Middle schoolers and their digital literacy

2015-05-20_0939Last PTA meeting of the school year last night and a vigorous discussion about social media, its use and (particularly) misuse by middle schoolers, and multiple ideas on helping these young people and their parents better understand the issues around any person’s missteps in the digital arena. I was most intrigued by some of the larger, more systemic issues raised: One parent talked about the issue of school culture and just what is “acceptable discourse,” no matter the delivery mechanism. Another parent talked about the power over their peers that social media allows some kids to exert. I left the meeting thinking that it’s not just about Instagram and Ask.fm and the annual cyber-bullying speaker, but it’s about the long-term, it’s about teaching, it’s about a more comprehensive approach with our kids that helps them understand their digital profile and become digitally literate.

I wrote about this issue last September and last night’s meeting also got me thinking about this article from The Atlantic, called Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web, by Alia Wong. In the article Wong highlights Reuben Loewy’s work, particularly his Living Online Curriculum, a “curriculum for the digital age.” As Wong writes,

Loewy’s “revelation wasn’t simply that technology is overhauling America’s classrooms and redefining childhood and adolescence. Rather, he was hit with the epiphany that efforts in schools to embrace these shifts are, by and large, focusing on the wrong objectives: equipping kids with fancy gadgets and then making sure the students use those gadgets appropriately and effectively. Loewy half-jokingly compares the state of digital learning in America’s schools to that of sex ed, which, as one NYU education professor describes it, entails ‘a smattering of information about their reproductive organs and a set of stern warnings about putting them to use.'”

Loewy is developing the Living Online Curriculum for high school students – although that seems too late, given middle schoolers’ immersion into digital realms – and it has a dozen units/modules, such as “Privacy,” “A is for Algorithm,” “Digital Activism” and “Cyberpsychology.” His curriculum’s first unit, called “Identity,” “gives students insight ‘into how their identities may be unconsciously shaped by digital media and online socialization.'” The summary of the unit goes on: “We will examine how individuals craft and express their identities across multiple online and offline contexts and discuss the implications of having different identities, avatars, and facets of ourselves across different networks.”

Now, sure, there seem to be variety of roadblocks to this approach, all of which Wong delineates in her article: Teachers are already being asked to implement all kinds of programs, and here’s yet another; the shifting sands of new digital tools – last night was the first I’d heard of how Ask.fm works – means that this curriculum would need to be constantly updated; and adults will be asked to implement this curriculum, both teachers and, I hope, parents, and we’re always slightly behind the digital curve.

But we need to take the long view on this work, a comprehensive approach, as I said above. The article’s finish: Without “understanding the intricacies and dynamics of the Internet,” Loewy states, “”you’re not taking advantage of everything digital technology offers. Without the knowledge, you’re not able to take advantage of the web and navigate it properly. You can’t be an informed, responsible, and critical member of society if you don’t have the education.” It’s a new kind of civics education, right? And the actions of young people in our digital society are not something that we can sit back and react to; we need to be proactive and intentional and help young people build the right skills and knowledge for it, as we do with reading and writing and mathematics and the other mainstays of school.

I got the above pic via the link for the Atlantic article.

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Students keeping organized with online tools

Google-Docs-Online-Training-Made-Easy1Let me rant once again about teachers using different tools for learning and their impact on kids (such as our own): It is frustrating and, worse, detrimental in their attempts to keep organized. You might remember this post from two years ago, in which I argued that having consistent processes in classes across a school building – such as the way teachers post homework on their whiteboards – just might aid the organizational horror show that is a middle schooler. Well, I’m back at this idea, and this time it’s about the use of different learning online platforms or tools.

Why is it that some teachers (a minority in our school) are using Google Docs and other Google Classroom tools, while others continue to rely on posting Word docs to the online portal that kids log into? Why is that one teacher uses a system completely different from this online portal? Even the way teachers deal with creating and posting docs at the portal can cause issues at home: My son and I tried to download a doc from one teacher and paste it into a Google Doc but could not, since what had been created was not text but an image. Google Docs could not read the image. Heaven help any student trying to use a Chromebook to do his or her work, given teachers’ continued reliance on Microsoft products.

Middle school students are so organizationally challenged that any middle school needs to have a single and consistent approach to its teachers’ use of digital tools. I can no longer buy the “easing in” of certain tools that happens in school buildings, as some teachers get used to new things while others do not even need to bother with them. Whole swaths of disorganized kids suffer as technologies are “eased in.”

I asked some of my peeps to chime in, to make sure I was not a raving lunatic, and here’s what teacher/librarian/media specialist Emily Auerswald had to say:

Middle schoolers have so much going on (and often school is the least of it!) that trying to figure out which teacher is posting what, where, and in which format can be overwhelming. Who wouldn’t be tempted to throw in the towel when you can’t get the attachment to open because you’re on a different platform? Schools: Please pick one plan and stick to it. Remind your teachers that the challenge in the assignment shouldn’t be getting the assignment.

And from Steve Isaacs, a middle school teacher from New Jersey:

In our school we use something somewhat uniform called the homework portal, which is linked from the teacher lesson planning site. So, if a teacher enters his or her homework…in the lesson plan, it automatically shows up in the homework portal. In class, I have seen a variety of approaches. Our students do all get an assignment book which, if they use, should provide a fairly consistent structure. In addition, teachers have their own website (essentially a requirement). I believe most teachers are pretty good about posting resources and such on their site, and so students become accustomed to look there. I’m not sure how consistent it is, and I agree with your point about the organizational challenges.

Thanks, Emily and Steve, for your thoughts. Let’s hope that more and more schools and school systems see that online platform consistency can help kids keep organized – or at least not further impede the organizational challenges that can come at certain grade levels. Let’s not make platform juggling a problem that kids have to solve before they even get to their assignments.

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Fun and games


Last night, before I hit the hay, I played a game on our tablet. Yup. Actually sat down in the sun room and, for about 30 minutes, played World of Goo by 2D Boy, an older game but one I really like. We bought this game a few years ago, for our Wii, and just got it on the tablet, and it worked just fine. Was fun too.

The object in World of Goo is to collect goo balls by building various structures towards a small vacuum pipe, which sucks out the requisite goo balls needed to get to the next level. All structures built are governed by the laws of physics, and different levels have different obstacles that your structures need to get around. Last night, for example, I had to build a bridge across a chasm – see below – and needed to ensure that that the front end of the bridge was not built in a manner to cause the back end to lift off ground and topple. And that’s one of the easier levels.

bridgeOK, so what’s with World of Goo and playing these games? Well, a few months ago, I went to an education technology conference up in Baltimore and heard several teachers talk about their use of games in their classrooms – and, no, they weren’t talking about Oregon Trail. Justin Eames, a tech teacher in Baltimore, shared that he used the narrative exploratory game Gone Home in his classroom, and a quick search of that game led me to the website of Paul Darvasi, a high school English teacher in Toronto who’s using Gone Home as a text in his senior English class.

Gone Home is sure not Oregon Trail. It’s a first person game with no pre-set goal. Katie Greenbriar (which is you, as you play the game) comes home to find her family’s mansion empty and wanders through it on a mission of discovery, looking at household objects, finding notes and other items, creating a path or narrative through this abandoned house. Through a text, as Paul Darvasi would say. In fact, Paul writes in his blog that when he first read a review of Gone Home, he asked himself, “Was this a video game critique or a book review?” Here’s more from Paul’s blog:

The game opens in the mansion’s covered front porch, it’s pitch black outside, and a thunderstorm rages. Katie drops her bags and finds an enigmatic and worrisome note from her younger sister, Sam, pinned to the front door. The note sets up the game’s key conflicts – where are Sam and her parents? What happened to the family while Katie was away? What secrets are harbored in the family’s new home? Will she encounter ghosts and ghouls on this dark and stormy night, or simply some skeletons in the closet?

Gone-Home-Video-Game-WallpaperThese teachers and what they had to say at the conference and then Paul’s blog about using Gone Home in his class piqued my interest: What games are teachers using in their classrooms, beyond what I might call content-focused skill-and-drill games? How’s the use of games such as Gone Home, one not built for the K-12 classroom, changing a typical classroom – and just what does learning look like in those classrooms?

So I started my own playing/gaming with World of Goo, thinking about how a teacher of physics or physical science might use it to support/explore content from the class. Not sure I have any thoughtful answers just yet, but, yes, even World of Goo has spurred research: See this paper by Florida State’s Valerie Shute and Yoon Jeon Kim, called Does Playing the World of Goo Facilitate Learning? In it they write

Our beliefs motivating this research are twofold: (a) it is important to develop valid models and assessments for complex knowledge and skills that are required for success in the 21st century; and (b) assessments can be embedded within video games to support such skills that are currently not being assessed and supported. Our goal is to illustrate how people can develop educationally valuable skills (e.g., problem solving and causal reasoning) by playing a well-designed video game that is not explicitly developed for educational purposes.

gonehome3I know that I’m just nibbling at this new area – new for me, that is – and I feel strongly that well-designed games, whether specifically for the classroom or not, can be an important part of a teacher’s instructional arsenal. Imagine a classroom where an online game is central to the work of the teacher and her students, where it might serve as the text, as Paul is doing with Gone Home, or be an environment for a connected series of scientific experiments, all building on skills learned from the previous, as World of Goo seems to be. Imagine students playing the game on their own or in small teams. Imagine them coming back to the larger group, for discussion, or going off to a corner to write and think about their learning. Imagine the teacher’s role, as she coaches her students as they play the game, as they write, as they share ideas and discuss. Imagine students learning both content and processes or skills, such as the steps to the scientific method. Yes, it’s like the best classrooms that we’ve already seen, in many ways. But with that game at its center – and a well-designed, multidimensional game – it might also be very different.

I look forward to sharing more as I learn. This will be fun, I know. Yes, fun and games. Fun and games and learning too.

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More tech, please!

A mimeograph

A mimeograph

Let me see if I can connect three separate little moments over the past week, related to tech and the organizational life of a middle schooler. I think, when they are pulled together, they give me something to say.

  • First, an email exchange with one of my son’s teachers about a handout. When I asked if he could email us a software version of the handout, he said that he could not since he was not near a scanner. A scanner!? Does that mean that there is no software version of this handout, as if it is some mimeograph copy from long ago?
  • Second, my wife’s comment that our son’s binder, when opened, produces “a confetti of handouts;” it’s rather mind-boggling the number of single sheets of paper that he gets each week – and has to keep track of.
  • Third, I was in two Ohio schools recently that have very open policies about technology, with one-to-one Chromebooks in one. That same school has a BYOD policy, and kids do not need to power down their phones when they come to school. In my brief time in that building, during one of the passing periods, kids were not huddled in a corner, looking at their devices; they were walking down the halls chatting with each other. All seemed perfectly normal.

OK, so here’s my point: Why is it that kids still get handouts, particularly middle schoolers that are struggling with organizational issues? Why aren’t all of these handouts online (most are but not all)? And why do these kids actually have to write on these handouts, rather than use something like Google Docs for the composition and handing in of homework, etc.? I find it mind-boggling that these kind of technology-related solutions are not taught to kids from the get go.

I asked Wes Weaver, the principal of one of the schools I visited when I was in Ohio, for his thoughts, and he struck another note about the “confetti of handouts:”

My beef with worksheets is that students will do them methodically, for the most part with remarkable rates of compliance, which gives the appearance of content coverage and feeds the work/reward-work/reward-work/reward mentality that is symptomatic of traditional grading. That works right up until it doesn’t. For some students, it stops working when they realize the worksheets have no relevance to real life, whatsoever, which is to say at ages 14-16. To our most compliant students who believe our hype about college, the time spent on worksheets is just a few more minutes on the mouse-wheel of academic “rigor,” another boring exercise in the death march we call school.

Yes, Wes has strong feelings about this subject (!!), and he runs a darn good school. Give him a shout when you’re next in Newark, Ohio.

So, two things: Worksheets can impede the organizational issues that many middle schoolers struggle with. They do not allow a middle schooler like our son to organize his life digitally, “in much the way,” as Wes also wrote, “he will have to do for himself in higher education and the rest of his life.” And worksheets, for the most part, are compliance-oriented busy work, again as Wes described. Ugh.

Now, I will say that there is some light at the end of the worksheet tunnel, as one of our son’s teachers has started using Google Drive and Docs, and he has taken to it pretty well, his first venture into that territory. I’m glad now that he can write things at school or here at home and not have to email what he’s written to himself, so that he has the latest version. And I like what he did with a classmate, as they shared a Google Doc around a project and worked on it together, even from afar. Like I said, that’s a start – towards more technologically-driven organization and more authentic work.

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Keeping my mouth shut

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Yesterday, our son was reading a caption of a photograph of Sam Houston from his history textbook and exclaimed, “Texas was its own country?! And this guy Sam Houston was its president?!” I started to open my mouth, to talk about the Alamo and Texas’s independence from Mexico, but I stopped and repeated to myself my mantra for this school year: Keep your mouth shut. “Hey,” I instead said, “Look up Texas in your book’s index or see what you can find via a Google search.” He did, did some reading, and then went off to finish his math homework. (You can read more about Sam Houston and the Texas Revolution here.)

In the past, the teacher side of me has been way too eager to answer his queries, about the branches of the federal government to the Pythagorean theorem to the definition of a gerund. Sure, it’s great to interact with our son over the scintillating topic of gerunds – and my goodness, gerund phrases! – but it does him a disservice. He has at his fingertips, with his phone and laptop, everything that he needs to discover information on his own, and we need to encourage him to do just that: To use the unlimited resources of the interweb. To be his own searcher, discoverer, miner, digger, etc. (Feel free to devise your own metaphor.)

I’m often surprised that that searching is not second nature to him, but that might be due to a combination of several things: (1) My previous enabling. (2) The belief that his phone and computer are for watching YouTube videos and other entertainment. (3) The lack of training that he’s had when it comes to searching the internet, both from us and from school. Given all that, it was interesting to go back to this 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, called How Teens Do Research in the Digital World, and look at its findings in the context of our 13-year-old. Here’s what jumped out at me:

  • 64% of teachers surveyed said that today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”
  • 76% of teachers strongly agreed that “internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.”
  • 83% agreed that “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students.”
  • Many teachers suggested that their “students are surprisingly lacking in their online search skills,” with 43% of teachers rating students “poor” in “patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find.”
  • Lastly, when asked about curriculum changes in middle and high schools, 91% of surveyed teachers “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that “courses or content focusing on digital literacy must be incorporated into every school’s curriculum.”

Sure, take a look at the full report, since I cherry-picked some of the more ugly findings. I find the last two bullet points interesting and relevant to the issue here at home – this lack of “patience and determination” and the need to teach digital literacy – not just at school but also here at home. We can’t just assume that it comes naturally; these “digital natives” (how I loathe that phrase) need much guidance and training, no matter how confident they might feel at their ability to text, to scroll through an Instagram account, or to watch and comment on a video about dogs sitting on cats.

That guidance and training is even more critical during the middle grades years, when significant brain development and sculpting is happening – see this past post – and the influences of teachers, parents, society, and technology are critical to that development and sculpting. It’s not enough then to simply keep my mouth shut and leave our son to his own devices (so to speak). Just as important is the help that I can give with the search and with the review of what was found, keeping in mind that this is a process, that one successful Google search does not make for an effective researcher and learner. We’re building a set of skills, and that takes time and effort.

So maybe a new mantra: No easy answers from me. Offer help with the search. Repeat.

I got the pic of Sam Houston here.

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Our son the maker

selbitOur 7th grader was up early this morning, to finish studying for a Chinese language quiz this afternoon, and at one point, he dashed upstairs for what I thought was more blank flashcards but then came downstairs to ask, in all seriousness, “Do we have any beeswax?” Yes, studying was over for the time being, and we were on to building a new magic trick. Our son the magician; our son the maker.

OK, some background. He got interested in magic several months ago and has been feverishly pursuing its study. When I was a kid, I remember that learning card tricks or sleight of hand was through books, but nowadays, as with everything else, people learn magic through websites such as Theory 11 or Ellusionist, online magic shops that offer books and card decks and DVDs, but from which you can also purchase for immediate viewing a video of a trick, to study and learn. Here, for example, is the preview video to sleight of hand effects by magician Dan Hauss:

Pretty cool, huh? (Pretty slick video, too, huh?)

So that”s the magic world these days: Go to an online site, find a trick you like, purchase the downloadable video, and learn it. And while some tricks rely on a ring and a coin – as with Dan Hauss’s – or just a deck of cards, there are others that require assembly. Hence, the request for beeswax this morning or for the variety of other items we’ve gone off to the hardware store to search for, as he comes up with his own ideas for tricks and illusions and needs materials to build them. There are times when his desk looks laboratory-like – bent paper clips, loose change, thread, Super Glue, Magic Markers, etc. (I will not give a ton of detail; I don’t want to betray his magical work.) Looking at that desk last week, I got to thinking: This kid is a maker too.

Do you know this whole maker, DIY ethos? See, for example, this video of the World’s Greatest Paper Roller Coaster, by Andrew Gatt, a middle school science teacher:

Andrew the middle school science teacher is a great maker to highlight – see his paper roller coaster website here – since I’m interested in the maker-related events that happen with or at schools, such as the Mini-Maker Faire that ran in Charlottesville last October and was partially sponsored by the forward thinking Albermarle County Public Schools. The folks at Albermarle schools get it: Some learning needs to be hands on, and this maker/DIY movement is a great way to bring hands on learning into schools and the classrooms. Build huge paper roller coasters, like Andrew Gatt, and learn about physics and mathematics and those “soft skills” like working with your peers.

I know that I’ve squawked before about classroom instruction and its, at times, narrow approach: Textbooks, kids at desks, teacher at the classroom’s front, discussion, homework and assessment that is paper and pencil. And, yes, full disclosure: When I taught, I did so rather narrowly too. Well, I’m squawking again, for that question from our middle schooler – “Have we got any beeswax?” – encapsulated so much for me about him and his learning these days. He was out of his chair, the textbook pushed aside, pulling together materials for a new trick. In fact, I wonder what he might’ve learned if we had beeswax. Its melting point. It molding properties. What does it stick to and not stick to? Sure, he needed to study Chinese for the quiz, and I will admit that I was a little anxious about that studying getting done. But chill, Dad: It got done. and his question made me realize that this kid needs more opportunities to learn in the manner that he’s learning magic. He’s learning it by doing, by trial and error, by creating stuff with his hands. And by performing.

OK, now where can I find some beeswax?

I got the Selbit image here.

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