Archive for the ‘Kindness’ Category

I had the good fortune of hearing Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell speak this past weekend.  I’ve devoured all of his books and am just beginning his last Inspector Wallender book, The Troubled Man. Mankell is a marvelous speaker and knows how to regale an audience with subtle, yet powerful anecdotes.

Among the many topics he discussed, ranging from Mugabe to Mozambique, Mankell talked about art as the “search for friends to take into reality.”  He shared the story of meeting a man in the early 1990s in Sweden.  The man asked Mankell whether Mankell’s most renowned character, Inspector Wallender, was in favor of Sweden joining the European Union.  At that moment, Mankell noted, he recognized that Wallender had become this man’s friend who had entered reality.

This got me thinking about kids and digital media, ranging from social networking to gaming.  Kids love to create online identities, living with a mulitplicity of names, in different realities.  The question is how kids navigate between the real and the imagined, and which identities enter reality for them.

Instead of art being the search for friends to take into reality, for kids is it gaming and social media as the search for friends to take into reality?

I love the character of Inspector Wallender and as the woman who introduced Mankell explained, Mankell’s characters have a way of staying with you and the stories are ones that still have you asking questions months and even years later.  Do the characters and identities that kids are creating online have the same depth of connection?

Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken argues for the need to invert reality into a game, and leverage the power of game thinking and design to solve global problems.  She writes:

“What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?” (p. 7)

McGonigal shares the story of David Sudnow’s 1983 memoir on gaming, Breakout.  She shares Sudnow’s “neurochemical activation” from the immersion of gaming:

“This was a whole different business, nothing like I’d ever known, like night and day…Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.” (p. 40)

Sudnow was “working at the limits of his abilities,” according to McGonigal.

Scavnger Founder Seth Priebatsch has spoken about this decade as being the decade of the game layer.

In the book Teaching 2030, the authors argue that teachers of the future need to be prepared to “Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual reality games and can find out almost everything with a few taps of the finger.”

The key is to figure out how to create depth in the learning experience with digital media in the way that Mankell has in his understanding of art and literature. Mankell understands how to build and sustain connections with his characters and with his readers.

I hope that we can still hold onto the magic of books, like the ones Mankell writes, to hold the imagination and feed the “search for friends to take into reality.”  I would hate to ever lose that to games and virtual learning environments.

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The Digital Gaffe

There is no shortage of resources to tap into to address and teach digital citizenship to students these days.  Not a day passes when a headline does not jump off the front pages of the news that stirs and disturbs the notion of safe, smart, and civil engagement online.

From UCLA student Alexandra Wallace’s ill-timed, insensitive rant on You Tube, in which she slammed Asian-American students for talking on their cell phones in the UCLA library, in the wake of the devastating news of the Japan earthquake, to the front page New York Times article about the viral cell phone picture of an 8th grade female student, to the Israeli government demanding that Facebook remove an incendiary Facebook group that fanned the flames of extremism, it is frankly not possible to escape the perils and challenges of living in the digital age.

As educators and parents, how are we to address this deluge with kids?

Well, we can’t turn the other way, and hope that the digital gaffe will disappear.  It won’t.

But where is the space where kids can wrestle with and talk through the complexity of these issues, without fear of reprisal and punishment?

First, parents need to create a safe space at home for open conversation to happen.  When confronted with digital missteps by their kids, parents need to remain calm, catch their breath, and avoid visceral responses.

Second, schools need to talk with kids about digital citizenship.

Schools need to make judicious use of Advisory programs, social and emotional learning, history, civics, and writing classes to provide opportunities for dialogue to occur in smaller settings with a genuine back and forth about the subtle and blatant problems that emerge with ill-advised technology use.  Kids also need to feel that adults will listen to and identify with the challenges kids face with media.

As these lessons and discussions take place, schools need to communicate with parents to help continue the conversation in the home.  This can happen through follow-up letters and resources sent home to parents, or through parent education evenings, where parents can share and strategize about how to handle the online environment at home.

Schools and parents need to work together to build and maintain an above ground culture with kids.  When an incident arises, schools need to approach the student and family to work with them to help resolve the situation, in partnership.  As we all know, particularly with technology, information travels with speed. It is critical to help kids figure out ways to reorient situations that start to arise.  Schools need to take the time to talk through scenarios and think out loud with kids the steps needed to reach successful outcomes. Kids cannot do this alone and need the help and guidance of teachers and parents.

As a response to Alexandra Wallace’s YouTube rant, Jimmy Wong, an Asian-American, flipped Wallace’s rant on its head with a catchy ditty “Ching Chong” that went viral and “leveled the playing field”, as writer Dave Pell shared on NPR. “Sometimes it’s about being smarter, funnier or more creative,” Pell writes.

Not every kid will have the tools to invert a digital gaffe, in the way Wong did, but every kid needs and deserves the space to voice and devise an antidote to digital gaffes. And the last thing parents and educators want is for kids to go underground, and have to do figure out solutions to the digital gaffe on their own.

In The New York Times, in an article titled, Erasing the Digital Past, Michael Fertik of Reputation.com, highlights the stakes of posting online:  “The Internet has become the go-to resources to destroy someone’s life online, which in turn means their offline life gets turned upside, too. We’ve reached a point where the Internet has become so complicated, vast and fast-paced, that people can’t control it by themselves anymore. They now need an army of technologists to back them up online.”

Kids don’t have the good fortune of having an “army of technologists to back them up online”, and they can’t pay services like Reputation.com to guard their online identities. But kids can expect that the adults in their lives are the go to people when they make or experience a digital gaffe.

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Here is Alexandra Wallace’s apology to the Daily Bruin and the New York Times editorial on the controversy.  Also, here is the New York Times story on the controversy. This is a great opportunity to open conversation with students about the importance of thinking before you post, and the concept of public by default and how quickly things can go viral.

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Read my guest article for Common Sense Media:  Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying in Schools.

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The muddy terrain of bullying has gripped the ankles of adults, who are at a loss as to how to help kids climb out of the bully pit. Unlike playground bullying, online bullying is often hidden from view and can take weeks or even months to unearth.

Schools need to create clear protocol for how and when to handle online transgressions that happen off campus, in homes. Parents need to understand the role of schools in helping their children and family figure out how to manage the home environment. The fact is that online problems surface and play out at school, no matter where the origin of the transgression lies.

If something happens in the home, in the form of cyberbullying from a peer, or encounters with a stranger online, parents should notify the school right away. The school will likely not have an immediate
solution, but an important dialogue starts between home and school, and parents and administrators can work together to craft an appropriate response. This is of course the reactive phase. Parents
need to know whom to contact in schools. Is it the IT Director, the Principal, the School Counselor, a Teacher, or an Advisor? Schools need to take the time, inside of each community, to figure out who on
the school team is most comfortable on the front lines with parents to help have that initial conversation. After that, what are the steps that need to be taken to ameliorate the situation? What conversations
need to happen with students? What programmatic or curricular pieces need to be implemented to launch the larger, longer term work with students and their families?

In terms of being proactive, schools need to start with parent education programs. These sessions address challenging scenarios, and give parents the language to talk with their children about
appropriate boundaries. Also, parents, in hearing stories from other parents, realize that they are not alone and have the resources and support of a community. In addition, schools can and should offer
sessions that show parents how to set up their home environments, with privacy settings, and filters. Every home is different, and this should be an opt-in approach.

In terms of curriculum development, schools need to build in digital citizenship into their programs. A key question is where to put digital citizenship. It can be implemented in Advisory programs,
media literacy classes, or social and emotional learning programs. It can also be woven into the fabric of each class where technology is being implemented. Any time a research project comes into play,
teachers can talk about source, bias, and credibility. With the use of blogs, wikis, or Ning, teachers can and should create agreements with students about appropriate use, tone, and content. When transgressionstake place, in the form of inappropriate posts or tone, teachers need to grab the teachable moment and work through with students the lessons of healthy digital conversation.

Cyberbullying can be the most perplexing issue to handle for schools and families. Findings from a national study commissioned by Care.com reveal that parents want schools to take action when cyberbullying incidents happen. According to the study, 46% of parents feel schools listen to reported incidents, but 19% share that their child’s school is falling short in their duty to serve the needs of
children and families.

It’s not a matter of pointing fingers as to which side is falling short – parents or schools. Instead, steps need to be taken between schools and parents, as partners in a process of helping kids overcome cyberbullying incidents.

A typical middle school age incident might involve a student creating a fake Gmail account, under one of their classmates names, and then sending inappropriate, or out of line messages with that account. How should the school respond when it finds out about this type of incident?

Schools have an obligation to follow through on reported incidents, even if the incident occurs outside of the school network, on Gmail. The first step is for the family or child to report the incident. Then, the school needs to follow up with involved students, both victim and instigator, and any others who may be connected with the incident. Students need to be interviewed and parents have to be brought in as part of the conversation. Open dialogue has to occur between home and school, so that students do not go underground and suffer in silence.

Kids need to know that school and home are communicating, and that adults are supervising. Adults
need to be there for kids for guidance, support, and resolution, so that positive online culture starts to take hold.

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In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, teenager William Kamkwamba’s wonderful narrative of his journey and discovery to create “currents of electricity and hope” in Malawi, we are given a portrait of innovation, resource management, and community.  As part of the story, William shares how he attempted to combat bullying in his life with the aid of what he thought would be a quick fix elixir concocted by an acquaintance.

At the age of nine, William struggled with bullies who “stalked and tormented” him in the schoolyard.  “It was a time of crippling humiliation,” William writes.

Out of desperation and hope for relief from these torments, William turns to a powdery substance to be rubbed into the veins in his hands.  For this to happen, his hands need to be cut open with a razor so that the powder, made up of “the blackened bones of the lion and leopard, along with other powerful roots and herbs,” can enter his veins and make him the “strongest boy in school.”

William endures the stinging pain of what felt like “hot coals” and blood spilled from his hands, as the acquaintance finished the task.  It took three days for William to feel the strength of the anti-bully remedy.  On the fourth day, William, buoyed with confidence, seeks to try out his new powers and steps on the foot of a boy twice his size and strength, to garner a reaction from the bigger boy.  While William lands a few punches at the start of this confrontation, he quickly finds himself flat on his back and receiving a beating from the boy.  William is genuinely stunned that his powers failed him.

William returns to the boy who inserted the powdery substance into his veins and asks what happened.  The boy asks William if he washed after the substance had been put inside his veins.  William responds yes, and the boy informs him, “Well, that’s why. My medicine doesn’t allow you to bathe.”

At age nine, who wouldn’t want to believe that a powdery substance could solve the perils of bullying?

However, there are two critical pieces missing from this story:  the parents and the school. William, believing himself to be alone and without choice, resorts to a painful remedy, and suffers in silence and isolation, without the support of his teachers and parents.

At the youngest ages, children are subject to bullying, and parents are rightfully worried, concerned, and want advice and counsel.

In The Playground Gets Even Tougher, New York Times reporter Pamela Paul shares the findings of a recent nationwide Harris survey: “67 percent of parents of 3- to 7-year-olds worry that their children will be bullied.”

Bullying at the younger ages can come in the form of exclusion from games, taunting, name-calling, ignoring, and children making fun of clothing, school supplies, and appearances.

Where does the behavior come from? Is it part of the larger culture of media and TV and the case of “monkey see, monkey do,” as Ottawa University professor Tracy Vaillancourt wonders in The New York Times.  Maybe, but as with any behavior, if it is not discouraged or called out as inappropriate, it can continue to swell and grow in any setting.

What happens when an incident occurs?  If it happens at school, the teacher needs to communicate with the parents so that conversation takes place at school and at home.  The most successful learning environments are the ones where schools and parents partner to help kids navigate the murky waters of the playground and hallways at school.

Pamela Paul, in The New York Times, shares the story of Caroline Port, who had been bullied when she was in first grade. Caroline’s mother noted that Caroline was waking up with “night terrors, sleepwalking, and crying excessively.”  Caroline’s mother, after meeting with Caroline’s teacher, rightly asked, as reported in The New York Times, “Why hadn’t anyone told me?”

Schools can’t wait to communicate with parents when bullying incidents happen.  The close partnership that happens with regular communication between home and school ensures that kids don’t get lost in the shuffle on the playground, and go it alone, as William had to do.

Early elementary age students are constantly trying to figure out the landscape of social interaction at recess.  Parents rely on teachers to communicate when incidents occur, so that parents can reinforce positive messages at home, and help children to figure out appropriate responses and word choice when communicating with peers.

Parents need to be part of the solution and not the problem.  Pamela Paul highlights that some parents fuel “Queen Bee” behavior in young girls, and can be happy that their daughter “is so popular.”

No parent wants their child to be subject to bullying, and no parent wants their child to be the bully.  Without guidance and support from schools, though, parents may not know where and how to have the conversation with their child around how to foster kind behaviors and combat unkind behaviors on the playground.

If schools and parents do not join forces to create positive cultures in schools, then kids may end up going underground and devise dangerous solutions to escape bullying.  The last thing schools and parents want is for kids to feel desperate and cook up anti-bullying powders, like William Kamkwamba did.

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Wonderful story on kindness.  Perfect for schools and parents.

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