Thursday, August 30, 2012

Seriously, STOP Blocking & Banning for Educators!

As Connected Educator Month draws to close, I'm appalled by the fact that many of our teachers & students are prevented from participating  due to blocking of ALL social media sites at school for both teachers & students

I am often asked the following question:

"How do we get our <Principal, Superintendent, IT Director, School Board, State Department of Ed> to stop blocking social media at the very least for teachers, if not for students?"

Here is where I would like to jump up on my soapbox and just RANT about trust, freedom of speech, access to information, fear-driven decision making, keeping everyone in from recess because one teacher misbehaved...but, I know how busy you are so let's skip the outrage and go directly to action steps:

Become knowledgeable:
The technology is there to facilitate the work not the other way around. The tech dept should not be making curricular decisions. In order for this to happen you must actually understand CIPA and Erate, so that when someone says to you, "Nope, all forums & social media must be blocked, if we don't comply with CIPA, we'll lose our E-Rate funding" you can refute the complete incorrectness of that statement!  Common Sense Media provides a great resource for you as does Dr. Mark Wagner in this slideshow.

Stop blaming the Technology
Facebook does not cause bullying. If you have a bullying problem in your school, that is a culture problem and all of the blocking in the world isn't going to make it better. Blaming the technology is an excuse for not solving the larger problem. Ignoring the prevalence of student's online lives is much more dangerous than blocking their access during the school day. We should be modeling and teaching digital responsibility in a safe environment where students can see that digital tools are not simply for entertainment but can be used professionally to expand their knowledge and create a digital footprint that will not come back to kick them later.

Accept that you are a BYOT school
Your students AND staff are using their own technology at school, whether they are texting within the  pocket of their hoody or surreptitiously in the bathroom between classes, they are bringing their own devices and they are using them. I have witnessed so many cases of teachers asking children to break the "no cell phone" policy. When a site is blocked on the school computers, teachers simply look the other way so students can access the needed information via their own cell phones.

Social Media IS a part of the "real world"
Educators are very fond of telling kids what the "real world" is like. Pretending that sites like Twitter & Facebook don't exist while students are at school is simply a denial that the real world exists inside your school. Students will be googled by their future (and current) employers.( Every mom I know googles potential babysitters and if they see a Facebook page that looks remotely irresponsible, that sitter will NOT be allowed in the house!) For the most part students don't have any idea that their tweets are being housed in the Library of Congress for all of eternity. We teach students about sex ed, stranger danger, drugs & alcohol, texting & driving why would we not teach them about social media, both the good and the bad?

Great things happen when students & teachers get connected

Take steps to make changes

I'd love to see examples of driving questions in the comments, examples of schools that have had success in making this change happen for their staff and students or resources that have been helpful for you as you continue to have more open access to the Internet at school!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

What are your students & teachers saying on the 2nd day of school?

I spent a day at The School of Inquiry in Plymouth Indiana this week. The name of the school really says it all. The first thing I saw when I walked in was this message to students from their facilitators:

I am very lucky to be able to visit schools all over the country, one thing I always make a note of is whether it is a building built in the '60s with little updating or filled with gorgeous Steelcase furniture and modern paint colors, what happens in them is more important than what they look like.

Although I loved the paint colors, the quotes on the wall, the thoughtful furniture and work spaces put in place with collaboration in mind, what I really loved were the words that I heard from both staff & students!

"Thinking about what I believe is hard"
"Hmm I've never thought about my purpose"
"The hardest thing will be learning in a different way"
"The best thing will be learning in a different way"
"I''m not sure what I believe"
"What do I want people to see when they see me?"
"Are your mission, your tagline and your purpose the same, or just related?"
"I know I'm awesome at thinking of ideas, but I need a "green" person to help me organize"
"I totally just got up and talked in front of everybody and didn't die"
"Thinking this way is weird"
"I wonder what we will do tomorrow?"

"Oh my gosh, I love these kids!"
"She is a deep thinker"
"That kid has a lot to give"
"It's going to fun to watch her grow"
"This is awesomely exhausting"
"My feet hurt"
"Wait, what? it's time to switch already?"
"What a great mix of kids"
"I love hearing them think aloud"
"Trust, Respect, Responsibility, baby, they are getting this!"

What are your students & teachers saying on the 2nd day of school?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Listen, Learn, Trust, Empower, Clear a Path

In 2007, I was very fortunate to join the students, teachers & community of Rochester, Indiana on a journey to transform our schools.  We had a mostly new school board, mostly new school leadership and a directive from the school board to "change the way this community thinks about education" It was an exciting time and its really hard to believe it's been 5 years ago. There are many aspects of that journey I could share but in honor of Leadership Day 2012 as called for by Scott McLeod, I will talk about what our Superintendent did as a technology leader.
  1. She listened 
  2. She learned
  3. She trusted
  4. She empowered
  5. She cleared a path
We are a small rural community in North Central Indiana, we have about 8,000 people in our town. It is the kind of town where people say things like "It's a great place to raise your kids" and it is...BUT in 2007 our graduation rate was in the low 70% range and free/reduced lunch was skyrocketing from in the 80's when it was 4% to it's current level of about 60% and growing. It was becoming less & less of a great place to raise your kids.We knew education could change that.  Currently our graduation rate is about 94% , there is more to that story than simply technology, perhaps a future blog post there....

So the journey begins:

We listened to everyone, students, teachers, businesses, higher ed folks, if you lived in our town, or crossed her path in any way,  you were invited in! 

We learned, we went to model school conferences, did book studies, visited schools who seemed to be getting it right. We talked...a lot! We also learned about ourselves, we examined our talents, our strengths, our challenges.

We were trusted.& empowered.  I was the Director of Technology, my team and I were given the freedom to budget, plan, create, propose, unblock, explore, fail-learn-succeed. Our mantra was "if a teacher wants it for students, find a way".  We wrote grants, held countless workshops based on whatever the staff wanted to learn, instead of "protectors of the network and equipment", we all became tech integration leaders. I team-taught with teachers, planned with them, listened to them,  was in and out of classrooms constantly. We added wireless, 1:1, green screens, iPads, printers, cameras, microphones,  and you guessed it we wrote grant after grant after grant, to pay for these things! We learned when you step out for student success,  people will step out to meet you and walk that journey right beside you! THAT was empowering.

Lastly, our superintendent wasn't personally a huge technology innovator, she takes notes with a pad of paper, I usually had to help her get connected w/ the projector, sometimes she lost her passwords, uses a paper calendar, she set up a Twitter account, but doesn't really use it. (Although, I hear she is making progress at her new school, I've seen her tweet a couple of times!) Now, I don't mean to make her sound like a luddite, she can rock her smartphone, has an ipad, laptop and desktop, manages her email, understands bandwidth, and the fact that online learning opens the doors wide for rural areas. 

When she saw that social media was the way many teachers & students connected, she helped clear the path. When we wanted to "legalize" cell phones, she crafted the policy, let us present the board and stood behind us. When we needed more bandwidth, she believed and trusted us. 

Too many times when I talk to other teachers or tech leaders, their school leaders are on their list of challenges, they become a hurdle to tech innovation. Whether you are as connected with technology as your teachers or students or not, you should at the very least clear the path for them! 

Monday, August 13, 2012

From "Twitter-Taker" to "Twitter-Wins" : Get Connected!

My name is @TheresaShafer and I’m addicted to Social Media. Okay, not really, I actually take time to read, kayak, knit, walk our dog, hang out with friends, family and do many other things that don’t involve being online.
That being said, my affinity for using social media professionally, especially Twitter, began on November 10th, 2008. At the time, I was newly minted as Director of Technology for Rochester Community School Corporation in Indiana. I am not a “techie” by background, I am an elementary teacher with a strong background in integrating technology in my classrooms, my superintendent, Dr. Debra Howe,  felt that as we moved into a 1:1 environment with wall to wall project based learning via a partnership with The New Tech Network, we needed to focus on technology integration, unblocking sites and tools , while modeling how to incorporate them into the classroom authentically, not just in a lab setting.  
When I needed help in my new role, the first place I went was a tech directors listserv, my first post was something like “What are your policies around students using cell phones for learning?” Wow, I practically got hate mail! (In defense of that list, the voice has definitely evolved) but in 2008, I needed a more progressive go-to source for collaboration!
Enter Twitter.  Suddenly I’m a resource-finding genius for the PreK-12 staff. Need an interactive, collaborative timeline? Need a resource for royalty free music? How about an expert who will SKYPE with your class? I could make it all happen with a tweet or two and have an answer for them in less than 10 minutes. All of that was happening when I was simply a “Twitter-Taker”. At that point, I rarely answered others questions, I would give a re-tweet now and then, I certainly valued the tool, but I was a taker!
Fast-forward to present day. My twitter style is much more conversational. I tweet for New Tech Network, as well as continue to build my own PLN.  Every day I learn, find & share resources, have conversations, have my ideas challenged, keep in touch with schools, teachers & students from all over.
 I have many examples I could share around the power of using Twitter for both our professional development as well as for our students! Here are just a few examples:
  • #PBLChat is held every Tuesday at 9pm EST. Each week people connect, share ideas and continue to grow through this chat. One of my favorite aspects of this chat is that many times students join. Here is a storify that demonstrates the value of student voice throughout this chat. Check out the other archives of the chat as well.
  • Students at Sacramento New Tech High created a zombie movie, Insert Brains Here  on their own time, after tweeting their movie link, director Adam Rifkin re-tweeted their movie and gave them critical friends feedback. Invaluable input otherwise not available to these aspiring movie makers.
  • Students at Danville New Tech High in Illinois were exploring the novel My Bloody Life, teacher Adam Babcock tweeted that a showing of the documentary The Interrupters would have great impact for his students. The Interrupters responded, communicated via Twitter with students and culminated in an hour long amazing SKYPE session with Alex Kotlowitz. This tells the story.
  • Bloomington New Tech High utilized Twitter to connect with higher-ed partner, Indiana University and the world through their whole-school “Social Media for Global Change” project. They explored how to go from talking about global issues to taking action. Their story is here.
I could fill pages with all of the “Twitter wins” I’ve witnessed or even helped to facilitate. So why do we do this? We do this to connect our students & ourselves to ideas, resources and most importantly people that we may have never otherwise met. This Ignite Talk I delivered at our National Conference this summer tells in more detail why we should be building bridges with Twitter.
I’d love to hear from you! Please share your “Twitter Wins”!

This blog is cross-posted for #CE12 at

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I'm Jealous!

Today is the first day of school in Rochester, Indiana, I'm not there and I'm jealous.

I love the days leading up to the start of school, the excitement of new staff, new projects, new students, new relationships with families. There is nothing like the first day of school, the long parent drop off line, students & greeting each other with shouts, fist bumps & hugs as they climb off the buses.

I've been "out of the classroom" for some time now, the past 5 years I worked with technology integration for our whole district, but I always found a way to be at one of the buildings for the first day of school. Although I love the sweetness of day one at the Pre-K- 5 buildings, it was actually just as fun for me to be at the middle or high school. I could still absorb that wonderful energy & excitement simply by being in the building, helping students find lockers, classrooms and lending a hand where ever it was needed.

Last year and now this year, I am at home on the first day of school. Don't get me wrong I love what I do now with New Tech Network , I love connecting schools, people and resources, but I miss the first day.

I know, I know, it isn't all sweetness & light all year long, there are hurdles, there are frustrations and set backs,  but every single day teachers can make a difference and it begins with day 1.

Albert Einstein said, "It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge."

So,enjoy day one my friends & colleagues, awaken that joy for yourselves & your students.  I'm jealous!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Moving from "Have To" to "Want To"

My mind keeps going  back to last night's #PBLChat topic "Projects that Promote Civic Engagement". As always it was a good discussion, many resources were shared, but the big question for me was how to we move from students MUST do community service to students WANT to serve their community. As a point of clarification, I view the word community broadly, it can mean your school community, neighborhood, city, state, or even global community.
During the chat, Ryan Folmer shared a question he often asks students "Why does this matter?", Another chatter later tweeted an adaptation to that question, "Why does this matter, to me?"
I wonder if this is the key to getting students actively engaged in civic matters. In pondering this topic, I thought back through the years on times when I became involved in civic matters and what was the catalyst that made me get involved.
When I was in 4th grade, I met a girl at Camp Tecumseh who had a little brother with Down's Syndrome when he came to visit,  he used sign language to communicate, he was a wonderful 4year old boy who was happy to teach me the signs he knew. As I returned from camp, I volunteered at the local "Opportunity Center" teaching simple signs of basic sight words to pre-school students. What made me do this? Relationships, a personal connection the elicited a passionate response.
In high school I was in Senior Government class with a teacher I have tremendous respect for, Ron Shepherd. It was the beginning of second semester when the school announced that ROTC would be cancelled for 2nd semester and the program was closing. After this announcement came over the PA, I lamented that this was awful, what were the students in this program to do, their interest, their passion was being closed off to them. Mr Shepherd looked me in the eye and said, "Oh what a difference your pity makes, you will still cheer at the game on Friday, go to Prom and live on. Do you feel strongly enough to take any action?" I asked to be excused, went to the office, asked how many students were needed to keep the program for the semester. The answer was two. I quickly found my BFF, convinced her to drop her study hall like I was going to do and join ROTC. This is how I became a 1 semester member of ROTC. So a small act of civic engagement instigated by a challenge thrown down to not just talk, but take action.
In my adult life almost all of my civic engagement has been around children or education, I've worked to pass a referendum for a new school in our community when we lived in South Carolina, written letters (emails & tweets these days) to my senators or congressman about various issues around education, early childhood education and funding. If it is a cause I believe in I will take action. (Thank you mom, dad and Mr. Shepherd).
So when I look back and ask the question "Why did these things matter to me?" I can see that I taught sign language because my friend mattered to me, I joined ROTC because my teacher mattered to me, all of the action I've taken in the past few decades have been because children matter to me. I learned many other things about myself and the world through taking these actions, but initially it was the people who mattered to me that caused my actions.
What matters to you? What matters to your students? Why does it matter? Ask questions, have discussions, listen. Find out what matters and take action! Perhaps this is the key for moving our students from "have to" to "want to."