Sunday, October 26, 2008

Loving K12Online

K12Online conference has been running last week and will continue next week as well. From their website -- " The K-12 Online Conference invites participation from educators around the world interested in innovative ways Web 2.0 tools and technologies can be used to improve learning. This FREE conference is run by volunteers and open to everyone. " Yes you read that right -- Free and open to everyone. In this case "everyone" includes me -- a parent.

I'm not sure if parents were who they had in mind when thought about "everyone" but as I've participated in the Fireside Chat and other live events I have felt very welcome and not as out of place as I thought I might. The more presentations that I viewed the more strongly I felt that more parents should be attending. AAhh I hear the collective groan of parents out there -- "I don't want to become a teacher -- that's what they are paid for". But, as someone recently reminded me, as parents we are our children's first and lifelong teachers.

I haven't had a chance to listen to all the fantastic presentations but here are a few that I feel will particularly appeal to parents.

Free tools for universal design for learning in literacy (Jennifer Kraft) -- This is really a must see for all parents but for those of you with struggling readers or special needs it is especially important. The title sounds daunting, I know, but the presentation is easy to follow and has great resources that you can use at home to help with literacy from pre-readers all the way through. Laurie Fowlers presentation then moves on to other ways to help students become better readers.

The Google Gamut -- Everything you need to get Started
(Kern Kelley) -- Over the past 18 months Google's suite of products has completely changed the way I utilize the internet. Kern gives a great overview of how to get started with your own google account. The possibilities for parents using google are endless I would highly reccomend checking this out.

I like Delicious Things -- An Introduction to Tagging and Folksonomies (Chris Betcher) -- Do you have a digital mountain of pictures? A bookmark file that you can no longer find the right bookmark in? This presentation speaks to one of the most daunting tasks of parents -- organization. Everything in a place and a place for everthing. If you have ever wondered about the value and utility of creating tags for your pictures, your resources or even your life, look no further!

Well that is enough to get you started, but I'm sure after that brief introduction you will be looking for more. I already have my mp3 player loaded with "What did you do in School today.." and "Web 2.0 tools to Amplify Elementary Students Creativity and Initiative" for lunch break tomorrow.

The K12online conference provides a rare opportunity for teachers and parents to learn together on equal footing. This shared knowledge has the capacity to strengthen the parent-teacher relationship and facilitate meaningful discussions about solutions to some of the difficulties that are faced in our schools every day. So grab some pizza and beer, parents and teachers and have fun viewing a few of the presentations. You'll be glad you did ...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Evil Square Box?

Ah yes the evil square box. You know what I'm talking about computers, TV's, handheld games. The catch all term that we use to refer to all types of screen time. Apparently it is the root of childhood obesity, ADHD, anti-social behaviour and the list goes on. Every ill that has befallen our children can be traced back to some sort of manifestation of the square box. As a parent I have followed the popluar wisdom and really limited all forms of square box time in our house and I felt really proud of the job I was doing until today.

Today, if you were in my house, you would have heard this:

-stop making that collage with your brother
-please enough with the drawing already times up
-why are you writing again -- I thought I asked you to stop
-are you playing with your roller-coaster set? You are grounded.
-quit reading about the Taj Mahal and the wonders of the world

It sounds absurd doesn't it? But what if I told you the colouring was on tuxpaint, the collage was a slideshow on OneTrueMedia, the writing was a gmail message, roller-coasters are constructed with Ruff Ruffman and the Taj Mahal research was on the web. And what I really said was get off the computer. Now does it seem as absurd?

As I walked to set the "computer time" timer after my daughter announced she wanted to research the wonders of the world, I had to ask myself the question -- If she had brought home a book from the library about the Wonders of the World would I be limiting her time? The questions then keep coming.. if she were writing in journal would I stop her? would I ask my son to stop colouring unless it was supper? would I interrupt the two of them peacefully cutting up magazines for a collage if I didn't have to? Why does the fact they are engaging in these activities on a square box matter?

Sometimes I wonder why this shift in thinking is so hard. Then I pick up my daughters school newsletter and read (under a huge headline of READ! READ! READ!) this: "And yet everything conspires against children learning to love books(ie read). Ubiquitous electronic devices, whether desk-bound or small enough to fit in their pockets, occupy an alarming proportion of children's days" With messages like that floating around -- is it any wonder that, as parents, we sometimes fear and loathe the evil Square Box.

But what if computers had come before books? What if the quote above read "And yet everything conspires against children learning to love computers. Ubiquitous printed matter, whether hard-cover or a paperback small enough to fit in their pockets, occupy an alarming proportion of children's days" Would we then be blaming the solitary, sedentary nature of reading books for the rising obesity problem and anti-social tendencies of children?

I know that I won't give my children free access to the computer in my home any more than I would let them decide what they should eat every day. It is my job to ensure that they have a healthy balance in their lives. However, I do hope that I will do a better job in the future of evaluating the worth of the activity irregardless of the medium that delivers it. I would like to believe that the medium isn't always the message -- that sometimes it's just the medium. Just as an apple isn't candy just because it is sweet; activities don't lose worth because they are contained on a computer. Maybe the evil square boxes aren't that evil after all.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Culture Shock

I have a postcard that I have kept from my travels that states "I cheer for two teams New Zealand and anyone playing Australia". It serves as a reminder of a time when I thought the two countries were virtually interchangeable. A New Zealand exchange student quickly gave me an education when he retorted with -- "United States -- Canada -- no difference right?". I immediately understood the offence that I had caused and of course apologised profusely (as all Canadians would -- sorry is, after all, one of our favourite words). Even though two countries may speak the same language, have some heritage in common, share common interests and be geographically close -- it doesn't mean they have the same culture.

Zubin Austin, a professor at the University of Toronto, explained at a pharmacy conference I attended how the culture of professions influence how we interact with each other. Specifically he followed pharmacy graduates who eventually went on to become physicians. As they wrote their final exams to become physicians they felt they could have passed them out of pharmacy school, but without the enculturation process of med school they couldn't have functioned as physicians. They wouldn't have understood what it meant to be a doctor; the language, the mindset, the culture, and the values had to be learned.

As a parent, sometimes that's how I feel about teachers. I have spent a great deal of time learning about educational technology, curriculum, and subjects, to the point I could possibly "pass" a teacher test, but I will never be a teacher. Teachers, like all professions, undergo a transformation in university that makes them teachers. It goes beyond the knowledge they attain -- it is the values, beliefs, language and rituals that makes them who they are.

So as I enter the school system, as a parent, and try to help teachers embrace technology I find myself experiencing a bit of culture shock. There have been volumes written about culture shock and they have managed to drill it down to four main phases:

  1. Honeymoon phase -- A person is excited to be in a new place, experiencing new things, there may be minor difficulties but you chalk it up to being part of the newness.
  2. Rejection phase -- This is where a person really starts to notice the differences in culture. Things that the natives find as minor inconveniences really begin to grate on the traveler. There is a lot of complaining at this stage about how the other culture does things. At this point a person will either move on to the "acceptance" phase or will just choose to go back home.
  3. Acceptance phase -- You begin to gain some sort of understanding of the new culture, it's ideals and values. Your sense of humour may return and there is a sense of psychological balance. You begin to tolerate the differences.
  4. Complete Adjustment/Assimilation Phase -- Finally you accept all the habits and customs of the new culture and may even find it preferable to the way you used to do things. You accept that there are just different ways of doing things -- not right or wrong -- just different. You are adjusted to the new culture.
Unfortunately I find myself at the rejection stage. What teachers have accepted as minor inconveniences (filtering, lack of access, bureaucracy) I find infuriating. My knowledge of the system is lacking and I struggle to understand why thing are done the way they are. It's frustrating and I find myself at the point of deciding -- do I go home or do I try to move on to acceptance?

Although it is very tempting to go home, I choose to move to the next phase. I can't say that my sense of humour has returned or that I have a sense of psychological balance but I am beginning to tolerate the differences. I would like to think that I am beginning to understand the culture of teachers, the ideals and values that make them who they are and, if I can manage that, I can function more efficiently in their world.

I don't know if I will ever experience the fourth phase of culture shock and, honestly, I'm not sure that I ever want to. I am not eager to completely assimilate into the school culture. To accept, completely, all the habits, norms and beliefs that are prevalant in the school system right now would make me an ineffective agent of change and I am really hoping for change. So just as New Zealanders and Canadians cling to their identity in the face of their larger neighbours, I too choose to cling to my culture of a being a parent. However, even if we can't, or won't, completely assimilate, I hope that we can put the cultural differences aside and cheer, support and celebrate the common vision of children succeeding.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Safe Sandbox

On a ski vacation last winter my son got separated from the group coming down a run at Lake Louise. If you have never skied Lake Louise, trust me, it is a massive hill and the thought of my five year old being lost on it still causes my heart to clench. Everything ended well, a call went out to all employees on the hill, and he was quickly found sitting on a bench near a chair lift seemingly just waiting to be reunited with the group.
After the initial shock and panic wore off, I had to admit that I was impressed by how well he managed the situation. I also had to concede that I wasn't terribly surprised. As I catalouged all the skills he needed to get through this little (or big in my mind) crisis -- I realised he had them in abundance.
You see we have a little local ski hill that we frequent. It is on the river hill, has a tow rope, a t-bar, and 6 runs. This is where you will find us for the majority of the winter. This is where my son practiced all the skills he needed to take on the challenge he met at Lake Louise.
  1. Skill and Ability -- Spending up to 4 times a week on a ski hill develops skill pretty fast. As a consequence this little 5 year old, much to my dismay, can take on Black Diamond runs with his dad. Again with the heart clenching...
  2. Confidence -- All that practice and skill building makes for a very confident little boy. He has faith in himself and in his abilities. The most valuable thing is that comes from within him not from his mom telling him he's great. So when he ends up on a big hill all alone he still has that faith and confidence with him.
  3. Problem Solving -- He has gotten himself into a few interesting predicaments at our local hill, but the nice thing is that the consequences of those situations are for the most part pretty benign (ie not worried about avalanches, falling off a mountain, or getting lost). He has learned where the pitfalls may be (ie out of bounds) and can better identify bad situations that, in the mountains, can have serious consequences.
  4. Adult help/mentors -- The advantage of a small ski hill is the community. I can allow my son to roam our little ski hill because I know I am not the only one looking out for him. As he has encountered various situations all sorts of adults, teens and other kids have been there to help him up, guide him, teach him and keep him safe. He knows what authentic interaction with adults looks like.
I am extremely grateful that I have this "safe sandbox" for my son. I know that it contributed to our happy ending at Lake Louise. My kids are lucky that there are many places like that in my community where they can practice all the skills I mentioned above. However, as my daughter, who is eight, begins to venture online I am beginning to wonder where her "safe sandbox" will be? And by safe I don't mean a perfectly filtered, sterile environment but one like our ski hill where mistakes can be made without dire consequences and there is a community who is ready and able to guide, teach and help her learn how to keep herself safe.

I am really looking forward to Parents as Partners webcast tonight (October 6, 2008 9pm EST) with Dean Shareski as they talk about these issues. How can parents, schools, teachers and community work together to make "a safe digital sandbox" for our children? It is an important issue that I hope gets a lot of attention because the only the thing that makes my heart clench tighter than thinking about my son being lost at Lake Louise is to think what might have happened if he didn't have the skills, confidence, and problem solving abilities he learned in his "sandbox".