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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Social media can save the world (or at least do some good things)

"I am instantly reminded how connected we can all be to each other's experiences and perspectives if we take the time to dig a little deeper than the superficial. "
It's easy to become cynical about the state of the Internet, media, and what sometimes feels like an infiltration of the digital world into every part of our lives. Anyone who spends anytime watching, reading, or participating in the digital world probably feels some amount of cynicism, disappointment, or even rage on a regular basis. I know I do. But lately, I've found it's a little easier to also feel joy and hope for humanity.

This dose of positive energy comes to me in the form of Humans of New York. If you haven't heard of HONY, you should probably get on that right now (tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook). Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York, has taken a photography project started after a brief stint as a bond trader, and turned it into an example of what is good about the digital world. Almost every day,  Brandon wanders the streets of New York City (and recently Jordan, Israel, Ukraine, Vietnam, Nepal and 7 more countries with the United Nations) and takes photographs of people he meets along the way. He also asks each person a few questions.  Mr. Stanton's questions elicit amazing insight into each of his subjects. I am constantly surprised by the depth he can achieve from just a small amount of time with each man, woman, or child.

Every day, after reading about politics, the state of the world, some crazy new social media tool that seems like a REALLY bad idea, and a few very uncivil comments, I check Twitter or Facebook and I happen upon a recent HONY post. I am instantly reminded how connected we can all be to each other's experiences and perspectives if we take the time to dig a little deeper than the superficial. What a fantastic daily lesson. Reading about someone else's path, even if it just a small part of a person's life, reminds me that everyone has a story: something amazing and something difficult in their past or present.

The Humans of New York project exists in the digital realm, but it connects us all to each other outside of our digital lives. It's a great reminder that the driver in that other car, the clerk at the grocery store, a colleague at work, and even the politician we disagree with on the news, are also humans who have lives beyond our interactions with them.

HONY is also a fantastic example for our young people. They regularly hear messages about Internet safety, managing their digital footprints, sexting, cyber-bullying, and otherwise avoiding making poor choices. What young people need to hear more about is how technology benefits the world and how they can contribute.  Your child, or our student, could be a young Brandon Stanton. If we only discuss the digital world from a place of fear and apprehension, we'll pass that fear and apprehension along. Though it is important to make informed choices, it's also important to get involved. Are you raising a budding photographer? Get those images online! Build a portfolio of amazing work.  Does your student tinker or take things apart? Does she program all the electronic devices in your home? She can start a YouTube channel and teach others what she knows. Is your child passionate about a cause? Does he want to build wells in Africa or save the local wetlands? He can find out about organizations that do that work now... or start his own.  The possibilities are truly endless.

If cynicism and disappointment are taking over, or if the negative consequences of our increasingly digital lives are driving you nuts,  remember that things can change.  HONY is a positive influence in the world and the impact is growing. The more we support the positive, the better chance we'll have to shift the digital environment towards good. We might not make it happen, or be there when it does, but our kids can and will.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Teens and #DigCit - A New Round of Posts!

Our 4-Part Project
The third and final batch of 9th graders has rotated through the Digital Citizenship class, and they have just published their posts to our blog. Please help us out!

In this four part project (more details here), publishing our work comes after lengthy research and draft writing. Then we get to the fun part, which is interacting with all of you! We aim to teach digital citizenship by actually practicing it. So, with that in mind, we invite as many people to come and read our posts as possible, and we especially invite you to leave us a comment. Students are responsible for moderating the discourse under their post, and will answer your questions or otherwise respond to your thoughts. Please visit!

Here are all the posts from 3rd trimester students thus far.

Copyright and Other Legal/Ethical Issues:

Television, Media, Videogames and Kids:

Gender and the Media:

What Your Digital Footprint Says About You:

Technology and Your Health:

Photoshop, Altered Images, Self-Esteem:

Thanks for helping our cause. Students really get excited when they realize that other people are reading their work and not just their teacher. It's a bit nerve-wracking to become a "published author on the internet," which is why we have them do a reflection piece at the end of the whole thing. Check back for those in a couple weeks!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Thank You, Olympic View Elementary!

It was a warm and beautiful evening in Seattle last night! We are so appreciative of the many PTA members who joined us at Olympic View for our presentation. Slide are all below, and links within are all active.

Shortcuts to a few things: 
Evolving Parents
9th Grade Digital Citizenship (student posts)
Common Sense Media
A Platform for Good (great resources for parents)

Recommended Books:
It's Complicated, danah boyd
Masterminds & Wingmen, Rosalind Wiseman
The Elephant in the Living Room, Dr. Dimitri Christakis

Monday, April 28, 2014

2014 Parent Presentation at Charles Wright

Thanks so much to all who joined us at CWA on April 9th. It was an energetic group of folks who showed up ready to participate, asked great questions, and offered excellent advice to each other. We are grateful you came!

If you were unable to make it, the slides are embedded below. Please don't hesitate to contact us with questions. Holly and Sam will next be presenting Thursday, May 1st at Olympic View Elementary School in Seattle.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Neverending Student

What I'm reading (or trying to) right now!
"Why is it so hard being a guy?"

I don't know, Ms. Gerla. It just IS.

My head is spinning. There is so much I want to learn, or relearn, or refresh in my mind.

Over the last few years, the work we do with kids and parents has taken a much more concrete shape now that this thing called "Digital Citizenship" has rooted itself in our community. But as Sam and I have noted before, the digital part of it is only one element. Technically there is much to learn and understand about the world that is so rapidly changing around us. Ethically, however, this is about the choices we make and the kind of people we want to be, and in that regard, many lessons we hope to impart remain constant. I have found that my own professional and personal experience is just not enough in order for me to really dig deep with kids. I have blind spots, biases of my own, and a perspective of the world that is shaped by my identity, my gender, my race, my family, my politics, my everything. How do I make sure that I expose myself to viewpoints different than my own? How do I prevent my own "filter bubble," a concept I discuss with my students, and really listen to the variety of voices around me? How do I make sure I present not just information that I personally think is important and interesting, but actually represents a variety of perspectives and opens the door to discussion? Professionally, how do I stay current in my field?

Lifelong learning, that's how.

The photo above shows 4 in the stack of 11 books currently on my nightstand or my Kindle. My list:
  1. Rosalind Wiseman, Masterminds & Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World
  2. danah boyd, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
  3. Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do
  4. Emily Bazelon, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy
  5. Jennifer Pozner, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
  6. Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century
  7. Jo Langford, The Sex EDcylopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to Healthy Sexuality, For the Modern, Male Teen
  8. Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D. and Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys
  9. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (book club!)
  10. Chris Colfer, The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell (book 1 in a series my daughter is reading and she wants me to read it too)
  11. Rick Riordan, House of Hades (I'm behind in the Heroes of Olympus series, gotta keep up)
Quite a collection. So far the only one I've completely finished is #1 (don't tell my book club).

Masterminds & Wingmen was the must-read at the top of my list. Why? Let me introduce you to my 9th grade Digital Citizenship class. In the first trimester this year, a brief glance at my class list showed that a group would soon be coming into my room over 80% male. Not a big deal, really, but I knew we had big plans on deck to discuss gender stereotypes in the media, and I wanted to be prepared for what an imbalance of that magnitude would do to the atmosphere of our classroom, and what influence it might have on group discussions. I was very up front with the kids... I'm female. I am one of 5 girls in my family. I am raising two daughters. I have read lots of parenting books, and I've been a teacher for many years, of students in preschool through graduate school. But I have no idea what it's like to raise a boy in my daily life, nor am I a man, nor did I grow up with any brothers in my home.  I felt the need to prepare myself more, be careful with my words, try to create a climate where the girls felt comfortable sharing too, and present the idea of gender stereotypes in a way that didn't perpetuate a "battle of the sexes" where we try to figure out who has it worse in our society. I'm not sure how well I succeeded on this front, but the motivation has stayed with me as the year has progressed, and I have actively looked for resources that I hope will both better educate me AND make me a better educator.

So, book #1: Ms. Wiseman's name might ring a bell as the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, the book upon which the film "Mean Girls" was based. (I added that book to my list for a refresher after finishing this current one.) Boy world isn't my world, so I badly needed this resource (and 7 and 8 on the list above). There are several chapters that I think ALL parents should read, not just parents of boys. If you're taking notes, those are Chapter 5 ("Breaking Down the Wall"), Chapter 8 ("Your Parenting Profile"), and Chapters 14, 17, and 18. Who am I kidding? READ THE WHOLE THING!! Chapters 9 and 10 on social networking and video games are worth it alone.

Wiseman is brilliant, and there are far too many "just perfect" quotes for me to share here. At the heart of every chapter, however, is the foundational family principle that all people deserve to be treated with dignity. If you are the type of person who is never quite sure what to say in certain situations, like when your kid is caught lying, or you find out it's your precious child that is the one being mean to others, there's a script in here for you! If you would like to read an excerpt from the book, she has published the Why Doesn't Batman Ever Smile? chapter in three parts at the Good Men Project (another excellent web source added to my list of daily reads).

I have shared extensively my thoughts on the gender front (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 times) and I have continued to teach these lessons to new students this year. But in the context of a high school class on social media and technology, where the news is filled with stories of all the things teenagers do wrong, I wanted to explore this more deeply. I truly believe that the language of stereotypes and social constructions (and misunderstandings) makes up a vast majority of the bad behavior we see online, and I really wanted to challenge my students to think differently about the messages they are sending and receiving on a regular basis. Pushing boundaries, trying to fit in, attempting to be funny, "getting" the jokes, and figuring out who you are in a group of other people are all part of growing up, whether it happens online or off. Where does the hurtful language come from? Why do we use it?

As I got into several lessons with my 9th graders, and frankly as we followed current events, the issue of language kept coming back, and it became obvious once more that our words really matter. By the end of that first trimester, as the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin story neatly summarized a whole pile of related topics we had been discussing throughout the term (bullying, racism, language, Twitter, social media, gender stereotypes, privacy), I saw my boy-heavy class grappling with these very real issues (well, maybe I was grappling more, to be honest), and I threw my hands up and simply asked, "Why is it so hard being a guy?"

I don't know, Ms. Gerla. It just IS.

(cue my reading of Masterminds & Wingmen)
After twenty years of teaching and working with teens, I realize that we often make the mistake of believing that if a boy doesn’t come to us with problems, then he doesn’t have them. We believe this for various reasons. Boys don’t demand our attention in the same ways that girls do. We don’t give them a language for talking about their worries and experiences like we do with girls. And we really don’t think enough about what our culture—and ourselves by extension—demands and expects of boys and how it frames their emotional lives, decision-making, self-esteem, and social competence. When we do notice boys, it’s usually because they’re somehow failing or they’re acting out in ways that appear thoughtless, reckless, disrespectful, threatening, or frightening. (Wiseman)

Frequently, when schools do workshops or classes on sex ed, puberty, or general social skills, we separate our students by sex. While in many cases that makes for a safer environment in which kids can ask honest questions without fear of embarrassment (which is a good thing), I worry sometimes that it removes boys and girls from the experience of really trying to understand each other (which is a HARD thing). That's why I would recommend ALL parents read books, like Wiseman's, that outwardly appear to be for just one group, but can very powerfully teach us more about ourselves in the process, and help us teach our kids about things they don't necessarily experience all the time. Wouldn't conflicts be easier to resolve if we simply took the time to understand each other better?

My teaching partner, Jane Riches, and I use a couple of sections from the educational DVD version of Miss Representation in our class (the "Media Literacy" and "Behind the Scenes" clips for the high school curriculum). We clearly discuss with our students the perspective that shapes the documentary and ask them to see how it relates to all people, not just women in the media. This trimester, Jane has a class that is the exact opposite of what I experienced in the first round...she has 92% girls. As they watched last week, one girl actually expressed her wish out loud that she would like to see the film with boys in the room so she could see how they react to it and talk about it with them. Brilliant. Our class demographics have purely been a circumstance of scheduling, but they have unwittingly provided us with our own "case studies" in gender dynamics. And the more we explore stereotypes, bias, our assumptions, and the social constructions within which we live and act, the more impressed I am at the honesty and maturity of our kids. We have had students research and write about a whole variety of topics related to Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy. And though I wish my own bias didn't make me react with such astonishment, because I just expect girls to care about some of these issues, I have been deeply impressed with our boys who have chosen to write about rape culture, the impact of ideal beauty standards on men, and the culture of gaming for women.

Though I am an educator, I am also the neverending student. I don't think there will ever be a time when I'm "done" learning. Thankfully, in my job, I have a wide variety of teachers.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Teens and #DigCit - Attempting to 'Go Viral'

modified from Flickr 
It's been a big week for me in the land of Digital second trimester students published their blog posts a few days ago, and the grand experiment to actually "practice what we preach" is underway once again!

Sam and I have now been working on Ethics 4 A Digital World for over three years. Our thinking, teaching, and practice have evolved right along with the digital landscape with which we are trying to keep up. Always on the lookout for ways to really practice with students the critical thinking that being a good digital citizen requires, I jumped at the chance this year to teach a ninth grade seminar on this very topic.  I love everything about this class...except that I only get to see my students for two days a week for 11 weeks. So my teaching partner (another amazing librarian, how did I get so lucky?) and I had to really think and plan for what we could accomplish in the amount of time we have been given, which, in actuality, is a huge gift...many schools do not make time for digital citizenship at all.

I knew that I wanted to give students as much exposure to as many digital tools as was reasonable, and provide for them spaces where they could openly talk about issues, practice their skills, learn some new things, and start (or continue) to build a digital footprint that reflected who they are as thoughtful contributors to our world. I wanted to show them how they could use social media for good things, to make a difference for others.  I also really wanted to squeeze some media literacy into the course, because I am a firm believer that the future media our kids create has the power to change some minds and attitudes, and not just perpetuate the same tired stereotypes we see all the time (which, coincidentally, is the source of so much "bad" behavior online).  So I began by writing my kids a personal statement about my wishes for them, and why I see our class time as valuable and important as they grow up surrounded by media and technology.

More than half of our 11 weeks together is spent researching, writing, and commenting for a class blog. Current events in tech/media-land play a large role in our discussions, so I began curating my Pinterest boards in a different way, creating boards for some of the broader categories we cover. I put everything on the "Hot Topics" board initially, but that quickly grew out of control. By separating them, I could actually assign kids to find an article to share about a particular topic (in short weekly assignments), and let them start with the board as a jumping off point. What has happened is that each student reads and shares one article in greater depth, but he or she has scanned all the other headlines and images in the search for something of interest, so exposure has widened. I like that. When it came time to finally narrow the focus and choose one topic for a blog post, many kids started with the Pinterest boards, and quickly moved on to find other resources from online newspapers, our class Twitter feed, library databases, and sites like

Fast forward through Edmodo, Noodle Tools, Google Docs, and Blogger...skill building happens in these spaces, and I don't mean to diminish the real work, but the fun stuff, and what I most want to share, is still coming! (if you're an educator and want more details, please contact me)

Now that we have finally hit the fantastic orange "Publish" button on our blog posts, magic happens. I am cashing in on 6 years worth of building my digital footprint and personal learning network, sharing our work as far and wide as I possibly can with the tools at my disposal. I am encouraging my students to do the same so they can get as much feedback as possible. And, to be honest, I share the visitor stats with them so we can learn a little something about web traffic and analytics...but they've sort of turned it into a contest to see who can get the most hits. Game on!

Local teens sharing intimate "confessions" on Twitter
Sadly, it's stories like this that give teens a bad reputation.
Sharing our work via social media has led to a new development on the horizon. The very day we published our latest round of blog posts, February 13th, my sister was listening to a local talk radio show discussing a negative story involving teenagers and Twitter and heard the host earnestly lament that parents and schools need to be doing more to educate kids. (AGREED!) She immediately messaged the radio hosts about our blog, and our Ethics 4 A Digital World Facebook feed, and the producer of the show contacted me almost immediately. He invited me and a couple of students to be interviewed on the radio about our class and what we are learning. WOW! Stay tuned for more info on that...

Aside from the thrill of getting everything out there, though, one of my favorite things about this project is the change I see in my kids when they realize that people are actually reading their work and value what they have to say. As one student from first trimester put it in his reflection, "Blogging has been a great learning experience for me. I feel like I'm actually talking to someone, whereas if you're writing an essay it isn't directly at anyone." Some of my students changed their minds a bit after being swayed by earnest commenters, some had to do further research to answer questions, and some found more strength in their own convictions after interacting with others. It was rewarding to witness the process. This time around we have just entered the truly interactive portion of the project, and our blog has become a real space in which we can practice digital citizenship by moderating comments and engaging our readers in civil discourse.

Would you care to join us? Good things can go 'viral' too. :)

9th Grade Digital Citizenship Blog
Class Website (more project details are available here)
@cwadc9 on Twitter
Ms. Gerla on Pinterest

Student Posts from Trimester 2

My Parents Posted WHAT about me!
Is Technology Negatively Affecting Our Health?
M for Misleading
Are Password Restrictions Doing More Harm Than Good?
My Photo, My Choice?
The NSA: National Snooping Agency?
What is Rape Culture?
Video Games and Education, Can They Mix?
Is the Internet Taking Over Your Life?
Reading Between the Lines: Privacy Agreements
Photoshopping: Crossing the Path of Enough?
Male Ideal Corruption by Media?
Safe and Secure Photo Sharing? Not!
Marketing Tactics Are Taken Way Too Far
Social Networking: It's Harming you!
Tracking You Online...What's Going On?
Your Online Privacy is Fading Quickly!
How Should Cyberbullies be held accountable?
Is Gaming a Brain Drain?
Don't Ruin Your Chances of Getting the Job
Cyber-bullies Should Pay
Online Dating Dangerous for Teens?