Saturday, April 16, 2016

Every Teacher, Every Classroom, Every Day

Dear Teachers,

I have previously written about my passion for every teacher in every classroom every day to address digital citizenship. I still believe the words I wrote, and still have the very optimistic hope that it will happen. I've also written about the importance of digital literacy, and how teachers simply can't in good conscience continue to say "I'm just not good with computers."

I want to see every teacher addressing the skills of digital literacy and digital citizenship every day. It's my new obsession. I'm not kidding: I wake up in the middle of the night wondering how we can make sure that students are learning the skills they need to separate the wheat from the chaff on the Internet, understand what it means when they click that clickbait, what they need to do to create a positive online presence, and how to search for information more efficiently. The world wide web is a vast and complicated world, and students are having to figure it out for themselves. We wouldn't want students learning about sex from their 11-year-old friends, and we shouldn't be allowing them to navigate the digital waters completely without our help either.

I don't believe anyone learns skills when they are presented in isolation. So it's a challenging task to figure out where exactly in a curriculum a student will learn keyboarding skills, or shortcut keys, or how to select the appropriate printer or download a document or create a screenshot or any of the hundreds of other things that my digitally literate friends know how to do. Some students learn these things along the way; maybe they have digitally literate parents and lots of opportunities to learn these skills at home as well as at school. Some kids have teachers who know the skills and pass on what they know to their students. Some students learn them just because they are persistent or observant and are willing to learn from watching others or from their own mistakes.

But what about kids who don't have as much access to computers in their homes or classrooms? What about students whose parents don't know the tricks of technology literacy or the elements of digital citizenship? What about students who go for a year or more with a teacher who doesn't possess the digital skills herself, or who doesn't try to stretch the students to discover the skills on their own?

Those are the ones I worry about.

These are not just "nice things to know." One of my Internet heroes, Angela Maiers, wrote recently that digital literacy is about power and privilege. She wrote, "Fluency in any language, digital or otherwise, comes from immersion and access to those grounded and fluent in the language. It must be taught explicitly and directly." Hear that? Teachers need to be "grounded and fluent" not only in their subject areas, but also in the language and skills of digital literacy and digital citizenship. And just as a student wouldn't become fluent in Spanish from watching the occasional video, students are not going to become fully digitally literate if teachers merely throw in an isolated lesson from time to time. The skills need to be woven into everything that happens in a classroom.

If technology comes easily to you, maybe you are already passing along to your students the skills you've picked up along the way. If technology is something you struggle with, you can still help your students by starting to learn new digital skills NOW. Model for your students that you are doing something that is challenging for you, and you're nervous about using a new skill or unsure of what to do next. Ask your peers or your students for suggestions on skills that would make a task easier. Start taking notes if you need to about the new skills you're acquiring and then pass them along, both to your colleagues and to your students. You may be rolling your eyes at me (especially at this test-drenched time of year) and thinking, "Yeah right. Just what I need: one more thing to think about and try to do."

But if done the way I dream about, it won't really seem like one more extra. I have this crazy idea that digital literacy and digital citizenship can be embedded into any curriculum, so that teachers will be reminded to mention them at points of need, not as isolated skills lessons or "one more thing to check off the list." I think it's important for students to be able to identify the digital skills they use, just as we might ask them to identify a math problem-solving skill or an element of figurative language in a text. My goal is to submit this idea to the Google for Education Certified Innovator program. The deadline for applying this quarter is May 10. If you have any ideas or suggestions that I can include in my proposal, I would surely love to hear them.



Sunday, April 3, 2016

Without Normal Limits

Dear Teachers,
I have a friend who is fighting a very courageous battle with a not particularly friendly kind of cancer. She keeps us updated on Facebook and recently reported that her current labs are all "within normal limits," and I'm so grateful for that news on her behalf. That's doctor-speak, of course, for "everything is pretty much okay": you want your blood pressure, your temperature, your weight, your bone density, etc. to be within those normal limits that the medical profession views as healthy. It basically means there's nothing out of the ordinary, and when my friend sees her doctor, that's what she hopes for; it's what I hope for at my doctor's office, too. People with illnesses, or with ill loved ones, want nothing more than for someone to say the test results are within normal limits.

The term "within normal limits" has kept coming back to me, though, and I try to pay attention when a word or phrase challenges me as this one did. "Within normal limits" in the context of education connotes comfortable and safe; it's good enough, an average, what is expected. We likely want our students, though, to be more than average and more than they themselves often think they can be, or we wouldn't push them so hard. Are you challenging yourself as well? Because I started thinking that as teachers, maybe "within normal limits" is no longer the kind of standard by which we should measure ourselves. My brain kept riffing on the phrase and came up with variations: Outside normal limits. Not within normal limits. Unlimited. But "without normal limits" is the phrase that stuck.

When I think of a class without normal limits, as a technology geek, I first think of all the opportunities that technology can provide to students. I had a great conversation yesterday with an acquaintance, a non-teacher. As we were standing around chatting after yoga class, I told her what I did for a living, and she expressed a bit of concern regarding kids and their overuse of technology. I absolutely agreed with her that it is a disturbing sight to see kids with their noses pressed up to screens when they could be playing outside, or to see a mom distractedly shove a smart phone instead of a book into her baby's hands. However, so many technologies offer incredible opportunities for our students to truly become digital and global citizens; to be without the normal limits of their classroom walls.

Without normal limits, teachers and students can...
  • learn the computational thinking that is involved in computer programming
  • create meaningful artifacts using 3D printers
  • have videoconferences with authors or subject matter experts
  • use augmented reality to experience 3D renditions of artifacts
  • use Twitter or Voxer to connect to other classrooms or industries
  • when using Twitter or Voxer, practice digital citizenship skills in real-world situations
  • identify digital literacy skills that they will need for the rest of their lives
  • participate in Hour of Code or Global Read Aloud

The list goes on and on, but I hope you get the idea. If you need any ideas on how to get going on these limit-expanding suggestions, give a shout to an Instructional Technology Specialist near you! (Have I mentioned we love to help?)

My friends, as you think about expanding the walls of your classroom through the wonder of technology, I know you will continue to excel in patience, encouragement, belief in your students' abilities, and most of all: love. You've likely never had anything close to normal limits on those qualities anyway. What are some additional ways that you are leading others in a life without normal limits?