Monday, 23 May 2011

Age limits on Facebook? We have bigger issues to address.

Mark Zuckerberg thinks that kids under 13 should be able to have Facebook profiles.

Parents are outraged.

It's too late.

Anybody can sign up for Facebook with a false birthdate and, with or without permission, many teen and pre-teen students are already interacting through social media.  Most are jumping into the online world with little to no education; this is the problem that parents and teachers should be tackling, not ineffective age limits.

I do not believe that young children should be allowed to use the internet unsupervised, but the debate around Facebook should not simply be "Should kids use it?"  Social media is not going anywhere.  We should be asking, "How and when should my kids use it?" and "How am I going to teach my students to use the internet responsibly?"

Demonizing and banning access to Facebook will not make the dangers of online communication disappear.  The social media website is frequently in the news and, as a result, many parents think that the best response is to keep their children from using Facebook until they hit a particular age.  I wonder if these parents are aware that other platforms allow just as much, or more, personal information to be revealed in very public forums.

While their Facebook feeds are often secure for "friends only," many students leave their Twitter feeds public for anybody to see.

Blogging is nothing new; countless different websites allow teens to post lengthy journal entries.  Many reveal too much information about their personal lives for the world to see, even when they think that they are being careful to maintain anonymity.

The popularity of Tumblr is also increasing as students seek to post more lengthy entries than Facebook or Twitter will allow.

Social media isn't the problem; the way students use it is.  We would never let teens drive a car, use a tool, or cook a meal without prior instruction.  Why do we think that turning thirteen (or sixteen or eighteen) entitles students to post content online without any preparation?

It is not acceptable for parents and teachers to say, "I just don't understand the technology" or "The kids are so much better at this than I am."  If adults don't learn to use these programs safely and responsibly, how can we expect students to do so?

Educators and parents must educate themselves, model responsible online interactions, and discuss appropriate use on a regular basis.  "Internet Addiction" and excessive use are concerns; students need to be taught when it is and is not appropriate to use social media.  Parents must recognize the importance of online social connections, but it is fair and reasonable to limit the number of hours that teens spend online.  Educators must be aware of meaningful learning opportunities available online and provide students with the tools they need to access, interpret, analyze, and cite information as they learn.

If students are not aware of appropriate online conduct and security concerns before they begin using social media, we are denying them the knowledge they need to stay safe, maintain positive relationships with peers, and keep their reputations intact.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

It's not chaos! It's 21st century learning!

I thought of this video recently, during one of the Health and Career 8 classes I teach.  The class could only be described as "in a state of organized chaos" and I loved every minute.

During our current unit, students have been exploring the consequences of substance abuse.  Additionally, we have been discussing the influence of advertising in teen culture.  In a recent class, students were asked to create an ad, based on our substance abuse unit.  We discussed possible formats for them to use and messages for them to convey.  We established criteria together, and students were reminded of reputable websites that they could use when seeking additional information.

Excited teenagers and furniture were soon scattered everywhere.  Several groups began writing and rehearsing skits, debating about whether or not elements of their ads were effective.  Others got to work on the computers, researching statistics that would make an impact before creating their ads.  One group used an animation program to "storyboard" their plot with stick figures.  Artistic students circled around desks, drawing magazine-style ad pages with catchy slogans.  It was loud at times, but nobody was off task.  The students were learning, but not from a lecture.  They discussed, debated, questioned, and researched together.  While circling the room, I could see that every single student was actively participating in his or her chosen format.  Two groups chose to get together after school to create short films.  When I told them that they could have extra class time to film, as I didn't want them to have homework, their response surprised me. "It's not homework!  It's fun!"  Wow.

It takes a while to get to this place, but I love it.  It's so great to see every student engaged and involved in the task at hand.

As I walked around, talking to students, I realized how significantly my view of "classroom management" has shifted since I was in high school.  When I was a student, I probably would have thought that a class like this was chaotic and disorganized.  In my mind, "good classroom management" mean that all students were working on the same assignment at the same time with very little chatter.

Times have changed!  I have come to realize that when all students are actively participating, excitedly chattering, learning, questioning, and meeting the learning outcomes, it is not chaos; it's twenty-first century learning.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

I See Orange People

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi
At least once each summer, I have the opportunity to try out a Haley Joel Osmet impression and fearfully whisper, "I see orange people."  Throughout the Lower Mainland, people with sun-damaged skin walk among us.

As a secondary school teacher, I hear students talking about tanning beds each year, particularly as summer and graduation approach.  Their enthusiasm about tanning surprised me as this is not an uneducated generation.  Their parents had them slathered with sunscreen and topped with caps throughout their childhood.  Elementary school teachers taught them to "Slip, Slop, Slap" each year and, in Planning 10, they learned about sun damage and skin cancer.  At this point, sun safety should be as instinctive as oven safety for teens, but tanning continues to be a pre-graduation ritual for many.

When the subject of tanning beds came up in one of my Family Studies classes recently, a few seconds of this clip followed my comments about skin cancer and premature aging.  I decided that if "It's bad for you" isn't working to curb this celebrity-inspired trend, perhaps "You look silly" will.

Then, my students introduced me to the recently released YouTube clip, "Dear 16-year-old Me." This short ad was far more moving and effective than any statistics that I could share.  I love it when students show me cool things.

In the fall, as school grad committees are established, a "Tan Free Challenge" would be an excellent addition to the agenda.  The Canadian Cancer Society visited a tan-free grad and provides information about the effects of tanning and interviews with tan-free teens online.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Is A School Website Enough?

Whether we like it or not, online culture is shifting from "checking information" to "receiving information."  People don't "surf" anymore; they "subscribe."

I know this because am one of those people.  Rather than checking favourite websites every week or month, I use Google Reader to receive information when they are updated.  This saves time and allows me to "follow" more websites than I could visit individually.  Twitter is another example of this; I follow news feeds and interesting information through my computer and phone.  Stores such as Canadian Tire and Futureshop send e-mail updates when an item on my "price watch" list goes on sale.  I am becoming quite accustomed to receiving information rather than seeking it, and so are our students.

E-mail and social media are the most time-efficient and effective ways for schools to communicate with families.  Busy parents don't have time to check each page on the school website daily.  Students are used to receiving information through social media.  If schools want to improve communication between school and home, they need to get information to families.  Of course, staff members are busy as well, so this needs to be an efficient process.

As mentioned in a previous post about Google Docs, Google Forms has been a valuable tool for collecting contact information from graduating students and their parents.  I use this information to send e-mail updates from staff and parent graduation committees.  If parents don't receive the information, updates are also located on the "grad" section of the school website.

With the increasing popularity of Facebook and Twitter, communicating with students via e-mail is not as efficient as it once was.  Almost every member of their peer group is on Facebook, so students don't check their e-mail often.  Now that Facebook has released e-mail addresses, students can receive "regular" e-mail through the Facebook platform.  Encouraging students to register their Facebook e-mail addresses with the school would help to reach students through the existing e-mail communication systems that many schools have in place.

Facebook and Twitter pages would be effective additions to school communication at the secondary level.  I resisted the urge to use these for graduation communication because I simply don't have the time to update the grad webpages, send e-mails, and update these programs.  Time constraints are no longer an issue, however.  Recently, my fabulous colleague Matt began using Posterous to simultaneously update a website and Twitter account.  A school-wide Posterous account could be a huge advantage for sending daily updates.  Anything from "The soccer game has been canceled" to "Tomorrow's block order is EFGH" could be instantly shared across a school through RSS feeds, Twitter, Blogger, Tumblr, Wordpress, and/or Facebook through an e-mail from a staff member.  Documents such as newsletters can be attached, as well.

While the popularity of e-mail is decreasing among students, parents seem to appreciate e-mail updates and check their e-mail addresses more frequently than ever.  Eliminating "phone tag" is convenient for teachers and parents alike and electronic e-mail newsletters save time and paper.

I would love to hear how other schools are communicating with students and their families.  What is your school trying?  What works?  What doesn't?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Please Do Not Feed The Trolls!

A few weeks ago, I would have thought that this was a "one in a million" issue:

It turns out that "RIP Trolling" is a very real problem and I have discussed it with a number of students this week.

"Trolls" are people who post messages online in order to receive angry responses from others.  They love controversy and have been around as long as I have been online.  Even in the days of dial-up internet, there was always somebody on a message board or in a chat room who clearly sought negative attention through inappropriate comments.

This new group of "RIP Trolls," however, isn't just found commenting on public forums.  They use news articles and social media to find pages where grieving teens gather online.  Upsetting and offensive messages are posted where friends and family members of the deceased can see them.  Grieving teens are likely to respond emotionally, and often aggressively.  "RIP Trolls" love passionate responses and the attention of many.

Twitter has become an increasingly popular means of communication for teens.  While many have established secure settings on Facebook, they choose to keep their Twitter feeds public.  Unfortunately, this means that if they post an "RIP" message after somebody's death, those searching the person's name can easily find grieving teens and contact them.  As well, if they tweet a message to a Twitter account belonging to the deceased, others can search for and read those messages.  The generation of "digital natives" grieves publicly through social media.  While this can be described as a healthy outlet for strong emotions, it also opens them up to inappropriate messages from anonymous strangers.

It is important for parents and educators to be aware of this issue, as teens are often under the impression that they are alone to fight against these anonymous bullies.

Tips for students who encounter "RIP Trolls" through social media:

1) Do not feed the trolls by responding.  Trolls get a "high" from conflict and will never end a conversation.  The best response is no response.  Their comments are hurtful, and your frustration is legitimate, but interacting with these people will not help.  Send a private message to friends who are interacting with the troll and encourage them to ignore the comments, as well.

2) Block and report the user.  Facebook has some standards of its users, while Twitter seems to allow more "freedom of speech."  Either way, if you block the user from contacting you, you will not have to read any more messages.  If you aren't receiving messages, it's easier to ignore the person and move on.

3) Delete previous responses.  The "Troll" initiated the conflict, but any responses you send to a troll can damage your reputation.  The troll is using an anonymous account; you are using your "real" account.  A future employer, or somebody looking to offer a scholarship, can easily see that you have sent nasty messages to another user.  Regardless of what the person has said to you, or about your friends, the best response is no response.  Don't tarnish your online profile because of another person's immature actions.

4) Change your privacy settings.  Ensure that "only friends" can contact you on Facebook.  Keep you Twitter feed "locked."  Avoid using your real name on social networks.  Instead, consider using your middle name or a nickname instead of your legal surname.  Friends will be able to identify you, but strangers will have a more difficult time.

5) Seek support.  Talk to family and friends about the situation; you are not in it alone.  Even if the troll hasn't broken any laws, it is best to keep your parents and school officials in the loop about any messages you receive or view.  Often, these trolls do not write anything that could constitute police action but, if threats are being made or the harassment is repeated, your parents can help to contact local law enforcement.  Talk to somebody; do not deal with online harassment on your own.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

My Favouite Teaching Tool: Google Docs

I absolutely LOVE all things Google.  I use one account to organize my personal life and one for my professional files.  Google Docs is compatible with Microsoft Office files, among other file types, so I have begun to upload existing files to my account.

Privacy settings can be changed, depending on the type of document.  My personal budget is for my eyes only.  A list of student e-mail addresses can be shared with specific colleagues through their accounts.  Guidelines for an assignment can be published publicly and posted on my website.  Files can also be e-mailed as an attachment, so that the recipient can't see any further changes.

Three years ago, I began using Google Docs with students.  It took three classes with direct instruction and time to explore before most were able to work independently.  As the popularity of this program increases, and other teachers begin to use it, I now spend far less time teaching students how to use the program.  This year, I reviewed the features of Google Docs for 5-10 minutes with each class, then the students were off and running.  A few were unfamiliar with the program, so I worked with them individually and their classmates provided support.

I can't imagine teaching without a Google Docs account and wish that this feature was around when I was in university.  I used to e-mail files to myself over and over.  There was nothing more frustrating than e-mailing a file to myself so that I could work on it at school, only to find that it was not compatible with the university computer I was using.

If you are unfamiliar with Google Docs, this brief overview is a great place to start:

A few of my favourite Google Docs features:

1) Online Storage
I can access my lessons, student assignments, and other files at work or at home.  If something happens to one computer, I can still access my files from another machine.  If I change jobs, I won't have to transfer files from my work laptop.

2) Google Forms
There is no need for me to enter data into spreadsheets.  Google Forms involve participants entering information, and you receive the results in an organized spreadsheet.  I've used this feature for course evaluations, short online assignments, and e-mail communication.

The most useful thing I have done with Google Forms is collect information.  We have a Google Form on the school website, so that parents can submit e-mail addresses for school newsletters.  This information is for the school office staff.

As well, I have been doing grad communication for the past couple of years.  My fabulous colleague Michelle introduced me to Google Forms for this task.  Through Grad Transitions 12, all students are required to submit an e-mail address for themselves and their parents.  This is what the form looks like.  As you can see, we have the student's first name and last name submitted separately.  Each piece of data is entered into a spreadsheet column.  This way, the Grad Transitions teachers can "sort by last name" to have everybody listed alphabetically and figure out who still needs to submit an e-mail.  As well, I can sort the "Parent/Student" column alphabetically.  Then, "parents only," "students only," or all e-mail addresses can be BCC'd into a grad e-mail update from the school.  The spreadsheet can also be "shared" privately with staff members who need to contact grads and parents regarding academics, grad events, attendance, work experience, etc.

I can't say enough about the benefit of having student e-mail addresses for communication purposes.  Last year, I needed a group of volunteers.  I sent out an e-mail after 10pm.  By the time I got to school the next morning, I had 10 responses.

3) Collaborative Learning In Class and At Home
I don't like assigning homework, but some students need/want to work on a project at home, particularly if they are absent for an extended period of time.  When students are working on a shared Google Doc, teachers will never hear, "Bubba has the poster and he's not here today."  The students who are present can work at school, and students at home can catch up later.  If both are online at the same time, they can chat in a side window.  If a student is ill for an extended period, and has friends in the class, this can be a great way to maintain a classroom connection.

4) Teacher Collaboration
If students "share" the document with me as they begin, I can keep tabs on their progress, as well.  Occasionally, I will enter a message for them as they work.

Likewise, I can "share" my documents with other staff members if we are working collaboratively on a project.  Colleagues can easily work together on agendas and minutes for meetings, proposals for  projects, course outlines, Powerpoint-style slideshows, newsletters, and assignment criteria.  Everybody with permission to view the file can see the most recent version; there is no need to e-mail a file back and forth.

5) Compatibility on Every Computer
When I first started teaching, I thought that it was great when students wanted to use Powerpoint to present a project in class.  Many times, however, their file could not open on my school computer.  Likewise, if a student was absent, I would accept an assignment via e-mail.  This seemed like a great idea until I realized that I couldn't open about 25% of the files e-mailed to me.  The beauty of "sharing" a Google Docs file is that it is compatible with any computer.  Plus, if an attachment from a word processing program won't open on my computer, it is very likely to open in Google Docs.  I use a Macbook at home and a PC laptop at school.  Google Docs keeps me from having to worry about converting files from one format to the other.  If a file is on Google Docs, I know that it will open.

6) Quick PDF Attachments
With a variety of computers used by students, parents, and teachers, PDF files are the most likely to be accessible to all.  In the "Pre-Docs" days, I had to open a MS Word file and "save as PDF," creating a second file.  Then, I would upload it to an e-mail as an attachment to send off.  Now, under the "share" feature, I can "e-mail as attachment" and convert the file to any format with a couple of clicks.

7) Automatic Updating On My Website
When I started using a class website, I would upload my Microsoft Word handouts to the site.  Yearbook notices, course outlines, and assignments would need to be updated and uploaded each year so that I could change due dates or make adjustments.  As well, if I noticed a typo or needed to make a change to a document, I would have to upload the file and install a link again.  Now, with Google Docs, any spreadsheet, word processing document, or slideshow can be "published" to the web for all to see.   If I need to make changes, it will "update automatically" if I check that option off.  I love it!  Yearbook forms simply need a date change.  Typos are fixed in an instant.  It's brilliant!

8) Slideshows
I don't use Powerpoint at all; Google Docs slideshows serve the same purpose and function on every computer.  The slideshows can be uploaded to my website or e-mailed to absent students, if needed.  As well, many students choose to present their information on slideshows.

One of my favourite activities with students is a "jigsaw" project.  Each group creates a "Doc" slideshow, then shares it with me.  I place the links on my website, and students learn from one another.  They present their information without standing in front of the class.  They learn from one another by reading, looking at pictures, and watching selected video clips, rather than listening to presentations.  It's a nice way to add variety to "jigsaw-style" information sharing and quieter students are able to share their thoughts in a format that doesn't involve public speaking.  As well, there's something about "being published" that helps to motivate students.  Everybody needs to be finished in advance of the due date so that the entire class can benefit from as much information as possible.

An added bonus of publishing student work on my website is the interaction that happens between classes.  I teach three blocks of Family Studies 11/12, so students have a lot of information to explore when all three classes submit projects at the same time.

9) Collecting Grad Ceremony and Yearbook Write-ups
I use a Google Form to collect student "write-ups" for the yearbook and the graduation ceremony.  The students enter their first and last names in separate boxes.  This allows me to "sort" the spreadsheet by first and last name, making it easy to see who needs to be entered.  It also saves time, as I don't need to type and alphabetize the responses, nor do I need to sort through 200 e-mails.  I can't imagine doing these tasks without Google Docs.

10) Posting Class Notes
If the students brainstorm in class, or we develop criteria together, I record this on a Google Doc on the projector so that the class can see it.  A couple of clicks later, it's on my website for all to access.