July 10, 2018

Teaching Grit: Taking a Lesson from the Athletic Playbook

In my teaching career, I've witnessed rampant grade inflation in the independent schools at which I've taught. Coupled with that, I've witnessed an increase in student anxiety and stress. How do better grades lead to more stress? I agree with Angela Lee Duckworth's TED talk that the solution to this paradox lies in increasing grit and perseverance in our teenagers. However, as a teacher, it seems that no matter what I do to try to enhance these skills, I feel like I'm failing. But, as an athletic coach I've had a lot more success. That's because, when my team loses, we lose. There are no retakes, no extensions, and no extra credit. And "success" is variable, you do not have to win every game to be successful, and even sometimes when you do win, you didn't "succeed" (read: play) the way you should have. These conditions cultivate athlete and team agency and buy-in for a coach's instruction. This process fosters grit and perseverance.

One of the biggest contributors to both the grade inflation and the anxiety and stress inflation described above is the increase in the amount of retakes/rewrites, completion points, test corrections, and extra credit offered by schools. Students and parents demand these extra chances for a pretty clear reason: they improve grades. Of course, there's also some truth to the fact that students learn more when they retake something or turn in extra credit, but the focus is still on the grade. I tip my hat to my progressive colleagues that have switched to standards- (or competency-) based grading to get out in front of this change by making retakes all about mastering a skill rather than getting a grade. Regardless, this style of assessment does not provide students a chance to truly fail. There is always a chance to get points back, to show mastery, or to massage the grade in other ways. This trend does not exist in sports.

As a coach of twenty seasons, I've noticed that my athletes respond to defeat or failure in a very different way than how my students respond to a low test grade. There's also a difference in coaching a student through failure on the field and teaching a student through "failure" in the classroom.

There are countless ups and downs in an individual game, but when it ends, the team records a W or an L, that's it. Sure, they can complain about the refs or the coaching, but it's a well established fact that you and your teammates could always do more. And there are times when you feel like you and your teammates have done everything you can to prepare, and you still end the game with an L. The permanence of these losses presents rich opportunities for improvement (read: learning).

After every game, win or lose, coaches take time talking through the game's successes and failures and defining goals for improvement. Many coaches open it up to players to contribute during that time as well. These reflections focus an athlete's and team's attitude, which helps recommit them to their goals, leading to improvement.

After a tough loss on the field, a player realizes that he needs you (his coach) and he needs his teammates in order to not experience that feeling again. This makes that player and his teammates receptive to coaching to improve for the next contest. The classroom should work the same way, but it doesn't. When a student earns a bad grade, he feels that you (the teacher) need to grade differently, teach better, write an easier assignment, etc. for him to succeed next time. The difference in agency between these two responses is everything. To be fair, I have had students who respond the way I described the player above, and I've had players (and teams) respond the way I described the student above, but anecdotally, that seems to be an exception not the rule. So how can teachers make this the rule, rather than the exception?
  • There have to be assignments where students lose (or fail)
  • There has to be permanence to this failure
  • There has to be time to digest and reflect on failure
  • Some assignments should be too hard so that success is variable
  • There have to be times when students try hard, but fail
  • Rather than retakes, there has to be instruction to improve after failure
  • There should be multiple opportunities to practice and improve, but not to change a grade/outcome (think about a season with many games).

July 3, 2018

Is #HigherEd Leading the #EdReform Movement?

No. But some institutions like Stanford's d.school are trying. Last month, they released an article detailing some of their new programs called "Exploring provocative ideas for undergraduate education at Stanford." I was excited to see such progressive proposals (see below). However, until Stanford starts accepting undergraduates who exhibit these skills, high schools will continue to push AP-heavy schedules and SAT scores.
Though I didn't use the same language, I designed my elective called Passion-Based Learning thru Social Media to fulfill all of these educational trends. Embedded below is an explanation of that course and how I got there.

It predicted and embraced all of Stanford's "provocative ideas about learning" by asking students to holistically investigate a topic of their choosing. 1) "open loop" - the course helps students create personalized learning networks and digital portfolios. Naturally, their learning expands beyond the confines of the classroom and the semester. 2) Paced education - the course is entirely personalized since students choose their own content. 3) The "axis flip" - I run the entire course based off of a skill progression that I designed (see image at 14:55 in the video above). 4) Purpose learning - Students carefully construct their own brand. They write a mission in their "about me" page on their digital portfolio.

It took me several years to convince my school to offer an elective that encompasses the pedagogy that Stanford wrote to "[reimagine] the undergraduate experience of the future." Interestingly, one of the hardest groups to get on board was college counseling, because they didn't know how this course would look on a transcript. Now that the course exists, ironically, the top students at my school don't take the elective because it doesn't say AP in front of it; if they want to get in to Stanford--to experience the innovative program described above--they need to show rigor on their transcript.

I hope Stanford (beyond just d.school) leans in to some of these progressive pedagogical trends, but I also hope they will start to select students who have experience succeeding in this type of learning environment. Nevertheless, there's a long way to go before high schools and colleges close that gap. One way Stanford can help high schools prepare students for the future of learning they describe is to be more deliberate about how they plan to model this learning so that other schools can emulate their work. They should also begin to establish partnerships with high schools, colleges, and grad schools that are implementing these new trends.

When I tweeted this article out to encourage more schools to embrace this style of learning, I heard from a fellow high school teacher (@gedwards30) wondering the same thing: how will this look at Stanford in practice? So here are our lingering questions from that thread and an ensuing email exchange. I trust Stanford's d.school answering these questions will help push these educational reforms to other schools and classrooms.
  • How does this learning fit in with Stanford's overarching institutional mission & how do staffing/cohort size/personal attention play into the program’s ability to scaffold and evaluate student progress?
  • How will instructors evaluate this style of continuous learning focused on skill competencies?
  • Is the final a digital portfolio? A capstone project? A thesis? A culminating experiment?
  • How will instructors provide guidance in student inquiry and structured evaluation of student progress to empower this style of learning? 
  • How do administrators allow teachers the freedom to impart their wisdom while also adhering to pedagogical best practices?
  • How do teachers allow students the freedom to refine or change their "mission" or stated objective(s)?
  • Might Stanford's initiative (and others like it) lead to an educational experience that functions more like a membership/subscription model rather than traditional schooling?
Educators, please add additional questions in comments or on the Twitter thread!

June 27, 2018

The Class That Wouldn't Stop Learning

This past summer, I taught a course called Mass Media to twelve rising high school seniors at SPS's ASP, and to this day--almost exactly one year after beginning the course--I'm still teaching them. That's not true; it's actually more accurate to say, I'm still learning with them. Though the class ended 11 months ago, we still share articles and questions on our Slack page and we still meet digitally every couple of months to talk about current events and how they affect our lives.   
The course is set up perfectly for intellectual discussions about the news and the media and how that affects our lives. Naturally, those discussions include a lot of conversations about technology and social media and how that is changing our lives. These topics and conversations resonate with teens, and this particular group of teens wanted to keep talking about them beyond the course.

The Slack page also served as a place for them to share ideas and articles. For example, I had students who asked for podcast recommendations:
and students who asked for help planning school events (like their March For Our Lives demonstrations):
While our Slack page has been fun and informational, this style of exchange is pretty normal for teenagers. In school, when completing homework or preparing for an assessment, students exchange messages and resources online. What's more interesting about our exchanges are that students turned those messages into face-to-face conversations. They wanted to leave the message board to listen to additional perspectives and articulate ideas in-real-time, together understanding that it's okay to disagree, to stutter, to think out loud, or--in other words--to make a mistake.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my frustration that these days teenagers have controversial conversations online, rather than face to face--I also wrote about why these conversations should happen in the classroom, face-to-face, especially for teens. So I was especially excited when my students asked to digitally meet (we live in different states) to discuss things like the Google anti-diversity memo, Charlottesville, mass shootings (Las Vegas and MSD), or Cambridge Analytica. Since the course ended, we have had five Google Hangouts where anywhere from 4-7 students and I meet to discuss current events.

Sometimes these discussions came from an individual student asking me to host a conversation. For example, I received an email saying, "Maybe we can have a [Hangout] this week?... If we don't talk til after the break (which I hope is not the case... net neutrality?? Roy Moore?? Trump??? We need to cover this!!) I hope you have a great holiday break."

Other times, these discussions originate from our Slack channel when we feel like we need to elaborate on an issue, either to understand the issue better, or to clarify our positions and/or hear how other people perceive and analyze the same topics. For example:

How can we emulate this style of learning in other classes? How can we get students to continue learning about a subject even when a class ends? How can we get students to want to converse face-to-face about issues that affect our lives? 

I wish I had the answers to the questions above, but I don't. I have been teaching nine years, and this is the only class with which I've had this kind of success. I will, however, conclude with some thoughts as to why this group wants to continue having these conversations. Perhaps that can hep other teachers emulate this success.

  • Our teenagers don't have meaningful, intellectual discussions on their own. Or if they do, those experiences don't feel authentic. When teens talk about complex issues, usually the loudest (or most extreme) voices pollute the conversations for others who want to hear additional perspectives and articulate their own thoughts.
  • In school, we don't really allow authentic student voice. Sometimes we let students talk, but it's almost always with our topics and our rules, and that doesn't resonate. What's worse, often a teacher will impose his/her thoughts before the conversation begins, thus polluting this environment for those who want to learn form others and articulate their own thoughts without judgement.
  • It's not "cool" or "normal" for teenagers to want to discuss current events or how media affects our lives. So something about the fleeting nature of this course (summer school) with teens from different schools, made it cool and normal to care about these topics. 
  • Everyone felt comfortable contributing in class and in our Hangouts after class. That's because  1) the class, and our conversations, were not graded; so students didn't have to worry if their point conflicted with the teacher (or the teacher's pet). And 2) I asked everyone to contribute and I allowed them to contribute in a variety of ways (ask questions, read quotations, agree with a peer, or make a connection to current events). This ensured everyone had a chance to articulate his/her thoughts in a way that he/she felt comfortable.

If you have any thoughts on how I can make this happen with every one of my courses, I'm all ears. Comment below.

June 13, 2018

#Rancière18 - Why I don't Teach Content Anymore (joking, but not really)

A group of us are reading Rancière's "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" to try to connect his lessons to contemporary education. This is a reflection on chapter two, "The Ignorant One's Lesson" that will be posted here and on Jared Colley's blog here
And now, a summary for those who are not caught up :) While chapter one focuses largely on how to foster student "will" (or as @nick_dressler wrote last week, student "want to") to "emancipate" them (rather than "stultify" via "explication"),  chapter two is concerned with how to do that. For teachers, Rancière highlights the benefits of universal teaching, intellectual freedom, and playing the role of the "ignorant master." For students, Rancière praises focusing attention, researching deeply, and achieving a growth mindset.

Throughout this chapter, I couldn't stop comparing Rancière's words to an elective I taught this year called "Passion-Based Learning thru Social Media." I suppose Rancière is right that "there's always something the ignorant one knows that can be used as a point of comparison, something to which a new thing to be learned can be related." (28) When friends, colleagues, or strangers ask what the course is about, I always feel strange describing it as, "a contentless course" where "I just teach students how to use social media to learn about something they care about (a passion)." Obviously, there is content, it's just the students choose it, not the teacher.

I pitched the course as a unique course that leans into the way the internet and social media are drastically changing our ability to learn. What I didn't know until this week, was that Rancière beat me to it. While the contentless course works well for me and Rancière, it's not for everyone. I have presented on this course at several conferences, and (as far as I know) no one has ever tried to replicate it. Teachers and administrators articulate a lot of the same hangups about a course like this one. In reading this chapter, I learned Rancière had already understood, analyzed, and overcame these hangups back  in 1987! Below, I use Rancière's words and pedagogy to change the minds of those who are afraid to teach a contentless course.

1) How can the teacher teach if he/she is not an expert on what the student chooses to study?

Rancière answers this one with his title "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" or perhaps better with one of his section headings in chapter two, "The Power of the Ignorant" (31). He prefers a teacher who begins his journey with a student on equal intellectual footing rather than one who is an expert in his subject area. "Whoever wishes to emancipate someone must interrogate him in the manner of men and not in the manner of scholars, in order to be instructed, not to instruct" (29).

Perhaps most succinctly, Rancière writes, "to teach what one doesn't know is simply to ask questions about what one doesn't know" (30). He opens the chapter by showing the power of students teaching a teacher content. "'But I'm confused. Did you all, then, know chemistry?' 'No, but we learned it, and we gave [the teacher] lessons in it. That's universal teaching. It's the disciple that makes the master" (19).

2) What does class look like on a day-to-day basis? What does the teacher do if he/she does not explicate?

According to Rancière, a teacher must "interrogate" and "verify" (31). He also must allow the time and space for research. And he needs to direct students' attention to ensure they are learning.

Mostly, the teacher should become more of a mentor than an explicator, one who encourages, asks questions, and perhaps most importantly, promotes a growth mindset--or as Rancière would say, one who "forbids" the "'I can't, I don't understand'" (23).

Intellectual growth is not linear; the "route is unknown" (33). So as teachers, we need to lean into this. Emancipated classes should be flexible on a day-to-day basis. "The master is he who keeps the researcher on his own route" (emphasis mine, 33). Additionally, students should be able to explore and learn at their own speed, just as long as they're researching and focused.

3) What happens if a student doesn't know what he's passionate about?

In order to discover a passion, one needs to know himself, "that is to say, by examining the intellectual acts of which he is he subject, by noticing the manner in which he uses, in these acts, his power as a thinking being" (36). Every one of our students can do this, we just need to 1) ask the right questions and 2) give them the space to figure this out. Then it's the student's job to continue their intellectual growth by "[learning] something and [relating] everything else to it" (20).

4) How does a teacher assess? How do you hold students accountable? 

While I gather Rancière disagrees with grades, he does leave us with a number of verbs that he seems to value in student learning. For example, "[asking] questions," (30) "observing, comparing, combining..." (36) "seeking, [and] researching" (37). If a teacher must assess, it seems this is how he can evaluate a student's work on an equal intellectual footing. I think Rancière could agree with this style of assessment or accountability even if he doesn't agree with grading per se. After all, he writes, "[a teacher] will not verify what the student has found, just that the student has searched" (31).

It just so happens, this is exactly how I built assessment/accountability into my course:

May 24, 2018

More Apps More Problems: How the Next Generation Connects

Too Many Apps, Too Little Time

The Trend

For the younger generation, communication through apps has replaced text messaging and phone calls. The above image is a photo of the common room whiteboard in one of the girl's dorms during the summer session at ASP, 2017. When students arrived, and throughout the summer, they connected via Snapchat. Not only is this totally normal, it's actually preferred by teenagers. It's easy to ask someone for their Snapchat or Instagram. And that's not just because Snapchat gives you a handy QR code for others to add you, it's because teenagers spend more time in that app than they do in text. And more followers means more time on the app talking to friends! That's true of Instagram too, where more followers generally means more likes. And both of these apps allow messaging. Therefore, teenagers don't need someone's phone number when they first connect.

This makes sense to me as a millennial; Facebook was huge for connections in college, but without Facebook messenger, we had to share numbers. And then we communicated via text, a lot. Texting is ubiquitous to Millennials. The generations above us lament the death of the face-to-face conversation and the phone call. Is it now our turn to lament the death of the text message?

Texting is not dead per se, teenagers still text; it's just that this younger generation has so many more options in how it connects. More often than not members of the younger generation send disappearing text and photos through Snapchat. Or they chat on Facebook Messenger. Or they send encrypted communication on What's App. Or they DM on Instagram. Teenagers are all living through a unique era where a number of applications provide connections that are very different from the standard SMS that sustained the social (and now professional) lives of millennials and it's drastically impacting their lives.*

The Impact 

on Health

Given all the ways in which teenagers connect, an individual needs to keep up with a number of apps in order to stay informed. And each app has its own social norms, lexicon, and pitfalls. To be a savant on every one of these apps would be unbelievably time consuming. Heaven forbid a teenager makes a mistake or misreads a digital social cue in one of these spaces. Such a mistake would no doubt be permanent. Given the decreasing cost of data storage, it's safe to assume every message sent and application used is saved permanently.

The amount of stress and anxiety that this social life produces is drastically affecting our teenagers. As Jean Twenge argues in her book iGen, the increase in stress and anxiety comes as our teenagers go out less, drink less, have less sex, spend less time doing homework, have fewer jobs, and are involved in fewer extracurricular activities (I highly recommend iGen for more on the mental stress provided by these applications).

On Schoolwork

In high school, teachers are supposed to connect with students via email, but understanding the current messaging landscape helps me understand why students rarely write back. Email is not an application teens use to connect with each other, so they only use it begrudgingly to connect with teachers. It's just one more application that they have to manage, and it almost never delivers the endorphin rush of other apps.

The other major impact on our schools is the distraction (and trouble) caused by group messaging. Whether a Snap group, a WhatsApp group, a Facebook group, A Skype group, a  Discord board, or an old-fashioned SMS Group Chat, our teenagers are engaged in several messaging groups at once. This monopolizes a lot of their time. At any given moment, one member can fire off a few messages, and before you know it, the whole group of 5, 10, or 15 students is side-tracked during class.

On my classroom

If you read this blog, you know that I require my students to create a social media account to keep up with the content inside and outside of the curriculum. I've written about how I've done that in my history classes, my media classes, and in my elective that's appropriately titled, "Disruptive Innovation through Social Media." I do this so students can build personalized learning networks and learn beyond the confines of my classroom. I think of these exchanges and activities as social connections that enhance learning, but that's not how this generation sees it. I still believe strongly in why I ask my students to do this and what they get out of it, but my students are less interested every year. I know that's because they're limited by how many apps they use effectively and by the social and educational demands that their screens already require.

While I feel like I'm connecting with my students on their terms, in their preferred applications, and teaching them in that space, it feels to them like something new to learn and somewhere else to invest time. So in the end, I'm not actually teaching them in their space, because any place with a teacher in it, or an app that's required for school is busywork. It's not worth the time, the spontaneity, the humor and creativity that they will invest in their other social networking apps.


*To be fair, you don't have to be young to embrace this new way of  all these new applications. Even my millennial peers try to juggle messages, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and many more.

May 3, 2018

How do schools get more out of Professional Development time? Gamify it.

Candyland route (Hasbro)
Most schools have in-service days built into the end of the year to professionally develop teachers. In my career, I've found these days are rarely successful. Teachers don't have the energy or the interest at that point in the year to learn something that they won't use for three plus months. And the person who leads the PD sessions is usually wholly disconnected from the teaching faculty, whether it's an outside consultant or an administrator.

To address the problems described above, this year I designed our PD days this year to use gamification as a way to make it collaborative, personalized, and exciting. I envision teachers working together to incorporate new pedagogical trends into their curriculum for next year. Rather than accomplishing this goal with "talk-at" programming, the game facilitates "work-with" programming. Rather than commissioning a speaker to teach something new (something better saved for end-of-summer PD), this PD is fully personalized. Teachers get to work on their own needs within their own curriculum, and they get to choose which sessions to attend and which colleagues to work with. And by gamifying with Habro's help, I hoped to capture nostalgia and promoted (faux) competition to motivate teachers to enjoy their time on campus without students and to commit to pedagogical development with peers.

We wanted to highlight and expand upon successes from the current school year, so teachers shared successes via Google Form. That way their colleagues can emulate them and/or collaborate with them. To gamify this learning, I blended the various teaching successes into 7 pedagogical trends. These trends became the locations (or "incubators") on the game board that a teacher can visit to learn from and work with colleagues.

Candyland PD Gameplay:

On the Candyland game board, there are 9 locations. We will use the first (Gingerbread Forest) and the last (Candy Castle) as a starting space and ending space. The Gingerbread Forest functions as a space to reflect on successes from the school year. The Candy Castle will be the space to celebrate when a player "wins" the game. In the other 7 locations, called incubators, teachers have to complete a pedagogical task to improve their teaching for next school year [visit this document to see what pedagogical work each of these incubators entails]. We budgeted an hour and a half at each incubator, so that each player has enough time to thoughtfully plan something ready to be used next year--not something that will be forgotten come September. Finally, each player gets his own game board to write down what he does at each incubator in order to win the game.


The incubators range from planning student-centered classes, to using images for formative assessment, to developing interdisciplinary units with colleagues, to switching to competency-based grading for a unit (there's more detail in this document). The tasks get progressively more challenging as a player moves up the board. If a teacher doesn't make it to the Candy Castle, that's totally okay; after all, the best games are challenging.

Teachers Helping Teachers: Powerful Stuff
At first, teachers enhance an existing unit, but by the end, they rethink the way they disseminate information and present themselves to the outside world. Realizing that these are tough tasks for some teachers, the incubators will be staffed with teachers who have successfully completed the task this past year (based on their skillset and self-identified successes received by Google Form). Additionally, for each incubator there is a write-up about a colleague's successful implementation of each pedagogical task. So at each location there's an example to learn from and a teacher to consult with.

For the teachers who aren't comfortable running an incubator, I will recommend using the coaching model, where a teacher asks questions to push a a player to develop a project on his own, or using Sugata Mitra's "granny cloud" technique, where a teacher just provides lots of encouragement.

This game structure requires reflection, planning, and collaboration. Not only will this help individual teachers improve their class and grow professionally, but it will also generate a lot of ideas for the community at large--organically from the grassroots level--to discuss and work on together.

The Secret Sauce: Engagement

All this planning is for naught if we don't also generate energy and buy-in from the teachers. In general, teachers have an internal desire to improve their craft, but that's not enough to sustain PD days in June (summer vacation piques all five senses). To promote collaboration between colleagues and to improve pedagogy at the school as a whole, this game design makes for both light & easy and exciting & entertaining PD. There's no consultant, there's no "expert," there's not even an administrator with a long-term, strategic plan-heavy talk. And there's no preparation other than self-reflection. Teachers are working with colleagues who are in the same head space, with the same goals. That means everything.

The Candyland invention gives the PD days a silly but endearing aura. The game is quirky and unique by design, because we need our teachers to be creative and innovative when they engage in PD. For example, I intend to create a gimmick for the teacher leading the incubator; Lord Licorice can have a licorice crown or Grandma Nut can have some nuts to snack on. I will also use construction paper the colors of the Candyland board on the floor or wall to direct teachers to sessions. These gimmicks inspire smiles and jokes; the smiles and jokes open up conversation which can be quickly steered to pedagogical pursuits. Ideally, this fun improves faculty morale as well. 


There's nothing more engaging and empowering than PD by faculty for faculty; schools always win when they flip their PD goals from institutional demands ("talk-at") to what teachers want for their own development and their own classrooms ("work-with"). The PD described above creatively celebrates and spreads great teaching. It promotes collaboration, trying new things, and keeping up with current trends in education. But most of all, it's fun, exciting, and it builds morale!

April 15, 2018

Fortnite vs. School



A few weeks back, I read two articles about a hot new game that everyone is playing called Fortnite. I knew my students would be playing, so I kept a close eye on the widespread adoption of this new game in my school. This Friday, I became so fed up with the amount of students I saw gaming as I walked through the commons, I sought some data from the IT Department. A colleague of mine ran a report and we found that:

  • 51 students played Fortnite during the school day on Friday. That's 1/10th of the school. 
  • While 24 of those 51 students played between 15-30 minutes, 15 of them played for more than an hour (the school day runs from 8 AM to 3:30 PM). And 5 of them played for more than two hours. 
  • The top player clocked 3:26 hours on the game.
  • The vast majority of these players are boys (and underclassmen at that).
These numbers make me seriously consider shutting down the game on Monday. Prior to seeing these statistics, I would have argued that if you try to shut down Fortnite, the students are just going to find another way to play OR they're going to find another way to distract themselves online. I would also argue that if students are playing games in class, that's something that individual teachers need to address. But in investigating this game, and seeing these statistics, I'm starting to change my mind on how to use a firewall in schools.

What bothers me the most about this game in my school is that it requires a player's undivided attention and the rounds can run long. As a result, our students are tuning out their friends and their teachers. Even if they're just playing during a free period, this game drives students to check out of conversations for a number of minutes at a time--and by check out of conversations I also mean students who try to sit with friends in the lounge and play this game at the same time, as that doesn't lead to fruitful conversations. When large numbers of students play this game together it also excludes those students (and teachers) who don't play the game, or don't want to be playing (or talking about) the game during a free period, during lunch, or after school. 

I also worry about what visitors to our school will think when they see groups of students glued to their screens. This week, I was stunned when I stopped in the English hallway where I could see through the window of four classrooms. From that vantage point, I saw six students gaming. And those were just the screens I could see from the hallway! Again, it was mostly boys, and mostly underclassmen. While it's easy to blame this on the individual teacher, if students are gaming in three out of the four English classrooms, there must be a systemic issue worth addressing 

Finally, in a more philosophical way I worry about our student's inability to converse with students and faculty as a result of their addiction to this game. This critique is not reserved for Fortnite, but for screens in general. I've witnessed large groups of boys all in one place together, but on their individual screens gaming. I feel like we (students and teachers) are missing out on opportunities to have discussions and make connections. And that's why I'm seriously considering shutting this down tomorrow. 

Let me know what you think (including students!). Tweet me @MrShakedown and fill out my Twitter poll. Thanks!





January 1, 2018

21st Century Teaching Includes Teaching Students What to Ignore

Today, teachers must teach students what to learn and what to ignore

Our most productive citizens and employees today are those who locate pertinent information efficiently, ignore irrelevant information consistently and avoid undue distraction. They are media literate digital citizens. It is a particular challenge for all of us to become media literate though, especially in our now hyper-connected world that can overwhelm rather than clarify.  We need instruction. It is more important than ever for our teachers and our schools to play an increasingly important role in preparing our students for this new form of digital citizenship

Everyone who has access to the internet has experienced information overload. And the amount of time we spend accessing information online is only increasing. Information overload is amplified by things like email and social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of music and video streaming. It's compounded by the ubiquity of wifi and smartphones. Even when we are not using our devices, we make sure to keep them close enough to us physically so that they can interrupt us at all hours.

Surprisingly, citizens are less concerned with information overload. Pew research discovered that, since 2006, fewer people have reported that information overload is a problem for them (from 27% in 2006 to 20% in 2016). Naively, 66% of Americans think that "having more information at their disposals actually helps to simplify their lives."

If we are using information to simplify our lives, we should be able to acquire relevant information quickly. But we're using our devices to consume information for longer. Common Sense Media reports that teenagers spend 8:56 a day "consuming media" (6:40 on screens). Similarly, if we are using information to simplify our lives, then multitasking should be declining. That's not the case either.  The Distracted Mind found that teenagers multitask for 31% of their day.

Spending 8:56 hours a day consuming media can't be conducive to meaningful learning, nor can 31% of a day be spent multitasking productively. Research has shown that more time online increases fatigue and stress. More specifically, increased time on social media negatively impacts well-being. And every study on multitasking concludes that it decreases productivity. One study concluded that IQ can drop as many as 15 points while multitasking.

Schools are the venue in which we educate and train our future citizens and employees. In order to succeed, our graduates need to know how to access pertinent information quickly, without distraction. We need to teach a new skill--how to ignore irrelevant information and how to single-task. But we are not, and what we are doing now is only compounding the problem. We are adding multiple classes worth of information to the pile of information our students already consume on a daily basis. We are assigning several assignments per night (sometimes multiple assignments per class, per night). We are assigning these tasks in a number of different mediums from textbooks, to the internet, to learning management systems, to pencil and paper. And we are demanding students access email and add spaces online where they get and submit information. These conditions are driving our teenagers to spend hours a day online and to multitask. And anxiety and stress have skyrocketed as a result.

I'm not arguing that school should stop asking students to complete the tasks mentioned above. The process of going to school and completing assignments should force students to access relevant information and complete tasks efficiently. But in today's hyperconnected world, students need explicit instruction and training on how to complete their work efficiently and effectively. We can't assume they learn this on their own. For example, when teachers assign research papers, it's implied that students will have to choose what information to include and what to exclude. Currently, instruction for assignments like this (one that many students only complete once a year) focuses on locating information rather than ignoring irrelevant information. Similarly, when administrators get involved in our students' online lives, it is invariably because something went wrong, leading to reactive disciplinary action rather than proactive instruction.

We need to retrain our teachers so that we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We also need to revise our curriculum and provide explicit instruction to students about what they are consuming online whether we are preparing them for research projects or explaining to them our disciplinary policies. These are first steps to developing media literate digital citizens who can identify misleading or irrelevant information, intentionally consume media, thoughtfully experience social networks, and focus on a single task.

December 20, 2017

Leveraging Twitter for Lifelong Learning

In education, we need to rethink the hackneyed expression "lifelong learner." Most schools have that expression in their literature, but how do schools measure it? Lifelong learning requires teachers to overcome two parameters, learning course content (even if it’s tangential) outside the classroom and learning course content beyond the school year. In my Contemporary World History class last year, I used Twitter to do just that; and I've measured the success this year with the amount of students who still use Twitter to learn about international news and events.

When students arrived in my class last year, they had to create a Twitter account and follow a list of 85 accounts that tweet about international news and current events. Almost everyday we started class by logging onto Twitter where each student would find an article (or two) to read about what's going on in the world. This paired really well with the course content--a project-based learning course covering major international events. For example, last year we covered events in Syria, Venezuela, Turkey, the South China Sea, Russia and the Philippines.

Frequently what students read on Twitter connected perfectly to the topics we covered in class. There was something really powerful about the fact that students were learning about events in the classroom while also keeping up with developments online in real time. For example, later in the school year, after studying the Syrian Civil War, students saw tweets and read articles about chemical attacks or the refugee crisis. So this style of learning reinforced the course content. It made the learning more tangible by helping students make connections between what we studied to what was going on in the real world.

This curriculum taught students the basics of a number of controversial international issues so that it was easy to keep up with them beyond the end of the course. Often a major obstacle to teenagers’ keeping up with current events is that they don't know where to start. News articles frequently don't tell the whole story, just the recent developments and students lack the background knowledge necessary to contextualize the piece. With Twitter in Contemporary World History we overcome this obstacle. Whenever I could afford it, I built extra time into our current events sessions to allow for questions and discussion. Students asked questions about current events that we didn't cover in class that appeared in their feed. More often than not, one of their fellow students had a read an article about it and could fill them in. If not, I would provide the backstory, or I would tell them to look it up. They then used the sources in our Twitter network for reliable, up-to-date information on the topic about which they were unsure.

Clearly I'm a fan of this course, and the most important benefit was using Twitter so that when my class ended, my students can keep using the Twitter network to learn about international events. A number of times this school year, my former students have come up to me and mentioned logging into their class Twitter to see what's going on in the world. One student said, "I check your Twitter when I wake up in the morning." Others have sought me out to talk about international events that they learned about online. I can't think of a better metric of success when it comes to lifelong learning. Students immersed themselves in a space where informed citizens and news outlets discussed the state of our world. And they continue to learn from that space beyond our time together.

It's essential for History Departments to train lifelong learners. My Contemporary World History class helped convince students that studying history requires a knowledge of current events and that it involves sustained study and the ability to make connections between past and present. And my colleagues who teach my students the next year reap the benefits when my students make current events connections in their U.S. History classes.

Finally, the structure of this course helped convince my students that they can and should use social media differently. They can use it to keep up with current events, to learn about controversies online, and to follow causes that they care about.  I'm not naive; I know I didn't reach all of my students.  Many went back to using Twitter for sharing memes and subtweeting friends. But just the fact that they've used a social media network to learn about something they care about (even if they had to this time), will help them do this again in the future. Teenagers are already using social media applications for hours a day. We need to inject that space with opportunities for “lifelong learning.” That’s how we fill that expression with meaning again in education.

December 14, 2017

Creating a Culture of Classroom Visitation

One sign of a healthy school is frequent classroom visitation followed by reflection and open dialogue. At Flint Hill, we’ve had success with a new program called Faculty 2 Faculty that has increased visitation numbers, pedagogical conversations, and interdisciplinary collaboration at our Upper School.

Teachers benefit in a multitude of ways when they visit classes. They can reflect upon and assess their own work when watching another teacher, which improves their teaching. Teachers can emulate the successes and avoid the failures of the teacher they’re visiting. And they get to experience class as a student--a feeling teachers quickly forget--including observing their fellow students in ways they can’t while teaching. Not only does that help teachers evaluate how lessons impact students, but it also helps them get to know the individual students better.

Most importantly, peer observation fosters productive conversation that leads to greater pedagogical development and interdisciplinary collaborations. Teachers genuinely want constructive criticism, especially from a peer (rather than an administrator that might be evaluating for a different purposes), and so are particularly receptive to feedback.

In my career, I can’t think of a time that I didn’t learn something from a classroom visit--be it something as small as a hand-gesture  I saw an English teacher using to get his students to dig deeper into the text or to a way a teacher incorporated movement to keep her students energized and engaged. Even when I witness weak lessons, I still learn things not to do in the future in my own classroom. Weaker lessons can frequently affirm the positive strategies and practices I’m already employing in my classroom.

Given the amazing benefits, how do school administrators build a culture for classroom visitation that includes reflection and constructive dialogue?

The "Faculty 2 Faculty" Solution

I have always valued classroom visitation, but until this year, there was almost no culture for visitation at my school. In fact, it was awkward when I asked people to visit to their classes. And when I invited people to my classes, surprisingly few people accepted. We had an Instructional Coach who hosted “instructional rounds,” but the same two people were the only attendees. Despite a tough culture to overcome, we started a new initiative called “Faculty 2 Faculty” that has started to changed our culture for the better.

1. Make it easy

After consulting faculty, we heard that one of the biggest obstacles to classroom visitation was that it was hard to organize. Faculty felt they had to ask a colleague in advance, which meant they had to plan, and it meant they had to put themselves out there with an email or a conversation asking for something out of the ordinary. To alleviate these concerns, we created a symbol (seen below) that any teacher could use to signal to another teacher that they’d like to come in. That teacher can accept the guest by returning the sign or reject it with a simple palm stop sign. These symbols are an easy way to welcome a visit or acknowledge it isn’t a good day for it without any awkward interaction.
Two faculty members using the "Faculty 2 Faculty" symbol
In order to get teachers to embrace this symbol, we performed a comedic skit for our faculty meeting when we encouraged more class visits. Then we followed the skit with a few timely emails reminding people to take advantage of the new Faculty 2 Faculty program. Though we pitched the program as something that can happen at any time--and it has--we found that with an email reminder, we got a much higher rate of visitation. These visits set off a chain reaction where those who were observed decided to return the favor, either later that day or the next.

2. Build in reflection

Understanding that reflection is instrumental in improving performance, we created a fun card (see below) that teachers fill out when they attend another class. The purpose of the card is to celebrate good teaching and write down some actionable takeaways. The observing teacher writes, 3 ideas, 2 questions, and 1 complement. They then submit the card to the observed teacher. This ensures that both teachers reflect (double the Professional Development!).
Reflection cards from an organized "Faculty 2 Faculty" day
3. Promote conversation

These reflection cards facilitated conversation between faculty members because the observing teacher had to exchange the card with the observed teacher. This proved particularly effective for professional growth because both teachers were learning together from the observation, the reflection card, and the conversation. The Faculty 2 Faculty program has been successful because teachers converse on equal footing. The visit is not an evaluation between a boss and her subordinate. It’s a collaborative process that benefits both people involved. In the same way that our dedicated Faculty 2 Faculty days created a chain reaction of visitation, so do these conversations. More often than not, the observing teacher invites the observed teacher to return the favor. 

The feedback we’ve received about this program has been overwhelmingly positive. Teachers genuinely want to improve their craft, and they recognize classroom observations as way to do so. Teachers are thankful that this program gives a fun, low-stakes way to observe colleagues. And we’re thankful for the pedagogical conversations, the collaboration, and the excitement that it generates in our community. 

November 26, 2017

Decentralizing the Technology Integration Department with "Tech Deputies"

In the last decade, schools have contributed significant resources to educational technology in an effort to improve instruction and to prepare students for a rapidly changing workforce. Schools have created new positions, or entirely new departments, for technologically savvy faculty members to act as liaisons between teachers and technology departments and to act as integrators of new educational technology software. In theory, for that faculty member or department to succeed--to integrate technology fully--they would have to run themselves out of a job. In other words, they would have to train a technologically savvy faculty, which in turn, wouldn’t need a specialist. So how do we get there?

Our Tech Deputies and their specialties in the Faculty Lounge

The Tech Deputy Solution

At Flint Hill, one unique way we--in the Technology Integration Department--have chosen to train our faculty is by deputizing additional members of our faculty. Two years ago, we started a new program where we recognized technologically savvy members of each department called “Tech Deputies.” Instead of having to answer every educational technology question ourselves, we could outsource it to the Tech Deputies in each department. As the Tech Deputies taught their peers, we hoped the amount of technologically literate teachers would increase. Additionally, by starting this program within departments, we hoped it would encourage departmental teams to try new things knowing they had support from within the department.

Interestingly, one of the greatest successes of this program is that we really didn’t know what was going to happen, so we pitched it as a fun idea to recognize some faculty members that are leading in the area of educational technology. That turned out to be the greatest strength of the program. The first time we met, one member thought it’d be funny to call the group, “Tech Deputies.” Of course, the title was about all we could do for them, there was no compensation involved, and they were doing us a huge favor.

Using humor as a buy-in, the deputies met with us biweekly to help us identify complications and prepare for tricky technological projects in the future. When we pitched the program to the rest of the faculty they laughed too. But it worked. The faculty was happy to recognize their peers who had gone out of their way to help out in the past and signed up to continue to do so with nothing more than a humorous (yet meaningless) title.

In the first year alone, we saw many unintended benefits grow out of this program. Our Help Desk staff saw a decrease in tickets for simple troubleshooting, like connecting to projectors or issues with Apple TVs. Our Tech Integration Specialists received fewer questions about how to use the CMS (Content Management System) and basic GAFE (Google Apps for Education) issues, which allowed for more and deeper conversations about pedagogical and instructional strategies being used in the classroom. With regularly scheduled check-ins, we successfully created a network within our faculty to learn from one another. It also allowed for a forum to explore topics beyond the scope of tech integration where we discussed institutional deficiencies and how we as a team could approach them and support each other. Finally, it led to a lot of fascinating interdisciplinary connections and opportunities.

The Tech Deputy Solution: Year Two

Continuing with our planned obsolescence mission, in year two we expanded the amount of Tech Deputies from one per department to anyone interested. Several people willingly signed up to join, again with no incentive other than this silly title. Building off of our success with humor in year one, to ensure buy-in from the faculty, we created playing cards. The cards display department, location, “specialties”, “interests,” and a humorous narrative (see below).


We unveiled these cards at a faculty meeting to highlight which Tech Deputy faculty members should see if they need technological help. And we encouraged faculty members to see deputies if they wanted to try a new application or streamline a classroom technological process. Once again, the biggest reaction we received from these cards was laughs, but those laughs have turned into questions that faculty members ask Tech Deputies all the time, in meetings, in the hallways, via email, etc. Once again in year two, the Tech Deputy program has made a huge difference for us in the Tech Integration Department and in the IT Department.

Having introduced our new and expanded lineup of deputies, we then posted the cards on a corkboard in the faculty room so that teachers will always know who they can go see if they have technological questions. The colored thread stretches from each Tech Deputy to his/her “specialties,” the applications that he/she uses and would like to help others use as well. Want to add exit tickets to your class? See Mr. Uher to teach you Go Formative. Want help with Google Classroom? See Ms. McKain, she’s an expert.

The Tech Deputy Solution: Applying Our Success

First, we intend to continue to increase the number of Tech Deputies on our team. We’d like everyone to feel comfortable enough to be considered a Tech Deputy. We also hope to apply the success of this program to our students, and to other areas of student life at Flint Hill like Diversity and Inclusion, Advisory, and Instructional Support.

November 19, 2017

A Case Against Rubrics


In the last two school years, I've taught a project-based learning course in the History Department called Contemporary World History and a personalized learning course in the Innovation Department called Disruptive Innovation through Social Media. Educational leaders have heralded these types of courses as innovative because they encourage individual agency, strong research, problem solving skills and real-world application. But in practice, I've found that students aren't prepared for these innovative courses. As a result of education's obsession with comprehensive rubrics and completion points, students are more concerned with graded outcomes rather than process and self-discovery. Consequently, many teachers have been dissuaded from developing innovative courses or, even worse, they have brought rubrics into these courses, which defeats the purpose.

More and more, our students want to be told what they have to do and how to do it in order to get an A on an assignment. That's what success looks like to them, as it will give them their best chance to get into a selective college. Teachers rely on rubrics to make grading fair and efficient. They're a great way for teachers to protect themselves from students or parents angry about a grade. And when the stakes are high, teachers don't want to be the person standing between a student and her grade.

Rubrics in Education

Rubrics make for less subjective grading; either the student did something or he didn't. Easy. Objective grading allows teachers to easily defend the grades they're giving. Teachers have even adapted rubrics for traditionally subjectively graded assignments like essays. For example, does a student have a certain number of quotations? Even when evaluating something complex, like analysis, the difference between an outstanding paper and an average paper is represented by a one-column difference in said category, and with some rubrics, that might carry only a one word difference ("excellent" analysis vs. "good" analysis). Regardless, a teacher just has to circle a few of the rubric categories and voila! Done grading.

This is not to say that all rubrics are bad.  They can be useful to make the teacher's expectations clear to a student and push him to do more. In other words, they can be helpful in evaluating effort. But when students are working to complete a rubric, they're extrinsically motivated. We want to encourage intrinsic motivation as well.

Another way to think about this problem is with student homework completion. A student is more likely to complete an easy assignment than a hard one; he's more likely to complete a straightforward assignment than a creative or open-ended one. That's because we've reduced grades to the most straightforward measurement possible: checking boxes on a rubric. Students know that a teacher will tell them exactly what they need to do to get an A. And that's what we're getting back from students: "I'm going to do what I have to do to check these boxes, and no more." We're pushing them towards that lowest common denominator attitude.

Beyond Rubrics in Education

By the time students get to my course, they've lost their intrinsic motivation to learn, their creativity, and their understanding of the real world outside of education. In both my project-based and personalized learning courses, I have to teach students how to unlearn traditional school, and embrace a new style of learning that I want going on in my classroom.

Creative, open-ended projects where students have choice confront many of the problems described above. Students have to think for themselves, set their own goals, and learn something that they care about. This type of student agency leads to better, more meaningful projects and increases retention. Students won't be turning in the same project meeting the same requirements; they will be defining their own.

Now that we've thrown out the rubric, the question becomes how to assess this style of learning. I submit the coaching model as a solution. As long as teachers ask the right questions to learn from the student what he's doing, why, and how. It then becomes easy to provide feedback and steer the student in the right direction. One consistent question I ask in my personalized learning class is, "How will I know if you're learning?" Asking that type of question, that encompasses an opportunity for self reflection, should be enough for a teacher to know if a student is truly putting in effort and learning in the course. Only with this style of assessment and feedback is it fair for a teacher to say that a student "exceed expectations," a term that ironically appears in many teacher rubrics.

Project-based and personalized learning courses that are evaluated in this manner emulate what our students will do in the real world. Workers that just complete the tasks of a rubric, or training manual, are low in demand and paid little; in the future, box-checking jobs will be automated. Instead, we want to train workers that are intrinsically motivated learners with strong communication and creative-thinking skills. Finally, we want to prepare our students to be resilient in the face of constructive criticism. This is a tough lesson to teach in schools, but it's made tougher when students work off a teacher's rubric, rather than defining their own projects and metrics of success.

Ultimately, we're trying to change student attitudes from "what do I have to do" to "what do I get to do." We're working to train creative, lifelong learners, who break the mold. We can't do that when teachers are grading them with a mold.

November 5, 2017

Pushing back on the STEM Craze

Schools all over the country are spending a disproportionate amount of time and resources trying to build up STEM programming at the expense of crucial humanities education. This approach is no doubt driven by the statistics promising bright careers for STEM graduates: According to the US Department of Commerce, over the last decade, STEM occupations grew 24% while non-STEM field grew by just 4%. And they're going to grow by 9% from 2014-2024, versus non-STEM growing by just 6.4%. This week, New York Times pointed out that the vast majority of the available jobs come in the "T" of the STEM field, notably in computing (the article also noted a $70,000 median base salary for computer science majors over five years). To be sure, statistics like this prove that there's good reason for schools to be proactive about teaching computer science and robotics.

However, schools should not push STEM at the expense of other educational pursuits--most crucially our students' communication and critical thinking skills developed through humanities education.  The erosion of these skills comes at the worst possible time, corresponding with a shift in the way people connect with each other and understand the world around them thanks to technology. For example, never before has the country been so politically divided with its citizens stuck in echo chambers often duped by hyper-partisanship and misinformation.

It's no secret that the country is becoming more and more politically polarized, and that polarization is making us more stressed.  This past week, the American Psychological Association also concluded that "nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, slightly more than perennial stressors like money (62 percent) and work (61 percent)." And "when asked to think about the nation this year, nearly six in 10 adults (59 percent) report that the current social divisiveness causes them stress." Some of this polarization is no doubt caused by changes brought by technology. Advances in technology, and especially social media, result in users becoming stuck in echo-chambers, whether willfully or as a result of algorithms, in which they are not exposed to ideas contrary to their own. The nation is polarized and the two poles are not being forced to engage with one another civilly.

Students, too, are feeling the effects of the intersection of technology, polarization and stress. Over the past few years, I've noticed (and have recently written about how) our students don't converse face-to-face anymore when it comes to controversial issues. Like many adults, they'd rather have it out behind screens in social media applications than in the classroom. As I have argued, it is our job as educators to draw students into in-person conversations. (I have noticed my colleagues tend to shy away from these controversial conversations, whether out of fear of parents or administrators, or an unwillingness to have difficult exchanges.)

These problems in our schools--echoed nationally--are the product of advances in technology. Carefully orchestrated reward systems (that work exceedingly well on teenagers) keep us hooked on our apps. And, algorithms coded behind closed doors push us the information we want to hear.  But neither of these creations by coders has helped us become more informed citizens, quite the contrary.

As schools continue spending time hiring computer science and engineering teachers, adding STEM classes to the curriculum, and providing technology-based professional development for teachers, we're missing a problem that's right in front of us. We need to invest just as much time and resources into revamping our humanities curriculum, providing professional development for teachers to encourage them to host tough conversations, and working to bring our parents in on these conversations. That's the only way we can push back against our current politics of division, hatred, and fear. Face-to-face conversations where students, parents and teachers have to listen to understand one another's opinions will go a long way.

At a very fundamental level, our obsession with STEM education reflects the capitalistic urges of our schools. We want our students to be prepared for the workforce, poised to make money and benefit our country. But at what cost? Our tech companies are booming, making billions and billions of dollars. Our democracy on the other hand, is far from stable.

I am not arguing that we shouldn't teach STEM. But we have to be able to do that and teach the humanities. We can't graduate STEM students without them understanding, and prepared to address, the moral and ethical problems created by technology in the past decade.  We need students who value and seek an exchange of diverse ideas. We can't graduate citizens that don't know how technology is mining their data, taking advantage of their emotions, misinforming them, and dividing them. We need citizens that have the critical thinking and communication skills that can push back against the current state of technology and politics that's dividing us. This comes from humanities education. Now is not the time for educational leaders to overlook the value of humanities education just because STEM promises paying jobs to our graduates.

What's at stake here is the strength of our democracy through one of democracy's most important institutions (education) and its most important members (the youth).

October 19, 2017

OESIS 2017 Talk: Passion-Based Learning through Social Media

I presented a "Class of the Future" at the OESIS Conference in Boston on my Innovation Department elective called "Disruptive Innovation through Social Media."

This is the second year that I've had the privilege of presenting to this conference of educators thinking critically about online and blended learning. Both times I've presented at OESIS, I've benefitted form connecting with a ton of solid educators who want to collaborate beyond the conference. A week after OESIS, my class collaborated with an English class from Greenhill School in Texas. And two weeks after the conference, I connected with two Computer Science teachers at Winchester Thurston school in Pittsburgh to help me with my website. I've also spoken to an administrator from Indian Creek School in Crownsville, MD about a faculty cohort model. Finally, I discussed digital citizenship with the Academic Technology coordinator at Princeton Day School in NJ. All of these connections have pushed me to become a better educator.

Even if you missed OESIS and some of the great collaboration opportunities I described above, you can still see my talk here: 


October 7, 2017

Controversial Conversations Belong in the Classroom, Not Online

Last week, I wrote about the problem teens are having discussing controversial political issues in school. TL;DR: they're not. They're having these conversations online, almost exclusively. I had a few interesting responses confirming some of my points that I'd like to highlight before getting into solutions.

Responses: 

The teenagers who responded to my post agree.  So much so that it makes me think the issue is worse than I thought. For example, I heard that when teenagers have controversial conversations online they are almost always discussing with people that they don't talk to in person. And these online interactions don't drive them to meet and talk face-to-face. Sometimes the next day they'll connect through intermediaries or through the rumor mill, but not to clarify or further discuss, face-to-face, what was typed.

I heard a unique story from a student that exemplifies the problem. She told me she knew of two friends who sat together while they engaged in a political conversation online; one student researched information, and the other tweeted their opinions bolstered by the researched information. Clearly these students were suffering from confirmation bias, carefully cherrypicking facts to "win" an argument. This emulates the national conversations we're seeing online. Unfortunately, both in our schools and nationally, conversations have become zero-sum games in which one party wins and one loses.

Solutions:

First, as I mentioned last week, this country needs to have more political conversations face-to-face. Second, we need to dispel the notion that there's always a winner and a loser in political conversations. Finally, as teachers, we need to create spaces and establish relationships where all students, whatever their politics, feel comfortable expressing their opinions in our classrooms.

Before I try to prove the thesis above, I'd like to admit that I'm no expert on this. I could spend the whole school year working with colleagues and going to conferences to help me lead better political conversations in the classroom, and I still wouldn't be an expert, especially in the current political climate. This is a tough issue, but it's one we need to address.

That said, I feel strongly that the first--and perhaps most important--solution is to flush students out of their online spaces and force them to have political conversations face-to-face. There's power in body language and tone. As I mentioned last week, these conversations promote empathy and understanding. And when these conversations happen in groups, even those who aren't speaking affect the content of the conversation through their mere presence and their physical reactions. Online, the loudest and often most extreme voices dominate conversation and push out those who hold opinions in the middle. But in a group conversation, participants can physically see reactions from those in the middle, even if they aren't speaking. And that matters.

This past week, I tried to put that into practice by hosting a student forum on a political controversy at my school related to what symbols could and could not be displayed in our senior lounge. This issue closely mirrored the problems I detailed in my post last week where students had already interacted in small groups of like-minded individuals but had never talked in person with those who disagree. Before the forum, three different students independently expressed to me that they thought the forum would get out of control or "rowdy." I patiently explained to them that I knew for a fact that it would not because I know the power of face-to-face conversation. They were right about the fact that lots of students with opinions showed up, but I was right that it did not get rowdy or even loud. It was civil.

Students adhered to my discussion guidelines, chose their words carefully, listened to each other, and treated each other with respect. The extreme position didn't monopolize the conversation. Because we sat in a big circle, everyone had an impact on the direction and outcome of the conversation, whether they spoke or not. And what was valued and respected in the forum was exactly what we teach daily: things like using evidence to support opinions, disagreeing civilly, asking for clarification, sharing the speaking time, and not raising voices. In the end, a number of students asked me to host more student forums; not only is it good for us as teachers, but it's good for the students, and they desire it. This experience proved to me that face-to-face conversations with adults present is indeed the best model to cover controversial issues.

One best practice that was integral to the success of the forum and to political conversations in general is establishing ground rules, the most important of which is that discussion is not a zero-sum game. Discussion is collaboration, not competition. We do it to better understand each other, not to defeat each other. Unfortunately, cable news (and social media) aren't helping us with this message. Nevertheless, a small reminder from a teacher goes a long way because it sets parameters and expectations for participants to work together for deeper understanding rather than to clash the way cable news guests do. I also push students to use "yes, and" statements, to validate or at least acknowledge someone's point before disagreeing, and to ask questions. These rules help create an atmosphere of empathy where people feel like they can be heard and understood.

Finally, it's imperative that everyone feel comfortable expressing their opinion. While this sounds easy, it's definitely the hardest solution in this post. Often classrooms are skewed politically, and every teacher--whether they admit it or not--has their own political biases that can be hard to manage. Again, with face-to-face conversations and the proper rules, the political makeup of the class shouldn't dictate the outcomes because everyone will be heard and understood.

In this forum, a group of conservative students waited until the forum was over to meet with each other to express opinions that they wouldn't share with the whole group. It echoed the problems we're having with online conversations, where students only want to talk to like-minded individuals. When this occurred, I immediately joined the group and asked why they wouldn't speak up in the forum. Long story short, they were afraid people would disagree. I honestly don't have an easy solution to this. I trust students would agree that we created a safe place for students to speak and disagree civilly. Regardless, we need to identify and support the groups that hold different opinions so that we can hear them in the public forum. This requires all of our teachers to seek out and engage in conversations that they might otherwise avoid.

Again, I'm no expert, but I am willing to work at this and I hope this post has convinced others to do the same. This past summer, I taught a class called Mass Media where political conversations naturally arose from our critique of the current media landscape. Trust me, they weren't all smooth. Nevertheless, to this day, the students continue exchanging messages and have asked me several times to host a Google Hangout so we could continue having political conversations together. This past week on our Google Hangout, after we discussed kneeling during the national anthem and solutions to gun violence, I asked them if any of their current high school teachers host similar conversations in their classroom. Not one of the six students said yes.

We need to empower a new generation of informed citizens who know how to articulate their opinions, how to listen, and how to empathize. That starts in our schools.

September 25, 2017

Private Twitter and Snapchat: the New Facilitator for Controversial Conversations in High School

In the last few years, I've witnessed the growth of social media as a tool for students to express controversial opinions in high schools, a trend that teachers, administrators, and parents need to be more proactive about addressing.

This blog post from Jodi Pickering inspired me to articulate my own thoughts on student conversations on social media. Her post, titled Red State, Blue State, is about her pen pal's project from students in schools with drastically different political bends. It's a great assignment, and a post worth reading. But I want to reflect specifically about this line buried in the penultimate paragraph, "I am told that there was a long group Snapchat last night, but no one will give me specifics. They exchange looks that imply that the details are not something I want to know."

I've been in that same position, where I know students have seen or expressed controversial opinions on political and social issues on social media, and I'm not privy to the details. This makes those controversial topics hard to cover in my classroom for a number of reasons. First, we're not all starting from the same point. In terms of what's been posted, some students know more than others, and all of them know more than I do. Second, it means that many of the students have already taken sides on any given issue via those online posts that have already occurred. Most of them know where their classmates stand before anyone has answered a question or offered an opinion in class. When students have already voiced support for a side and know they have support, it's harder to listen to others, compromise or change opinions.  And other students are less likely to engage a student who has already staked out a position.

Fundamentally, I believe students should have as many controversial conversations as possible face-to-face and--if we can swing it--with an adult present. I feel fortunate that that's how I learned how to articulate opinions supported by evidence, how to debate, and how to disagree civilly. Through conversation, I figured out how I felt about contentious issues. After all, it's essential to productive conversation to be able to witness someone's facial expressions, see them process information, and hear their tone. Those conversations promote empathy and understanding. And it's crucial to have an informed mediator present to help facilitate a fair and civil conversation. If those conversations take place in the classroom, teachers can push students to use evidence and find common ground. But that's not what's happening.

Instead, students are using Snapchat and private Twitter to discuss controversial issues. Here's how that tends to go: something controversial happens at school or in the world. For example, a student (or group of students) takes a stand on the issue in a public setting or in a public post of their own. Then other students react to it by responding to the individual or posting their own commentary to the individual's post. On Snapchat, that can happen semi-publicly with Snapchat stories or privately with Snapchat groups. On Twitter, that often happens via "private Twitter"--smaller Twitter networks where students only follow their close friends and only let their close friends follow them.

Here's one example to help you understand this process. A campus club did a presentation on Flint's water crisis where they mentioned and explained the term "environmental racism." Before the students arrived at my class five minutes later, there was already a meme circulated on Twitter and Snapchat by students who ridiculed the concept of environmental racism and their classmates who worked to raise awareness, writing "the trees are racist."

When this happened, I was incredibly disappointed. First, I was upset with the content of the post. It showed students were ill-informed and unwilling to listen to their peers and become informed.  Second, I was upset by the us vs. them mentality that resulted from the meeting and was enhanced by the posts. Before anyone had considered the topic thoughtfully, each student had staked a position by  "liking" the post.  It's hard to get students to reconsider their position through instruction and discussion once they've connected themselves to the cause on social media. Third, I was upset that this all happened digitally rather than face-to-face. Digital interaction allows students to run to their own polarized network with friends who are more likely to support them. And finally, I was upset that no adults in the building were aware of these posts, let alone hosting a conversation to help students articulate their opinions (in more than just a meme-style post) and respond to one another civilly. This whole event makes me wonder how frequently these topics come up and are hashed out online amongst our students without us adults having any idea it's happening.

Unfortunately, there are a number of other triggers that make students gravitate towards networks of like-minded peers to address contentious issues, all of which are bad for our school community.  For example, sometimes our school rolls out a policy that students disagree with and post about online. Our school has shut down student T-shirt ideas, modified themed dress-down days, and opposed national political decisions; these actions have resulted in angry, uncivil posts where students blame others (usually via subtweet) for being the reason something got changed or shut down. Other times, these controversies come from national politics or current events, for instance from Snap's Discover feature.

No matter how these controversial conversations start, having them online is dangerous to our school community. Obviously these online conversations are polarizing in a way that echoes the national problem social media has exacerbated; like-minded individuals are talking to one another. But even within polarized networks, disputes handled online often result in the loudest, most extreme voice being amplified. Online there's little room for complexity or nuance. It's not like people who have a complex understanding of a topic are eagerly posting in private Twitter. Private Twitter is for clashing through 140 characters or less. That often results in the loudest, most extreme, but often unreasoned, voices being amplified with "likes" even if those liking the post don't agree with it in its entirety. On the other hand, in face-to-face conversations--even those with like-minded individuals--the extreme statements get tempered by the group, by facial expressions, by tone, and by additional information (and space for more characters) that highlights the complexity of the issue.

More recently, my school (and many others) has been dealing with another controversial topic: national anthem protests. Once again, students express their disagreement with protesting students this online. Obviously, students who choose to sit during the national anthem or pledge of allegiance haven't been asked by others face-to-face about why they sit. Instead, other students make assumptions and post their opposition in networks where only like-minded friends can see their posts. Opposing groups' seeing each other's posts often doesn't result in a conversation, just polarization.  This is all happening as I write this.  How will schools address the problem? I'll attempt to solve this with a future post.