Most people have now heard about the mom who gave her 13 year old son an iPhone for Christmas and included an 18-point contract to go along with it.

I’ve read lots of comments on various blogs and news websites supporting and criticizing the idea, but the important thing for me is that it has generated lots of conversations about the place of technology in our lives. Wanting to build on that idea, I created a mini lesson around this letter for my teachers to use in their Advisory or Flex classes:

When mom Janell Burley Hoffman gave her 13 year-old son an iPhone for Christmas, she included a parent-child contract which she also posted to her blog. There are several ways that this can be used in a Flex or advisory period:

Possible pre-activity discussion: before introducing the idea of the letter, ask who has a phone, and how many students have any kind of agreement with their parents that came with the phone. Is this a verbal or written agreement? What are some of the rules or expectations that have been set-out? All grade 7 & 8 students have a laptop; how many have a written or verbal laptop contract with their parents? What kind of expectations are there?

Either read the letter aloud or have students read it to themselves silently. Then, do one or some of the following:

    1. Have students rank the 18 rules: which ones could they most live with versus least live with? Which ones do they most dislike but know that they are “good for them”? This could be done as a think-pair-share activity.
    2. Randomly assign one rule to each student. Have them either defend it from the parent’s perspective or explain why it’s unfair from the child’s perspective.
    3. Give the 18 rules to your students in text form (via a Haiku Discussion Forum, an email, or GoogleDocs) and ask them to play the part of a parent. They are about to give a smart-phone to their own 13 year-old child. Have them drawn up their own phone contract. They can use all or none of the 18 rules that Janell Burley Hoffman came up with. They can adjust them or even add some of their own. The benefit of using a Haiku Discussion Forum for this is that each of your students can then post their version of their own contract as a new post so that everyone else in the class can read it.

Whichever activity is done, the important thing is to have an open discussion about appropriate etiquette when using technology. Most of these 18 rules aren’t about online safety at all; instead, they’re about common courtesy and could be applied to lots of social situations.

Switching roles

Posted: 14 November 2011 in teaching

When I used to teach seventh grade English and social studies, one of my favorite activities would be to have students teach mini lessons to their peers. In middle school, the best topics for students to teach are ones that they have seen before but haven’t quite mastered. In English class, that would include teaching rules of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary. Allowing the students some freedom for how to teach a particular topic meant that they could get creative (and interested) in a topic which might not otherwise hold their interest. The fact that they would be the ones up in front of their peers meant that they worked extra hard to master the topic at hand so that they could pass on that knowledge.

Sometimes having a student-teacher at the front of the class was a spur of the moment thing; for example, when a student would scoff at how easy a particular topic was, I would often step aside and offer them the chance to teach the class. Whether they then went on to successfully teach the topic or struggle painfully to the realization that teaching is a lot harder than it looks, the “student-teacher” and the students in the class would invariable get something positive out of the experience.

Now that I am a technology coordinator, my formal time in the classroom is less frequent, so I don’t have as many opportunities to offer students the chance to become a teacher. However, twice during the last school year I had students give me guitar lessons, and even though I am no closer to becoming the next Tim Reynolds or ‪Rodrigo y Gabriela‬, both experiences reminded me of how valuable it is to allow students the chance to become the teacher. In fact, it did more than remind me; it allowed me to experience what it is like to be a student in a way that I hadn’t experienced since I had to take a statistics class in graduate school (I was so lost, I had to go buy the book Statistics for Dummies, and even then I struggled). When I allowed students to teach mini lessons in my English classes, I was still in my role as a teacher in the classroom. But trying to learn how to play the guitar put me back in the role of being a complete novice, and it was a humbling experience.

guitar lesson

Anyone trying to teach me how to play the guitar has to be incredibly patient.

I used to be surprised (and sometimes annoyed, but only inwardly) when students couldn’t grasp what I felt were basic and easy computer-related tasks. But learning how to play the guitar has reminded me that everyone has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to picking up new skills. For me, figuring out a new application is often an interesting challenge, but it’s not something that stumps or frustrates me. However, trying to get my fingers to reach the correct string and apply enough pressure to create the sound of a “C” and then a “D” is something that caused me to reconsider whether I really wanted to learn to play the guitar.

It would have been easy to give up had it not been for the approach of both of my former students who tried to teach me how to play. They highlighted all the best qualities of a good teacher: they broke down a complex project into a series of simple steps; they checked for understanding along the way; when I struggled to accomplish a task, they offered encouragement along with an alternative way to reach the same goal; and they were calm and patient no matter how frustrated or slow their student was. It also helped that both of my “teachers” obviously loved the subject that was being taught. That love of playing the guitar was infectious enough to encourage me to continue trying even when I experienced so little success; I wanted to be able to feel that same sense of excitement.

And for a brief moment, when I was able to slowly pluck out a passable version of “Smoke on the Water,” that sense of accomplishment did encourage me to want to learn more. And, these experiences have encouraged me to look for other ways I can allow students to take on the role of being the teacher – both for their benefit and mine.

According to a recent Guardian article, two men who set up separate Facebook “Events” pages encouraging people to riot have been sentenced to four years in prison. It didn’t matter that there is no evidence that a single person committed a crime as a result of those pages. According to the courts, the potential to cause such harm and destruction is enough to have justified the sentence. Regardless of whether I believe the sentence is fair or not, it’s a real-world example for my students that they have to take responsibility for what they post online. Too often people feel that they can write whatever they want online regardless of how outrageous it is and never have to face the consequences. These two men are about to pay a heavy cost so that the courts can demonstrate that what you post can come back to haunt you.

More than once in the last few days, I’ve read or heard professional journalists blaming some of the violence in London on social networking – usually Blackberry’s BBM or Twitter. But if you read the articles closely, the headlines are more dramatic than the content within. For example, the London Metro trumpets, “Tottenham Riots: Police chief blames Twitter for ‘organising criminality’” but when you read what the police chief says in the article, it’s actually, “Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality.” It may sound like the same thing, but there’s a big difference between the headline (blame Twitter) and the actual quote (Twitter was used by those who are to blame). The Evening Standard even had a headline tonight that some of the rioters were inspired by the game Grand Theft Auto. Where did that come from? Just from one quote from an anonymous constable who said, “When I was young it was all Pacman and board games. Now they’re playing Grand Theft Auto and want to live it for themselves” (Fear and a sense of loss amid high street’s smoking ruins). I plan to use these articles with my journalism students as examples of poor journalism.

Finally, a BBC article (Is technology to blame for the London riots?) takes a more balanced look at the issue. Even if rioters and looters did use BBM or Twitter to organize where they planned to cause trouble, the blame still can’t lie with the technology; the responsibility lies with the people using it.

The Doonesbury comic from Sunday, July 31 includes a panel that kids can cut out and tape to the family computer:

This is, of course, assuming that they’re reading it on newsprint or want to take the time to print it out and then cut it out.

But it reminded me of all the music concerts that I have attended over the years at my school. I almost always sit in the back, both to give the parents the seats closest to their own children and to allow for a quick exit as soon as the concert is over. It never ceases to dismay me how many little Blackberry and iPhone screens I can see twinkling in the darkened theater throughout the duration of each concert. I’m discounting those that are being used to take photos; I’m only thinking about the ones that are obviously being used for messaging. This sad practice of multitasking is distracting to other audience members whose eyes can’t help but be drawn to the lights from the screens as they are picked up and then put back down on laps. Worse, it’s sending a message to the kids on stage. I’ve heard from them, and yes, they can see that their parents aren’t actually paying attention to them on stage because their noses are stuck in their own digital devices. And yet parents wonder why their children ignore them when they’re on Facebook or instant messaging? It’s easy to forget that kids are always watching adults (even when we think that they’re not), and they are learning from how we act.

Probably the only thing worse than the digital multitaskers during concerts are the parents who get up and leave as soon as their child has finished performing even though there are other groups still to perform. But that’s a whole different rant…

Spelling still matters

Posted: 14 July 2011 in teaching

An article on the BBC website, Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in lost online sales, points out that while it may be okay to neglect your spelling in a text or on Facebook, mistakes on professional websites can actually cause consumers to mistrust a site and therefore take their business elsewhere. In some cases, poor spelling or grammar can be a good thing – it’s often the easiest way to figure out that an otherwise professional looking email is actually a phishing attempt to get you to divulge personal information. But I’ve always told my students that poor spelling and grammar can undo everything else they’ve tried to accomplish. It can cause your résumé (CV) to be binned before a recruiter even bothers with the content, or it could convince a search committee to choose a rival company’s proposal.

Adults may be able to choose when to be formal and when to relax their use of proper spelling and grammar online, but I’ve always told my students that once they allow themselves to get into bad habits, it will be hard to break free of them, and then careless errors will start creeping into their formal work. I’ve always said that it’s better to be overly “proper” even in casual situations than to slip up and cost yourself a job, a big contract, or a promotion.

The Online Education Database has a great graphic that I plan to share with middle school students at my school in the fall. It is not a “sky is falling” harbinger of doom, but it does shed some light on both the positive and negative aspects of social networking on students’ lives. And although the data comes from college-age students, the statistics on the impact on social networking use while studying correspond to the latest brain research on multitasking. For grade 7 and 8 students, this may be something that could be used during an advisory period to spark discussion about study habits that might allow students to share strategies for how they avoid distractions.

Is Social Media Ruining Students?