The Kids Are All Right

Independent School magazine has published an article I recently wrote based on Dr. danah boyd’s book, It’s Complicated. It’s an important read for parents, educators, and others who care about kids.

“While much of the rhetoric around teens’ use of social media is cloaked in language of fear, boyd argues that fearmongering is unnecessary and, indeed, counterproductive. The kids are all right, she argues, but they need – and, in many cases, want – the listening ear and guidance of concerned adults when navigating digital spaces.”

Read the article here.

The App Generation

Dr. Katie Davis’s session today at the Learning and the Brain Conference shared some of the findings and highlights from a book she wrote with Howard Gardner, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and ImaginationBecause I misread the schedule, I showed up a bit late to the session, so my notes focus on the last piece of how youth navigate imagination.

Dr. Davis presented research on how student pieces (visual art and creative writing) in a literary/art magazine from the early 1990s and the 2010s reflected creativity. A number of different characteristics of the pieces were coded. A few that I found interesting- In visual arts, more of the early pieces had centralized image focus and were primarily pen and ink. The later pieces were more likely to have stylized cropping and greater use of mixed media. In creative writing, the early pieces contained more fantasy and more non-linear structure; their use of language was more slang/informal. The later pieces contained more formal realism, linear structure, and more formal language. Overall, the findings suggested increased complexity in visual art and less experimentation, greater adherence to the everyday in creative writing.

Dr. Davis noted that while these changes might be reflective of changes in technology, the changes in creative writing could also be the result of an emphasis on standardized testing  might be affecting writing. She also suggested that while the visual art teens were producing appeared more sophisticated it might also be that they were mimicking what they had access to online.

She concluded the talk by describing the difference between app enabling and app dependence and noting that many educational apps encourage app dependence. Students are keenly aware of what we as adults do, and Dr. Davis encouraged educators to model app enabling. I think this is especially important for teachers as they consider how they use technology in the classroom. I’ see a push back on app dependence in an increased interest in encouraging students to explore hacking and the maker movement. 

In response to a question wondering whether apps weren’t just another tool, like a dishwasher or calculator, Dr. Davis suggested that while she was happy to cede much of life’s drugery to apps and technology, she thought it was important to make those concessions mindfully. The questioner them suggested the perhaps what she was arguing was that apps make it too easy to give up too many things.

I thought that last point was an interesting one to ponder. I had my own app awareness moment recently when I realized that I was cropping a picture in a certain way so that it would display well on Instagram. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that choice, but it struck be how mindlessly I initially made it.

Making the Familiar Strange

In her demo lesson today, Lacy led us to consider the ways in which technologies affect our writing. Given just that description you might imagine that we had a heated debate about cell phones in the classroom or a how to session on Prezi. Instead, we explored some older technologies….

To be clear, I didn’t actually eat the paper, but I did taste it 🙂

Lacy distributed different types of writing paper and after exploring it with our senses we wondered about the following questions.

  • What is the purpose of the lines on the paper?
  • Who decides where the lines go?
  • What do the lines do to or for you?
  • Where does paper come from?

One of the things I liked best about the demo was the way in which it made a familiar technology (paper) strange by inviting us to consider it in ways we might not usually. Lil noted this decontextualization in her tweet.

Lacy then invited to consider how the words on the pages of children’s books varied in their layout from the lines that we saw on the pieces of paper. Finally, we returned to the question that we were invited to write about at the beginning of the demo: How do technologies enable and constrain writing?

I looked at text in Peter Reynold’s Dot

In thinking this evening about the idea of making the familiar strange, I was reminded of the first chapter in Sam Wineberg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. He describes Bob Alston, a historian in one of Wineberg’s studies, as an “expert in cultivating puzzlement” (21). I love that phrase! Wineberg points out that as history teachers and as students of history we, and our students, are often tempted to “view the past through the lens of the present,” assuming that people in the past acted a we would (19). He notes that we should cultivate a humility toward people of the past by “casting doubt on our ability to know them as easily as we know ourselves” (22). History requires an “education of the sensibilities” and “what allows us to know others is our distrust in our capacity to know them, a skepticism about the extraordinary sense-making abilities that allow us to construct the world around us” (23-24).

What’s an ITF?

I’m so glad you asked 🙂 This year in addition to teaching 7th and 8th grade history and an Upper School US History class, I will be the ITF for the middle school history department. ITFs (that stands for Instructional Technology Facilitators) are part of the newly formed ITT (Instructional Technology Team) at our school. It’s a new way of organizing instructional technology support. On one level it felt a little awkward to be asked to “re-introduce” myself to colleagues I see virtually every day, but I suspect that my role will be similar to what I’ve done without a title in the past- helping people think about ways to use technology to enhance student learning and supporting them in that use. (I think it’s important to pause here to note that anything I do know about technology is the result of hundreds of conversations- with our former Instructional Technology Director and colleagues and with educators on Twitter and at conferences. I’m deeply grateful for the ways they’ve helped me learn.)

At the beginning of my time during the department meeting today, I emailed department members a Microsoft OneNote page with pictures of some wacky looking 19th century inventions and asked them to guess the purpose of these pieces of technology from a prior century. (You can take a similar quiz on this BBC site.) We talked about how some of the inventions were precursors to modern day technology. The telautograph, for example, might be considered an early form of a fax machine. Some of the inventions, such as the hat tipper, were examples of innovation that we no longer use today.

After that, department members filled out the following form. (Click on the image to view the full form.) It asked them to identify one way they’d incorporated digital tech that was working well and why they thought this was the case, one thing they’d thought about using digital tech for but hadn’t and what was hindering them, and how they thought an ITF might support their work in the classroom.

I projected their responses, and we briefly talked about them. One department member noted that she’d used Dipity successfully in Language Arts and looked forward to trying it out in World Cultures. One of the other faculty members asked what Dipity was, so we took a brief detour to look at one of the timelines an Upper School student in my class made last year. Other teachers mentioned creation and curation of video and the use of wikis for collaborative student work.

When it came to things they’d like to use digital tech to help benefit student learning, members listed ideas from increased opportunities for presentation to spaces for student reflection. In some cases, these ideas had been hindered by a lack of know-how and in other cases, equipment needs (lack of mini-projectors) had kept him from trying out the idea. They suggested that an ITF could be useful to them by helping them imagine places where technology might be used to enhanced student learning in ways they hadn’t previously imagined and consulting regarding current projects and ideas.

At the end of what I had planned, one of the department members said, “So, what was that site we just used?” which led to a quick intro to Google Forms. We talked about the possibility of using them for student feedback on units and as exit slips. What I loved about that conversation is that it emerged organically (although I’ll admit I was secretly hoping that someone would be curious enough to ask ;)), rather than being “I will now offer a workshop on Google Forms.”

At the end of my portion of the meeting, one of the department members said, “Thanks, Meredith. You’ve helped me already.” That seemed like a good start to the year.

Alone Together

As a gift to myself for being productive during my morning planning period, I went to Starbucks yesterday afternoon to spend a few minutes with Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. I got coffee, settled into one of the armchairs, and started reading. I was peripherally aware of someone speaking, but assumed it was just background conversation and willfully ignored it. After a characteristically Southern, “Excuse me, ma’am,” I realized the guy in the chair catty corner from mine was talking to me. I shifted my attention away from the book to the small tablet he was holding out. “Can you believe that Facebook is asking me this question to reset my password?” (It was a gender identification of one of his friends. It was a perfectly logical question for distinguishing human from machine, but he seemed to think it was ludicrous. I didn’t say this though.)

He asked what I was reading, and I sheepishly said that it was a book about how digital technology and our use of it creates barriers to human interaction. It was at that moment that I realized I probably seemed like a pompous ass. We talked a bit about the book and the school where I teach. Then I turned back to my book, and he to his tablet and phone.

What seemed so strange about this reaction is that it seemed to challenge (at least anecdotally) the premise of Turkle’s book. It wasn’t digital technology that had gotten in the way of our interaction; it was the very old technology of print (the book I was reading) and my emotional state (I was tired and not in the mood for conversation). I’m not ready to dismiss Turkle yet. That seems unfair given that I’m less than 100 pages in, but I’m still skeptical. I do think she’s spot on when she notes a “certain fatigue with the difficulties of life with people” (10), but I’m not convinced that, at least for the majority, this will lead to a turn to robots as companions or lives lived primarily on the internet. Books are my default for that kind of fatigue 🙂

Starbucks pictures

Lessons Learned

Three weeks ago I handed over my phone and computer to a friend for Thursday night to Saturday night. (The time corresponded with Maundy Thursday through the end of the Easter Vigil.) I don’t have a TV or landline, so with the exception of the radio, it was pretty monastic. I avoided showing up at my friend’s doorstep and begging for my phone, although I did whine about it a couple times when I saw him over the weekend.

Some reflections on the experience…

If you can’t be strong for yourself, find someone else to be strong for you
I’ve never been particularly disciplined. I’ve discovered that if I want to accomplish something that’s going to be difficult I usually have to find someone to help or at least tell people, so they can hold me accountable. In this case, I gave my electronics to an incredibly stubborn person (his words, not mine :)) In my darker moments when I was trying to think of ways to get around my self-imposed electronic exile, it was reassuring to be able to say to myself, “There’s no way JR is handing them back to you, so start thinking about something else.”

It’s not the technology. It’s the way you use it
Lo and behold, even without my phone or computer, I was still completely capable of being a master procrastinator. The procrastination though was generally of a more useful manner or at least there were more tangible results. Instead of grading tests, I mowed or read or folded laundry.

Technology giveth time and technology taketh away
The biggest annoyance of the weekend was when I drove 30minutes away to get my hair cut only to discover that the stylist had gotten ill. I’d scheduled the hair cut to give me something to do not tech-related and instead I ended up wasting an hour’s worth of gas. As much as I wanted to be angry or annoyed at the salon, I couldn’t because they had called me 😐

I also gained a lot of time over the weekend. Time I would have spent mindlessly checking tweets or refreshing GMail. The time also felt different. I had a clock, but I think in general I was much less conscious of time than I typically am. It was good preparation for Easter.

If you get away from the internet, the incoming stream slows down
When my gadgets were returned to me, I had about 45 emails that I actually cared about, maybe 20 of those were addressed to me personally. While that may sound like a lot, it was actually fewer than I was expecting. I discovered that when you take yourself out of the conversation, the conversation slows down.

Interview with a Learner

For one of his classes, Dean Shareski is asking students to interview teachers who are also intentional about being learners. I just finished responding to one student’s questions and thought I’d post my answers here. Thanks to Chantelle for the great questions!

How do you go about getting your students on the right track with using the technological tools you want them to make use of? (Slow release, direct instruction, free exploration, etc.?)

I use all of the above. Usually 4-5min of modeling the basics of whatever they need to get them started and then work by themselves or with partners as I walk around the room available for troubleshooting/questions. Occasionally, we’ll have time to free explore- I’ll direct them to a site or sites and ask them to give me feedback on how/if they think those sites might be useful in the classroom.

Do you tend to spend a larger amount of time at the beginning of the year to get them on-board or is it slowly taught as the year goes on?

We definitely spend time at the beginning of the year establishing a routine when it comes to tech. Because students use their tablets every day, they get into a pattern pretty quickly. Those first few weeks of schools though can be a little painful 🙂 I just have to remind myself that by the end of the year they will be light years ahead of where they are at the beginning of the year. I find it’s helpful to identify students who are already proficient with a task or program and appoint them (either formally or informally) as apprentices to help other students.

What are a few of your favorite tools or programs that you use with your students?

Microsoft OneNote

What parameters do you set for student use of computers during class time? Do you find students are typically on-task and efficient or is this something you have had to teach in order for it to be effective?

It varies from student to student. Students are using their computers pretty consistently throughout class. If I notice students appear checked out and involved with something on their screen, I’ll ask them to put their PC in tablet mode (with their screens flat). I also occasionally ask them to flip their screens around (facing me) if we’re having a discussion. In general, I’m not super-strict because I find most students are “with” me the majority of the time.

In what ways does the use of technology further your professional development?

Most of the deeply valuable professional development I’ve experienced has either occurred online or has been spurred by relationships I first developed online. The English Companion Ning has been a great place for me to get in-depth feedback on issues or questions. Twitter has been a useful resource for bouncing ideas off people and sharing and getting resources.