Author Archives: Liz Homan

The Role of Educators in Keeping Digital-Age Kids Safely Connected

Last week, I participated in a Screenagers panel at one of our district’s middle schools. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is an hour-long documentary about the impact of screentime on child and adolescent development: social, behavioral, and cognitive. If I had to sum up the film’s argument in a single sentence, I believe it was telling parents to “beware screentime,” because excessive device use can lead to addictive, antisocial, and academically deleterious outcomes.

The film’s screening for a group of 300 of our parents was well-timed for me, both as an educator and as a new parent. As an educator, I have been thinking a lot about how to embed curriculum that will engage students in critical conversations about their online actions and identities, how they curate and develop those identities, and how they keep their data safe from predators, hackers, and others who might do them harm online — or, frighteningly, in “real life,” as a result of their online actions. As a new parent whose toddler is already intrigued by screens, I wondered how exposure to screens, and especially how my own use (overuse?) of screens might impact my daughter’s development, and I considered ways to set limits on my own device use in order to set a positive example for her.

I could wax poetic on the reflections this has sparked for me as a parent, but for this post, I want to focus mostly on the role of educators when it comes to keeping digital-age kids safe online.

First, I think it’s important to understand that kids like screens because screens provide social connection. As contradictory as this may seem to adults who have watched groups of teens sit in a circle staring at their phones, it rests at the core of why teens and pre-teens love tech. The film, and the panel of teenagers that I had the honor of sitting alongside after the film, made the point that digital devices help them feel connected. To their friends. To the lives and experiences of others. Even to their far-flung families. When today’s 3rd and 4th graders begin asking their parents for phones, it is so they can feel connected.

In this effort to feel connected, kids sign up for Instagram or Snapchat accounts. They follow celebrities on Twitter. They snap selfies and post pictures of themselves all over the Internet. They harass and bully one another. They naturally, and concerningly, use things like “likes” and “follows” as tangible evidence that their social circle of peers approves of them. Natural, because other types of social interaction provide no such concrete data. Concerning, because one’s self-worth should not be measured by a tally of “likes” on Instagram.

Enter every parent’s and educator’s fear about today’s kids and students: they will turn to these ephemeral spaces for validation (or devastation), and because the spaces are in so many ways hidden from our view, we will not be able to step in to protect, intervene, or educate before something terrible happens.

I have firmly believed, since my first day of teaching, that one of the major roles of education in our society is to develop decent citizens. Quality humans. As simply as I can put it: Education Exists to Make Good People. People who can invent, build, create, salvage, save, scrutinize, analyze, and interrogate. People who can collaborate, inspire, and innovate.

And today’s good people have to do all of that in work, academic, and social worlds that are both-and: 

  • Both on a screen and face-to-face.
  • Both global and local.
  • Both digital and analog.
  • Both connected and disconnected.

A parent asked me an excellent question at the end of the film. She apologized for “putting me on the spot” later, but she shouldn’t have, because it’s one of those questions I wish people asked me more often. She asked:

In light of all this research about the negative impact of screens and screentime on kids, why the push in the schools for more access to things like laptops and 1:1 devices?

My inadequate response, since I had very little time to respond:

It’s incredibly difficult to teach students how to make smart decisions with digital devices if they don’t have access to digital devices in school.

The better response I would have provided, given more time: It’s also difficult to teach them how to be safe online, how to protect their data and privacy, if they do not have dedicated time in the curriculum and dedicated teachers who can help them understand things like:

How the Internet works (and what, exactly, the Internet is).

What a digital footprint is, and how to manage yours. This seems like an easy enough thing to teach, but it’s not. Could you explain to a child:

  1. How companies work with the Internet to provide services to consumers, and the data they collect in order to provide those services (have you ever signed up for a Snapchat account? They stop just short of asking for your third cousin’s middle name)?
  2. How “third-party companies” gain access to data you’ve shared with other companies, and how they are able and allowed to use that information about you?
  3. How Amazon knows you’d like to buy a bike?
  4. How Google knows you’re in Massachusetts?
  5. How Twitter knows who you might know and want to follow?
  6. The role of big data in developing and maintaining your digital footprint?

What cloud computing is. Do you know?

What computers and machines can do. What they can’t do. And how humans can use them to do things we can’t do.

When to use a device to talk to someone. When not to. How to use a device to talk to someone. How you talk to someone differently on a device than you do in “real life.” How to be kind to someone when you talk to them with a device. How to use a device to talk to someone in order to get something done (digital collaboration). How to combine devices with analog strategies to get things done. This list only gets longer.

What it is safe and ethical to (not) do on a computer. Again, one of those “easy things to teach,” right? You just make sure kids know the “never” list:

  1. Never give anyone your address
  2. Never give anyone your phone number
  3. Never give anyone your full name
  4. Never agree to meet up with someone
  5. Never talk to strangers
  6. Never open an email from someone you don’t know

…but have you noticed that this list of “nevers” is similar to the nevers we heard as kids in the 80s? #5 basically covers it, right? Wrong. Because in this day and age, “knowing” someone is not cut-and-dry. Running into strangers online is easier than running into them in a crowded shopping mall. And  address, phone number, and name aren’t the only data points someone can use to hack into your accounts or local devices and run amok. Furthermore, this list of nevers doesn’t even touch ethical computing: fair use, copyright, and intellectual property is a different game in the digital age.

Some may argue that parents can have these conversations with their kids, but I think that relying on this serves to widen the digital divide and to perpetuate issues that have risen to the surface in recent years as kids are handed cell phones as early as 3rd grade.

Some parents — the ones who majored in computer science — are tech-savvy enough to have regular conversations about all of these things with their kids. But most are not. This is not a commentary on today’s parents, it’s just the reality of a world in which technology changes faster than we can blink. We grew up playing with Legos and VTech “computers.” Handheld Nintendo Gameboys. Atari. CD players. Dial-up. Our kids’ world is different. Teaching them how to be safe, aware, and strategic in it is difficult.

Most (but again, not all) parents ARE able to set boundaries that the film discussed: have a device curfew. Require access to your child’s accounts. Keep technology in a common space, and require that it be used in common spaces, not in isolated areas like bedrooms. Talk to kids about the concerns you have about their technology use, and about how they think it impacts them socially or academically. Here are a few other ideas. However, implementation of these strategies requires parental presence, which is not always a given depending upon work schedules.

All parents can ask their child’s school what they are doing to educate students about computing, the Internet, keeping information safe online, engaging in ethical online practices, and connecting with others positively, in ways that don’t disconnect them from the “real world.”

#WhyIMarch

Maybe you’ve heard — there’s a Women’s March on Washington scheduled for the day after tomorrow. And if you know me at all, you know I voted for Clinton, and you know I was extremely disappointed by the outcome of the election, and you know I’m a democrat, and you know I believe in funded public schools, racial justice, socioeconomic reform and awareness, cultural acceptance, sexual identity awareness, gender identity awareness, and just about any type of “liberal” or “progressive” reform you can imagine.

So it might not be a surprise that I’m planning to spend two nights on a bus so that I can march in Washington, DC on the 21st. In fact, people who know me might assume that the list above are the reasons why I’m marching, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. My sociopolitical beliefs are certainly a major motivator.

But to assume my political leanings are the only thing driving me to spend precious weekend family time away from my one-year-old girl and supportive husband would ignore the many, many other reasons why I am participating. Among them, these five:

Because my daughter is watching me. Posting memes and articles on social media to a crowd of individuals who mostly agree with me doesn’t count as “standing up for what I believe in.” The week of the election, my husband challenged me as I struggled to drag myself out of a deep depressive state. It wasn’t about my candidate not winning — it was a moral, emotional, ethical, deeply personal and also deeply professional loss when the citizens of our country voted for a leader I feel is the embodiment of anti-intellectualism, misogyny, intolerance, and hatred. “What are you going to do about it?” he asked me. Well, I have a long-term plan that I’m sure I’ll share here later, but for now: this. I am going to do this.

Because I am able. I have the means to pay for the bus ticket. I have a husband who supports my decision to participate and will watch our daughter during the 36-hour trip. I have the means to pay for food along the way. I am in good physical shape. I have friends and colleagues who share my cause and passion, and we can stick together in DC on Saturday. I am well-off and able, and many who might want to participate may not be.

Because rhetoric can be harmful. While some journalists are claiming that the march lacks purpose, march leaders have made the case that the march is in resistance to hateful rhetoric (among other things):

“The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us–women, immigrants of all statuses, those with diverse religious faiths particularly Muslim, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native and Indigenous people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, the economically impoverished and survivors of sexual assault.”

This may not seem like a clear purpose to some, but is very clear to me. If studying language, linguistics, texts of all types, and rhetorical theory as my life’s work has taught me anything, it is that rhetoric has power. Protesting the vile rhetoric our new president and his supporters have launched against women, disabled individuals, and minorities is therefore, for me, a perfectly substantial purpose.

Because I know people who are genuinely afraid about their family’s future safety in this country. My daughter’s teachers at her daycare. Some of the students in the schools for which I work, and their families. Teens who have been bullied or ridiculed in the days since the election because of their racial or gender identities. Because our nation was built on the shoulders of immigrants, and yet has hypocritically thrown hatred and intolerance at minority groups throughout our history. Because that needs to stop.

Because sometimes, #thestruggleisreal. And I mean that in a less sarcastic way than usual. I have always worked in a field dominated by women — education. literacy. reading. Until recently, when my career path somehow landed me in the male-dominated tech field and in a leadership position right as our family welcomed a tiny new member. While I am still in education, surrounded by strong and inspiring female leaders, a few of whom will be on my bus tomorrow night, there are days when I can feel that glass ceiling pressing down. Days when I can’t attend an evening work function because of the baby’s bedtime.  Weekends when family trumps (heh) imperative paperwork, rendering me farther behind and scrambling to find the available hours to catch up. Mornings when getting out of bed after a rough night of wakeups is the closest thing to torture I’ve ever experienced. And while I am fortunate to work among men who value the input of female leaders and understand the demands of family, some interactions highlight the very real struggle of women who strive to “have it all;” respect and integrity in their work, love and comfort in their homes.

These are just a few of the not-so-obvious reasons #whyimarch this weekend. To my sisters marching all over the world, stay alert, stay safe, stay strong, stay peaceful, and stay positive.

A Letter to my Daughter on the Eve of her First Birthday

I usually reserve this space for posts dedicated to professional reflection, sometimes with a touch of the personal. But today, I am out of my office, home with my daughter as she fights off an ear infection, and I’m not thinking much about digital learning, professional development, software, hardware, or 1:1 initiatives. Instead, I’m spending time with my daughter, who turns one year old tomorrow. This post is for her.

Dear Josephine,

A year ago today, I knew you were about to arrive, but I didn’t know anything about you besides that you were most active at night, waking me with kicks and somersaults, a nightowl from the very beginning. I knew my life was about to change, but I didn’t know exactly how — or how much. Your Daddy and I were excited to meet you, to find out who you were, to learn how to do this parenting gig together, to hope you would forgive us our inevitable mistakes.

A year ago, Tomorrow.

A year ago, Tomorrow

A year ago tomorrow, on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, you arrived at 3:33 pm, after a grueling 36-ish hours of labor. I vividly remember the moment they placed your squirmy, slippery self on my chest. You were finally here, and you had the lungs to prove it.

I have learned so many things from you, and you aren’t even one yet. You have taught me how to find joy in every moment. You smile big, with your whole face, with your whole body. You have done this since you were four weeks old. You smile at everything. At everyone. For you, life is exciting, beautiful, and most importantly, full of joy. Your smile is contagious, your joy infectious.

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Your four-week-old smile

I have also learned that I only need about three consecutive hours of sleep to function, but I need about five to participate; a lesson I could have done without, but useful information nonetheless. I have learned that hugs and kisses should be given liberally. I have learned that meatballs are the best food in the world. I have learned that socks are overrated, that one doesn’t need toys in a world full of kitchen utensils, and that an open window with a light breeze is the best way to induce a state of pure zen.

Your first year, my love, has been a challenging one in so many ways. Your Daddy and I moved across the country before you arrived, and it’s difficult not to have the helping hands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as we teach you about the world. We started new jobs before you arrived, jobs that challenge our minds and our time. 2016 has also been a difficult year for the humans of Earth for a number of social and political reasons, which I imagine (or hope) will be a distant memory for me, and something you’ll read about in history books.

You make any challenge life throws my way easier to face. You greet every single day with a smile and a giggle, sweetening my morning coffee with your still relatively toothless grin. You recently started walking, and whenever you lose your balance, you plop down on your butt and just keep trying. You pick up new skills, preferences, and words at a breakneck pace that astounds me daily. You don’t give up in the face of a challenge: why should we? You never let a day go by witho20160504_182224ut learning something new: why should we?

It’s your first birthday tomorrow, and we will celebrate with presents shipped from the Midwest, with cake your Daddy will bake tonight, with a celebratory supper that you probably will eat some of before you throw the rest on the floor for the dog. It’s a celebration of your first year, but it’s also a celebration of our first year — with you. A year that has looked nothing like the well-organized, schedule-conscious, on-top-of-things life we had come to know before you, and has been perfect and beautiful in its blonde-haired, blue-eyed chaos.

Happy birthday, boop. You are my best thing.

<3 Mommy

A Reflection on Access to Academic Research

I’m writing this quickly, my fingers flying across the keyboard in a quiet room on a Sunday afternoon. I hope my daughter doesn’t wake up from her nap before I finish, and I know that my time is limited. I’m excited to have a few stolen moments to write here, in this recreational writing space I so rarely visit these days. Today’s topic: a reflection on a most privileged kind of access: access to academic research.

I’m doing research this afternoon on reading and writing in digital environments. I’m doing this research so that I can discuss plans for introducing more digital reading and writing tasks into middle school curriculum with our district’s ELA director. This is research I’ve conducted before, both within and outside of my doctoral program, and I am thanking my former self for saving few PDFs in the archive.

I’m glad I saved PDFs because as I conduct my search, I am reminded that I lack the privileges once granted by my affiliation with a major research institution. The University of Michigan, Purdue University, and The University of Illinois boasted library collections and databases that gave me access to… well, anything I wanted. If I didn’t have access through my university, I had access through the robust Big Ten Interlibrary Loan network, and when that failed me, I could ask my trusty School/College of Ed librarian to consider adding a journal or database to the collection (which they often would).

When I was associated with a major research institution as a graduate student, the research process was pretty simple. I searched library databases. I found excellent articles in prestigious or lesser-known research journals. I downloaded a PDF and saved the citation. The end.

Today, my process looks a little more like this:

  1. Search of old stuff from my own archive, because let’s face it, start with what you’ve already done. But most of this stuff is from 2013 or earlier, so…
  2. Google Scholar Search, editing parameters for only those articles that include an openly available full-text version.
  3. Google Scholar Search v.2, eliminating the extremely limiting PDF parameters, and archiving citations using Zotero for future search in our High School databases.
  4. Extremely frustrated break for lunch.
  5. Remember the Directory of Open Access Journals and comb it for education journals that are open access. Bookmark these journals for later searching.
  6. Academic OneFile Search (we subscribe to this database for our high school students) for articles for which I already pulled citations, in hopes the journals are included in that database. Very few of them are. Note to self to check public library databases later.
  7. Regular Old Google Search, which turns up an article from Scientific American (okay yes, it’s a media outlet, but it often does a pretty good job offering up “digested research,” IMO). Archive a few citations from this article, repeat steps 5 and 6.

I can navigate this process in part because I know how to navigate our district and public library resources. I know how to do this in no small part because of my background in research and my former affiliation with large research institutions, and because I am pretty good at navigating the Interwebs and conducting strategic keyword searches. So it’s fine that I need to do all of this, if a little frustrating, because I have the information literacy skills needed to find the 345 workarounds I need to gain access to rigorous academic research.

But I will not walk away with all of the articles that I want, and I will spend a long time finding the ones that I do finally gain access to.

Access. We ask teachers to engage in research-based best practices, but they (and sometimes we — leaders of these teachers) do not always have the access we need to the research that helps us understand, study, and develop these practices.

Access. Even when we do have access, we sometimes need to understand how to use that access — we need the information and digital literacy skills to navigate online databases and search engines.

Access. I never realized how much access I had to the brightest minds in the world until I suddenly had extremely limited access.

My time runs low, so I’ll end my reflection here. I know many newer journals are open access, embracing the call of many in the academic community to embrace the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, and I hope I more scholars will support this movement by submitting to these journals too… not always the journals that make a lot of money because of their high impact ratings (which also get professors tenure, and grants, etc.). I understand why some journals are proprietary, but I can’t help but find myself, a k12 educator and teacher leader in search of excellent literacy research, a little disheartened and disappointed by today’s search.

 

On Reading and Finding Stability

I have a confession to make. I have only read three novels in the past year.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 2.11.11 PM

A further confession: two of them, I read because they were the summer reading selections for the middle and high schools in Waltham, where I lead the library team.

Besides these, I have also read a smathering of nonfiction — a few books on the development of baby bodies and brains, given my recent foray into motherhood, and a few pedagogical texts on digital writing or connected education. Some articles here and there on coding and robotics in education, a few about library makerspaces, and of course a million Internet articles on parenting (which I should definitely stop reading, because nobody has any real answers on that particular topic). I do read. But lately, I do not read as I have read in the past.

As an English teacher, I counted the books I read, and so did some of my students. They always read more than me, but I used to easily make it through 50 or more novels or young adult novels a year, working hard to keep up with the most recent titles, because conversations about books promised to permeate my classroom if I modeled the love of reading I hoped to foster in my students.

But this year, three sad little works of (excellent) fiction.

Now, for the second topic implied in my title, and bear with me — I promise it comes together in a moment. Stability. I am entering my second year in my current position as an administrator of #allthingstechnology in Waltham, Massachusetts. In the ten years of my career (wait, what? ten already?), I have done a lot of moving around. This is my third state and my fourth school district. Somewhere in there, I attended two institutions of higher education. I have never stayed. Not because I didn’t want to — many of the shifts were required, taking place after a graduation ceremony… a marriage… But now, with a new little girl and a stable position in a school district I love, I plan to stay. I seek stability, permanence of a kind, and an opportunity to embed myself in a community in a way I have not yet been able to in my adult life.

The word stability, however, implies qualities like sameness, consistency, and security. To be stable in a place is to be rooted there, to have some sense of what comes next based on what came before, to know the ins-and-outs. Entering only year two, stability is something I have not yet found. My day-to-day is a tumultuous hurricane of baby bottles, meetings, troubleshooting, and general mayhem. My role at work offers little routine, each day looking markedly different from the last (this is what I love about it). I am still learning how to lead, how to be an administrator, how to manage budgets and navigate systems, and while I certainly feel more confident at the start of this year than last September, the confidence is with an ever-diligent eye to the many things I have yet to learn, understand, and integrate into my practice.

However, glimmers of “stability,” whatever that might look like, shine through; I have a home and, for the first time in my life, I plan on staying indefinitely. I know members of my community, and can (finally) navigate most of the region without the aid of a GPS. At work, I know the names and faces of teachers, students, and administrators at each of our ten schools. I am growing new initiatives based on lessons learned last year. The foundation is being laid, for my work and for the entire district, for much — and sustained — stability.

So why do I struggle to feel this “stability?” The days, lately, have been rough, for reasons I find difficult to qualify; too many new initiatives, too many tasks on the home and work lists, too few hours in the day, too much demand on my body and mind as I try to both be true to my most important work — being a mom — and to the work-work, about which I am so passionate. A whole lot of too much, most of it self-inflicted, and not enough slowing down for introspection. Not enough of those things that have always been sources of stability and foundation-laying in my life. Like books.

In my work with school librarians, I am reminded how much stability a room full of books can offer. Many students in our district do not come to school from entirely stable environments. Some of them have just moved here from South America, some from nearby cities, some speaking English, some speaking Spanish, Haitian, Chinese, Portuguese, any of fifty other languages. Sometimes, they have been torn from their parents or extended family support networks. As educators, we of course hope these students find something akin to stability in our schools, and sometimes — indeed, often — they find it in our libraries, visiting daily, seeking another book to lose themselves in once they have left our buildings.

And why wouldn’t a room full of books provide a sense of “stability?” In books lie the stories of those whose lives, like ours or not, echo the sentiments and struggles of humanity. In books — and here, I’m speaking specifically of fiction texts — we find characters who remind us of ourselves or of those in our lives. We find situations we can relate to our own challenges and triumphs. Growing up, my life featured far more stability than I see for some of our students, but we moved frequently and my parents divorced when I was 12, rocking my world and rendering what once felt foundational quite unstable. I turned to books for not only comfort and escape, but for help understanding phenomena that my adolescent mind struggled to understand.

Somewhere in my shift from being an English teacher, a scholar of literature and language, a writer first and foremost, and a reader to my core, to being a mom and an administrator of systems, servers, apps, and devices, I forgot how stable I was once made by the simple act of reading. I was recently reminded of this while reading book that I had disseminated to the teachers in one of my projects entitled What Connected Educators Do DifferentlyAt the end of the book, the authors remind us of the importance “Knowing When to Unplug.” They note that in addition to fostering dynamic networks, connected educators know when to balance “being connected” with “disconnecting,” and that these individuals do a few common things… among them, reading. Also, exercising. Often, meditating, or otherwise reflecting during solitary time.

Solitary time? I have none. Exercise, I manage… sometimes. Reading, I seem to have lost along the way, without even noticing. I find this stymying, considering how fundamental to both my personal and professional self reading, and reading widely, has always been.

Of the three books pictured above, I have read two of them within the past two months in moments stolen before I close my eyes for the day, or when the baby goes down for a nap on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I’m starting a new book tonight, one that I purchasedScreen Shot 2016-09-05 at 3.33.18 PM seven years ago from a used bookstore on Purdue’s campus in West Lafayette, Indiana — in three cities, this book has done little but gather dust on the to-be-read shelf.

 

As I enter year two of my new role and year three in New England, I am promising myself that I will find more stability in those practices that once grounded me — in reading, in unplugging, and in rooms. full. of books.