape Culture, Modern-Day Feminism

In case you missed them, here are parts 1 and 2. And here's a direct link to the Gender/Social Health board on Pinterest where we've been posting more resources.

Long story short, about a year ago, I spent the day with a small group of middle school-age girls, and I overheard something that I wish I hadn't. "It isn't rape if you like it," one casually tossed out there, while laughing about something completely unrelated. Giggled responses. Horrified me. I froze... shocked. Did that really just happen? Did she say what I think she said? I was paralyzed. And what's worse? I said nothing.

Girl Rising
Fast forward a year. The full dive into issues of gender stereotypes, media portrayals, advertising, "slut shaming,"victim blaming, and rape culture has left me reeling. I am a feminist...I'm not ashamed to admit it. As I mentioned in part 1, my gender undoubtedly brings bias to my writing because this is the point of view through which I experience the world. I am raising two daughters, so I care deeply about the way they see themselves and the way the world tells them they should see themselves. I am perpetually aware of the influence I have in this department, and I am doing my best to set a good example (FYI, it's extremely HARD). Opening the fire hose of information that is the internet makes it hard to slow things to a trickle and speak or write clearly on one particular topic. There are so many branches and paths to follow! But here is where my mind has wandered lately, what I've watched, read, or listened to, and here's what I have learned along the way. I realize my parenting style is different from others, and everyone needs to make the best choices for their families. You are the ones who know your own children best, and you wish to instill in them the values you hold dear. I only share my experience in the hopes that it might help make a few difficult conversations a bit easier to face. I also selfishly need to write this down so I can learn from it.

With a huge desire in my heart to raise two strong and confident girls, I took them to see Girl Rising, a documentary film that highlights the lives of 9 different girls from different countries around the world, and the struggles they endure to simply get an education. We come from a world of extreme privilege by comparison to their stories, and I wanted my girls to value more strongly what they are blessed to experience each day, and to get a glimpse of what life is like for girls in other parts of our world. Trailer below:

The film is rated PG-13, and contains some difficult material. But I made a personal decision that this was information--the reality of our world--that I didn't want to shield from my own children. I was overwhelmingly moved by the girls in the film, declaring each successive mini-biography to be "my favorite" as the film progressed. What courage and spirit these girls showed! What unimaginable things they suffered. What lengths they went to for the opportunity to learn and make their lives better. What sacrifices their families made for them. It was utterly awe-inspiring.  I knew there would be references to rape and violence as these crimes are nearly unescapable for girls in some countries. I appreciated the way it was handled in this documentary project...truthfully, yet with sensitivity.  One girl from Nepal, Suma, tells a tragic tale of being sold into bonded labor at the age of six. As she revisits her past and the many homes in which she was forced to work, she simply says, "I cannot talk about everything that happened to me here." The audience is left to fill the silence with our own conclusions, and she doesn't have to relive her childhood horrors to make an already dramatic story more so. It was beautifully done, supplemented with powerful statistics to drive the point home.
There are 66 million girls who are not in school; 14 million girls under 18 who will be married this year; and 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence each year. (AP)
Amina, Afghanistan
Could my children, ages 10 and 12, imagine a life like young Amina? Being forced into marriage with an older man at the tender age of 11? Giving birth to her first child at the age of 12? What a completely foreign concept to all of us. It hurt my heart just to think about it.

And then there was Yasmin.
“He was strong but I was stronger.” A young Egyptian girl falls prey to a violent attack but, rather than become a victim, she becomes a superhero. Yasmin’s is the story of the triumph of imagination over a reality too painful to bear. (Girl Rising)
Yasmin's story captivated my youngest daughter, because it was told in sort of a graphic novel format,  à la Persepolis, where she becomes the hero in her own tale, explaining her rape to the police officer with the words, "He took me to the dark place." She leaves it at that. Only in her tale she emerges triumphant over her attacker and refuses to see herself as a victim.

Upon debrief the next evening, that particular scene needed clarification. "Mom, what happened when the man touched her shoulder and took her to the dark place?" My daughter knew there was more to the story, but she didn't understand it.

Oh we go.

How do I explain rape when I haven't even officially had the sex talk with my child? I thought to myself. I was already several weeks into my own personal "Gender Issues" study, and I was fully immersed in it.  Steubenville... The Invisible War...the Violence Against Women Act up for reauthorization...Audrie Pott...Rehtaeh Parsons... misogyny... patriarchy... objectification... sexualization.  Where do I begin? I wanted to address the overall theme of women's rights and gender equality, sharing information that would be helpful but not overwhelming. After all, I was actively looking for these stories, not just accidentally happening across them, and the girls certainly did not need that level of exposure. But this simple question from my child was a sharp slap in the face of all the things they DIDN'T know yet.

Now, don't get me wrong. They weren't completely in the dark. I had doled out what I thought was age-appropriate information throughout their childhood. We've done the birds and the bees and the "hit parade of puberty" as we learned about it in our first experience with Julie Metzger of Great Conversations. (I cannot recommend these classes enough!) We've talked about feelings, actions, and consequences.  But I knew that to answer this question, we were going to have to acknowledge and address the dark side of sex (and power and control). And I certainly didn't want that to be the only thing we talked about. So I took a deep breath and dove in, answering the question as simply as I could.

"She was raped."

"I don't know what that means. What is rape?"

Here began my attempt to explain Yasmin's story, Suma's story, and tragically, the story of far too many girls and women in our world. What is rape? It is the sexual violation of a person against her/his will. Without her/his consent. It is a horrifying violation. It is about power, not sex. Of course, this naturally led to (or began with) more questions and answers about what sex is, what it can and should be, how to know when you are ready, what to do to keep yourself safe, why do people have sex in the first place? Lots of curiosity...brilliant opening of a door.

Maybe I overshared, but I used the opportunity to address the Steubenville case, which they HAD seen on the news. I could go on and on about my disgust with the media coverage, but I simply explained to my kids that the victim in that case was a girl who was violated against her will, that other people stood around and laughed and photographed and texted and shared the crime committed against her, and did nothing to stop it. I talked about the concept of consent, and how no one ever ever EVER has the right to do something to you without yours, but that is certainly one topic that will come around again and again. And again.

I went off the rails a little bit, I'll be honest. I seized an opportunity to talk with my children in the wake of an emotional experience the three of us had together. Girl Rising shed light on many things we didn't know before, and ended up teaching me an awful lot about myself in the process. Our eyes were opened more widely to things we hadn't deeply considered before.

The point of the film is to highlight the importance of education for these girls, and for all the 66 million girls in the world who don't get to go to school. "Educate a girl, change the world" is the slogan. In spite of the depressing statistics and the darkness and hardship faced by many of these girls (those in the film and many more around the world and even in our own country) the overall message is one of great hope. Educating girls lifts up entire communities.

As one reviewer wrote:
Education is the engine of change for impoverished girls all over the globe. Schooling is to the mind as food is to the body: an essential source of nourishment and growth. This is a message of hope as well as of responsibility. We are the world. These girls are not separate from us. They speak to us directly in Girl Rising, and if we hear them, we will find a way to help them realize their vision and their dreams. (Moody)
All of us need educating. I need educating.  I think back to that experience a year ago and I wish I would have said something. I don't really know why I didn't, I have no idea what I would have said, and I'm fairly certain it wouldn't have come out right. But I still regret my silence. I feel more capable and confident having that difficult conversation now. I have educated myself more. I won't let it go next time.  Sexual assault is NEVER a joke. Empowering our children to make healthy choices, respectful of themselves and others, will always be our job. I think I could now respond to "it's not rape if you like it" without a lose-my-cool-over-the-top lecture (who listens to that anyway?), but with an honest, open conversation that a statement like that invites. I sure hope so.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Resource List - Parent Workshop

Presentation Slides


Parenting in a Digital World - great advice from Emily McMason of Evolving Parents
Top 5 Tips for Parents - from Holly and Sam


Great Conversations - Helping PRETEENS and their FAMILIES in CONVERSATIONS
about Body Changes, Sex, and other GROWING UP STUFF. Also, classes for TEENS.
I attended "For Girls Only" in 2011 and wrote about it here. I'm signed up to go again this spring!

How to Talk to Your Kids About National Tragedies

The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent: Ages 1-21

Ongoing Resources

Our blog - you are here! We write lengthy pieces when inspiration strikes, but share smaller bits of information more regularly on the following sites:

Emily McMason

Connect with Emily

Parental Controls/Filtering at Home

If you have a shared family computer at home, it's a good idea to set up a separate account on it for your child to use. Not only does this protect your information from them, but it gives them a place to save their passwords, bookmark sites they use frequently, and customize the "look" of the computer in a manner that doesn't drive everyone else in your family nuts.  If your child has their own laptop, setting up an administrator account as the adult in charge allows you to create separate "General Use" accounts for multiple people (recommended for younger users). 

The decision to restrict access or enforce electronic time limits is one each family makes individually, and you need to figure out what works for you. You can use Parental Controls to control time spent on the computer, websites to which your kids have access, and whether or not they can use certain applications.  For more information about enabling Parental Controls see the following:

I also wanted to pass on a bit of information about creating a safer online experience for your kids. At school, we have a firewall in place that protects us from extreme content, and we purposely choose to use services that limit or prohibit advertising. Families don't typically have something like this at home, but you can absolutely take steps to block/filter advertising or inappropriate language on your own computers and devices. 

Activate Google Safe Search - SafeSearch filters provide you with the ability to change your browser setting to prevent adult content from appearing in your search results. No filter is 100 percent accurate, but SafeSearch should help you avoid most of this type of material.

The following is somewhat based on the particular web browser you use.  Each browser comes with extensions--often called add-ons or plug-ins--that you can install to customize your view of the internet.  We use Google Chrome (a free download) at school, so most of what I suggest is available for Chrome and I've tested it there.  These extensions may look a little different, or not be available, in Safari, Firefox, or Internet Explorer, but once you know how to look for them, you might find better things than I suggest! are a few FREE things you can do that might help. These are my favorites:
  • AdBlock Plus - block most ads
  • Simple Profanity Filter - replaces profanity with asterisks, you customize the list of blocked words (available in the Chrome WebStore)
  • A Cleaner Internet (a MUST if you watch YouTube videos) - visit the site and install the proper plug-in for your browser. A Cleaner Internet takes away the "suggested videos" on the side and the comments down below. YouTube comments are generally some of the more trollish things on the web.
  • Ghostery - Ghostery looks for third-party page elements (or "trackers") on the web pages you visit. These can be things like social network widgets, advertisements, invisible pixels used for tracking and analytics, and so on. Ghostery notifies you that these things are present, and which companies operate them. You can learn more about these companies, and if you wish, choose to block the trackers they operate.
Of course, no one solution is perfect, nor can it catch everything.  These tools do not replace the need to monitor your child's use of the internet and engage them in conversations about the sites they visit and the things they see. It is extremely important to talk openly and honestly with children about their experience online--share their excitement for a game, watch their favorite silly videos, have them explain a particular site they are visiting--on a regular basis. Don't just save these conversations for times when things go wrong! They will be far more likely to come to you for help and guidance if they know you're in this with them and your family's guidelines have made expectations clear.

If you other/better solutions, please share them in the comments!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Manners: They Still Matter in the Digital World

I am a lousy thank-you note writer. I think about sending thank-you notes all the time. I compose them in my head, I imagine the nifty note-cards that are just perfect for the intended recipients and then...I never send them. I feel guilty for never getting them in the mail long after what I imagine to be an acceptable thank-you note window of time. However, I know that thank-you notes are the right thing to do (even if I never get around to it myself).
Thank You spelled with colorful magnetic letters

That brings me to recent articles in Slate and The New York Times. Both propose that we do away with common courtesies used in digital communication because they are time consuming and antiquated. Nick Bilton, a The New York Times columnist and blogger, is frustrated with thank-you's. He believes they are a waste of precious time and resources in the world of digital communication. It was hard to read his opinion, especially a section on never listening to his father's voicemails, without becoming enraged. I hope with all my heart that we are not evolving toward a world in which a thank you is considered rude and ignoring communication from family, because it isn't your preferred method, is acceptable behavior.

According to Matthew Malady of Slate, the email 'sign-off'' is an antiquated waste of time. He thinks the words 'sincerely' or 'best regards' are disingenuous. He doesn't think we should include a greeting either, trusting that email addresses and digital contact lists should take care of any need to identify ourselves in the body of an email. Really? Holly and I actually teach kids to do exactly what he is proposing is a waste of time. We think it is essential in professional communication between students and teachers. Is it a remnant from letter writing? Yes. Does it still matter? Yes. It does.

Let's be honest, when we were kids and the euphoria of receiving presents at birthdays or other holidays was replaced by the dreaded demand that we write thank you notes, our response was probably lacking  enthusiasm. If I'd been allowed to refuse the ritual because it took up too much time, or because I saw Grandma on my birthday and thanked her then, I would never have written thank you notes as an adult. The fact that my mother (and my sisters, and even Vinnie, my 10 month old nephew) continue to model the etiquette of gifting, encourages me to do so (even if I'm generally lousy at it).

In the digital world, if we aren't modeling courtesy with a thank you or properly adding greetings and closures to our digital conversations, we can't expect our children and students to do the same. When I'm told it's time consuming, unnecessary and antiquated, I'll respond that it's polite and courteous and should never be seen as a negative!  I'll also counter with the abundance of examples of misconstrued tone in digital communications. A little common courtesy goes a long way and helps avoid sounding rude, rushed and angry. Just yesterday I was corresponding with an account representative at a major research database vendor. The response to a question I asked consisted of one sentence with no greeting or closure. It felt as if I was being scolded for asking a question to which I should have already known the answer. It felt rude. I'll give the sender the benefit of the doubt, but a few extra moments dedicated to a polite response wouldn't have left me wishing I was working with a different employee.

Holly and I encourage you to join with us in promoting and modeling common courtesy and etiquette  even if it means spending a few extra minutes reading another text, signing our names, listening to voicemail, or even writing thank-you notes. We'll be reminding our students and children to do the same. An argument against politeness isn't valid, despite reasoning that it's a response to the evolving digital world. It's an argument for laziness.

I'll close with an update on my thank-you note record. I'm excited to announce that my birthday thank-you's (created by using my hedgehog stamp birthday gift) are in the mail only 10 days after the birthday in question!

Sam and Holly

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Our Annual Parent Workshop

Save the Date!

Monday, April 29th, 2013
Charles Wright Academy, Middle School Library

What’s going on in the digital life of your child?

Please join us for our annual “Parenting in the Digital World” workshop. Find out about the “hot topics” of the moment, learn about current research and trends in the realm of kids and technology, and please ask us your questions, share your experiences and advice, and participate in our “digital village” as we raise and educate our students together.

This year, we are excited to welcome certified parent coach Emily McMason.  While we regularly talk with students about their lives online and digital behavior, Emily’s expertise and training will help us as parents when we get into more sensitive interpersonal discussions with our kids about privacy, identity, boundaries, difficulties they may encounter online, good decision making, and helpful parenting advice that invites kids to share more with us, not less. Whether they tell you or not, kids still look to the adults in their lives for guidance, especially when it comes to deciding what is appropriate or not. Your voice matters!

Thank you,
Holly Gerla, LS/MS Technology Coordinator
Sam Harris, MS Librarian

Emily McMason is a personal & parent coach. She helps parents navigate the issues of childhood, from toddlers moments to the teen years. She offers private sessions, classes, drop-in office hours and workshops. Emily has been working with families since her teaching career began in 1992. She holds a Master¹s Degree in Education from Harvard University and Certification in Parent Coaching from the PCI at Seattle Pacific University.  

For more information, connect with her at, like her on Facebook, follow her on twitter , or pin with her on pinterest.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Gender Issues, part 2 (subtitle: Holly visits Lego-land)

check out our Pinterest board!
Well, we did not get TONS of feedback on part 1, but I am overflowing with "gender" resources to share, so the series rolls on!

First of all, in addition to the links we provided in the first post, Sam and I created a Pinterest board of other resources, and we are adding to it constantly.  I have taken a fascinating journey through the interwebs in the last few weeks...check it out! Many of these are resources I have saved over time, but a few are brand new discoveries to me. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments. We are particularly interested in more resources geared toward men and boys, from the perspective of men and boys. Feminism, and all the various definitions and social implications that come with it, is alive and well on the internet, from several cultural and racial perspectives to boot. But we are not finding nearly as many resources from the male perspective--maybe we're not looking in the right places because we're not men? In addition to book recommendations, we would really love to hear of speakers, journalists, academics, or bloggers/vloggers that address gender identity and gender stereotypes. Send us your best stuff!

From the Steubenville rape case to Sandy Hook to the Oscars, the darker side of gender issues has been in the media everywhere. Much of what I've read recently really has me feeling sad...and those are just stories from the United States. While these stories do help propel us toward action, what exactly can we do? How can we raise and educate our kids to expect better? To be better than what they see? I thought I'd start with my youngest students and see what I could learn from them (presumably while teaching them something, too).

This week and last, I've been diving into gender and the media with my 3rd graders. Using the Gender and Digital Life Toolkit from Common Sense Media, we have begun to look at our media consumption with a more critical eye. We started with an activity called "Selling Sterotypes," which asks young people to view two separate websites marketed to girls and boys differently. You can look at the curriculum online and adapt it to suit your own needs and age groups, but here's what I did with the lesson plan and resources, with the help of the 3rd grade teachers...

We began by trying to define "media" in general. Where does it come from? How often do we encounter "messages" in the media, and are we paying attention to what we are supposed to be learning? We discussed the idea of "hidden messages" that sometimes lie beneath the surface. The first  unit I chose asked the essential question, "How do we learn about stereotypes of boys and girls from the world around us?" Since the word "stereotypes" was new to many of my students, we didn't quite define it that overtly this first time around, but we are developing our understanding along our journey. To tailor our discussion toward issues of gender and stereotypes, we did a brief activity where I asked the kids to close their eyes and picture a baby's room with blue walls, rocket ships on the walls, and trucks on the blankets and pillows. Before I could even finish the description I heard murmurings of "this is a boy's room" or "a girl's room would be pink." I asked "Do you think this room belongs to a baby boy or a baby girl? Why?" and we were off and running. It did not take many of them long to realize that these definitions of "girl" and "boy" were quite narrow, and the stereotype did not fit everyone. Girls can like rocket ships! Boys can like dolls! Their world is more than pink and blue, isn't it? We then watched the video below, showing a little girl talking to her dad in a toy store.

We ran out of time at this point, since we'd already spent most of class working on our Google Earth tours of the Nisqually watershed, but it was enough of a hook to get us started in our thinking about the messages in the media that we encounter every day. How do we know what's for boys and what's for girls? Where do those ideas come from? The kids were amazed at how clearly disturbed this young girl was by the messages she was getting from her surroundings at the toy store. How is she already so aware of this gender divide? Some things about our identity clearly come from biology, but many other gender traits are influenced by outside factors, including our families, the community, and the media. 

the Lego Friends
Yesterday was week two, a much deeper look at marketing to a specific gender. I mentioned the Lego situation in part 1, but this was my first experience seeing it through the eyes of the intended audience for which these toys were created. Talking about gender identity and stereotypes with these young people was truly fascinating! We broke up into small groups of 3 or 4, gender balanced, and half the class looked at Lego's HeroFactory site, and half looked at Lego Friends

Using a worksheet called "Spot the Messages," kids looked at colors, sounds, characters, videos, games, and the overall style of each website to put them in a category "for boys" or "for girls." Though it seemed obvious to most kids right off the bat, and a few were visibly (and verbally) uncomfortable looking at a site they didn't think was for their gender, their concerns didn't fully rise to the surface until we started asking them to point out not only what they COULD see, but what they COULDN'T see. On the HeroFactory site, for example, kids found one video that had one girl in it. ONE GIRL on the entire site! On the Friends side of things, there were no boys to be found, except for the Prince Charmings in the horse stable...maybe.

One student's summary (see more here)
Group A (HeroFactory) noticed more weapons and creatures and fighting. Group B (Friends) noticed a lot of activities for the "friends" to do together, working with each other, rather than in isolation or opposition.  The word "girly" was used a lot, so we tried to unpack it a little bit to see what the kids meant by "girly." It was hard for them to define in concrete terms, but they knew it when they saw it, and many even said it with an intonation suggesting it was a "bad" word. Some boys were uncomfortable looking at the Friends site. Some girls were uncomfortable looking at the HeroFactory site. Some kids said, "I've played these games before," or "I really like this website and these toys." We were all over the place, and it was fascinating.

Having previously reviewed the media documenting the impact of the Lego Friends launch, and having formed my own opinions about it, it was hard not to influence conversations a certain way. I wanted the kids to have a genuine reaction, and to really look at the way information was being presented to them. Several of them laughed at how obvious the marketing was to one gender over another.  But what if a boy wanted to play with Lego Friends? What if a girl wanted to play with Lego HeroFactory characters? Is there anything wrong with that? We had many questions with no answers, especially the big questions of "Why do these websites look like this?" Besides the basic purpose of advertising their products to a very specific demographic, why is advertising done this way? I feel like little Riley exclaiming, "'cause the companies who make these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want to buy, right?"

After the groups had finished sharing their findings (check out a sampling of their worksheets here), and we had gone over several of their conclusions as a group, I showed them the HTML5 Gendered LEGO Advertising Remixer. We mashed up the audio and video of two separate ads, played it (to hoots of laughter), and then swapped the mix and played it again. The kids loved that part, and it made the differences in colors, themes, music, style, and content all the more obvious.

What do you see here?
The last thing I showed them was a Lego ad from the early 1980s. There's a great write up of all of this at The Society Pages' Sociological Images. There was absolute silence in the room when I projected the image. As they absorbed it, one of the very first things the kids noticed was that the Legos themselves were very different. It was just a bunch of blocks out of which you could make anything. Awesome, right? No directions to follow! No specific "look" you were trying to emulate or copy, or a "kit" to be put together. The second thing the kids noticed was how happy these children look. Isn't that something? They're just having a great old time building things with Legos. And it looks fun.

Our follow up assignment next week is to look at a similar ad and do a little writing about it. What are the kids wearing? What are they building? What is the message this ad is trying to convey? My students will login to edmodo, and use this social, digital learning space to share their thoughts with me and each other. We are using technology to do this because edmodo has allowed me to create a safe classroom space where the kids can practice good digital citizenship. We can each see everyone's contributions. We can practice good commenting and interaction. We can stop and have conversations about what it means to participate in the digital culture if things go well. Conversely, we can stop to have a conversation if things go sideways. We are learning together, and I can't wait to see/hear/read where my students go next.

As I write and reflect on the experience of yesterday, my mind is jumping all around. Did I present this well? With too much bias? Did I forget to say something? Did I listen enough? I didn't want to tell the kids WHAT to think, but the overall objective was to teach them not to be passive consumers of advertising and media. Were there hidden messages here? What if you are a boy or girl who doesn't conform to the norms of gender stereotypes? Are you even aware that you are being sold an idea of what girls are supposed to like and what boys are supposed to like? Look at this worksheet and consider what YOU learn from it. I can assure you it was filled out by a very thoughtful 8-year old child who was focused all through the lesson. Though it could appear to be a lazy response, I think it is quite powerful. I'm so glad we did this. Seeing it through my students' eyes brought a value to this conversation that I desperately wanted but was missing. There is more work to do!