Event Debrief: EdRev 2015

One of the great displays at EdRev 2015.

One of the great displays at EdRev 2015.

This was my fifth — fifth! — year at EdRev and it was maybe the best one yet. I’m so grateful to my gracious hosts at PEN for inviting me to speak and for welcoming me so warmly back to my west coast home in SF. Here are some highlights from my trip.

  • The keynote was terrific. Lieutenant Governor (and former San Francisco mayor) Gavin Newsom gave the keynote address and I just loved it. His message was inspiring: he’s dyslexic, and he’s managed to see his dyslexia as an asset that’s helped him be creative, flexible, and successful. That’s a powerful message to send to kids — to see one of the most powerful leaders of your state say he has the same learning difference that you have and that it’s an asset, not a liability. He was warm, funny, and very real, and I was so excited to see the kids’ and families’ reactions to his talk. (Also: is Gavin Newsom running for president? Because this SF native said some awfully nice things about the Dodgers.)

  • The tech section was better than ever. The EdRev tech section was run this year by assistive technology guru and all-around edtech rock star Shelley Haven, who I admire very much. This year, the tables were well-positioned with demos grouped by theme. I was at the executive function and attention table, and I was paired with Fred Jaravata, an edtech guru in his own right and a teacher and technologist at Schools of the Sacred Heart San Francisco. It was great to see my old colleague here, and we had a good time talking to families about the particular challenges their kids faced and what our best ideas were for addressing them. The positioning of the tables was really smart: we were interspersed with vendors’ tables but we were away from the vendors themselves. That way, I could talk about the benefits of various tools and strategies and then refer families over to the vendors’ tables (like Notability and Ponder, among others) to get more information and (occasionally) free stuff. (I’m a big Notability believer, and I was delighted when those kind people gave me a free tee shirt.) I got to talk to a ton of families about big-picture ideas about using technology to support their kids’ academic progress. Highlights included when I got to demo how well Notability’s audio recording features interact with its note-taking features (“are you kidding?!” one mom exclaimed) and showing a family the built-in accessibility features on the iPad. These “aha!” moments are the reason I love this event and the reason I love this work. I think the PEN folks and Shelley Haven did an exceptional job of making this one of the most high-impact elements of the day, and I was thrilled that I felt like I got to help a lot of people.
  • I feel good about my talk. In spite of flinging my computer off the table at the beginning of my talk and regrettably letting fly a mild expletive when my laptop hit the floor, I’m generally pleased with the talk I gave. I think folks were expecting me to spend more time talking about specific technology tools parents can use to help their kids with social emotional learning, but that’s not really my style (as you’ve likely gathered by now). I’m much more inclined to talk about the relationship piece: I think it’s important to talk about the real-world dynamics that we can model and teach to kids. Once we’ve got that larger infrastructure in place, then we can talk about the particular tools that help support that system. I made a big list of tech tools and websites and resources (which you can find here) that I referred to as I ended the talk; I’m hopeful that that was helpful to the people who came looking for that information.
  • I feel really good about my resource list. I’m really pretty proud of that list of resources. I highly recommend you check it out.
  • Have you watched Todd Rose’s TED Talk? You should. My former HGSE classmate and teaching fellow Todd Rose attended EdRev again this year. He’s previously been the event’s keynote speaker, and now he’s a key supporter of PEN and its efforts nationwide. Todd is one of the few people I know who’s as intensely kind as he is brilliant. Take a look at his TED talk (see below) and keep an eye out for what he does next. He’s doing great things for education.

It’s Digital Learning Day!

Digital-Learning-Day4Today is the annual Digital Learning Day, a day that celebrates and promotes digital learning around the globe and encourages teachers to try one new thing to enhance their practice. I’ll be tweeting and retweeting throughout the day, so feel free to keep an eye on my twitter feed (I’m @PMKievlan) as the day goes on for what I’m seeing and thinking about. It’s a nice day for reflecting on how digital learning impacts and influences life in the classroom and on the homefront. I encourage you to read, think, and explore as the day goes on to think about how digital learning has transformed your own practice as an educator, your life as a student, or your home as a parent. Feel free to comment below or connect with me on Twitter to discuss as the day goes on. Also, if you’ve never dived into Twitter, let today be the day: follow the hashtags for Digital Learning Day (it’ll likely be trending with #DLDay) and #edtech and #edchat. They’re my favorite ongoing conversations, and they’re a great way to get informed and inspired.

In the meantime, here are some things to explore and keep an eye on as the day goes on:

Graphite: I’m so proud to be part of the amazing team at Graphite. This is an amazing group of people committed to bringing a thoughtful, critical eye to edtech. Keep an eye on posts from @graphite and @commonsenseedu throughout the day to learn about great edtech tools that can transform the classroom and help teachers better reach their students.

WQED: I’m newly a member of the education team at WQED, the amazing station that brought you Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood and which continues to be an education leader in our region. I’m now the manager of iQ: smartparent, a program about parenting children in the digital age. Keep an eye out for posts from WQED and WQED Learning, and watch out for our hashtag, #iQSmartParent.

Have a fabulous day and happy learning!

Against the Anonymous Internet

I do not like this Yak.

I do not like this guy.

When I joined Facebook in fall 2004 (“back in my day, when it was just at some colleges…”), one of the things that seemed most revolutionary about the site was that people were using their real names. To that point, the main online identity I’d had was the AOL Instant Messenger screen name I chose in the seventh grade. That was back when they taught us that using your real name online was dangerous (which, actually, hasn’t changed for kids), so I created a screen name that combined my favorite John Lennon song with the name of the first part I’d had in a play. Being “Tricia Monticello” online for the first time felt different, and it felt exciting to have the digits tick upward as more and more of my real-life friends became my Facebook Friends too. My numbers would never be as high as the people I knew in Student Government, whose profiles were always flirting with the site’s hard cap on 5000 friends. That seemed okay at the time, though. Why on earth would you want to connect with more than 5000 people on Facebook?

In the last ten years, almost everything about using the internet has changed, and Facebook has definitely changed with it. Groups changed (I was proud of the “I Am Spartacus” group I was in in college; all the members were officers, all our titles were “Spartacus”), everyone could join, and brands got their own pages. As Facebook’s algorithm changed, more powerful people and more popular brands got more screen real estate on the site, and social media suddenly felt a whole lot less democratic and a whole lot more like a pay-to-play ad space.

That’s my impression of the environment that Yik Yak‘s creators set out to “disrupt,” to use another overused tech term. By letting users post anonymously, Yik Yak takes away the connection between your name and the things you say. “Share your thoughts and keep your privacy” is one way Yik Yak promotes its product, and their take is that it’s a good thing. The most popular or prominent people don’t get a bigger voice or a larger platform. Everyone has a say, and everyone has an equal voice.

As compelling as that idea may sound to some people, it strikes me as pretty short-sighted. After all, one of the worst places on the internet is one of the main places you can post anonymously: YouTube comments. The hateful things people say in YouTube comments have never failed to astonish, disgust, and upset me. There’s a level of hatred, anger, and vitriol in the comments that I can’t imagine most people saying out loud to another human, but somehow lots and lots of people are comfortable typing such horrible things into a computer when there’s no chance of being confronted or caught. Sure, there are moments of moving self-disclosure and connection out there in the comments too (see this excellent TL;DR episode from the guys behind Reply All for a great example), but mostly it’s the worst place in the entire digital world, as far as I’m concerned.

Yik Yak has turned out to be one of the worst places in the digital world too, but for a slightly different reason. On college campuses, it’s become a tool of choice for cyberbullying. Most alarmingly, sites like Yik Yak and ask.fm (and other sites out there) have become increasingly prevalent and damaging on high school and middle school campuses, and in spite of schools’ best efforts, it’s still been tough to fight back.

So I was thrilled yesterday when The New York Times published a long feature article on the subject over the weekend. Read it to get more detailed info, and to see a photo of the improbably named (and improbably youthful) founders of Yik Yak. The other photo I’d seen of these guys was this one, and I’m convinced that they’re aging backwards.

My take on the whole thing is that these companies and the people behind them are not bad people, and they don’t have bad ideas; it’s not a bad idea to take social media back from brands and celebrities. But there’s got to be a better way to do it. Yik Yak and ask.fm didn’t invent the bad behavior; they’re just one more forum where hateful, hurtful, prejudiced, and threatening words can find a voice without consequence.

What has to change is the culture where it’s ever okay to say things like this. It’s a hard thing to address in American culture writ large — the ongoing civil rights struggles in our country speak to that — but it’s something we can endeavor to address in schools. I’m giving a talk in April about social emotional learning, and I want to talk about this issue then, and I know I want to talk about these sites. I don’t have the last word on this subject by any means, and I don’t know exactly what I’ll advise parents on yet, but I’ll definitely advise parents to talk to their child’s teacher and their school’s administrators about sites like these. If administrators don’t know about the sites, parents can refer them to articles like the one in the Times. If they say “we’re taking care of it, everything’s fine,” parents should probably still refer them to some articles online, because it’s helpful to see the range of schools who are working to combat these problems. If the administrator sighs, shakes her head, and says something along the lines of, “We’re working on it, and here’s how,” that’s the most encouraging response of all. That means your child’s school gets it: it means they know the severity and threat of sites like these, and  they know that no one approach will be an easy fix to make it go away. To me, the best weapon against negative anonymous posts is a school culture that abhors that behavior and makes it clear that it has no place on campus. It’s not enough to block a website on campus; instead, schools have to shift the culture and make it clear that hatred has no place in their community, online or otherwise.

School Visit Debrief: Elizabeth Forward School District

This week, I had the opportunity to visit an amazing, innovative leader in technology in our region: Elizabeth Forward School District. EFSD has received regional and national recognition for its innovations, including inclusion as a member of the League of Innovative Schools and the designation as an Apple Distinguished School. The district hosts free events like this once every couple of months, and visitors like me get a guided tour of the district’s high school, middle school, and one of its elementary schools. There’s a special focus on technology, but there’s also a larger narrative about what it means to transform the culture of a school. I was so grateful for the insights of Superintendent Bart Rocco and Assistant Superintendent Todd Keruskin, and I was inspired by the students, teachers, and administrators I spoke with throughout the visit. I was one of about eighty people who attended the event, but I felt like I got a detailed, personal look inside what makes these schools special.

This visit reminded me of the day I spent with my Schools of the Sacred Heart colleagues visiting San Domenico School and Marin Country Day School a couple of years ago. (Also see here for the best kindergarten classrooms ever.) Just like that day a couple of years ago, I found myself winding down unfamilar country roads and wondering when I’d ever reach my target. At least in Marin, it was clear to me that I could only go so far west; I’d eventually hit an ocean. On this drive, I knew I’d eventually hit West Virginia, but that’s a lot less obvious than the Pacific. In any case, 45 minutes later, in an unassuming, almost-rural community south of Pittsburgh, I found a community where kids and teachers are doing amazing things. Here are some highlights.

  • Warriors are BRAVE. Like any school, Elizabeth Forward High School has lots of school spirit. The residential streets leading to the schools all have banners proclaiming “This is Warrior Country” and school spirit posters and art cover the walls. Additionally, even more posters urge Warriors to be “BRAVE,” as part of the school’s Positive Behavior Interventional Strategy (PBIS). The video above is part of promoting that program. I was struck by how often the PBIS/BRAVE came up organically in conversation: students we heard from in the music production studio talked about it, little ones at the elementary school talked about it (a little less eloquently, but no less powerfully), and middle school students mentioned how it helped them, too. Administrators and teachers all indicated that the technology innovation has only been possible in the context of these larger cultural initiatives. This was music to my ears as a person who believes in the power of social emotional learning, and it reminded me of my experiences at Convent, where the Goals and Criteria of the Religious of the Sacred Heart are deeply imbued in the school’s culture and daily life. Elizabeth Forward is a district that’s embracing technology as a means to an end, and that end is a safer, richer learning environment for their students. The 3D printers, iPads, and gaming and programming classes are doing great things to support kids’ learning at these schools, but the kids are thriving because their school has a supportive, safe culture where those innovations can happen.
  • Community is key. To add to the same point, I was struck by the sense of inclusion and togetherness in these schools. Student-produced and faculty-produced music plays over the loudspeaker at the high school, giving kids a way to showcase their work and building community and admiration among faculty and students. The library is a warm, flexible space where kids work and play, and there’s a cafe where kids can refuel and hang out throughout the day. The cafe is staffed by students in the school’s special education program as part of the social development component of their coursework. It was thrilling to me to see these students — whose schoolwork is often separate from that of their classmates — so centrally included and involved in the life of the school. This says something powerful about the school’s perspective on inclusive education, and it sends a powerful message to all students about who belongs in their community. Everyone belongs in this community, and everyone contributes.
  • Change one room. In his opening remarks, Bart Rocco paraphrased Gregg Behr, Executive Director of the Grable Foundation. Mr. Behr encouraged EF to think not about changing the whole school, but about changing one space and going from there. There’s something powerful and approachable about this perspective: Elizabeth Forward isn’t a wealthy school district; it’s an almost rural community of modest homes almost an hour from the “big city” here in Pittsburgh. But they’ve taken that advice to “change one room” to heart. I saw this in small changes, like the worn but tidy EFHS school auditorium, where the overhead lights screamed 1970s but oddly complemented the brand-new JBL speaker system. I noticed that contrast when I sat down for the opening remarks, and it seemed important: This is a school that seems to be investing in details that matter. The FabLab was the room that perhaps struck me most. This room full of 3D printers used to be the in-school suspension room. Now, it’s an extension of the wood shop and an extended space for building, creation, and design. This seemed symbolic too: instead of giving kids detention, they were being given power tools. As we admired the canoe one student’s been building (follow his progress on Twitter here), I was fascinated by the trust and autonomy these students have. This is a district that’s investing in its students one by one. It’s using cool tools to do it, but the innovation comes from the creativity of leadership, not from the coolness of the toys.
  • Partnerships make an impact. Again, Elizabeth Forward isn’t a wealthy district, so they’ve relied on their own district funds, corporate partnerships, and foundation and nonprofit investment to transform their school. Administrators and teachers have found creative ways to bring together universities and companies and foundations to give EFSD students great opportunities. It can feel a little corporate — the sponsors of certain technology are definitely recognized in posters on campus where their donations and inputs are displayed, like in the Fab Lab and the room where the game design classes meet — but it also feels pretty exciting, too.

I’m far from the first person to write about Elizabeth Forward School District; to get more info, visit their district page, read this entry from eSpark (one of the vendors they’ve worked with) and this missive from the Remake Learning Network. Learn more and get inspired: this is what transformative education looks like here in western Pennsylvania. It can happen here, and it can happen anywhere.

One New Thing: Embrace the Octothorpe

One of my new year’s resolutions is to share something new, inspiring, or interesting each week in a blog post. It might be a list; it might be a link; it might be a story that feels worth sharing. It might only be tangentially related to the most serious topics in education. That being said, I’m in the business of learning, and this is my space to share what I’ve learned, both serious and silly.

This week’s installment tends toward the serious. This year, I want to get better at participating in the weekly educator chats on Twitter. There are a lot: there’s one about special ed, there’s one on design thinking, another on edtech, and tons of others. These weekly meetups have their own hashtags, which is what makes them possible to follow in Twitterlandia. They’re also loosely guided by a moderator who will pose questions (Q1, Q2, Q3) that attendees can answer one by one (A1, A2, A3). People can use those chat hashtags at other times too, of course–and they do–but, in real time, it’s a neat way to host a virtual meetup for many people interested in the same thing.

Tonight, I made a point to be on my computer for the weekly Design Thinking (#dtk12chat) event. So far, I mostly lurk and retweet, which seems right for now: I love design thinking, but I’m not an expert practitioner, so I’m joining the conversation to listen and learn more. Perhaps I’ll have something to contribute later tonight or in a few weeks, but for now, it’s surprisingly satisfying and thought-provoking to read, refresh, and read some more. Reading these tweets feels a lot of like the Tech Salon at Convent, which is an elective gathering of teachers focused on innovative tools and strategies for thee classroom. No one was required to be there, but, to me, the conversations always seemed vital to our work. These chats have a similarly energetic tone. It’s fun and inspiring, even if I’m just there as a listener. It’s a fun way to be a fly on the wall and learn something too.

As for the octothorpe: did you know that that’s another–and better–name for the hashtag? Read more here, or listen to the world’s greatest podcast that isn’t Serial to learn more.

#themoreyouknow (Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.)

Assistive Technology for Dyslexia

From Jamie Martin’s website, http://atdyslexia.com

I attended a great webinar today sponsored by the amazing people at Learning Ally. Connecticut-based assistive technology consultant and trainer Jamie Martin was the presenter, and he did a terrific talk about different technology to support dyslexic students as they write. I loved one of the first things he mentioned: while these tools will be especially helpful to dyslexic readers, they’re great tools for all readers who want to get strategic about their writing. He talked about three specific challenges that need to be addressed in the writing process: spelling and grammar, organization, and editing. Check out his website and his Twitter feed for the specifics: he has some great recommendations for tools that address each of those three tasks. Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, Learning Ally is putting together a virtual conference next month for the parents of kids with dyslexia. It’s the first event of its kind and it looks really interesting. It might be a little spendy for some (registration looks like it’s $129 and up), but it could be worthwhile. Learn more and register here: Learning Ally’s Spotlight on Dyslexia.

Event Debrief: Open Forum for Pittsburgh Education Technology

Last Monday, I attended the main education-related event of the week-long Thrival Festival. This edtech meetup was hosted at Thrill Mill, a startup incubator in the East Liberty neighborhood that served as one of the festival’s main sponsors. The idea was to bring together educator types and technology types to foster a conversation about “what’s next” in education and technology for Pittsburgh. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the event I co-hosted at the Sterne School in San Francisco last March, where we invited folks from both camps to engage in conversation. The best part of that spring event was that we made the focus be on listening: too often, tech folks will develop tools without anticipating the on-the-ground needs of teachers in the classroom, while teachers aren’t always aware of how tools can be used in the context of the many, many things they need to do every day with their students. This event had great intentions that addressed the same need to bring those groups together. I really enjoyed the conversations

The one drawback I observed was that I felt like the tech folks far outnumbered the educator types. In the small groups where we started the evening, I found myself seated in a group of five, where the other four folks were all part of tech startups. While it was interesting to hear about their products, I felt a little on-the-spot. Each of them were kind and friendly, and they seemed eager to tell me about their work and hear what I thought of it, but less in a we’re-having-a-pleasant-conversation way and more in a I’m hard-selling-you-my-product-right-now way. I was genuinely interested in what they each did, because I’m enthralled by the startup culture here. I guess I had hoped there’s be a little more give and take in the conversation: I’m interested in what they do, and I’d hoped the conversation would range more broadly about how tech and education types can connect and how their worlds intersect rather than a really specific conversation about the nuances among their products.

I think other groups were more successful than mine, and I ultimately had a lot of great conversations and met some terrific people. It was a great start for such partnerships here in Pittsburgh, and I’m glad I went.