Prince Ea on Ed Tech

The creamy center of virtually every discussion on education reform, use of technology, and how people learn is directly related to our belief systems. “Systems” is plural here because we all carry around several, and here are some examples of a few of mine: Who I am, who you are, what I’m worth, what you’re worth, how adults learn, how children learn, why I think the way I do, what you’re thinking and why you’re thinking that, ad nauseum. We are walking catalogs of interplaying belief systems. When children don’t learn, it is useful to examine what we think about that. When we don’t get along with each other, in any context, it is helpful to consider why.

Right now, Ferguson, MO, is not far from the surface of our awareness if we are aware of anything at all. In the video linked below, St. Louis-based spoken-word artist Prince Ea shares his thoughts about what’s at the heart of events in Ferguson, and his words point to the heart of so many challenges we face as educators and as humans on the planet. Please give him 3:42 of your time and let him do what he does so well.


I miss the days of trust, really I do

Vicki Davis, the Cool Cat Teacher blogger and Ed Tech guru of many years standing, has issued an impassioned and earnest plea in Why I now friend my students on social media for school and government authorities to back off the over-regulation of communications via social media between teachers and students. You will feel as well as hear her plea in her presentation here:

My reply to her blog post is below. I will also mention that she is a teacher in a private school in Camilla, GA, and has always enjoyed certain benefits not available to us in the public sector, including an expectation that students in her classes enjoy sure access to technology at home, for instance. There are any number of regulatory spaces not carefully attended to in the private sector, permitting a certain kind of choice-making not available to the rest of us.

Hi Vicki,

I am entirely resonant with what you are saying here, and I share the desire to be able to connect with kids when they are reaching out to us. At the outset of my career, I was the teacher who gave out his home phone number, and that was waaay before cell phones, and before Internet. It was during that time I intervened with more than one suicidal student because a friend had my number, so my heart is certainly with you.

Our world has changed, though. Currently, a local physics teacher is serving time for seducing and raping female students, and his primary mode of communication was Words With Friends. Not long ago in our area a local teacher had to be hospitalized, and her Facebook-based classroom help group became flame central to the point one of her students was afraid to come to school, with everything happening out of sight of the teacher who had (legally and effectively) extended the teaching/learning space into the back channels of a medium that was undiscoverable and unsupervised. She had unintentionally left her classroom without a teacher present, and the potential consequences of vicious online bullying are too well known.

Federal and state statutes have defined our responsibilities in terms of how student information, student-teacher communication, and learning spaces connected to terms of employment are to be managed. What you would like to see as possible has been overtaken in drastic measure by FERPA, state Education Codes, and board policies which seek to limit the liability of education systems when things go wrong.

In the past, teachers were able to use their discretion when meeting privately with students, and while there have always been bad apples among both teachers and students, teachers generally knew which students were not trustworthy behind a closed door, they knew when to leave it open with a colleague not far away. This has been particularly true for male teachers. Commercial social media, however, has made the risk of covert back-channel communication high risk for all because any teacher who connects online in undiscoverable (as in invisible and unverifiable) channels is exposed to great risk of unfounded accusation, and the law has done much to protect minors in those same spaces.

What you are hoping to see in the way of reform would require major retooling of many statutes to restore the freedom of discretion we once enjoyed, but because of the actions of a few spectacular exceptions, this is highly unlikely to occur any time soon. I think our best strategy, at least until the current spasm of social media over-protection has run its course, is to make sure our students receive education and socialization that recognizes the necessity of quality face-to-face relationships so that social media is not their only option when life goes sour.

Hey! Let’s be careful out there!

Like other folks in my field, I frequently come across stories of K-12 teachers getting themselves into some right-nasty professional pickles because of technology, or closer to the point, because of how they’ve chosen to use it.

This post is not about the ones who wound up in jail through online misbehavior or behavior consequent to online communications. To the best of my knowledge, those folks belong there, and the technology only served to give them access in a way they would have set their predatory hearts to anyway. This is also not for those of you who teach second graders by day, and produce online porn in your free time. That’s just stupid, and I wouldn’t want you teaching my kids either.

No, this is about how to avoid inadvertently falling into tech age briar patches. I’ve written about this before in the context of Facebook and such.  Also, K-12 school districts issue policies and guidelines, states pass laws, and courts make rulings, but rarely are they in language that leaves us with a sense of “What to do?” lest they assume liability for giving advice that doesn’t work.

So I’m not assuming any liability for you here either. I have no doubt you could treat my advice here like gospel and still get yourself into trouble, but I’m hoping it makes you aware on a more useful level.

As a prudence rule-of-thumb, it’s a good idea to try to imagine the world pre-Internet. I first taught in that, and it offers a useful template. In those days, you could “size up” a kid as to whether a private conversation might be risky. For those you couldn’t, you sat fairly near to the classroom entrance, positioned a desk between you and the student, and left the door propped open. Witnesses. Also, there were certain conventions of behavior that kids and adults followed, so it was easier to read the danger signs early.

Online, those days are irretrievably over. When relationships go digital, you need to assume that every student is that 1:1000 student who will see you fired, dance on your termination notice, and sleep like a baby.

So I offer you here a list that hopefully will not be obsolete the moment I push the “publish” button. I will not offer technical justifications here. If you want the detail behind my assertions, just ask.

1. You still need witnesses. Do not use services that (a) would prevent you from reproducing a record of transactions and (b) that would permit private, back-channel, undocumented conversation. Stay away from private chat environments. Do not Facebook Friend your students. Period.

2. Be ready and able to shut down online classroom discussion. You cannot turn off an unsupervised Facebook page, and you cannot delete others’ Facebook posts. Corollary: Make certain you have collegial backup to be able to shut down discussion on your classroom interactive page should you wind up in the hospital. You are responsible for any bullying or flaming that happens in your space.

3. Make obvious for any insect brain that which is work, and that which is instructional.  A teacher in the media today (and the muse for this post) is out of a job because he posted some sketchy material on a blog site he created for instruction ten years ago. He can claim he wasn’t requiring his current 7th graders to read his erotica (which I do believe), but when he posted excerpts of it to his old blog entitled “Room 210 Discussion,” he was inviting a visit from HR. He got it, along with a police escort out of the building. Had he taken 30 seconds to create a fresh blog for his new stuff, he would be working tomorrow.

4. Everything a student produces and everything a teacher documents about that production is consider a “student record.” Now, I’m no lawyer, but I know this to be the case in many states, including my own. Student records need some level of discoverability. This is an issue that complicates the Google Apps discussion for school districts. Can Google guarantee discoverability?

5. Your name is your connection to your teaching credential. If you pursue activities that might not line up with being a teacher and mentor of minor children (the penning of erotica, for instance), consider using a pseudonym. Should your students or their parents (or employer) Google “Mr. John Jones” only to discover Mr. Jones published a sci-fi parody of Debbie Does Dallas, he might have significant ‘splainin’ to do. If, on the other hand, he discovers a comet, “Comet Jones” puts a bit of a shine on that credential.

6. Be careful with inflammatory rhetoric. As teachers, we inevitably engage in speech that ticks people off. Our profession is, at its root, political in nature. Consequently, we need to guard our speech, meaning those words attached to our valuable name need to carry the same value and respect we hope to receive in our position. Whether school-related or personal, take good care of that handle you were given.

7. Keep your cell phone number to yourself. If your number circulates, you could be in the kiddie porn business in pretty short order. I realize policies differ district to district, but that’s my personal take on it. Of course if you’re on a trip with a sports team, rules have to stretch.

8. If you use Twitter, do everything you can to keep your teaching account separate from your private account. Personally, I would find a different tool because of the potential for undiscoverable communication.

9. Manage your files so that personal material does not get mingled in your various cloud-based services. This may seem obvious, but if bad things can happen, they will happen somewhere.

10. Think of your newest cool tech tool like holding a pit bull on a short leash. Yes, you will look really good, at least until the pit turns and sees you as the juiciest prey it’s seen all day.

Be careful  out there.

The death of tabula rasa

What happens when you drop a bunch of boxed Android tablets, without instructions or training, in the midst of illiterate, non-English-speaking Ethiopian kids who have never even seen an on/off switch?  Do they use them to boost themselves to be able reach into the well?  Do they throw them at marauding hyenas?


They hack them.

ethiopian children with computers

More Facebook: Why are you surprised?

Something else that has caught my eye of late is the press covering the astonishing fact that students and their parents bad-mouth teachers on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.  I’m not sure when “rock-star popularity among youth” became part of the teaching job description, but the idea that this is “news” struck me as kind of amusing.

two kids in a kiddie poolWhen my kids were toddlers I used to hear other parents complain about the fact that three-year-olds (and maybe even – gasp – their own three year old) tended to pee in swimming pools, and that fact diminished their enjoyment of the pool.  This phenomenon lead to my Personal Parenting Rule #47: Don’t swim where toddlers swim.

I love Facebook.  I have gobs of Friends who were high school classmates and whom I haven’t seen since, people whom I see maybe once a year if I’m lucky, and regular friends I see daily who need to coordinate a meet-up.  Also in there are a few kids who are friends of my kids, athletes my wife coaches, etc.  They exist in a group called “Kids,” and they do NOT participate in my Facebook life, though they can contact me through Facebook if they need to.

When I was first playing with Facebook, I allowed myself the ability to see former students’ status posts.  They hated and dissed some of their teachers, some of them my friends, so I changed my settings to exclude their status updates from my Facebook life.  This was their emotional space, not mine.

I remember my earliest teaching days when I thought I was a “friend” to some of my students, when I could secretly claim to belong to their generation, and when I said “we” in class, I felt like I was including them as peers at some level.  With 20/20 hindsight, what was I?  Role model & mentor?  Yes.  Trusted adviser?  Often.  Beloved teacher?  Occasionally.  Peer?  No.  Friend?  Never.

Stay out of your students’ social lives.  If they or their parents publish lies about you such that your career/reputation is being harmed, the same remedy applies: sue them.  Written defamation is libel, and teachers are not considered “public figures”; you are not a rock star.  Your principal is, however.  But know that if you share the conversation in which you are being libeled, your claim to having been damaged by their speech would likely be much weaker.

Know that just as three-year-olds pee in the pool, teenagers get unreasonably angry and verbally abusive, with parents often close behind them.  That’s why there are kiddie pools, and that’s why you don’t share your Facebook life with students.

Teachers on Facebook: Professional Roulette

roulette wheelThe use of Facebook by teachers has become such a deeply felt and inflammatory topic during this time of budgetary hemorrhage – Facebook is powerful and free, after all – that I felt it high time it was addressed from the practitioner perspective.

Now, before you dismiss this out of hand after deciding I’m just another set of bureaucratic flapping gums, allow me the following bona fide:  At the outset of my teaching career as a high school teacher, my district strongly advised teachers to unlist their phone numbers from the public phone book lest we subject ourselves to crank calls and toilet papered houses.  I ignored this directive, as I was the kind of teacher who took my relationship to my students beyond what happened in front of the chalk board, providing mentoring and adult friendship to those kids who needed it.  My phone was used by students only to report crises, their own or another students’, and that access prevented at least one suicide attempt, and that in my first teaching year alone.  Besides, I’ve always thought of toilet papered houses as loving acts.

So I truly get the vital role teachers play in adolescent lives, a role that goes way beyond content standards.  We dig deeply into our emotions, intellects and bank accounts to serve these young people, and when we find a tool that works in their service, narrowly-cast district policies and even our own self-interest often fade into the background noise of the teaching profession.  We particularly search for avenues to make as vital a connection to our students as we can, knowing in our gut that learning happens best in the context of emotion and relationship to peers and mentors.

The dynamic and immediate interactivity of Facebook makes it a natural medium for teachers, and the web is full of teachers extolling its power and virtue.  However, and this is a pleading however, Facebook provides a quality of access to a student’s personal life and actions that can be truly career-ending for a teacher.  All your caring and expertise will matter little if you find yourself outside looking in following the trauma of a communication nightmare.

The organizational intricacies that contribute to the teacher’s ability to walk into a room, turn on the lights, have minor children walk in and face an expectation imposed on them by parents and wider culture are not random circumstances.  Your ability to teach that class is the outcome of a long and complex political and social process, and imbedded in that process are certain conditional facts driven by law.

Facebook fails you as a teacher because it ignores the following conditions imposed by the structure that provides for public schooling:

  • Teachers are responsible for what occurs in their teaching environment.  When teachers set up a space in which to conduct instruction, whether it is their classroom, on the grass under a tree at the park down the street, or a page on Facebook, they assume responsibility for words uttered there.  It is expected that in the course of instruction and interaction that you are present at all times.  Facebook is a public space, and by definition it is free of structural supervision. If a teacher cannot actively supervise student interaction in a space the teacher uses for instruction, the space should not be available to students.  This is a no-brainer when we’re using a brick & mortar classroom; we carry keys.  In our professional role, social media is no different, but Facebook has no keys to distribute.
  • Individual interactions between students and teachers must be above suspicion and reproach, with guidelines provided by law and a clear code of professional conduct.  We have all had students with whom we should not meet with alone, with private conversations occurring with a door open to the hallway. We have also all had students who seriously misinterpreted our words leading to uncomfortable confrontations, extending eventually to their parents.  Facebook provides a necessarily private, “windowless” space for such interactions, and it is only a matter of time before things will go wrong and a teacher finds him or herself in desperate defensive mode.
  • Teachers need to be able to design the learning environment to optimize learning.  Instruction on a Facebook page is like gathering your class in the middle of Time’s Square before NYC got rid of the strip joints.  While you think you are interacting as teacher, students are chatting, the ads are rolling (marketed specifically to each student’s “Likes”), and they’re checking out your FB profile page.
  • Parents have the right to access the learning environment taxpayer-paid teachers provide.  It is the rare adolescent who “Friends” a parent.  Even rarer is the parent who provides a computer conditional on being their child’s Facebook Friend, and even then kids respond by maintaining separate “parent-safe” pages.  Consequently, when teaching happens on Facebook parents are structurally denied access to an environment they are indirectly paying the teacher to provide.
  • Teachers need to be able to provide a record of interactions they supervise.  By “supervise” I mean providing any learning environment that is part of a teacher’s professional role.  Once provided, under the law, supervision is assumed.  If students control the permanence of communications by being able to delete their posts, nothing short of a court order (good luck with that) can recover any toxic, threatening, libelous or injurious communication posted by a student.  Also, given the miracle of Photoshop, there is nothing short of a court order that can disprove a created private conversation between student and teacher.

So what’s a teacher to do?  In my next post I look at how Edmodo addresses these very issues.

The Facebook Quandary

Reading this post by Steve Jaffee on social media policy prompted a bit of a discussion here in the office, as while we often discourage teachers from interacting with students via social media due to the current complexity of the medium, particularly the security settings in Facebook which remain intentionally obscure and complex, we have true mixed feelings about going into our collective future with outright prohibition.facebook logo

As a young teacher in the 80s, the convention for teachers was to be completely unlisted in the phone book to deprive students’ access to their teachers’ personal information (in practice it was mostly to avoid decorative toilet paper technology). I never fully bought into that ethic, as I felt the need to provide some means for my students to contact me in an emergency.  While my address remained unlisted, my phone number was published in the phone book, and students took advantage of that exactly three times, all for life-threatening events in their or their friends’ lives.  As Steve points out here, personal boundaries between students and teachers are not so clean and official as an outside observer might assume.  Teachers of younger children often become surrogate parents with deep and lasting relationships, and that dynamic does not come to an end when a child leaves elementary school, rather it becomes even more complicated and volatile.  Successful students are still in need of personal mentoring, intervention, and occasional responses to emergencies by teachers.

I currently “Friend” former students, students still in our school system, and I do so with mild trepidation, carefully installing them in their tightly constrained “Students” list.  This allows me to look in on them as I wish, and gives them a means to contact me should they have the need.  It does not give them access to my posts, photos, profile, and other interactions on Facebook.  I say “mild trepidation,” because I have had technical issues with Facebook in the past that rendered my security settings utterly nonfunctional.  They work now, but I have no idea when they may revert to their nonfunctioning status.  As a result, I post to Facebook in a professional manner as if it may be viewed by those students, hoping for privacy, knowing it’s possibly not perfect.  If I was still teaching and I lacked a district-provided web portal, I would establish a professional page on Facebook as a one-way communication device, and the means by which students could contact me off-campus.  That’s not student access to personal information, but it is access to me in an appropriately defined context.

It’s probably going to take another generation or so before we work out the details of the current social contract, and we’re going to make errors in both directions.  It’s important to keep thinking about school culture and relationships, and to mind the well-being of all parties without choking off meaningful interactions that let education happen.