Social Media and Our Young Learners: An Article Response

The Source of Urgency

If you have not read this article from The Atlantic (September 2017 Issue), please take a moment to check it out. The article, written by Jean M. Twenge, contains incredible research and interpretation of information. The blog post you are reading now contains my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of a mentor.
I love and fully recognize the irony of reading the post that introduced me to the article while on my phone…and staying up late to respond to it on that same device. I began to share my thoughts as a comment to Will Richardson's post on the Change.School community (yes, even more irony). But as I think about the content presented in the Atlantic article and the likely response my school community, I am compelled to share my thoughts with a larger audience. I am passionate about the effects of social media on our young students for one very poignant reason: I love the kids who walk through our hallways as I do my own children. Further, I agree that they constantly battle unhappiness because of the social pressures thrown at them (and embraced by them) every day.

A Little Background

My school facilitates a 1:1 (iPad) school technology program, and has done so for a number of years. We were one of the first private schools in the city of Houston to adopt this pedagogical shift comprehensively beginning in 5th grade about five years ago. Our students have embraced the iPad as an essential element to support learning and teachers have learned to let go of traditional, static learning tools (like textbooks) to focus on the immeasurable volume of information via online research. We are discovering better ways to inspire learning every year; I appreciate our ability to be nimble in pedagogy and curriculum while continuing to find success in developing young minds. Just search "prepare the child for the path" and see the inspirational messaging for yourself.
Technology should never dictate the breadth or depth of the learning that goes on in the classroom; that exploration depends on the learner and those that facilitate learning (more on this idea later). But the devices in the hands of our students should serve as a means to make learning visible through demonstrative evidence of growth. Never is this device intended to be a "consumption only" tool. We want to teach students to own their learning and therefore be in control of the various tools at their disposal. But much like Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side despite his training in and knowledge of the light side of the force, power and authority over others can be a unavoidable temptation. We cannot guide the hands of our students (nor should we). And that brings us back to Twenge's article.

Tell Me You Got the Plates on that Truck…

Allow me to begin with a clarifying statement: I agree with every piece of evidence Twenge presents. Social media has the potential to serve as the greatest threat to adolescents, more so than any other in our modern history. But in all the evidence she presents, I'm left with the pressing question: Why is this continuing to happen? Her research goes back 25 years; why have we not stepped on the brakes? It is clear that the greater we (that is, every single adult making an impact on an adolescent) never developed the skills to teach our kids how to navigate social media, and specifically through the comments of others. It seems that, according to Twenge, the "sticks and stones" adage exists with reckless abandon in social media outlets and can end with depression and (God forbid) suicide. In my own school, there are a small group of families that have serious concerns about the amount of technology to which our academic program exposes students on a daily basis. They feel that children need to learn traditional, pre-tech methods of learning. While I address this specific concern in the above paragraph, I worry that Twenge's article creates even more angst to the danger of any screen time, even the positive model we emphasize.

Does Anybody Have a Map?

The title of this section refers to a song from the Broadway show destroying the competition these days, Dear Evan Hanson. I love the music written for this show; however, the content is a bit hard to swallow. This musical describes how a teenager dealing with depression and being a social outcast considers suicide to solve his anonymity. "13 Reasons" is a made-for-Netflix production with revenge suicide as its central plot line, presented as the ultimate way to get back at all those so-called "friends" who insulted, raped, and dismissed a young girl. These high-traffic shows sensationalize one way to respond to the the very emotional roller coaster our students are experiencing. These example have a significantly louder voice than, say, mom and dad (or teacher). So my question is this: How has a young person's ability to own their online narrative been marginalized, instead deferring them to the extreme alternatives just mentioned? As Will states in a response to my comment: "This [need to educate kids on how to use devices properly] is a HUGE part of any technology roll out in schools, but one that is hardly mentioned amidst discussions around bandwidth, filtering, appropriate use, and safety." At this point in time, all I have seen is a budding awareness of the issue. Can we move beyond awareness?

Finding Center Stage

Will goes on to say: "The dissonance for us is that we [adults] have some context for "how it used to be." Kids don't. This is what life looks like now. Our job is to help them understand that people's lives aren't just the highlight reels they post online, and find a healthy balance that many of them don't even know they're missing." This gem of an observation identifies the crux: kids live in this world of full-time connectivity since the day they were born (e.g., using Instagram in a delivery room, or at least responding to a post of that kind). From the cheap seats, the simple answer is "less screen time." After all, if we prevent our kids from being exposed to social media, we solve the problem, right? The truth is, any screen time can lead to misguided decisions that haunt forever. I'll use a Brené Brown reference here: when we (or our students) are in "the arena," our devices are a permanent tool/weapon available to us, for better or for worse. Wielding such a tool with confidence requires training and MODELING. I, for one, have a long way to go in that second category. But, as the saying goes, it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it. Parents, teachers, and anyone a young person admires must realize how they are being observed in person (think of the parent you see at the pool who is constantly distracted by the number of "likes" on their Facebook post) and followed virtually (when you "friend" your child, or your friend's child, you are sharing everything with them that you post online).

it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it

Ultimately, there must be an acknowledgement by schools and parents of the way students manipulate and are manipulated by their online interactions. Only through committed partnership for rehabilitation (for lack of a better word) can we help steer this conversation back towards the infinite value of the tool rather than it being the source of "unhappiness."

Super Heroine Influx

Maybe it’s just me, but I have noticed a significant uptake in Disney’s (and many other realms, for that matter) efforts to enhance their female presence. In highlighting legacy feminine phenoms (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.) and the introduction of today’s leading ladies (Moana, Wonder Woman, to name a couple… yes, I realize that WW is a part of the DC reunion tour), I am THRILLED to see this effort, and not for the young ladies watching today’s shows; but, for the young men. How wonderful is it for our boys to celebrate and worship super heroine archetypes showing that women can be all and more of what previous generations expected from male icons, only.

But my question is this: How do these women display body images that are appropriate for today’s youth? 

What IS appropriate for today’s youth? I appreciate the various “builds”that appear (Moana versus Wonder Woman, for instance) and how ANYONE can be super with determination and grit. But is it enough? I observed a Disney, Jr. commercial showing a laundry list of great heroines… but this all-at-once effort cannot be sustained, can it?

I’d love your thoughts.

Driving towards a better model

Many schools today consider a move towards new learning methods as they seek to improve on traditional school design. A program in which I am participating, called Change.School, consistently stretches my brain to consider ways in which I lead my school and why I have chosen to do so. Some questions presented by a colleague in a recent post had me thinking particularly hard, so I will share my thoughts with you.

1.  What is the role of direct teaching in an inquiry based classroom driven by student questions?

I have researched the National Paideia Center and later had this organization come to train our faculty on a component of their framework: the Paideia seminar. Their stance is that a typical classroom should see about ten to fifteen percent didactic learning (with the vast majority of the remaining time be saved for practical application of knowledge and discussion via the aforementioned seminar). I’m a math guy, so these numbers speak to me as proper guidelines for leaders who want to give learning ownership to the students in the classroom.

2. Is there a role for teacher developed provocations?

I strongly believe in modeling how we expect our students to engage in their learning. Trevor MacKenzie has written Dive into Inquiry, a text that focuses on a gradual release of ownership to students when building an inquiry-based classroom. From phrasing the essential question which guides the inquiry to choosing research methods and the eventual medium to demonstrate learning, MacKenzie explores how to gradually shift each of these pieces to eventually reach “Free Inquiry.” Food for thought (and a good, quick read).

3. Once we determine the exit skills for a variety of stages in the educational development of children, can we give ownership of the standards to the children and allow them to determine how they will demonstrate their proficiency?

I think this is a brilliant idea. But as a senior thesis paper must be “defended,” so too should a student have to defend how and why the chosen demonstration accurately displays proficiency. Perhaps a better question is: “How can a student show learning as opposed to proficiency?” It seems to me that we need to measure progress and development towards mastery and not the snapshot, quantitative value on where a student is at any given moment. Learning is linear and follows its own time…but we can objectively measure that development given the proper rubric to follow.

4. How do we ensure a visibility to the teaching and learning going on in schools and how do we ensure parents are integral partners in the process.

Parents must have a strong level of engagement in the learning process. In the demonstration of proficiency you mentioned in the previous question, I would think that parents should be able to observe and appreciate the level of learning that has transpired. A fun activity would be to build a sort of “passport” for parents or visitors to use as a roadmap to see the different displays of learning to a) build a community that celebrates learning, and b) see the comparative progress made from one student to the next.

5. Should we be co-creating assessment criteria with students and then give them full partnership in assessing their peers and themselves? What does the role of the teacher look like in this environment?

This question brings to mind a slide that my headmaster uses in his presentation on assessment. It looks something like this:

There are 3 types of assessment in today’s classroom:

  1. Assessment FOR learning – enables teachers to use information about students’ knowledge to inform their teaching while providing feedback to students about their learning and how to improve
  2. Assessment AS learning – involves students in the learning process where they monitor their own progress/skill development through self-assessment and teacher feedback. Students can ask questions about their progress as a reflection of their learning and to re-set goals for the future.
  3. Assessment OF learning – the most typical type of assessment in today’s schools; this type of assessment measures student achievement against learning goals and standards.

6. Should attention still be paid to building community and ensuring we are building citizenship skills as well as facilitating student driven inquiry?

In my mind, a student is never going to remember what he learned in 6th grade science; however, she is NEVER going to forget the way that teacher made her FEEL. If you haven’t yet seen Mrs. Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk on relationships, then take some time to do so right now. Why am I a teacher/school leader? To ensure that I am building inquisitive CITIZENS who understand that character builds reputation (not knowledge or skill).

7.  Is there a time when a topic is so compelling a teacher should/must draw it to the attention of students and invite them to investigate?

I think this question goes into my answer for question 2. However, when something like the World Trade Center attacks occurs, we MUST stop and investigate how this changes the world in which we live. Granted, I believe this disruption is both the most difficult and most impactful “teachable moment” an educator has the opportunity to share with his students.


As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on these topics. Thanks for reading!

My “What” and My “Why”

I’m on my way back from Santa Fe, NM, after attending a Division Heads conference for area private school leaders. As I sit in the back of the airplane, I find myself surprised to find a unique opportunity to reflect on my practice. For inspiration in this effort, I turn to the May 2017 issue of Educational Leadership Magazine, particularly to an article entitled, “Is Your School Better Because You Lead It?” by Bondi K. Kafele. Within the article, Kafele asks two questions for the reader to ponder: “What is your work about?” and “Why do you do it?

These are perfect reflection questions for any professional. I will take a slab in building my own answers here.

What is your work about?

There’s nothing like a 30,000 foot question to get me thinking. My work is all about the privileged child and how that young person can better understand the opportunities afforded to him or her because of various, unique environments available either at home or in our school. Facing reality, my 250 students enjoy an elevated classroom experience free of outside, standardized influence when compared to the typical experience which manifests in thousands of public school learning environments because requirements which exist outside of their control often tie their hands behind their backs. It is therefore my role to guide our teachers and students in the conversation that explores how this special opportunity to teach in a private educational environment reveals an obligation to lead others to success. That success manifests in various professional and personal avenues to be appreciated and celebrated.

Why do you do it?

I love kids, plain and simple. I recognize that, as a product of private school learning, I have so much to give to my community with regard to academic knowledge and how to use it as a way to improve the world around us. This gift includes and is most consumed (for me, anyway) by lessons I have learned, good and bad, about the life in a privileged environment. I love how young people see the world, the naivete that their varied experiences bring, and the way that exposures to life outside their “bubble” broaden their scope to reveal passion and identity. I also love the educational environment; I feel comfortable in private education because I am surrounded by like-minded individuals. The various perspectives of my colleagues may not always align with my own, but the beauty inherent inside the ”hows” of education (ie, pedagogy, technology, relationships, etc.) are better shared with those who start from a place of love and responsibility to serving today’s youth in some way, shape, or form.

So, there you have it. What has developed into more of a manifesto than a reflection, I have put to paper my reason for being in education and, specifically, in educational leadership. I hope you have the chance to reflect on your craft as I have today. It’s a refreshing and energizing activity. Please share your thoughts when you do!

if you got a problem…yo, I’ll solve it.

Ice, Ice, Baby

This is a great article, and one worth considering as applicable to students and to the adults in the room. I just returned from a conference with other Division Heads during which Dr. Rob Evans, educational psychologist and author, spoke in the closing session about the “tough conversation” between schools and families. One major connection to this article Kate shared and his talk occurred when he stated,
“We live in a time when opportunities for our children continue to increase exponentially, while predictability of future options has been decreasing just as quickly.” 
It sounds like the coping mechanism for anxiety is often medically prescribed, when, in truth, what we all need is more time; however, I don’t think any remedy outside of a magic wand can provide us more hours in our day. Yet we crave a time to think and reflect on our daily lives, our school schedule, etc. From the very youngest to the CEO, time to think would do us all a world of good and lead to better choices. Dr. Evans goes a bit further to discuss a very poignant fact:

Problems can be fixed; dilemmas can be managed. 

Often times, looking at the way we handle issues in our lives can determine how much anxiety we bring upon ourselves. We cannot control everything, yet our instant life via mobile devices makes us think we can. But true problems are in need of solutions that disrupt the issue and provide a new road to travel. A dilemma is more on the level of inconvenience; perhaps, dilemmas can be serviced better with a bit of white-out rather than trashing the blueprints altogether.
The summer provides me an incredible opportunity, even in the midst of shuttling my boys to and from activities to keep them occupied while I’m at work, to reflect on my practice. I can slow down, think about priorities and (for instance) write about my thoughts in a venue such as this blog. I can think about how I do school; my expectations and reasonings behind various events and actions throughout the year. Most of all, I need to consider what problems I can cut out, and what dilemmas I am capable of fixing.
I hope and pray that your anxiety levels drop with the coming of a slower, or perhaps an alternative schedule this summer. I invite you to view the future weeks with hope and possibility.

Weekly Reflection: Change.School

How will I lead the effort to identify, articulate, and share what my school community believes about how kids learn most powerfully and deeply?

An interesting and difficult question for any sort of community, the question posed above is one that may take an initial look followed by considerable re-visiting. So here goes iteration one:

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 9.16.50 PM

I believe that an institution must commit to a principal identity so that it can sustain its mission…and change its directions in order to maintain that identity. But to build that principal identity, a school will need a captain – not to make all the decisions, necessarily, but to pilot the conversation towards the destination. As the journey twists and turns, this captain will need to navigate the obstacles while never losing sight on the destination. In this vein, I am blessed to be a part of an institution with a strong identity. We know who we are in our market, and we embrace the culture we invite wholeheartedly.

This confidence does not arrive without consistent reflection and communication among faculty and parents. Here is how we currently invite the tough conversations to occur throughout the school year:

  1. Every Monday, teachers have a professional learning committee, division, or content area meeting to attend. These meetings each have specific goals to attain. Some of them are tangible, others are quite abstract. In any regard, the conversations are designed with the endgame being a common language or thought process. We want everyone to be on the same page, and we mix up the individuals in the conversation (and the questions asked, for that matter) so that the individual is responsible both for what he/she thinks, and what the group in the previous meeting has brought to light.
  2. Parents of our students are invited to numerous “Parent Ed” programs that focus on both the conversations that occur inside our faculty and administrative meetings. Additionally, these meetings allow for time that parents use to ask directed questions about program design and expectations. It is a great time to galvanize trust while still empowering voices to share.
  3. Finally, I personally encourage faculty members to invest in  “innovation days,” or days in which someone may cover their classroom while they pursue ideas that would improve our community. These ideas are vetted and given a framework (by me, together with that faculty member) so that teachers have a voice on sending us in the right direction.

With these three pieces, I believe we create a community that is transparent and trusting of the program we provide our students. I am thrilled at each opportunity to connect and learn!

Barbie Bungee Blowout: An Innovative Design Project

Keeping things simple (but crisp), our eighth grade students are meeting the “wonder and wander” time of the year head-on during their Integrated Physics and Chemistry class. Students had to predict the number of connected rubber bands needed to grant a Barbie doll the ability “bungie jump” from our balcony to the base level floor. Barbie had to drop safely, but also to arrive as closely as possible to the ground. One partner dropped the doll while the other measured the minimum distance from the ground.

An iPad recorded this attempt in super slow-motion. Enjoy!

 

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