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At first I was just going to skip over writing a post on memes, it seems so trivial, but the more I have read and learned, the more I realized how important it is to shine a light on the not so frivolous parts of this topic.

This past week I have been struck by the story out of Vancouver and the spreading of offensive “memes” by students. And while this was in Vancouver, and was at an independent school, I think we all know these kinds of activities transcend schools and geographic borders. Media or other commentators who are trying to restrict this conversation to being one about “boys” or “private schools” or “bad parenting” are not following along with what is going on these days on the internet.

This is not my typical blog post, it is more of a call to action in our community and more broadly.  I do think this is all of our business.  We need to do more to collectively focus on ensuring our digital spaces and engagement reflect the same values as our physical spaces – ones rooted in care for each other. And that all of us (students, teachers, parents, community) continually ask ourselves if what we are posting online is truthful, is kind and adds value.

Over the past decade during my time as Superintendent I have taken great pride in our work as digital leaders in education. I see us creating opportunities for learning that are aligned with the world in which our kids live in. It has been incredibly exciting to see the transformation in our classrooms. For example, hundreds of students are engaged in coding and robotics, areas which barely existed five years ago.  I see the relevance to our students learning every day.   It is this leadership that leads me to want to flag this issue.

As an American colleague of mine, Bob Ryan, recently noted in a message to parents, sharing digital content on phones and social media is not a new behavior. But there is an increasingly prominent “meme culture” where posting, liking and saving funny, tasteless or offensive content has become part of regular social life. Unfortunately, too many people can have a difficult time separating what is funny from what is inappropriate, or even horribly offensive. Probably all of us who engage in Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram have seen these kinds of examples. The impact that this sharing can have is often lost on people.

This is not brand new,  it was the spring of 2017 when the story broke  Harvard rescinding admission letters for 10 students because of offensive memes they shared in a private Facebook group. This story, which gained attention across North America, saw high school seniors posting increasingly vile content in an attempt to be quicker, more clever and edgier than each other and earn more social clout.

Last month the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain  (also pointed to me by Bob Ryan) took an extensive look into the Harvard story and  interviewed one of the students involved. The hour-long episode is well worth your time and provides valuable insights into the digital behaviours of teenagers and the complicated social waters they are trying to navigate. At the end of the episode, the host Shankfar Vedantam summarized the situation:

Nearly everything that everyone says on social media goes unnoticed. And everyone can see you’re getting no traction. This can drive some of us to come up with the edgiest, funniest, hottest takes. Likes and retweets and fire emojis become currency, signaling our worth to those around us. Sometimes the things we post work, and we become stars. Other times, we fall flat or, worse, my joke sets off your rage. When this happens, it’s no use saying there is even more terrible stuff online. There is only a price to pay. The things we post take on a life of their own, and they can be as permanent as a scar.

I have written recently on this blog a couple posts which also speak to my concerns first on the use of cell phones by parents in schools and then more recently on the important differences between technology and social media.  I encourage parents to have discussions with your children about the apps they use, the photos they have and the content they share. I encourage our staff to continue to find powerful ways to teach using technology and model the power of digital tools. And I encourage students to pause before you share.

Daniel Panneton wrote earlier this year in the Globe & Mail:

Even though memes may appear to be the height of triviality, that’s exactly what makes them such serious vectors for dangerous worldviews. Because they’re often composed of inside jokes and hidden references, the ability to read their subtext is now a form of cultural knowledge itself. Meme literacy, which would have been an improbable phrase just a few years ago, has become an essential skill that must be expected of educators, historians, journalists, politicians and law enforcement.

We are just a small part of a larger conversation that needs to be had about how we treat each other in the digital world. We have seen the best and worst of this in our recently concluded Federal election and in the daily news in our country and others. But just because it is a larger conversation doesn’t mean we should ignore it.  And we have an absolute responsibility in schools to insert ourselves into these conversations.  These are all our kids.

For local readers, know that I have had recent conversations with our District Parent Advisory Council about how we can find learning opportunities for parents around students and their digital activities.  This is not just a school issue, but how we treat each other is an everyone issue.

I share the seemingly global angst with social media. These spaces whether Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat are not what many would have hoped they would be even a few years ago.  And yes, while schools engage in these spaces, they are not core to the learning experiences of our students.  But when I hear that technology is a real problem in our schools and then critics go on to list the problems of social media, they are not being fair to the more broader application of modern learning tools that has come with technological change in the last decade.  We have ongoing work to do with social media and how we treat each other online, but we can say this and still champion the amazing ways technology is being used in our classrooms.

In schools this fall, I have been so impressed with how seamlessly modern tools are used in classrooms.  Whether it is students on their laptops in their Google suite of tools, doing science via Discovery Techbook,  3D printing, VR (virtual reality) goggles or a host of other tools their use to enhance learning and engage students is impressive.  Then there are entire areas, like robotics that simply don’t exist without modern tools.  I often note how less noticeable our digital use is in classrooms.  Technology use is not an event that happens in a specific place, whether in a grade 4 class or a grade 12 class, students often bounce back and forth between technologies, traditional pen and paper and collaborative work – often in unison.   I think for some students they may use technology less now than five years ago, but it is far more purposeful when the do.  No elementary classes are staring at screens in computer labs several times a week.

It has become popular to pile-on technology as a real problem.  We need to be more specific.  Social media, and its use by kids and adults, raises a lot of questions.  We had a recent threat incident in our community that spread via social media from kids and parents in minutes.  And even after the issue was dealt with, the social media continued to echo with hurtful comments and lies.  And yes, schools have ownership over some of this.  We are places where students can learn good habits and have behaviours reinforced, and the community also have great responsibility when it comes to this.  Ten years ago I would say since parents are not on social media they looked to their friends as guides.  Well, now parents are on social media and they need to be good models for their children on how to use these powerful tools.

We have to be smart enough to separate the amazing advances in our classrooms that would not be possible without technology, while still realizing all of us of all ages, are going to have to come to grips with how we treat each other and respond to events in our digital social spaces.

 

Over the last few weeks I have been asked a number of questions regarding the cell phone ban in Ontario schools.  Of course the ban is not really a ban.  According to  the CBC story on it , “The directive says students can only use personal mobile devices during instructional time if it is for educational purposes, for health or medical purposes, or for special needs.”  That is pretty much how things are in all the classrooms I see in BC, and to the best of my understanding the general guidelines across the country.  Technology is intended for learning.

And while the headline of banning cell phones nicely ignites people who hold views on both extremes,  the reality I am seeing in schools is that teachers and schools have put guidelines in place and worked on building culture with students that make cell phones a part of school as needed.  And this is nothing new, I was blessed to work at Riverside Secondary in Port Coquitlam more than a decade ago and even at that time they were figuring out thoughtful ways of using handheld devices in classrooms.  Saying “ban cell phones” in schools is one of those things that wins easy political points, but like “the hat rule” or “proper dress codes” or “making homework mandatory” or any other of these kind of catch phrases are actually kind of silly.  Schools, and our world, is far more grey.

So OK, if this is what I think, why do I think it is time for a ban of cell phones in schools?

Well, I am actually not talking about the students.  I find generally students have it figured out pretty well.  I have been wondering about a parent ban of cell phones in schools.  It is funny that one of the most common reasons I hear from parents around banning student cell phones is “my kid texts me in the middle of the day when they should be learning.”  I always think, well, why do you text them back.  Or often, why did you text them in the first place?

We have a generation of parents who lack presence when they are at school.  I see this at parent nights, with parents scrolling their social media as the Principal speaks, at Parent Conferences when they are texting to organize something later in their days while their child is reviewing her work, and I really see it at school sporting events and school productions.  Look up in the crowd at any elementary or secondary basketball game and you will see parents plastered to their screens, maybe looking up when their son or daughter is on the floor.  And at school productions they are using these phones and other hand-held gizmos to stand-up at the front, often blocking the audience to record the event.

Imagine if schools were a cell phone free zone for parents.  I often say that parents could learn a lot from their children regarding technology use, I also think they could learn a lot from their children about when not to use their technology.

This is a little tongue and cheek, and I don’t really want to ban parents from their devices, but I do want all of us with children in schools, who actually so rarely get to visit these schools, to better treat this time as a gift, and to be a bit more present when we do.

Doesn’t everyone in education just go on vacation June 30th and then show up the Tuesday after Labour Day?

Not really. We know it is not true for basically anyone in the education system. And it is definitely not true for superintendents. If there was ever an off-season for school districts in the summer, with the growing popularity of summer learning, we are really a year-round enterprises now.  Almost 20% of our students take offerings in the summer.  In addition, there is the weird acts of both closing up one school year and simultaneously opening another – everything from staffing to finances to facility improvements.

But the speed is different.  There are fewer evening commitments and chances for down time and holidays. For me it means I get to read some books that at some point I have been given as must-reads.  This summer for me that included:

When – The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Planning by Daniel Pink

Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Darkness to Light by Lamar Odom

Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak (actually just finishing this one)

I have written before a bit (here) of my experience of going back to school, and that continued this summer.  I know many of my educator friends who use part of their summer to take courses.  And as hard as I found taking classes in the winter, it was actually easier than in the summer.  The lack of structure in the summer and typical routines made organizing time and assignments more challenging.  I will have more to write about the experience.  At the end of summer, I am now 1/3 of the way through my course work at the University of Kansas towards my doctorate.

And summer is not all working, reading and taking courses.  I had the pleasure of traveling along with a group of teenagers to several basketball tournaments across the United States.  And I found they had great respect for my important position as a school superintendent – nothing better describes this than these photos from a plane trip we were on from Chicago to Louisville.

And . . . .then I mostly waited for you all to come back.  It was lonely some days at the Board Office.  I know you might not believe me, so here is a little video (a preview of Opening Day for my West Vancouver friends) of how I spent my summer waiting for everyone to come back this week:

I launch into next week with our staff and the following week with our students excited and ready for a great year ahead.  I am excited about our new look for career education, the ongoing commitment to physical literacy and just the buzz that comes from the start of a school year.  Hopefully your summer has got you ready for your best year too!

With change comes opportunity.

As British Columbia has engaged in a learning transformation over the last decade I have felt the continual tension.   We can either try to do the new thing just like we did the old thing, or see the new thing as an opportunity to think differently.

I have heard some say that inquiry is “what we have always done in our classes” while others have dramatically shifted their classes to increase student choice, voice, and agency under the guise of inquiry.

With curriculum, some argue that it is not really new, it is just the same curriculum organized differently.  Others suggest that the focus around big ideas is a dramatic move away from a focus on volumes of content to one of skills and competencies.

The same conversation has happened in so many areas – is the technology changing the classroom, or is it really just a new “version of pen and paper” as I have heard in some classes.  Is self-regulation about students having greater ownership over their ability to regulate and be in a zone for learning, or is it just new language around getting kids to behave in class?

The revised careers curriculum which sees us move away from Planning 10 and Grad Transitions to Career Life Education and Career Life Connections is another one of these tension points.  And again the same comments have been made.  I have heard they are really just the same courses with new names and that nothing needs to change.

Well, we disagree.

We see this change in Career Education not as a chance to make the new courses fit with what we have always done, but to do things differently.  And this change in Career Education is an opportunity to look differently at time in our schools, and how we use it, and listen to our students.  Beginning in the Fall all of our secondary schools will have new bell schedules that provide students with a 32 minute block of flexible instructional time (FIT) each day.  This will give students time to address the new Career Education competencies and content.  But it will also do more than that.  It will give students something they have continually asked for whenever we survey them – some flexible time as part of their formal school day where they have choice and voice – to complete assignments, collaborate with peers and receive extra help in a particular area.

Our system is very much built on a factory model.  Of course, no one really believes that all students need 120 hours to “learn” any particular course, some need far less and others need far more.  This change begins to recognize these differences.  Some students will need to spend time in math, while others will choose to spend their time in art or working on careers.

We regularly hear from our students (and their parents) of the increased stresses and pressures on today’s learners.  As we have listened to students, parents and staff this year – one comment I heard numerous times really struck me, “Students just need time to breathe.” Again, this is just a small change, but hopefully it will help – and also help the mental well-being of their teachers who can give directed support during the school days, perhaps freeing up some of their lunchtimes and after schools often dedicated to helping students.

FIT is not revolutionary.  Dozens of high schools in the Vancouver area have found ways to build regular flexible time into their schedule.  It is new for us.  And while I know some want us to completely revolutionize the learning structures of school, we continue to look for ways to make real changes that give students greater agency over their own learning.

We could have just tried to do the new things in old ways, but we are seizing the opportunity to do things differently.  As someone who believes in students and their teachers, I am excited for the Fall.

Why esports?

Do many kids play too many video games? Yes.

Do some of the games kids play lack the values I would like to see portrayed? Definitely

Do I want our schools to get in the esports game? Absolutely

Conversations around esports is a wonderful generational clash.  Those of us who grew up with Atari, ColecoVision and the original Nintendo often cannot fathom the idea that there is any redeeming value in the video games that today’s kids are playing.  From what we see in the media the innocence of Pac-Man has been replaced by a stream of violent first-person shooter games.

Well, we hosted our first esports tournament last month with teams from all of our high schools and it was awesome!

I loved what I saw for a host of reasons, many of the same reasons I love what I see with students participating in the arts, athletics and clubs in school.  Students were taking on a role as part of a team towards a collective goal.  They were problem solving and competing.

Esports are definitely a global phenomena.  They are projected to do more than a billion dollars in business this year.  In a recent poll in the United States young people in similar numbers identified themselves as fans of esports as they were of football.  Closer to home the Vancouver Titans have marked our entry locally into the professional esports circuit and professional facilities are being built to host players and fans.  And it is not just for professionals, as colleges are beginning to run varsity esports teams and offer college scholarships.

Of course, just because something is popular doesn’t mean we should do it in our K-12 system.  What I have seen with esports in our schools, and elsewhere make me think they are a good fit our schools.  Some of the “why” for me includes:

  • Esports engage students as part of the school.  Students wear school uniforms, and have a sense of pride and identity.  Students connected to schools is a factor in success.
  • Esports are about team.  There is tremendous coordination and communications among participants as they work towards their goals.  These are some of the real world skills we continually say we want more of in  schools.
  • When we play esports in school it makes it easier to open up conversations about the type of games students play, the length of time they spend playing and hopefully influence their gaming with our school system values.
  • A key aspect of schooling is relevance.  When we see scholarships being awarded, universities being engaged, professional leagues being established and careers being built not only in playing but in other STEM related fields related to esports, we should look for an entry point.

I think some of the push-back has to do with the word “sport” in the name – as though a proponent of esports is saying that we shouldn’t be physically active – as if it is a choice between the two.  Esports are not intended to replace soccer or basketball.  Nor do I really think they should be in the Olympics.  (Of course there is another really good post here about what exactly is an athlete – I remember the questions in 1995 when Indy 500 Champion Jacques Villeneuve won the Lou Marsh Trophy for Top Canadian Athlete and Larry Walker said “I got beat by a machine”).  But like with competitive robotics, or entrepreneurial showcases, debate competitions or trivia tournaments they are a way to connects students and their school.  And a little bit of competition is sometimes a good thing!

Maybe esports are a fad?  Of course 200 million people watched the 2018 League of Legends World Championships, about twice as many as watched the Super Bowl, so it is showing some early staying power.  Esports remind us we should go where the kids are.  They offer an opportunity to turn what can be an isolating event into a social experience that contributes to the overall culture in the school.

Students take great pride in contributing to their schools and schools continually find new ways to make this happen.  Esports is just one of the latest ones – and one that looks like it might have some long term staying power.

 

For much of my life I have heard of the pending demise of movie theatres.  First, it was the video tape, then DVDs and more recently it has been the explosion of online viewing options.  So, who would go to the movie theater and pay $15 to watch a movie when they can watch one online anywhere they want.  Well as we have learned, the answer is a lot of people.  I am apparently one of the few people who has not seen Avengers:  End Game.  As of writing this, it has made over $2 billion in theatres!  Not bad considering theatres were supposed to be relics of the past by now.

I think of the changes they have made in connection to the changes made in schools.  I actually think we have some things in common.  Throughout my teaching career, I have often heard from prophets of the future say that schools are going to go the way of the dinosaur – for many of the same reasons I have heard for movie theatres.  In short, technology would make schools as we know them out-of-date.

So just how have schools and movie theatres evolved in the last few decades to be as relevant and important now as ever.

They are more than just about the content. Go to the movies, and the movie is just part of the experience.  Movie theatres are full amusement complexes with food courts, arcades and a range of other activities.  And schools and classes are more than just the course material.  If schools were just teachers reading material and students copying material – this could be easily replaced, but they are engaging places where students connect with information.  The course material is actually just a small part of what makes up school.  So while you can replace the delivery method of school material – that does not replace school.

They both create experiences you cannot create at home through a screen. I grew up going to movie theatres that had small screens, not-so comfortable seats and your snack choice of 1. popcorn or 2. popcorn with butter .  Go now, and you have seats that recline, 4D films, and theatres that are like your living room on steroids.  Again, they built an experience that would not be possible anywhere else.  And in schools, classes are inquiry focused and more personalized.  We have moved away from the factory model that could easily be sent through computer wires to something that is far more connected.   In the past, schools would sometimes operate in ways that could easily be automated, but no longer is that ever the case.

There is something about gathering together in the community.  With both movies and learning, we sometimes underestimate the power of the shared experience.  There is something about going with your friends to see a movie together – in an increasingly disconnected world, this is a common intersection.  And similarly schools provide that community gathering place.  While in many parts of our life we connect digitally, schools allow us to learn together and have shared experiences.  And while the experiences are different than a generation ago – the importance of the shared experience is still as critical as it is today.

The comparison of the transformation of movie theatres and schools is not a perfect one.  It is interesting to see how they have both managed to stay incredibly relevant.  And while we can watch movies in so many ways now, or access learning anywhere or anytime, the institutions are still strong.

So no Avengers for me, but I will definitely be in line on December 19th for Star Wars!