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! 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Challenge of Teaching Integrity in the Online World

Over the last fourteen years I have served as Lower School Technology Coordinator. In that time not only has the technology radically changed, but the age at which students begin to explore and misbehave on their devices and on the internet has gotten lower as well. In spite of COPPA standards, parents give their young children email accounts, accounts on game sites, and access to social media. At school we provide Google Docs beginning at third grade, along with first through fourth grade accounts on Dreambox, an online math program.

Parents are surely responding to the social interests of their children, and as teachers we are thrilled with the ease of collaboration and sharing of work that Google Docs provides. The step that so many of us miss is the thoughtful discussion around who we are when we are online, how we use these tools and what the consequences are of oversharing, inappropriate behavior, and bullying that seems to be a natural path for young children who see the world in the screen in front of them as finite and open to any sort of experimentation.

Early this year we discovered that a few of our younger students (first and second grade) had discovered how easy it is to guess the visual passwords provided by our online math program and were regularly masquerading as the students they knew had acquired the most “tokens” in the game. These tokens could be “spent” on playing games they otherwise didn’t (yet) have access to. There was outrage from the students who had worked so hard to achieve the tokens, and the issue was raised with the teachers.

The first hurdle was convincing the teachers and the students that masquerading and “stealing” tokens in an online game deserves real world consequences. It might have been easier to blame the visual passwords, switch to text passwords and say no more, but the school counselor and I decided to address this issue as an early opportunity to discuss integrity online and offline.

Next Steps:

We set up class meetings for first and second grade classes, all of whom had used visual passwords. Our Lower School Counselor and I shared and discussed a couple of straightforward messages with them: 
  • Lying, cheating, stealing are wrong, no matter how you do it.
  • Stop and ask yourself: “Is this the ME I want to be?"

In the first part, students brainstormed the meaning of integrity. The last part of this discussion includes sharing from students about a time when they acted with integrity. This was a good opportunity to assess how well the message was received and who still needed to work with this concept.  I use this type of focused mini-lesson on a regular basis with all grades. These lessons are simple and to the point and, hopefully, timely. 

After the meeting, we changed the second grade accounts to require usernames and text passwords, both as a consequence of their behavior, and because they are ready for the experience in preparation for next year. We left the first graders on visual passwords for this year, with the clear understanding that they should make good choices and never masquerade as another student. 

The lesson of integrity has continued to resonate through the spring, with no more incidents occurring. From my perspective I am shifting the content of my digital citizenship curriculum to younger and younger grades. While they don’t use any online resources other than Dreambox at school, we are learning about all the ways they are given access to online communities at home and it’s never too soon to discuss the meaning of integrity and how it applies in ALL communities, including your community online. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Creating a Culture of Consent

Our school has 1-to-1 iPads from Kindergarten to fourth grade, and we are very serious about how they are used. In class, they should support the curriculum with purpose and in ways that augment the student experience and gives teachers new insight into the thinking and creativity of their students. In all situations, they are to be used respectfully. Building a culture of respect for each other with digital tools is foundational to building a culture of consent.

At the beginning of each year, before the iPads are rolled out, I meet with every class with our focus being the “most powerful app on the iPad”: the camera. From the earliest days with iPads in our school, the fall of 2011, as soon as the iPads were handed out there would be an incident in which a child came running to the teacher to complain that another student had taken his/her photo and was now drawing a mustache on it. It quickly became apparent that we needed to get ahead of this behavior and the atmosphere of bullying it could engender. 

Every year our classes sit with me to create a Class Agreement about photos. The discussion begins with the scenario, “A friend asks you if he can take your photo. What do you want to know about that?” The answers are usually “How do I look?” and “What will you do with it?” This response indicates a fundamental concern we all have with controlling our own image. We want to know how we look, and where our photos are being posted. Most of all, we want the right to say no, or to refuse to have our photo shared or used by others. At the root of all of this, we want to be assured that a true process of consent will be followed.

To create the agreement, I bring volunteers up to act out the scenes. I let the students tell me what each step should be. While the older students have done this for many years, the answers the Kindergarteners give are remarkably similar. It speaks to the universal desire for this deep concern with respectfully controlling our images.

These are the steps we go through:
  • If you want to take someone’s photo, ask permission and tell them why you want it.
    • If they say “no”, then move on. No always means No.
      • If you ask all your friends and they all say no, then take a selfie!
    • If they say “yes”, then take the photo, but show it to them first.
      • If they don’t like it, then DELETE it and take another one. Do this until your friend likes the photo.
    • Remind them how you will use the photo.
      • If they’ve changed their mind, then No means No and you delete the photo
      • If they’re happy to let you use it, you must show them the project first.
        • If they don’t like what you did to their image, you must delete it.
        • If they approve, then everyone is happy!

There is always a sigh of relief when this agreement is completed. Students look around the room and make sure everyone who needed to hear this message really heard it. As teachers, we are able to establish this simple, but significant expectation to be respectful and to understand that consent means respecting the wishes of others whether that makes you happy or not. 

We have been practicing this form of consent at our lower school for four of the five years we have had iPads on campus. Once these agreements began there have been no missteps with the cameras, and students feel confident about standing up for their right to control their own image. We find that we can extend this message on the playground - “Did he say he wanted to play or are you chasing him without his consent? Unless he said “yes” when you asked, you have no right to chase him.” We also incorporate this message when we begin to work with children about citing sources for research materials and images. Creating a culture of consent beginning with the right to control your own image will, we hope, have positive ramifications throughout our students’ lives. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Screenagers and Parenting - How to handle new devices

Last Thursday many parents and students gathered for a screening of Screenagers: Growing up in the digital age. This is a documentary film project created by Delaney Ruston, MD, who filmed scenes of her own children’s struggles with managing technology in their home, along with thoughts from experts and the experiences of a variety of other families. The Screenagers website will give you a good sense of the messages of the film, including many resources for you to use with your family.
When should a child get a smartphone? 
One of the issues that was raised by the film is the age and stage at which we give our children devices that connect them to other people and the world. Dr. Ruston’s soon-to-be 13 year old daughter put a lot of pressure on her parents about getting a smartphone. Her reasoning included, “It will make me cool”, “I’ll have something to look at in awkward situations”, “I’ll be more connected.”  Needless to say, these don’t seem like substantial reasons to put a device with such power in the hands of a young teen.
Every family will handle this decision differently. In my family, our children got phones when they started to take public transportation alone. This was late in Middle School. The phone came with a mutually designed agreement about how and when it would be used. If you take the time to discuss the expected use patterns and responsibilities of owning a powerful digital device before it is purchased, you will have leverage for discussing overuse later. There are samples of contracts on the Screenagers site, and also on my Digital Citizenship site.

Do we have to let technology take over family time?
It is important that the adults and children in a family agree on regular, intentional time with no one is using technology. In our current society adults are as guilty as kids of looking at a phone too frequently and at inappropriate moments (while driving, at meals, during face-to-face conversations for instance). There is new research from CommonSenseMedia about this phenomenon. The continuous presence of some sort of digital device can erode a child’s ability to connect, to develop empathy, and to self-amuse. Putting a small child in front of an iPad or phone at a restaurant to pacify them until the food comes is a lost opportunity - get them engaged with looking at things, walking outside, the bag of toys you brought. Car rides are golden for hearing about how  your child’s day went - unless you or your child is looking at a phone. Make car rides tech free! You will see in the research how important interactions with people, with constructive toys, with the outdoors is in the development of self-motivated, empathic people.

Some simple suggestions:
  • Evaluate how much time you spend checking your technology devices. Become more aware of whether your children are observing you as you do this and find a way to check when they are not around.
  • Be aware of how often you give them a device as a pacifier rather than a constructive, creative tool.
  • Let your children get bored, let them complain, while offering them creative opportunities - it won’t take long before they start building, drawing, reading, playing outside when it’s the only option.
  • Don’t allow technology in the bedroom - no phones, no TVs, no video devices, no iPads. Family tech should be at the family charging station in a central place at night. No arguments.
  • There’s lots of good materials out there to read. Look for more information on the Resources section of this blog, or on the CommonSenseMedia site.