Saturday, October 22, 2011

Technology in schools: Facebook should be embraced, not feared

I had to do it. I had to say that filthy word multiple times at conferences so parents and students could have another way of reaching me.  It's been smeared in the news, teachers have lost their jobs because of it and parents try to protect their kids from it while others ignore it entirely.

Facebook.  It has been added to the list of words teachers aren't supposed to speak of in front of students unless, of course, it has to do with the Dean's Office and an investigation  In fact, Missouri nearly went as far as banning teachers from being able to "friend" students, making it a fireable offense.  Thankfully schools are there to protect their employees from themselves...seriously?  No thank you.

Despite its demonization, facebook has become an indispensable tool I use to help kids outside of school. And all that is needed is a little commonsense, defined rules and clear boundaries to safeguard students and teachers.  I made an entirely different account that is designed to only be used to help my students and parents.  I don't post status updates, I don't go onto other people's profiles, I don't friend kids, I don't write on other students' walls; and most importantly, I unsubscribe from every student's newsfeed so I don't know about any part of their lives outside of school.  I don't know and I don't want to know what they are writing about, but they can ask me questions on mine and chat about assignments or ask for homework clarifications.

Like everything in life, it just comes down to explaining the rules and defining boundaries. I've been using facebook for two years as an instructional tool and students say time and time again they appreciate getting one-on-one help after school and it saves me quite a few headaches the next day. The questions are usually pretty easy and chats last a couple minutes, allowing students to keep pushing forward with their work instead of getting overwhelmed and anxious.  I've also found that students who normally don't ask questions at school find solace in typing their questions in the comfort of their own homes.

Some of my colleagues have expressed concerns about allowing so much access beyond the school day, that teaching has become a profession that demands 24 hour surveillance and personal family time is consequently lost.  It's truly a valid concern, but one thing my students know (because I talk to them about it at the beginning of the year) is that when I'm at home, my family comes first. While I'm pretty good at getting back to them quickly, sometimes it just might not happen and they have always understood.    

Fear should never determine how technology should be used in and outside of the classroom.  Rather, teachers as well as students need to be taught the boundaries, safeguards, benefits and the opportunities afforded by social media of all types.  Teachers need to consider their "student-friendly" facebook accounts as extensions of their classrooms, and apply the same professionalism and rules to their wall/chats that they would exercise in their own classrooms.  Social media needs to be embraced by educators and educational institutions, not feared or over-regulated by paranoid overseers. Nearly 21% of facebook users are ages 13-17, according to statistics compiled by Ken Burbary, so why not use a resource students are already immersed in as a way to encourage learning? 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"An Open Mind is not an Empty Mind"

I was thumbing through one of my books for graduate class when I ran across that quote and I haven’t been able to let it go since. Sure, its importance is obvious when it comes to teaching because we need to teach our students how to use their minds, create their own ideas while being open to dialogue, new perspectives and personal growth.  But what about the other adults who surround us in the very place we teach?

I’ve noticed two camps forming within the teaching ranks…the teachers on the administrative track and then there are the “others.”   Well, I’m certainly an “other” because I have absolutely no right or will or want to be an administrator--at least not in today’s educational environment, because we’ve lost our way. I hope that will change. I hope that someday I will have an opportunity to be in a leadership position that truly would revolve around the students' needs, not the adults.  

Oftentimes it seems building administrators, at least in larger districts, seem to be in place to perform reconnaissance missions. They simply have to carry out the orders given from downtown and those orders seemingly originate out of the need to: 1) meet specific standards to increase or guarantee funding; 2) quiet down and manage unruly parties (teachers, parents and/or community members) by executing damage control; and/or 3) to maintain a specific protocol that has been or possibly could be breached. Their plates are so full that they have very little time to do any more than that.  The system is struggling to survive. 

Ironically enough, the focus seems to shift from concentrating on what kids need educationally to obsessing about what the adults need locally, statewide and nationally, all under the guise that they’re doing what’s right for kids.  It’s all a big sham, but everyone needs to make a living and I get that. 

And more often than not when I stop and ask teachers en-route to “crossing over” why they are choosing the administrative path, their response usually is “the money.”  I can’t say I blame them. They’ve got families to feed, responsibilities, they’re focusing on home, not on the plight of education because it’s bigger than them and because they can’t make a difference. I get it, but I just don’t believe it.  If I could I would do the same, but I haven’t been able to blot-out my original purpose for entering this profession, which is to help kids. Every big movement starts with small steps and wouldn’t it be amazing if we all got in synch?

Just the other week I asked a professional development trainer if she ever felt conflicted about what she’s being told to teach verses what she feels morally.  Her response was that there were many times she couldn’t believe what was coming out of her mouth, because she didn’t agree with it. She went on to explain that it’s simply the nature of teaching and the nature of education right now, that “we have to make due with what we have and wait it out.”  I’ve had the same conversation with multiple members of administration from various schools and the sentiment seems nearly identical.  All have justifiable reasons, but that brings me back to the quote at the top of the page, “An open mind is not an empty mind.” It takes courage, but imagine the benefits we will reap if the system were to change even a little bit at a time.