Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Managing Social Media in Schools

image courtesy of seo.com
As the 21st century ushered in the day-to-day use of social media, social platforms have become useful tools in regards to communication and learning. Today, it may be hard to find more than one person you know who doesn’t have at least a Facebook account, if not also a Twitter, Google+, or Instagram account. Social media tools have become second nature to those who use it often and a necessity to those who want to stay involved in the latest news offered online.

In a time where First Amendment rights (particularly freedom of speech) seem to be questioned on a daily basis because of comments on social media platforms, is it worth the potential legal hassles to allow any form of social networking in schools?

According to an article in District Administration Magazine, “In 2011, the state of Missouri tried to prevent all use of social media by school employees. Parents and legislators pointed to the very real threats posed to students by teachers who misuse social networking tools to cultivate inappropriate and illegal relationships with vulnerable students.”

As a result of parent concerns and a testimony from 12-year-old student Amy Hestir about her experience as a victim of sexual abuse by a junior high school teacher, Missouri legislature passed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. This act prohibits teachers from establishing, maintaining, or using a “non-work-related Internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student.”

The law was ultimately repealed, and the legislature ordered individual school districts to develop their own policy for social media by March 2012.

It can be difficult to find a balance between the positive results social media can produce and the potential for negative effects in the lives of students and teachers.

Eamonn O’Donovan, a former principal and an assistant superintendent of human resources, gives a list of questions school leaders should answer to develop a solid foundation for a social media policy in their school. Included are questions such as the following:
  • How can staff avoid misusing social media in the conduct of their professional interaction with students?
  • How can staff keep their private speech separate from their interactions with students on private and school-based sites, including texting and cell phones?
Social networking boundaries and guidelines for students and teachers are going to vary by school and district. And while the digital age has created some complexities, the benefits cannot be ignored. Once we set parameters, social media can be used as an asset and nothing less at school.

Do you have a social media policy at your school? What has worked well and what hasn’t?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fighting Hunger in the Summer

What happens to mealtime for the children on free and reduced lunch programs when summer break begins?

By Amy Esselman

Once summer hits and we head to the pool, it can be easy to forget that to some kids, school is more than books and homework; it’s a home away from home and a place to eat lunch. Lunch may not sound like a big deal—in fact there are probably tons of kids happy to be away from “school lunch.” But then again, there are millions of kids that aren’t.

According to USA Today, nearly 20 million kids around the country receive free or reduced price lunches at schools. In the article, some schools note that kids would come to school for breakfast and hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before.

These programs give meals to kids who may not be getting them elsewhere. So what happens in the summer? The need doesn’t go away. The same 20 million kids still need to eat, but where do they go?

In some places, they don’t have to go far.

In California, there are schools that host free lunch programs throughout the summer, Monday through Friday. They aim to provide kids with food so they don’t have to go hungry at home. Seems like a great idea, and it is. But, it hasn’t reached everyone. There is still capacity in some of these locations for at least double the amount of kids. If there are kids without lunch in these areas—schools want them to come eat! It’s free, for kids 18 and under, regardless of where you live, or your circumstance.

The article discusses that because of fewer learning opportunities and activities in the summer there is a decrease in the number of kids participating in federally funded meal programs—and basically, fewer kids are getting to eat. Summer programs make it easier to access meals, and without them kids lose both the chance to learn, and the chance to eat something during the day.

It’s a scary thought that kids, at any age, aren’t being properly fed and taken care of. But, these programs are popping up everywhere. They are great examples of community service and giving back to students in need. If they don’t eat at school, they might not get to eat at all.

In the summer, it’s hard to advertise these meal opportunities, because kids aren’t in the building, or out at recess. But hopefully in the future, as these programs grow, the word can get to parents and communities before kids leave for summer.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lessons We Can Learn from the Olympics

By Amy Esselman

For years, I’ve watched the Olympics in sheer amazement. The talent, the skills, the strength—it’s incredible. But after reading an article posted in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, I started thinking about them in a new light, and a rather obvious one, at that.

All over the world, billions of viewers watch the events—almost 70% of the world’s population tuned in at least once in Beijing in 2008, according to the article. But the Olympics aren’t just about sports or athletics, and I’m not sure if they ever have been, at least solely. The Games highlight more than just talent. The Olympics set an example for everyone—young or old—about commitment, support, determination, and most of all, being part of a team. Imagine what an impact they could make on our students and schools?

The article points out that the educational value for events like the Olympics is unmatched.

Students see athletes who have trained, worked hard, and set goals. They see athletes working together for their team—regardless of whether or not they compete in individual or group events. Through and through, the Olympics showcase some of life’s most important lessons: how to work hard, how to be a good sport, how to play fair, and how to work well with others.

When translated to the classroom setting these lessons lose little, if any, relevance. These lessons apply to classroom behavior and life outside school walls.

For one, look at the idea of teams. There have always been group projects in class—it’s not a new concept. But approaching the technique from the view point of a team might spice things up. Think about group projects, and collaborative learning. The teacher becomes a coach, encouraging and training along the way. The kids in your class may not be Olympic athletes, but nothing’s stopping them from becoming “Olympic learners.”

We have a lot to learn from the Olympics—and not just how to score a perfect “10.” We can emphasize the core values of the games and use them in our classrooms. As learning tools or simply as part of character building, these lessons could add value to any student setting.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

4 Top Takeaways from the Innovation Summit 2012

By Jared Heath

Another successful School Improvement Innovation Summit has come to a close. The
list of keynotes and breakouts reads like the “Who’s Who” of education, but I’m going to go out on a limb to say that the near-celebrity status of these speakers was not the crown jewel of the conference. I won’t say that there were more ideas than educators can handle, either. I won’t even say that attendees learned all-new, never-before-seen material. They didn’t.

I would wager to say that they got more than that.

The great difference between these presentations and all the ideas that we have read about in studies and discussed in staff meetings and PLCS is that the presenters are the people who had the guts to do it. And I’ll be the first to say that I was not always the first to implement the “latest and greatest” when I had a classroom. It often came across as faddish. Flavor of the week. “This too shall pass” was an attitude that I took to many staff development sessions. So the educators that participated in the small and highly collaborative summit of innovative leaders got something a little more: They got the people who have been there—to that pinnacle of innovation—and have come back to tell us about it.

Here are three takeaways that I got out of two days packed full of innovative ideas and collaborative discussions with principals and curriculum development leaders:

1. This Is Not “One More Thing” to Do

I finally had the epiphany—far too late for my students of yester-year, but perhaps just in time for yours—that all these innovations and ideas are not simply “one more thing” for my classroom. As Dr. John Barge, superintendent of Georgia (yes, the entire state), was speaking, I realized that the ideas espoused at the conference were meant to entirely replace what I had done in the classroom.

Of course we’re all familiar with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So when these ideas came, it had never occurred to me to stop doing what wasn’t working.

Innovation and professional development is not a poorly planned house that receives incessant additions, modifications, and updates that are either built on the same old foundation or plopped down on the ground with no foundation at all. Innovation can sometimes be about burning down the house and digging a new hole and starting over somewhere else. I know that it is radical; I just never knew that it could possibly be worth it. And it is.

2. In This Business, It’s All Personal

Personalized professional development. Student-based teaching (as if it were ever anything else). Personalized assessments. We get that, right?

Except we really don’t. My staff development sessions were “personalized” for me (according to the powers that be), because they were focused on ESL teachers. But they were never focused on Mr. Heath’s class with Maria and Nikoli and Amos (thus named because no one could pronounce his Japanese name) who represented three drastically different levels of English with varied preferred types of learning. I had learned (eventually) to teach to each of these students. Not each type of student. Each student. But I had to learn it despite my training, because my training taught me that if one size fit all the teachers, then it had better fit the students, too.

3. We’re All in This Together

As a teacher, I was just as much a student as my students. Of course I was going to give them the same model of instruction that my supervisors gave me.

That is why innovation sometimes—sometimes—means more than doing parent/teacher conferences and having individual time with the students and giving them creative sections every day and providing a word bubble and…. Sometimes it means starting over. Looking back, I can now point out days that I wish I didn’t have to teach while being surrounded by four walls so often.

And a bonus takeaway…

4. We’re Scared, and It’s Not a Bad Thing. But It Needs to Change.

You love your students. I know you do, because there’s no way you’d still be here at this pay rate for this long. Completely restructuring the very way that we think about teaching our kids can be scary, because we don’t want to fail them. It’s not as dangerous—for them or for us—to go forward knowing that there are some things that don’t work rather than moving in an entirely new direction where—who knows?—nothing will work.

It is great to be that scared for the pupils who depend on you. But it’s also time to be brave and show them that they can move into uncharted territory. Uncharted territory is really all these kids know. You can show them how to navigate, how to adapt, and how to use skills to find new answers to new questions rather than using a textbook to find the right paragraph to 15-year-old questions.

I’m excited for next year.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Mastery of "Easy"

By Amy Esselman

Is easy work always a bad thing?

The Center for American Progress says yes. In a recently released report, the center found that schools aren’t challenging their students—at least according to the students.

The report says that large percentages of students found their work to be too easy.

For many that sent red flags, and to a certain extent, it should. But on the other hand, if students are finding work easy, it means they’re at least completing it. There is a fine line between curriculum mastery and the need to push harder.

Think back to when you were a kid. When I was younger, “It’s easy” was a proclamation of mastery. It was more of an “I can handle that” declaration than it was an “I’m not being challenged” announcement.

To that point, the report doesn’t mention that some of the same students who claimed their work was "easy" also stated that they are learning in the classroom almost every day.

I won’t go as far as saying that easy work is good for kids, but I will add that it’s a stretch to assume that because kids think something is easy, then it must mean that they aren’t learning. Sometimes the subjects I’m most interested in—areas that could potentially be difficult to others—appear easy and natural for me. That doesn’t make the area any less difficult for other students, but it does support the idea that students all learn differently.

Some subjects and lessons will be easier than others. There will be days when some students learn more, or feel more challenged than other students. But that’s okay. That’s natural.

That’s also a big part of why it’s so important that education speaks to individual students rather than the masses. Our kids need to focus on their unique needs and interests and incorporate the skills from there.

Easy isn’t always bad, and it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re unchallenged.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Single Sex Classrooms: Yay or Nay?

By Amy Esselman

do single-sex classrooms help or hinder education?
When I think of all-boys and all-girls classrooms, I think of private schools and uniforms.

But apparently the tides are turning. There are more single-sex classrooms in public schools than ever before.

And as is to be expected with any change, controversy has ensued.

There are those who support the divide, claiming that students will learn better with fewer distractions. However, those against the new trend fear that separating their children will create stereotypes and could affect level of learning.

I attended both same-sex and co-ed schools growing up. Having experience in both settings, I have to admit that there are valid arguments to be made for both sides.

There is no way to completely cut out school room distractions. They’re inevitable. However, while I was enrolled in an all-girls school it became obvious that certain exclusions do make it easier to focus. For one, uniforms took the guesswork out of the ‘what to wear’ dilemma. You weren’t trying to impress anyone with your outfit, or show off with a certain brand name or pair of shoes. You went to school, went to class, spent time with your friends, and didn’t sweat the seemingly small stuff.

Another big pull for me was sports—I got to play on teams and give it my all, something that was difficult to do when I was worried about what boys in my class would think if I missed the ball, or didn’t run as fast as someone else. Gym class is never fun—but with single gender groups at least it took a little bit of the humiliation away from not being super athletic.

Now on the flip side, there were a few things I felt the all-girls setting lacked. Zero boys in the room was good for certain things, but as far as social interactions go it did more harm than good. Kids need to interact together—both boys and girls—to figure out social cues and learn how to get along. If kids are separated during these fundamental development years it really could lead to gender stereotypes, biases, or unbalanced learning techniques.

I had to learn to sew and paint flowers. My brothers in the all-boys school were learning how to work with metals and wood. Now I’m not saying I would want to learn woodwork, but then again, I was never given the chance. I was always left to wonder if we were taught a certain way just because we were girls, and if things were made easier or harder based solely on our gender.

When it comes to gender separation in schools there will always be tradeoffs—single sex schools offer less distractions, but at the price of interaction and growth. Co-ed settings can be more of a handful, but gender stereotypes are fewer and farther in-between.

So I guess it’s up to parents to decide. Parents will have to choose what makes the most sense for their kids and their learning style.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tackling Technology: iPads in the Classroom

By Amy Esselman
technology in the classroom

I saved up for weeks to buy an iPad. There was something so sleek and new about them. I had to have one.

I love technology. It fascinates me. I’m consistently amazed with the tools and capabilities of new products. I’m equally if not more amazed by the ease with which young people—even children and toddlers—use them. Tech-savvy students and kids can seamlessly transition from product to product, regardless of format or characteristics—it all comes naturally. Have you seen the YouTube video of the baby who thinks a magazine is an iPad? It seems at every age, an iPad is recognizable. We are living in a very different world.

It makes sense to me, then, that technology is finding its way into classrooms. I know what you’re thinking—it’s about time, right?

Yes and no. Technology is great, but only when it’s relevant.

I’m all for students learning with the help of technology and tools, but certain things still make me nervous.

In the midst of schools incorporating these sleek new tools into their classrooms, it’s important to distinguish how they should be used. As useful as they are, I don’t want iPads to dominate the room all the time. Sure, they will definitely make an impact. They will definitely make learning more fun, and obviously more convenient. But, there is still something to be said about hands-on methods—getting your hands dirty with knowledge, so to speak.

I think introducing technology to students will undoubtedly help excite and motivate them. However, there should be some collaboration and combination of methods. Not computers all the time, and not lectures 24/7, either. There can be a happy technology medium. It’s great for research, presentations and interactions, but experiments, and artwork should still be reserved for a less digital world.

It’s been over a month since I bought my iPad, and I’m still learning new things with it. It has features and apps that will keep me busy for years. It’s the perfect companion to supplement any activity—for pictures, notes, lists, videos, music. It clearly has a place in the classroom—and will no doubt change how students interact with learning materials, but we still should to be careful not to rely too heavily on it. We want students to be able to use an iPad, but they still need to be able to navigate a magazine!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

NBA vs. Engineering: The Tough Career Call

By Amy Esselman
Engineering vs. NBA: Engineering is not as glamorous, but it is still worth dreaming about.
image courtesy of xnews.pk

My little brother is athletic. Not giftedly so, but not awful, either. He likes basketball, Lebron, and the Miami Heat.

Now in his dreams, he would be starting with Mr. James next season—shooting threes and wearing shiny championship rings. But in reality he will be a freshman at the University of Kansas majoring in engineering.

My brother is by far the smartest person in my family. But he doesn’t scream “brainiac.” He excels in the areas he’s interested in and scuttles through the areas he’s not. If you saw him you wouldn’t think he even liked school that much—he is relaxed and carefree. He is fascinated by problems. He is a regular kid with regular interests.

I bring him up because he is the typical American teenager. He is unaware of what the future holds, but despite his NBA dreams he is going into a field in desperate need of qualified candidates.

Our country has a huge unemployment rate and people are stressing about jobs heading overseas. In some cases this might be true. But there are thousands of jobs in the U.S. right now that can’t be filled—not for a lack of trying, but for lack of qualified candidates.

Engineering is the number one field to go into right now—it’s massive. Over 1,500 engineering jobs are sitting vacant, according to today’s IEEE report.

Yet even with as many job openings as there are, math and science fields still aren’t coveted career paths. There are kids who would rather chase fame and success in jobs like the NBA than work hard in school, it seems more hopeful. You don’t have to be smart to play ball, you don’t have to ace calculus to hang out with the stars.

The chances of making it are slim—there are only 450 NBA player positions at one time—but that doesn’t stop kids from dreaming. The students who are struggling in school would rather focus on their potential strengths – no matter how farfetched—instead of feeling inadequate or slow in the classroom. They figure glamour and glitz is the answer—school isn’t for them.

But that’s not true. You don’t have to be good at basketball, or aim to be the next Lebron to have a shot at a great future. You can love English, science, or math and make it in the world. In fact, if schools took time to personalize curriculums and lessons to individual students, I think we would see an increase in successful students—students that with a little extra attention in the classroom could find out what their true passions are, whether they are basketball jump shots or calculus problems.