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

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!