Archive for April, 2011

Each week I have an opportunity to participate in an #Edchat discussion twice each Tuesday.  #Edchat, for those who may be unaware, is an organized discussion held twice each Tuesday on Twitter. Twitter is a Social Media application connecting people locally and globally for the purpose of exchanging information, links, videos, and almost anything that can be digitally transmitted. The attendance in the #Edchat discussions varies from several hundred to about a thousand educators each week. The #Edchat topics are always educational in nature. A detailed explanation can be found at #Edchat Revisited.

This week’s topics were somewhat related. The first dealt with school culture, and latter #Edchat was about how schools can more positively involve parents in the education of their children. These discussions went very quickly as the ideas and suggestions from all those involved flew by. Hundreds of observations, and suggestions, followed by reflections, corrections, and additions for those ideas were exchanged. Both sessions were very high-energy sessions, an evident influence of the passion on the part of educators involved for these topics.

If you are not an educator, school culture might need some explanation. It is not something studied by student teachers in their college classes. It can be defined, but it looks different in every school. It may be influenced by a District administrator, but it is different in each of the districts buildings. It is a collective attitude of the specific educational community, or school. It either welcomes, or discourages innovation. It sets the tone for bullying in that community. It determines the openness of educators to change. It determines how welcoming and mentoring the faculty is to new teachers. It sets the tone for openness to various methods of teaching. It influences the respect for and between students, teachers, and administrators in a building.

In the district that I spent most of my career the cultures of the High School and the Middle School were completely different. I always felt that The Middle School taught the kids, and the High School taught courses. Middle Schools are often team oriented and that goes a long way in affecting the culture of each school. Decisions were made with this in mind. Schedules were formed with this in mind. Assignments of teachers were made with this in mind. All of this supports the culture of a school, making it slow to change.

School culture tends to change very slowly unless influenced by something coming from outside the existing culture. If a new administrator comes to a school with any leadership skills and a willingness to change things, the culture may change. A problem with this is the turnover rate of administrators. Often the changes to a school last as long as the administrator does. The vision often travels with the visionary. The other way that the school culture changes, is from the bottom up. It comes with a teacher’s vision that influences others. A single teacher can influence others with a vision and a passion for that vision. In order for that to occur however, the teacher needs to have an exposure to ideas and influences other than those from the school’s culture.

Enter Social Media. Educators are involving themselves more and more with social media applications. Like me, many have developed Personal Learning Networks to help provide sources for teaching and learning. Educators exchange links for information and collaboration in order to improve their teaching. The exchange of ideas however, often goes beyond a simple exchange of information. The cultures of schools are being discussed, dissected, analyzed, and evaluated. The best parts of cultures from many schools are now being introduced to other school cultures. The vision of some is becoming a vision of many. Social Media for educators opens up a world of exposure and transparency to cultures of other schools. A first step to change, dare I say Reform.

Educators are beginning to change the way faculty meetings are conducted. The very topics opened up through Social Media are topics that educators are discussing with more awareness of what other schools do more successfully. Cultures are being reshaped by expanding the pool of experiences through Social Media. Twitter and Facebook are connecting educators and ideas. Blogs are expanding ideas and being referenced for change. Social Bookmarking is cataloging a huge quantity of quality sources that are now literally at the fingertips of educators. Educator Ning sites are growing and thriving with educational groups, Webinars and free Professional Development.

Social Media is having a positive effect on changing a system that has been slow to change. Educators need not look to justify their use of Social Media. Educators may need to justify why they are not employing Social Media. We cannot expect change, or reform, to come to education without enabling or arming educators with the proper tools to affect that change.

Your comments are welcomed!

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This week we had a much energized #Edchat. #Edchat is an online discussion involving over 1,000 educators on a specific topic each week. This week’s Topic dealt with Professional Development being relevant for educators. This seems to be one subject that rivals in popularity the opposition to standardized, high-stakes testing. It seems that most educators have an opinion on PD. There are so many aspects of this subject that one post will not cover it all. It may however, be able to at least frame a discussion.

The best first change for Professional Development would be to rename it. PD has become a hot button issue amongst many educators. Since each district develops its own policy, there are some districts that do a fine job. Based on comments by many educators on social media sites however, these districts seem to be few, and far between. In addition to district mandates, there are also different PD requirements enforced by individual states.  Before the movement to change the name takes hold, let’s talk about PD as we know it today.

The most recent statements supported by Secretary Duncan tell us that a teacher with Master’s degree has little effect on students’ learning. Following this line of reasoning through, it would seem that the government would want our teachers to begin and end with a bachelor’s degree. Of course that would be a less expensive way to go, but the burden on PD would be that much greater in the future.

Demanding that any labor force spend time beyond that which is established by the job description requires that the employer pay the employee additional compensation. Since PD requires a time commitment in addition to an educator’s work week, this is what is done in most districts. Of course, if the school district is paying for additional hours, it has a right to make requirements for what it expects. Those requirements often become a point of contention.  This seems to create an “Us vs. Them” dynamic and the beginning of the PD problems.

Regardless of how far any educator travels in his or her academic career, information does not stop flowing when the degree is conferred. Although teachers are expected to be content experts, the content itself continues to develop and evolve. Of course that may not be as true for Math as other subjects, but most content for most academic areas continues to accumulate and evolve. Experts cannot be experts if they do not keep up with the evolving content. A writing teacher who knows nothing of blogging is a questionable expert. A social studies teacher without an understanding of social media can hardly explain the revolution taking place in the Middle East.

Aside from the continuing development in content areas, the methods used to teach and learn also continue to evolve. Methods are also affected by the culture of our society and that continues to change. The Huck Finn controversy certainly underscores this. The culture of the community, or the school itself, has an incredible effect on the school’s approach to learning. Sharing and reflecting on the ways we teach is the best way to change and evolve. The introduction of Social Media to PD gives it a new dimension. Ning sites creating collaborative learning communities; Twitter and Facebook connecting educators locally and globally; YouTube enabling creation of content to be shared and commented upon, are all influences of social media that affect culture.

With the rapid advancement of technology, the tools for learning are changing continually. Whatever tools teachers used in their methods classes in years past, would be hard pressed to be found today. Of course, Overheads and PowerPoint are still around. The concepts of Social networks, mobile learning devices, web 2.0, webinars, podcasts, blended learning, and cloud computing are new to all. They will have a huge impact on learning, but unless educators are up to speed, they will not have an effect in education. That is when education becomes irrelevant because our educators are technology illiterate.

Approaching PD as an extra item in a labor contract may not be the best approach. PD is something that should be part of the work week. It needs to be there in order to maintain relevance for all educators. It cannot be a one size fits all approach. Different educators have different needs. We insist on this for our students, why not for our educators.

The best hope we have for real reform may lie in reforming PD first. IT directors are tech content experts, and may not know what educators need to know in order to teach their respective subjects. Educators are content experts in their respective areas, and technology is not necessarily their strength. Educators need to learn what to ask, and IT managers need to learn how to answer to meet the needs of the educators. IT people seem to view many problems as insurmountable obstacles and are quick to deliver edicts and bans to stop the problems from occurring, rather than trying to solve the problem. IT staff are educators of educators. The same approach of guidance and patience to analyze and problem-solve should be employed by IT people when working with educators.

Administrators have a big role in PD as well. Too often when it comes to PD, administrators use the “do as I say, not as I do” method. They need to be a part of the PD as well. They are the leaders in education, and that requires that they must be out front. Being out front requires some idea of what is going on. Too often, too many administrators have no clue. If PD can lead education to reform our leaders must be there as well. Sitting in an office having IT directors develop PowerPoint presentations for board meetings does not make for cutting edge educational leadership. I know not all Administrators fall in this category, but what is an acceptable percentage of those who do?

If we want reform in education, we better start paying attention to how educators learn and teach to enable that learning. They are not yet teachers when they leave their college classrooms with a degree. Great teachers come from what they learn in their own classrooms as a teacher. They need guidance and support to maintain relevance in the ever-changing world for which they are preparing kids. To be better teachers and better leaders, we need to first be better learners. Without a thoughtful system in place to enable that, the results will be limited at best.

Instead of forcing a merit pay model in education, which will not work, let’s consider using that money differently. Why not use it to compensate teachers who are being successful with their methods and are willing to share their methods with colleagues. Teacher to teacher sharing is a great way to professionally develop teachers. It also supports innovation and excellence in learning. When asked how to reform education, we should consider reforming how we educate our educators, and our educational leaders. We need to reform Professional Development in order to reform education.

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I am far from an expert on this topic. My teaching experience barely involved my participation in this turn-of-the-century program that I would now like to open to discussion. With that as an opening for this post, readers may not be interested enough to read any further. The fact that I haven’t mentioned what program I would like to discuss, is the only thing that may keep readers hanging in.  As Social Security is the third rail of politics, I believe that Inclusion Programs may be a third rail education issue. Anyone looking to explore this issue, or a possibility for alternatives, may be burned beyond belief.

I understand, and, for the most part, agree with the philosophy, that students should learn in the least restrictive environment. It is this belief that has removed students with special needs from small classes working with special education teachers specifically trained to address the specific needs of those students’ and placed them into mainstream classes. The idea is to have special-needs students as active participants and beneficiaries of mainstream classes, and working within an academic class along with the academic subject classroom teacher, as well as the special education teacher, and any required aides, if indicated by a student’s IEP. In the ideal situation the number of special needs students would be limited and the overall class size should also be small.

Educators often consider fairness to all as a primary consideration in any program for education. It is truly a noble endeavor, but sometimes fairness to all, means unfairness to some. The Irony of course is obvious. Staffing programs like this with effective teachers is the problem. Academic teachers are educators with expertise in content areas and little concentration on special education. Special Education teachers are educators with expertise in Special Education methods and little concentration in content areas. Sometimes an educator comes along with expertise in both areas. They are not in the majority. I do not know if there is a Secondary Inclusion certification. The best models of inclusion involve: collaborative teachers, common planning periods, small classes, limited number of special needs students, and participating teachers in complete and enthusiastic support of the program.  It can be a very costly program.

Many believe that the inclusion programs are better alternatives to the small special education classes that often separated special needs students from their fellow students. Including them in a general academic setting is seen by many to be more beneficial, as long as all of the students’ IEPs are being addressed in the overall setting.

As a methods teacher in higher education, many of my students do observations in inclusion classes each and every week. As a supervisor of student teachers, I observe many of my students doing their student teaching assignments in inclusion classes. I am in a position to look at many inclusion programs in many schools. The problem I have observed is that there seems to be many different models of inclusion in place, and they seem to vary greatly. It is understandable when one considers all of the variables in such programs. Multiple teachers for one class, small class size, required aides, scheduling considerations for common planning, these are all money considerations. These were very important when the programs were conceived and implemented. Under today’s climate of cutbacks and reductions however, their import has been reduced.  Education considerations are taking a back seat to monetary considerations.

An Inclusion program, to be successful, requires a delicate balance of components. It is not a cheap way to go. Many believe that it is the best setting and the most effective way to meet the needs of students who require special methods and considerations to learn. That may very well be true. My point is asking if anyone is questioning if these programs, under the current conditions, are still meeting their intended goals. Can schools provide the same quality of education while scaling down all of the components necessary to make it happen?  Are schools even trying to assess the effectiveness of these programs in their current forms?

My fear is that these programs will become a shell of what they should be. I fear administrators will not call for needed assessments to determine if these programs are still viable with less money invested. I fear that questioning these programs, even for the purpose of assessment; will be deemed as an assault on students with special needs. If we can’t fund education the way it must be funded to succeed, should we not reconsider what, and how we do things. If it is not important for us to fund things properly, how do we best deliver what we can with what we have? How do we do what is needed, as opposed to what we can afford. I fear I have too many questions with too few people even trying to seek real answers. I do not oppose these programs. I do oppose doing things half-assed and then looking to blame someone for the failing result. We all may benefit by assessing how we are teaching, as opposed to what we are teaching.

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Lisa Nielsen and I co-wrote and cross posted this post.

When it comes to upgrading education to the 21st Century, those who are less supportive of change, often hide behind, or are frightened of acronyms like FERPA, CIPA, COPPA. This is sometimes done intentionally for convenience, or unwittingly out of ignorance. Of course in a litigious society such as ours has become, law suits are foremost in the minds of administrators. It is for that reason that a clear understanding is needed by all constituents. Our students need adults to stop being afraid, and stop hiding, so education can get out of the shadows and into the light of the world in which our children live.

These acts were created to protect children. They were not created to keep students stuck in the past, educated in a disconnected school environment that shares little resemblance to the real world for which we should be preparing our children.  These acts do not say we can’t publish online student’s names, videos, work, pictures, etc. They do not prevent us from using social media, YouTube, email, or any of those things that may be blocked in many school districts. An important goal of education is to strive for creation and publication of content by students. In today’s world technology and the Internet are an essential components of that process.

By blocking students from the digital world, the jobs of administrators and educators are made easier, but if people became teachers, education leaders or parents because it was easy, they’ve selected the wrong profession.While it is true that banning is an easy way out, doing so is short-sighted and not visionary. It does not approach the innovative status that we hear so much about.  If you’re wondering how to navigate these waters and what is really allowed, read on to find a simple policy that addresses the three main acts: FERPA, CIPA, and COPPA explaining:

  • a simple policy
  • how to do it
  • why to do it
  • safety
  • a link to each act
  • a brief overview of each act
  • what it means to educators
  • a real life example of each

World’s simplest online safety policy

Students can access websites that do not contain or that filter mature content. They can use their real names, pictures, and work (as long it doesn’t have a grade/score from a school) with the notification and/or permission of the student and their parent or guardian.

Notify parents/guardians that their child’s work, likeness, name will be shared across the year, and let them know the procedure for opting out.  Have the permission release provided and signed as part of the student registration packet that includes things like emergency notification contact.

As specific projects come up, notify parents/guardians in traditional ways i.e. a note home and/or using methods like a voice or texting notification system to parents, or an email.  You may also want to have updates on a parent page of your school website, or on a class website or class blog.

Why Not Ban?
Establishing a purposeful online identity of which one can be proud is an important skill to teach students. Equally important is conveying the idea that being safe and responsible online does not mean hiding your identity, but rather defining it and owning it.  After all, If your child is not developing his/her digital footprint, who is?  In elementary school students like Armond McFadden are publicly publishing work and engaging in real learning communities about his area of passion, both online and in life.  Anyone can begin making a difference and contributing real work at any age.

Never before in history have kids had the ability to create and publish so much content, so easily. Never ever  have people had the ability to access so much information without leaving a seat. These are awesome abilities that come with awesome responsibilities. These abilities and responsibilities require skills that are taught and not inherited. Educators need to have the authority to teach these skills. Educators need to be trusted to teach these skills. The world, in which our kids will live, will require their knowledge and skills in this area in order for them to be competitive and relevant.Banning Internet access for misguided reasoning will prevent educators from accomplishing this much-needed goal.

These articles provide additional insight and information for parents and educators interested in supporting their children in developing and managing a purposeful and powerful digital footprint.

What about Safety?
Shows like To Catch a Predator sensationalize and feed the fear of parents having their child exposed to a child predator. It is a real fear and certainly a serious consideration.The facts however support evidence that over 90% of child predators are family members, close family friends, or clergy. We do not ban family picnics, playgrounds, family reunions, or church functions. There are no laws addressing these issues.The best way to defend our children against these threats is to educate them. Warn or rather teach them of the dangers,make them aware of the possibilities.Or, we can lock them away, effectively banning them from the outside world in which they will eventually have to live, leaving them to use whatever they picked up on their own about responsible digital citizenship, a topic probably not stressed outside of education.

When it comes to sharing student information and student work, there is a lot of misinformation.  The reality is there is no evidence that doing so, responsibly and appropriately, compromises student safety.  Instead, representatives from the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee explain that what puts kids at risk are things like:

  • having a lot of conflict with your parents
  • being depressed and socially isolated
  • being hyper
  • communicating with a lot of people who you don’t know
  • being willing to talk about sex with people that you don’t know
  • having a pattern of multiple risky activities
  • going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, and behaving like an Internet daredevil.

Sure banning is easy, but it is educational neglect to keep our heads in the sand or look the other way.  How better to support and empower kids in being safe and appropriate then to be their guides?  We certainly can’t help kids with proper and appropriate use, if the very tools they want to use are blocked.   The best way to ensure students are behaving safe online and in life is to be their partners, guiding and supporting them as necessary. We must also keep in mind that Being Safe Online Is Being Safe In Life. Rules for tools don’t make sense. Rules for behaviors do.

To follow are brief overviews of each of the acts that address online safety along with a link to the original act, what this means for educators and examples of each.

The Educator’s Guide to CIPA, COPPA, and FERPA

Children’s Internet Protection Act
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is a federal law enacted by Congress to address concerns about access to offensive content over the Internet on school and library computers. It applies only to minors in places that apply for erate funds.  The law requires an Internet safety policy that addresses:

  • blocking or filtering Internet access to pictures that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors).
  • a method for monitoring (not tracking) activities.
  • access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet; the safety and security of minors when communicating electronically, unauthorized access to hacking, unauthorized use of  personal information, restricting minors’ access to materials harmful to them.

What educators should know:
First, you can and should request that the teacher computer is unfiltered.  There is nothing worse than frustration in not being able to do work because you get blocked at every turn.  I’ve been in teacher training centers where they’ve falsely claimed they could not unblock because of CIPA requirements. Not true.  Educators need to be empowered not only with access, but also with a way to preview sites to choose for use and have unblocked for students.

When working with students, we want to empower them to independently use online tools not only at school, but in life.  Ensure you have conversations with students about appropriate use and consequences. Additionally, when planning lessons and units, you should have the sites students will use vetted in advance with proper safety settings selected i.e. “safe search” in Google.  You should also consider creating a learning outline or guide for students with directions and direct links to sites.  This helps keep the lesson on track and the students focused.

There are services like Renzulli Learning that provide educators and students access to thousands of vetted sites that are aligned to students passions, talents, interests, abilities, and learning styles.  This might be a service to investigate.  When doing searches, there are safe search sites such as KidsClick which is great for elementary students and also sorts by reading level.  For secondary students Google is a terrific site where not only can you do a Safe Search, but you can also search by reading level, language, and you can choose to translate the results.

I served as a library media specialist in Central Harlem in a Pre-K to 8 school where I complied with CIPA rules by using myself as the method for monitoring and teaching students to use their brain as a powerful filtering tool. I empowered my students to be able to be safe and appropriate online not only in school, but in life.  Sure, there were times when a site was accidentally accessed.  The students knew to hit “ctrl w” to close the window and continue.  We also set “safe” settings on the sites we were using.  Perhaps most important, when working with students, I vetted our list of sites in advance, knowing exactly where students would be accessing information.  I, as their teacher, was their filter and monitor. I had an unfiltered environment at a tough school in Harlem.  Students appreciated the privilege to use the computers and the respect afforded to them.  They didn’t want to lose that opportunity, which they would, had they purposely abused their right to use them appropriately.

Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) applies to the online collection of personal information by persons or entities under U.S. jurisdiction from children under 13 years of age. It details what a website operator must include in a privacy policy, when and how to seek verifiable consent from a parent or guardian, and what responsibilities an operator has to protect children’s privacy and safety online including restrictions on the marketing to those under 13.

What educators should know:
This law makes the job of today’s educators easier putting responsibility on website providers to keep children under 13 years of age safe.  While children under 13 can legally give out personal information with their parents’ permission, many websites disallow underage children from using their services because they don’t want to bother setting up such accommodations.  If there is a site which you are interested in using for learning purposes that restricts use of those under 13, consider contacting the site to see if they would be interested in supporting you in using the site with children under the supervision of a teacher, parent or guardian with proper consent.  Many organizations (Google, Wikispaces, Voki, Voicethread, Facebook) are interested in supporting learning and appreciate having educators and parents as partners.

First grade teacher Erin Schoening knew Facebook would be a great tool to build 21st century literacy with her students and strengthen the home-school connection. She uses Facebook with her First grade students and their parents with the permission of parents, updated appropriate use policies in place with her district and blessing of Facebook in Education Division.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. It applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education. Most of the act addresses children’s education records providing parents and students the right to inspect, review, question, and have updated incorrect records.  It also states that schools must receive permission from a parent or guardian to release information from a student’s education record. There are exceptions to needing consents such as the case of audits, evaluation, financial aid, judicial orders, etc.

Schools may disclose, without consent, information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, schools must tell parents and eligible students and allow parents and students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose information about them.

What educators should know:
FERPA does not prevent many of the things you hear people saying it does. As long as parents/guardians are informed, schools may disclose, or allow students to disclose, information about themselves as long as it is not a grade or score. Notice permission is not necessary under FERPA.  They only need to inform parents/guardians this is taking place. Parents can ask their child not be included and schools must comply, but schools can still engage in planned activities. Remember though when it comes to websites, under COPPA you must obtain parental permission for students under 13 to share information or work online.

Students and teachers are sharing successes through videos and pictures at http://innovatemyclass.org.  There you will find examples of real projects students and their teachers are doing with technology.  Schools have consent forms from parents/guardians and a link to the page featuring their child is sent to parents so they can get an insight into and share the success of their children with others.

These laws were passed to keep children safe, not keep children out of the 21st century.  With a little common sense we can ensure schools are not committing educational neglect by keeping students stuck in the past.

Lisa Nielsen, Creator of The Innovative Educator blog, Twitter: @InnovativeEdu

Tom Whitby St. Joseph’s College, New York.Twitter: @tomwhitby
My Blog: My Island View

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