Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Far Removed by Distance, But Close to Our Hearts

That was a message that came across my twitter stream yesterday afternoon from a drama teacher in North Carolina. I thought it was a fitting title for this week's post. Although we are separated by over 1,000 miles, we share in the grief of the families at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. To say it is difficult for the community and families [to be living through this nightmare] seems like the most absurd statement of all time. My heart breaks like all of yours, and each night when I get home from work, I search for answers on the news. Have they learned anything? What was the motive? How can we prevent this from ever happening again? Answers so far have been slow coming. It has just been one sad and grief stricken story after another.

This event may in fact be one of those defining moments in our lives when years from now we will be able to recall with clarity where exactly we were when we heard that awful news.

On Friday morning I found myself attending our monthly conference superintendent meeting in Grundy Center. Our meetings are pretty jovial events where we spend time talking about issues that we all share in common, often times joking around with one another and dealing with business of the conference. It is a pretty informal atmosphere and a networking event that most of us very much look forward to each month. We were well into our discussion, of what I can't really remember right now. As always, there were many cross conversations going on as each superintendent tried to make their voice heard above the other, when a colleague sitting to my immediate right checked his email and Twitter.

In an almost whisper he said, "There has been a school shooting in Connecticut". The conversation around the table began to die down as he scrolled through the feed. A few moments later, it got even worse, "It looks like it was an elementary school....there are....26 or 27 people who have died...wait 20 of them are 5 or six years old". You could have heard a pin drop at this point. All conversation stopped immediately, and no one knew what to say. It was as if the entire world just came crashing down around us. After a few moments, someone asked that we turn on the television so we could see exactly what was going on, and the  breaking news on television confirmed the worst.

We all just sat there in complete disbelief and lack of understanding at what had just happened. I don't know what was going on inside the heads of my friends sitting around the table, but my head was spinning with thoughts of fear, anger, and intense grief. I immediately wanted to leave and head back to the district. That seemed to be the consensus around the table because it wasn't long afterward that we did in fact break up the meeting and head for home. There wasn't the usual lingering around that normally happens at the conclusion of the meeting.

The last several days have been spent reflecting on this tragedy and evaluating where improvements can and should be made to our own crisis plans. I have asked for a review of all of our procedures and information about possible upgrades to systems. At our board meeting last night I briefed the members on our plans and shared that I hoped to have recommendations for improvements ready in January. As we look for answers and preventative measures there have been numerous calls nationwide for legislation ranging from greater gun control to arming school officials. I don't know what the answer is. I am not interested in entering a political debate. But really, can you legislate against evil? I don' think so. From the looks of it, they did everything right at Sandy Hook Elementary. The teachers and administration acted with courage and valor, giving their lives so that others may be saved. A determined madman can defeat most security systems and wreak complete chaos on the best of systems.

So here we now are, just days away from what is supposed to be one of the most joyous days of the year. What do we do to make everyone feel better and understand what has happened? Sorry, but there isn't an answer to that question. We won't understand, and we can't make them feel better. But what can you do? Hug your children real tight. Tell them that you love them, and enjoy being with your family this holiday season.

We will continue to be vigilant and make improvements to our systems, of that I can assure you. On behalf of the entire school district, I would like to wish you a very peace filled holiday season.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dangers of Constantly Changing Technology

Parents last week received a letter from the district describing an unfortunate incident that took place at the high school. To protect the privacy of those involved, details were left out and names were not mentioned. For those of you that are not parents in the school and didn't receive the letter, here is basically what happened.

Some of our students were taking inappropriate photos of their classmates and sharing them with others.  (An important distinction: While the photos were inappropriate, they were not obscene.) They were using an app called Snap Chat. Luckily, our administrators were able to quickly get a handle on the situation and apply an appropriate amount of discipline as allowed by our policies. (Another important distinction: As much as people may wish to know exactly what discipline was administered, FERPA and board policy do not allow us to make this public.) Our administrators took the additional step of holding class meetings with the high school student body to not only remind them of the dangers of harassment, bullying, and cyber bullying; but also to remind them that the consequences for actions such as these can have implications that reach far beyond  high school.

I found that statement, well, interesting. I can remember my days as a principal handling discipline issues. While visiting with parents and students about the discipline that was being administered, I would often mention that the discipline was meant as a teaching tool. "You see", I would tell them, "I would much rather you learn this lesson while you are here with us in a protected environment. This suspension (or whatever sanction had been imposed at that particular time) may seem like a big deal now, but it will pale in comparison to the consequences when you get out into the real world."

My how the world has changed in just a few short years! We now live in an age where students tweet, blog, Facebook, etc. Whatever we post has an infinite lifespan. If we post something hateful, hurtful, or embarrassing you just can't push the delete button or erase it with the click of a mouse. It is there forever.

So what is this Snap Chat? Well, I am sure you have all heard the term 'sexting'. This is when young people take pictures of themselves, often times obscene, and then share them with a boyfriend or girlfriend. What is meant to be private usually is not because the receiver is likely to share that photo with others and before you know it, that photo goes viral. Snap Chat is an app that was designed for sexting, but doesn't allow the receiver to send it because after a few moments the shared photo vanishes. So people think they are safe because you can't save the photo, forward the photo, or even see it again after a few moments. How naive! I need to explain something to all my young readers out there so please pay attention: If a couple of college kids who are bored in their dorm room can figure out how to make an app like this, then certainly a couple of others can figure out a work around! Heck, I'll bet someone reading this already has it figured out.

Here is something that will really blow your mind: The evolution of Snap Chat was first brought to our attention that very morning during a story on the Today Show. How ironic that very afternoon we would be dealing with it in our own school.

In light of all this, we continue our discussions about going to a 1:1 laptop environment in our high school. I'll bet this adds another layer of concern for parents. After all, won't a laptop just provide another possible way for kids to get into trouble? Perhaps, but lets be realistic. If a student engaged in malfeasance prior to going 1:1, it likely isn't going to matter if they have a laptop computer. Likewise, students who doodled in the margins of their notebooks will probably continue to do so no matter what tool we provide them. I made this same argument last week. 

What we are saying is that it is critically important to teach our students how to function in a world that moves at lightning speed and is constantly changing. The educational model that is currently used in most schools in the United States has served us well for over 100 years. That model did an awesome job of preparing people for the industrial age. Go to school and learn your basic facts. How to follow directions. Understand your proper place. This was exactly what we needed because in that era you would graduate from high school and go to work in a factory. Look around, that world doesn't exist anymore. Think about this, if we don't move to a laptop environment, which is very controlled by the way, who is going to teach our youngsters about digital citizenship, and how to function in this era? How about this: When youngsters turn 16 we don't just hand them the keys to the car and say, "Here you are, go figure it out". 

Why on earth would we do that with technology?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the second annual 1:1 conference at our local AEA. My goal was to leave that conference with greater clarity about the implementation of a laptop initiative in our school district. I do believe that I have greater clarity, but still have questions. This is a very big decision and one that we absolutely must get right. The investment of resources alone is something that we must continue to examine and ask the question: Is it worth it? We are talking about an investment of over $100,000 a year into perpetuity. More and more schools in Iowa are moving this direction every year, and over lunch I heard a statistic that new teachers entering the field have a 1 in 3 chance of being hired in a school district that is 1:1. There are 348 districts in Iowa and over 100 are 1:1. Approximately 40 more are expected to go next year. Last week I read a newspaper article where a district had just voted to go 1:1 next year. When they interviewed the superintendent about why they made the decision, his answer was "We need to keep up with the Joneses". I cringed when I read this and couldn't believe this was the rationale. I will not accept that as our reason to do this, and no one in our community should either.

Folks, I am not interested in keeping up with the Joneses. I am also not all that interested in whether our neighboring district has shiny new laptops for all their kids. What I am interested in is doing what is best for our youngsters, and making sure they have the knowledge, skills, and tools necessary to be successful in life. Being a 1:1 school may be what we need in order to do that. 

Since beginning this journey I have been on a quest to find hard scientific facts-proof if you will that putting laptop computers in the hands of our students is going to improve student achievement. There is some of that  out there, but most of it is not causal (some is, but it is certainly not overwhelming). I am looking for empirical evidence that this is the silver bullet-the golden ticket! But alas, it is elusive. At most we can find anecdotal tidbits here and there.

So during the first session of the conference I had a chance to listen to a panel discussion with colleagues in this AEA who were present to offer advice on how they went about this. I know all of these superintendents very well and have a great deal of respect for what they are doing in their districts. Finally, I had an opportunity to ask the question that many of us in the audience were dying to ask, "How has this impacted student achievement?" The answer provided an epiphany, and made me realize that when I asked the question about student achievement, I had fallen victim to the very thing that I have revolted against for so long. What I had really so naively asked was, "How has this impacted their results on standardized tests?"

The answer was breathtakingly honest and went something like this: "We don't know what the impact is going to be on student achievement because we haven't done it long enough. Frankly, that isn't even the reason we made this decision. This is no silver bullet-and you shouldn't tell people that it is. There are no promises that kids are going to do better on a standardized test because of a 1:1 computer initiative, and that isn't the reason we did it. We did this to prepare kids for life-for what they are going to do next-be it go to college or go into the work force. We aren't even all that concerned if this improves test scores, because we are not preparing our students to go into the world and fill out standardized test forms with a number two pencil on a scan tron. We aren't interested in teaching our students how to answer factual recall questions that don't require higher order thinking skills and can be Googled in 20 seconds. We are preparing students for the exact opposite. How to problem-solve, think critically, collaborate, and create-all in a digital world where number two pencils don't exist anymore."

The next session I found myself sitting in a room full of students who attended schools that were a 1:1 platform and the same question was posed. "Have your grades and test scores improved?" The young man stated with clarity, "I don't know if I did better on the test, but I know that I am a lot smarter than I was before and enjoy the complexity of the learning that is taking place in my school. When my teacher gives me an assignment it makes me smile". 

I wish my colleague would have answered the reporters query with one of those responses rather than, "We need to keep up with the Joneses".