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 21st Century Skill: Ethical Learning

It seems I am on a Bianca Hewes roll here, but that is because the roll is hers.  I do believe that unless a teacher has project-based learning at the heart of his/her teaching, particularly in grades 5 through 12, there is a disservice being performed.

This six-minute video of Bianca, in what is undoubtedly an enviable educational setting, is well-worth your investment…

And teachers, take particular note of what she says about professional development, and who sets the course of teacher learning.

Campus Party – Brazil!

Campus Party link

If you happen to be in São Paulo, Brazil, this weekend, don’t miss a most excellent annual event, Campus Party.

NOT free to the public (sorry if I mislead readers yesterday), this Woodstock/Burning Man-like event hosts the latest in tech innovation, but not just any tech.  This event is about education technology, science, culture, and interactive media for furthering the minds and hearts of Brazilians,
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Martha in Malawi

A follow-up on young Martha Payne, who through her simple blog contributed mightily to the care of children in Malawi.  Please visit her blog today to see her visit there, and meet Martha herself:


Martha Payne in Malawi with dad and new friends

When kids create change…

it can get mighty uncomfortable for the adults.

Ed Tech friends,  you’ve just GOT to read this story from the BBC, : School Dinner Blogger Bannedblogger martha payne

Meet Martha Payne, 9-year-old Scottish blogger from Argyll, decided to raise money to feed hungry children by blogging about and rating her school meals.

3,300,000 hits later, and counting (thanks to the now infamous ban on her photographing her meals – like I said, read the story) young Martha has focused proper attention not only on her own school’s meals, but on the fare being served by schools to (up to now) powerless students.

HUZZAH Martha (aka Veg) and HUZZAH Dad-o’-Veg!

As a technology educator I celebrate your living the present and the future by making our technology attend to real life, address real problems, while holding the all-too-often dysfunctional adult world accountable.

Note that the ban, and the viral response leading to the lifting of said ban and the millions of hits and protests (not to mention an opening of floodgates of donations to Martha’s charity) all occurred over the course of less than two days.

I think the future is looking brighter for us all.


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.