Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The September Challenge: Getting Back into School Year Routines

Every year we look forward to the start of school with the anticipation of new clothes, new friends, new routines. Each school year brings new challenges and expectations, and it’s tough to make the transition from the summer.

During the summer, we want our kids to relax, explore, have new experiences, and we often drop some of the more stringent school year rules like bedtimes and screen time. So how will we pull back and find the balance we need when the school year begins?

The start of school is an excellent time to set up household expectations for screen time. Fortunately, as a parent you can lean on the evidence provided by research, and the advice you get from the school to add weight to your home rules for the school year.

There has been much written on the issue of the ubiquity of screens in our children’s lives. It is our responsibility to gain awareness of our own habits, and to accept that we might need some help, too. I think this simple article in WIRED takes a great approach, and might make sense to your children, too.

You might walk through the “pyramid” with your older children  and talk with them about their thoughts on these suggestions. For parents of younger children, this list can provide guidelines for establishing a structure and some logic to how you manage screens and online experiences with your growing children.

I recommend subscribing to the Commonsense Media newsletter which provides many great articles and suggestions. Here is another take on this topic that you might find valuable:

I hope these resources will help make the transition into fall a bit easier for everyone!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Understanding How Children Read and Evaluate Online Resources

Have you ever considered how different it is to read online than read on paper? What about the difference between assessing the validity of a print resource vs an online resource?  Perhaps you solve this challenge by printing articles and resources you find online so they replicate print resources, and sticking with known web sources rather than taking the top of the Google search. Our children are less likely to be fixated on materials in print form - and yet they are not likely to have the skills to select reliable sources, or to choose sites that match their reading and interest level.

Creating research around this question 
Our Lower School Librarian and I have been exploring how students approach online resources, studying how they attack a new site, what they choose to focus on, and what they decide to click on. We wondered how much information students in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade succeed in getting from an online source, and whether they have the tools to determine a site’s validity. 

To do this, we set up interviews with a number of students prior to teaching their class a lesson about how to assess a site for validity and how to find needed information on a site. We chose two contrasting sites for the interview, one with ads and questionable sources for its information, and one that has no ads and is a known, reliable source. Using a thinking routine inspired by Harvard’s Project Zero, I sat with students one-on-one and asked them the following questions for each of the two sites: 
  • What do you notice first?
  • What do you wonder about this site?
  • Who made this site and who is it for?
  • Show me how to find information here.
Each interview revealed different aspects of a student’s understanding, or lack of understanding, about how to approach websites, how to assess them for appropriateness and validity, and how to find the information they are seeking. 

Comparing Non-Fiction Print Materials with Online Sources
Next, the librarian and I taught a full class lesson comparing online resources to non-fiction materials. We brainstormed the parts of a non-fiction book, discussed where to find the author, copyright, and publisher, and thought about what you should look for to confirm that the book will contain the most up to date information. We then looked at several non-fiction websites to assess them with the same rules: 
    Author and Publisher? (We taught them to look at the URL and to look at the bottom of the page)
    Copyright date?
    Table of contents?  How do you navigate on this site?
    Reading level - is this a “just-right” level for you?

We incorporated the five media literacy questions in this discussion:
Author - Who created this message?
Format - What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
Audience - Empathy - See the message/site through someone else’s eyes. Who is it for and how might people respond to it differently?
Content - What points of view or values are represented or omitted from this site?
Purpose - What is the purpose of this site or message? Who is it directed to and why was it made?

As a class, the group was able to identify parts of the site and understand how to assess its purpose and audience based on the reading level, the types of ads, and the graphics. I waited a month, then I met again with the same students and interviewed them about new sites, asking the same questions as before. I was pleased to discover a change in behavior. During the first interview,  interviewees ignored the fact that there were constantly changing ads, most of which would hold interest only for adults. During the second interview, after our full class analysis of a similar website where we asked students to wonder who those ads are directed at and why they would be on a page that appeared to be for kids, they showed much more awareness and began to ask those questions on their own.

Examples of student comments before the lesson:  

What do you notice first?
Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 2.18.38 PM.png
"Game commercials, video ads, shops
I do see something about Greek Mythology and Poseidon
They're to get more shoppers, game players or followers
Food commercial - to take a taste of different products"

"Probably the ads are there so that while you are looking at what you are interested in - you might be studying Ancient Greece, but you like dresses, so you press the ad because you are trying to focus on something else and they are trying to egg you into buying it"

"I know there are ads on all websites, so I don’t wonder about that.”

Examples of student comments one month after the lesson: (Screenshot: Social Studies for Kids)

What do you notice first?
"If it were for kids there wouldn’t be all these ads - It says social studies for kids, which is strange. There are different tabs you can click on
Home - Fun Facts - Glossary
Bunch of ads that no kid would use, but it’s for kids"

"Says Social Studies for Kids - it’s about the past -
List that is like a table of contents
Ads along the side - I remember that ads are there to earn money, to draw more attention
Noticed the list of facts and links about US history.
I notice more ads under everything"

"Says it’s for kids but the ads mean it might be for older kids, they might want those ads."

Building Skills Over Time
This is not a “one time” lesson for students. Each year the librarian and I will work with students to evaluate and question online sources, just as we have them evaluate the age and quality of the information they are using in non-fiction books. Since every website has a different layout, it is important to give students something to help them orient themselves each time- identifying the Title, Author, Publisher, Copyright, questioning whether it is a “just-right site” for them, and then evaluating how best to find information there. As teachers and parents we often forget the importance of these steps before we turn our students loose to do research online.

For more information on this topic, you can explore our ISTE 2017 presentation and visit the resources. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Key Role of Parents in Developing Online Social Skills

As social media becomes increasingly ubiquitous at all levels of society and is constantly trending in the news,  the interest in creating online connections is shifting to our youngest students. The societal pressures that cause this include the ubiquity of connected devices and the fact that our over-scheduled children are naturally seeking social experiences online since there are little or no opportunities for un-programmed social time with peers.

We recently discovered that our fourth grade students are beginning to explore online connections with each other outside of school. This is no surprise, as the world our children live in is a continuous blend of online and offline experiences, if not yet for themselves, certainly for their parents and older siblings. Our challenge is to guide our children as they enter this world of online communication and help them understand its power and its pitfalls. 

Our Children's Digital Health

Our first concern should be the emotional and physical health of our children. A good first step is to require that all digital devices be left in a central place at home, outside of bedrooms, during family meal times and when children go to sleep. This prevents temptation and distractions and creates a natural comfort with separating from online interactions. Another suggestion is to limit, or prevent, the use of texting apps in this early stage of their social development. Our children are still learning to negotiate friendships. Without the feedback of facial expressions or voice tones, they aren't always aware of the impact words or emojis have on their friends. Remind your children that when they are confused by a text or email message, they can and should pick up the telephone and call. It is nearly impossible to settle differences or solve problems through a text message or email.

The Pitfalls of Elite Groups

It is hard to resist the sense of power when engaging in a private group conversation, especially when the group feels exclusive and elite. Unfortunately, negativity is contagious and without a great deal of maturity and self-awareness, these chats often devolve into gossip and meanness, even for the steadiest of young children. Additionally, online communication’s removal from direct interaction, and the ability to keep one’s identity anonymous further encourages negativity. It takes a long time, with much discussion (and probably some mistakes) before our children are able to gain footing in the digital realm. The enduring understanding we aim for is that they bring their true human self to every digital interaction, and that their online actions impact others in the same manner as direct human interactions do.

Parents are the Training Wheels 

We can help our children develop as sensitive, thoughtful participants in the online world through ongoing family conversation. It is important to foster the understanding that they need guidance from you, just as they needed training wheels on their bikes, until they have learned to appropriately negotiate the complex differences between in-person and online communication. Moreover, our children need help to learn the rules of standing up to negativity, asking consent before sharing, and always having empathy for the real human on the other side of the screen. While this work may be going on at school, parents and siblings have the greatest opportunity to influence and guide from within the family structure.

While we are always amazed that our children seem to take to online tools with such ease and enthusiasm, this does not mean they are emotionally ready for the experience.  Your challenge is to help them find balance, make sure they are engaged with peers in person in un-programmed ways that allow them to learn the nuances of social interactions, and to have the conversations that will help them develop as responsible online citizens. 

Here is a great article from CommonSense Media about the role parents should play in their children's online experiences:

7 Reasons Parents Should Care About Kids and Online Privacy

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Think Before You Share: How to help manage the information avalanche

Last week I spent a day learning about strategies for deconstructing media messages and effectively sharing the facts rather than “confirming" the myths that seem rampant in our news feeds. The Friends Council in Philadelphia held a day-long conference entitled “Media and Information Literacy in an Era of Fake News”. Our morning was spent with Sherri Hope Culver, professor at Temple University. In the afternoon we heard from the American Friends Service Committee who have defined steps for us to follow as we share news. Here are my takeaways for teachers and parents:

Media Literacy has become an increasingly important skill, but it is rarely taught. It is not enough to only teach students to evaluate webpages since media messages go far beyond the web - they are found all around us in malls, on the street, in social media, TV and TV apps, and all manner of print materials including product labels in our own homes. A marketing firm boasts that most Americans are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ads a day. Now we can add the flood of news stories, some real, some invented that we must also sort through on a daily basis. How can we make sense of this information avalanche?

"Media literacy education helps individuals of all ages develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today's world" - Sherri Hope Culver

Sherri Hope Culver shared the five key questions for evaluating media. These are important for each of us to teach and practice:

Author - Who created this message?
  • Who made this and why?
  • Is it serious or humorous?  Was this a student project?
  • Can you validate the source?
Format - Deconstructing images and messages
  •  What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  •  Why do you like it?
  •  How did they set up this image? What is it missing?
  •  What do you think the intention is behind the message?
Audience - Empathy - What is your filter?  See the message through someone else’s eyes
  •   How might different people understand this message differently?
  •   What does this image mean to you? What might it mean to someone else?
  •   Who is paying for this? Who are they relying on to get this message and why?
  •   Micro-targeting: 
    • Observe what attracts you to one particular store or restaurant- is it the lighting? design? layout? theme? ethnicity?
    • Evaluate your choices online. What attracts you? What compels you to go certain websites?
Content - What values, attitudes, and points of view are represented or omitted from this message?
  •    Why did the authors choose these images?
  •    Does a celebrity in an ad actually endorse or use that product? Why or why not?
  •    Who’s not there?
  •    Who was left out of this message?
Purpose - What is the purpose of this message? 
  •    Why does this site or message exist? 
  •    What is its history?
  •    Who is being targeted in this message?
  •    Who is benefiting from this message?
When in doubt, ask: Why?

Other elements of messages we should check include:
  •  Currency - check the date of publication before you pass around old news
  •  Set up norms to address questions about current events:
    • What we know
    • What we don’t know
    • What we would like to know
    • Separate the person from the words they use. How do the words you choose change things?

The American Friends Service Committee has a blog entitled Media Uncovered. They shared recommendations for managing and identifying fake news:

Do- Fact check news
  • Read beyond headlines
  • Support journalists and stories that call out fake news

Don’t "Myth-bust" - reframe the story to effectively share facts
  • In a study on how people hear myths and untruths, activists found that mainstream media audiences hear the initial myths, then the activist, trying to share the facts, first repeats the myth. Their audience now hears the myth “confirmed” rather than listening to the actual fact that follows. 
  • So DON’T restate the myth, skip the repetition of the myth - go straight to the reframing of the facts.

Clicks and retweets - sharing news well done and paying for it DOES add up in aggregate - 
  • DO share and retweet - (after you have checked to make sure it’s factual) Clicking on a story supports the writers doing good work.
  • It’s easy to be fooled: clickbaiting is real - know your sources.

Here are some blogs and articles for further reading:

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Giving Holiday Gifts with a Contract

This is the time of year we are madly assessing the latest and greatest toys and devices, hoping to fulfill our children’s hopes and dreams. In this era, many of these gifts will be electronic - and not just the train sets or remote control cars of earlier days. Now they are programmable, app-controlled robots, video games, or actual smart devices that we are hoping will thrill our children, and, at the same time, we are not sure how we will handle their presence in our homes.

First of all, be assured that what your family chooses to do regarding electronic toys and games should fit your family’s individual style. Second, young children do not need smartphones or other such powerful devices to carry with them to school. Our old fashioned method of having adults communicate with each other about our children and their activities still works. I recommend you hold off on giving your child a phone until they are independently traveling on public transportation. At that point, it makes sense for them to be able to stay close touch. It is common for children to try to convince their parents that “everyone else has one”, when, in truth, that is not the case. Don’t feel pressured by these rumors.

When you do give your children a device that is connected to the Internet, you should also consider the limits you need to place on how much time they will use it, who has control over app downloads, and how you will manage keeping track of where they wander online. I advise you to have the adults in the house be the only ones who can make app purchases. This means never sharing the password to the app store, and reviewing apps for their quality and age-appropriateness. If the Terms of Service requires a user to be 13+, then that app will track your child's usage and collect data from the user. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) identifies apps like that as inappropriate for children under 13. This is another way to explain these limits to your children. And, once again, the fact that peers might be using these apps or social media sites does not make it right - it means they are lying about their age and taking unnecessary risks with their personal information.

The Family Online Safety Institute  has a set of contract cards you can download and print to give with your gifts this season. They are a way to open up the conversation about how the devices or games will be used before bad habits begin.

Have a wonderful holiday season, with lots of rich and rewarding family time! 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

iPads at Lower School - Our Goals and Guidelines

I was pleased to be able to hold two “Parenting in the Digital Age” sessions at our Lower School recently. Among many topics, we discussed the issue of screen time, including a concern about how often our children are given a phone or iPad as a pacifier during times when they might get restless or bored. Of course, this lead to a discussion of our 1-to-1 iPad program and whether the presence of iPads is adding to these concerns. In response to this, I want to share our philosophy at Lower School about integrating iPads into our curriculum.

The Beginning
Our story began with a grant awarded in 2011 by the School that gave us the opportunity to purchase 12 iPad2’s for students to share, and iPads for teachers in Kindergarten. We set up a clear set of goals and parameters for our summer exploration and for our test run in the 2011-12 school year:

To explore the educational value of iPads as tools for young learners and their teachers


  1. The best learning occurs with a teacher nearby to observe, guide, and respond. Therefore iPads will be used in small groups, guided by a teacher.
  2. Apps will be selected according to our goals, vision, and mission of the School. We seek apps that provide open-ended, creative opportunities, or offer ways to interact with concepts that would be difficult to experience without technology. As a Quaker school we rarely use rewards systems to motivate our students, so we avoid apps that provide only rote practice and are overtly congratulatory.
  3. Learning with technology should include a creative element that is unique to the medium. iPads have not replaced crayons, paint, pencils, or glue. They offer a different set of creative opportunities, such as voice-over recordings, homemade movies, stop-motion animation, coding, and music recordings. The camera on the iPad offers multiple options for sharing student work, adding narration to drawings, or creating collages. 
  4. Many skills and concepts taught in elementary classrooms require repetition and practice. It is effective to vary the experiences of practice to encourage students to persevere and to think about things in a different way. When we find apps that support accurate practice in an engaging way, we include them as part of the program.

With these guidelines in mind, we blogged about our process as a means of reflecting and sharing our practice. These posts can be found on the iPad and Learning Adventures at Lower School blog. While the blog is not currently active, it contains the history and thinking that we went through and it is still used as a resource to bring new teachers to an understanding of our process.

iPads at Lower School Today
After several years of thoughtful, reflective process, we have attained 1-to-1 iPads from K-4th grade. The expectations and guidelines remain the same. Each year teachers and students extend their creative thinking to find new and interesting ways to use iPads as a classroom tool. If you visit our classrooms on any day, you may find students in the hallways or on the playgrounds photographing geometric shapes in the real world to bring back for a math lesson, or tracking a favorite tree as it changes through the seasons. There will be students creating books about a research topic or a stop motion animation about the life of a famous person. Younger students will narrate stories based on their drawings, listen to their narration, edit it to make it better, and re-record it. They will explain their thinking behind a block design or math pattern they developed, and they might in the process discover an error and ask to correct it and re-record their narration. There are so many ways we have learned to incorporate the creative possibilities of iPads into our daily learning; the goal remains to use them as a tool that provides opportunities that are unique to the format and flexibility that the iPad offers. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Thoughts about Technology and your Child this Summer

Dear Parents,

Summer is a wonderful time for children to have new experiences. They have unstructured time to stretch their thinking, consolidate and extend their skills and understandings and explore new territory. In these early years all these goals are best met through active engagement with the physical world - outdoor play, building, designing, drawing, reading, singing, listening to stories. 

If you are traveling with your children this summer, consider limiting the time they spend watching movies or playing games on an electronic device. Remember that staring out the window of a car, constructing new inventions on paper or with blocks, reading or rereading a favorite book, listening to music or audio books, or just sharing ideas in casual conversation are more important than engaging in “learning activities” on an iPad or computer. This is a time to build social skills, to learn how to get bored and then rise out of that moment with a new idea, and to have fun taking risks outdoors. 

So my recommendation for summer technology engagement is: have as little as possible. Set the tone by disengaging with your own technology in the presence of your children, and creating as many technology-free experiences as you can when your family is on vacation. The moments of frustration about not having that iPad to set up in the restaurant or when your child is whining in the car will be forgotten as you see them grow in capacity and creativity with each experience. 

Think of all they will learn with their eyes and ears open and available to the family, to new experiences, and to the outside world. Those moments of engagement can't be replaced (or enhanced) through technology.

Have a wonderful summer!