Will Technology Make My Kid Fat, Dumb, and Mean?

Debunking the most common media myths and truths with real research and practical advice. By Sierra Filucci
Will Technology Make My Kid Fat, Dumb, and Mean?

Parents have a lot of responsibility. Mainly, keep the kid alive. Next, try to raise a decent human being. And the messages about media and tech start almost from the moment they’re born: TV will rot your kid’s brain! Video games are evil! Kids don’t know how to have conversations anymore! It all boils down to the idea that too much media and tech will ruin your kid — or make them fat, dumb, and mean. But obviously that’s an oversimplification. The truth is more complicated — and a lot less scary.

Here we break down the scariest media and tech rumors and give you some solid research and simple, no-stress advice.

Rumor: TV rots kids’ brains.
Research says
: No credible research exists that says screens cause any sort of damage to the brain. It’s pretty clear, though, that having a TV on in the background isn’t good for little kids. It’s been shown to reduce the amount of time kids play and the quality of that play. It also seems to be related to less parent-child talk and interaction, which can have a negative impact on kids’ language development. Television in the bedroom is also a no-no; research shows it affects the quality and amount of sleep kids get, which can affect learning, among other things.

Advice: Turn off the TV unless you’re actively watching it. And keep it out of sleeping areas. Play music — perhaps wordless — if you want some background noise. And set aside time each day, if possible, to actively play with little kids.

Rumor: Watching TV or playing video games makes kids fat.
Research says
: Some research suggests a connection between watching TV and an increased body mass index. But the numbers seem to point to this being a result of kids being exposed to food advertising, not necessarily being couch potatoes.

Advice: Avoid commercials by using a DVR or choosing videos without ads. Also, teach kids to recognize advertisers’ tricks and marketing techniques, so when they see ads, they can evaluate them critically. Make sure kids get exercise every day, either at school or home. If kids can’t spend time outdoors, find ways to be physically active indoors (create obstacle courses; do kid “boot camps”) and choose active video games or find fun exercise apps or TV shows to enjoy together or for kids to enjoy on their own.

Rumor: Cell phone radiation causes cancer.
Research says
: Lots of studies have been done, and the results are inconclusive. The research community is still investigating, but there is still no indication that cell phones cause cancer in humans.

Advice: Kids don’t talk on their phones very much — they’re more likely to text or use apps — so even if there were a credible connection between the radio waves emitted from phones and damage to the brain, most kids would be at little risk. If you want to be extra cautious, make sure they aren’t sleeping with their phones under their pillows (not a good idea anyway!).

Rumor: Kids use the internet/their phones too much — they’re addicted!
Research says
: While plenty of research has been done to try to figure this out, the results are still pretty inconclusive, especially for kids. Certainly, studies show that kids feel addicted, but whether many are experiencing the symptoms of true addiction — interference with daily life, needing more to achieve the same feeling — is still up for debate. Also, no one has defined what “too much” time is.

Advice: Build as much balance into kids’ days and weeks as possible. That means aiming for a mix of screen and non-screen time that includes time with family and friends, reading, exercising, chores, outdoor play, and creative time. If kids seem to be suffering in some area — at school, with friends, with behavior at home — take a look at her daily and weekly activities and adjust accordingly.

Rumor: Violent video games make kids violent.
Research says
: Heavy exposure to violent media can be a risk factor for violent behavior, according to some — but not all — studies. Children who are exposed to multiple risk factors — including substance abuse, aggression, and conflict at home — and who consume violent media are more likely to behave aggressively.

Advice: Avoid games that are age-inappropriate, especially ones that combine violence with sex. Make media choices that reflect your family’s values; that can mean choosing nonviolent games, limiting the amount of time kids can play certain games, or playing along with kids to help guide them through iffy stuff. Also, as much as possible, limit other risk factors of aggression in kids’ lives.

Rumor: Kids don’t know how to have face-to-face conversations anymore.
Research says
: Studies on this topic haven’t focused on kids yet, but that data is surely on the horizon. What we know says that many older adults think devices harm conversations, but younger adults aren’t as bothered. A couple studies have also found that the absence of devices (at summer camps or during one-on-one conversations) can inspire emotional awareness. What that means about the ability to have a conversation is unclear.

Advice: Make sure kids get experience having face-to-face conversations with family members, friends, and others, such as teachers, coaches, or clergy. Teach kids proper etiquette, including not staring at a phone while someone else is talking. Model the behavior you want to see. But also accept that digital communication is here to stay. Embrace it and use it with your kid. And don’t criticize kids for using it appropriately, even if it’s not your preferred method of communication.

About Sierra Filucci

Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women’s and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley…. Read mor

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.

Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:

  • Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
  • Are you near an ocean?
  • Is it morning or afternoon for you?
  • Are you in a big continent?
  • What is your main language?

I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.

This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.

As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.


Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School

A Window to the World

While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.

I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.

Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.

Virtual Field Trips

I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.

My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.


Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School

In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.


First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School

In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.

Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.

My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.

Cross-Cultural Relationships

Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships.  For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.

My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.

Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!

Far-Reaching Benefits

Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.

My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”

 

Mary-Catherine Irving

Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.

Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom

When I started teaching, I assumed my “fun” class, sexuality and the law, full of contemporary controversy, would prove gripping to the students. One day, I provoked them with a point against marriage equality, and the response was a slew of laptops staring back. The screens seemed to block our classroom connection. Then, observing a senior colleague’s contracts class, I spied one student shopping for half the class. Another was surfing Facebook. Both took notes when my colleague spoke, but resumed the rest of their lives instead of listening to classmates.

Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning. And yet, education requires constant interaction in which professor and students are fully present for an exchange.

Students need two skills to succeed as lawyers and as professionals: listening and communicating. We must listen with care, which requires patience, focus, eye contact and managing moments of ennui productively — perhaps by double-checking one’s notes instead of a friend’s latest Instagram. Multitasking and the mediation of screens kill empathy.

Likewise, we must communicate — in writing or in speech — with clarity and precision. The student who speaks in class learns to convey his or her points effectively because everyone else is listening. Classmates will respond with their accord or dissent. Lawyers can acquire hallmark precision only through repeated exercises of concentration. It does happen on occasion that a client loses millions of dollars over a misplaced comma or period.

Once, a senior associate for whom I was working berated me for such a mistake and said, “Getting these things right is the easy part, and if you can’t get that right, what does it say about your ability to analyze the law properly?” I learned my lesson. To restore the focus-training function of the classroom, I stopped allowing laptops in class early in my teaching career. Since then research has confirmed the wisdom of my choice.

Focus is crucial, and we do best when monotasking: Even disruptions of a few seconds can derail one’s train of thought. Students process information better when they take notes — they don’t just transcribe, as they do with laptops, but they think and record those thoughts. One study found that laptops or tablets consistently undermine exam performance by 1.7 percent (a significant difference in the context of the study). Other studies reveal that writing by hand helps memory retention. Screens block us from connecting, whether at dinner or in a classroom. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that just having a phone on a table during a meal “is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people.”

For all these reasons, starting with smaller classes, I banned laptops, and it improved the students’ engagement. With constant eye contact, I could see and feel when they understood me, and when they did not. Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material. I broadened my rule to include one of my large upper-level courses. The pushback was real: A week before class, I posted the syllabus, which announced my policy. Two students wrote me to ask if I would reconsider, and dropped the class when I refused. But more important, after my class ends, many students continue to take notes by hand even when it’s not required.

Putting aside medical exemptions, many students are just resistant. They are used to typing and prefer it to writing. They may feel they take better notes by keyboard. They may feel they know how to take notes by hand but do not want to have to do so. They can look up material, and there’s no need to print assignments. Some may have terrible handwriting, or find it uncomfortable or even painful to write.

To them, I’ll let the Rolling Stones answer: You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. My students need to learn how to be lawyers and professionals. To succeed they must internalize an ethos of caution, care and respect. To instill these values and skills in my students, I have no choice but to limit laptop use in the classroom.

An Inside Look at an Award-Winning Maker Program

Edutopia

Making turned New Jersey middle school students into teachers for a weekend—and sent some of them to the White House.

School ended in June 2016 with a crescendo of activity we had worked all year to orchestrate, bringing bigger accomplishments than we’d dreamed of. Our year-end adventure began in Washington, D.C., where my students’ work with design earned us an invitation to the White House for the kickoff of the 2016 National Week of Making. As one of two representatives from New Jersey, I represented not only my students but effectively all K-12 educators in the state for whom making is a way of teaching and learning. Though making is not new—creative individuals in communities and schools everywhere have been doing this work for years—its increasingly high profile certainly is. Making matters. And design thinking matters to makers.

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Students work in the author’s digital shop class.

At the beginning of the National Week of Making, I set up our exhibit at the National Maker Faire. Eleven students, including four who had just graduated eighth grade, would spend the weekend explaining how design thinking drove our program’s work and their learning. Kids used student-built prototypes to explain how they employed design thinking to solve problems and make the world a better place.

We set up stations where Faire attendees got to experience prototyping for themselves, tackling design challenges based on the Extraordinaires Design Studio and expertly explained by our kids. The kids’ efforts garnered not one but two awards: Best in Class and Editor’s Choice.

The next day, three teams of seventh-grade students traveled to Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia to present their ideas for making hospitals less scary for child patients.

A group of nearly 70 people, including relatives, friends, hospital professionals, fellow educators, and members of the press, watched the student teams present their ideas and recommendations. It was a very good day. And it was just the beginning, as these students would work with JeffDESIGN over the summer to learn valuable lessons about what it takes to get an idea from concept to production in the real world.

In the span of four days, our kids met and conversed with hundreds of people about their accomplishments as designers, experiencing a level of personal and professional validation that many adults rarely get to enjoy. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic year.

So how is our program growing, changing, and adapting this year?

Initiative One: The EPICS Curriculum and Processes

We have adopted the free and fabulous EPICS—Engineering Projects In Community Service—as the heart and soul of our program this year. I attended a summer training at Purdue University; it was exhaustive and a great investment. EPICS is all about documenting design thinking processes. To that end, they have assembled a massive library of resources, including fully editable and customizable documents teachers can use to plan projects.

I love that the EPICS framework is just that—a framework. It provides a flexible structure I can modify as necessary to suit our processes and needs. As of this writing, we are still deep in that customization process; I expect that it will take most of this year to finalize. When we are done, we’ll have a powerful, document-driven, human-centered methodology to guide our work in design.

Initiative Two: Bringing the Outside In

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Students use the laser engraver.

Last year, students connected with professional designer Meghan Holliday, who spoke about her life and work as a designer. This year, we’ve got Andrew Coy, senior advisor for making in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, sharing why making is critical in schools today; Alixandra Klein, a Vermont-based entrepreneur who makes jewelry using a laser cutter and upcycled materials, talking about the importance of art and creativity; and Dr. Jorge Valdes of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office(and also a high school science teacher here in New Jersey) discussing intellectual property, patents, and the inventor’s mindset. And all of this is just for Design Experience One.

Initiative Three: Changes to the Instructional Environment

We were fortunate to acquire an Epilog laser engraver last summer. It has quickly proven to be a game-changer for our program, capturing imaginations and literally igniting creativity like no other tool previously. Our new “soft seating” area includes a SMART Board 6000 interactive display, an Ikea coffee table (donated), an Xbox 360 (also donated), and a leather couch I found for sale on Facebook for $75. The combination of these items has made a terrific small group instructional area, while providing kids who have lunch in my room a chance to enjoy some gaming.

Final Thoughts

The new school year has gotten off to a good start. We’re creating an entirely new understanding of design thinking in Digital Shop, an amalgam of our shared past experiences and the practices of some of the world’s best design thinking practitioners. It’s ridiculously hard work, alternatively frustrating and exhilarating, but totally worth it.

Amid Internet Addiction Fears, ‘Balanced’ Tech Diet for Teens Recommended

EdWeek

Dig-Girl-iPad.jpg

Although researchers have yet to reach a consensus on whether ‘Internet addiction’ is real, parents are increasingly—and justifiably—concerned about their children’s technology and media usage, according to a new report released today by Common Sense Media.

The tonic, the report suggests, is a “balanced” technology diet for children that includes tech-free times and zones.  Common Sense also recommended that parents and caregivers put down their own phones while driving, at the dinner table, and during family time.

“However the research community eventually comes to a consensus on whether and how to diagnose Internet addiction, it is clear that there has been a massive change in how we access and engage with technology,” according to the report, titled “Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance.”

The report consists of a literature review of more than 180 journal articles, press accounts, interviews, books, and industry papers on the topic, as well as a new, nationally representative phone survey of 620 mobile-phone-using parents and 620 of their mobile-phone-using children between the ages of 12-18.

Among the findings:

  • 59 percent of parents feel their teens are addicted to their mobile devices, but just 27 percent of teens agree. Researchers disagree on whether “Internet addiction” is a clinical condition, and it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—the American Psychiatric Association’s official classification and diagnostic tool. Regardless, Common Sense argues, research clearly shows that “problematic media use” that includes “dysfunctional ways of engaging with media” that are “characterized as compulsive, obsessive, or unhealthy” is a real concern. More research is needed on such behaviors among children and teens, the report argues.
  • 78 percent of teens check their devices at least hourly, compared to 69 percent of their parents. Teens were also far more likely than their parents to report feeling compelled to respond to text messages, social-media notifications, and the like. The prevalence of “media multitasking” is of particular concern, Common Sense suggested. One study included in the report’s literature review found that students from middle school through university studied for fewer than six minutes at a stretch before switching to another tech distraction. Another found that “heavy media multitaskers have a harder time filtering out irrelevant information.”
  • Device usage is a source of regular family conflict. Roughly one-third of both parents and teens said they argued about device use daily, and more than three-fourths of parents reported feeling that their teens are distracted by devices and don’t pay attention to family members at least a few times per week. And teens aren’t the only ones to blame; one study cited in the literature review found that “caregivers eating with young children in fast food restaurants who were highly absorbed in their devices tended to be more harsh when dealing with their children’s misbehavior.”

Given previous research from Common Sense that American tweens (ages 8-12) and teens (13-18) spend between six and nine hours per day outside of school and homework using media (including TV, video games, social media, the Internet, and digital music), such concerns are probably no surprise.

The new report also points out, however, that researchers have not established any formal link between social media usage and decreasing empathy among teens. And research on the impact of extensive Internet and mobile device usage on tweens’ and teens’ social, emotional, and cognitive development is surprisingly limited, Common Sense maintains.

Common Sense also notes that teens still report preferring face-to-face conversation to other forms of communication. Researchers such as Danah Boyd of Data Society have suggested that in a society in which opportunities for such interactions are increasingly limited, teens are turning to technology to express typical developmental needs around social connections with peers.

For parents and caregivers, just limiting access to technology and digital media is unlikely to be the solution, Common Sense suggests.

Some research has found that “children of technology limiters…are most likely to engage in problematic behaviors such as posting hostile comments or impersonating others online, whereas children of media mentors are much less likely to engage in problematic online behaviors,” according to the report.

Most important— and challenging, for the 27 percent of parents in the Common Sense survey who reported feeling addicted to their own mobile devices— is serving as a good “media mentor,” the group concludes.

“Parent role-modeling shows kids the behavior and values you want in your home,” the report says. “Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.”

Laptops and Notetaking

Conforming to the System of School?

By George on Apr 23, 2016 

This post from NPR titled, “Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away”, was shared multiple times on social media, and I shared it was well.

Reading this piece Via @NPR – Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away https://t.co/s8KHExBDE4

— George Couros (@gcouros) April 17, 2016

I found it to be an interesting piece, but the beginning really stuck out to me.  I have bolded some of the parts below that really drew my attention.

As laptops become smaller and more ubiquitous, and with the advent of tablets, the idea of taking notes by hand just seems old-fashioned to many students today. Typing your notes is faster — which comes in handy when there’s a lot of information to take down. But it turns out there are still advantages to doing things the old-fashioned way.

For one thing, research shows that laptops and tablets have a tendency to be distracting — it’s so easy to click over to Facebook in that dull lecture. And a study has shown that the fact that you have to be slower when you take notes by hand is what makes it more useful in the long run.

In the study published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles sought to test how note-taking by hand or by computer affects learning.

“When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can,” Mueller tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”

First of all, I do not think lectures are bad, but I do think “dull lectures” are.  Interesting thing is that we expect that students pay attention to a “dull lecture” while I watch so many people in organizations choose Facebook or email over “dull staff meetings”.  There should be accountability to not only the learner, but the educator in this situation.  Encouraging things like back-channels. or providing the information before and encouraging learners to create something from it, is actually a much better way to have students “retain” information than listening to a “dull lecture”.  It is not that content isn’t important, but what you create and connect from this content is where the powerful and deep learning happens.

The second part that stuck out to me is when the article says “people”, not “some people”.  The reality is that not all people are the same, but in this article they are using technology (both the pen/pencils and the computer, not only the computer) to standardize.  Not all people work this way. In fact, whether you give me a pencil or a laptop, I am never furiously writing notes down. Ever.  I will write only what resonates with me, but with a computer, I might google quotes or applicable articles that I will save for reading later.  I might not be “listening” as much,  but I could actually be learning more, just not necessarily from the person lecturing at that exact moment.  Is the focus on what I am learning from the person standing in front of me, or what I am learning on the topic in general. These aren’t always the same thing.

Many educators on social media reiterated the findings and shared how they made all students use pencils instead of laptops.  The problem with this approach is that we assume one way works for all.  What we need to realize is that some students benefit from having a laptop, and some from using a pencil.  Choices are beneficial.  Some students will need more guidance than others, but we also need to realize that we should never force students to use what works for us over what works for them.

As a student in K-12, I was single-handedly responsible for supporting the paper reinforcement business in the 80’s.  Many of my notes would eventually be torn out of my book, but even if they stayed in my binder, they were never beneficial to me.  This is not to say that this process wasn’t beneficial to others, just not for me.  But was the problem here that I didn’t conform to the system, or that the system didn’t conform to me?

Technology should personalize, not standardize.  We need to understand that we live in a time where there are more ways to reach more kids.  To lump all kids together and have them do the exact same thing is doing an incredible disservice to the learners of today.

Tech Meets Art in Middle School

The Atlantic
A South Carolina public school gives tech-savvy students a sense of humanity.

DEBORAH FALLOWS MAR 3, 2016
I began visiting Greenville, South Carolina, schools more than two years ago, for our American Futures project. One was the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, for the tiniest engineers in pre-k through grade five, which I wrote about here. At the time, I heard about plans for a middle school, set to locate adjacent to Clemson University’s International Center for Automative Research (CU-ICAR) campus and research facility.

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Fisher students in their Blue community common area (Deb Fallows)
When we returned to Greenville last week, I paid a visit to the new school, the Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School, named for a former superintendent of Greenville County Schools. Fisher opened in fall 2014 with a class of over 300 sixth-graders. Today, Fisher enrolls sixth- and seventh-graders. Next year, Fisher will have the full complement of students in grades six through eight. Some of the tiny engineers from A.J. Whittenberg—growing up now—attend Fisher. Others go elsewhere. Greenville County schools operate on a “choice” system; essentially, students are assigned to the school in their home district, but they can apply and join the lottery to attend a different one. About 15 percent of Greenville students attend “choice” schools.

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Ceiling at Fisher School (Fisher Middle School)
Several folks in Greenville told me, with a kind of we-love-all-our-children-equally tone, that they could recommend any number of schools for me to visit in the county: magnet schools, STEM schools, charter schools, IB schools, New Tech schools, etc. Of course, I couldn’t begin to visit them all. Fisher, the school I chose, is an appealing school to visit; it is unconventional and surprising, especially for those of us used to more traditional schools. “Is that a school?” is a question that Principal Jane Garraux says she hears that people often ask as they drive by.

Here are some things I learned about this novel school:
Creating a culture. Jane Garraux had been planning to retire after her 30-plus year career in Florida’s Miami-Dade district, where she had already founded two schools. Then she began hearing about Fisher Middle School opening in her hometown of Greenville. She was enticed into being a founding principal for a third time and set to work building another school.

Fisher was set to open with a STEAM curriculum, adding A for arts to the more familiar STEM curriculum. STEM vs. STEAM is a hot topic in the education world. Proponents of STEAM argue that infusing more liberal arts into a highly technical curriculum will build more well-rounded, richer lives for its budding citizenry.

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Students working on a maze project (Deb Fallows)
Fisher’s STEAM curriculum is taught through a method called project-based learning (PBL). It is a holistic approach that encourages collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and so forth.

Greenville’s business community, collaborating with the education community, spoke up in favor of developing the soft skills that come with this approach. Nurturing a future workforce that was not only steeped in the world of technology, but was also comfortable and practiced in communicating, teamwork, organizing, public speaking, etc., would be critical to the kind of workforce they would be looking for.

For starters, Garraux needed an entirely new faculty and staff. She drew from all around the country as well as Greenville looking for enthusiasm, dedication, flexibility, and for buy-in to hone their skills with PBL. While PBL has been around education circles for a long time, many of the teachers would be new to the method.

So how about a look at a seventh-grade social-studies project through the STEAM PBL lens:

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Kelsey-Zibert shows a student project(Deb Fallows)
Anne Kelsey-Zibert, a veteran teacher of 12 years and newly trained PBL teacher, took me step by step through an example of project-based learning in her class. The students were studying WWI, and in Kelsey-Zibert’s mind for the students it was connecting what it was like to live during the times to actual events they were studying. The students would construct a tool or artifact of the era, using today’s materials, and then present the object to the class. This exercise would fold in research, design, construction, writing a presentation of their creation in relation to the historical event, public speaking to the class. In addition, in a kind of shark-tank twist, each student received $1,000 (fake of course) to invest their favorite, most-promising project.
Another strong piece of Fisher’s culture is the open door to the community. People in the business community are more than in conversation with the education community—they are participants.

At A.J. Whittenberg, I watched employees from General Electric teaching classes about electricity. At Fisher, employees from Michelin were there the day I visited, demonstrating catapults to the middle-schoolers. ZIKE, a Greenville company that makes a human-powered hybrid scooter-bike, donated 20 bikes to the school. Wynit Print Distribution and Leapfrog Printing donated a 3D printer. Clemson offers tours and mentorship programs to Fisher, and some Clemson faculty hold regular office hours for Fisher faculty on the campus. These and many more partners are investing in these middle-school kids and piquing their interest even now.

Designing a building. Matt Critell, Fisher’s program director and a former teacher, toured me further around the school, describing as did Garraux, the excitement of building a school from scratch. The magic of the award-winning campus is that the Fisher campus was designed to serve the 21st-century curriculum of the school, rather than vice versa.

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Student common area with open-door classroom behind them (Deb Fallows)
What does that mean? One key is flexibility. A walk around Fisher could look different even during the course of the day. Classrooms have big glass-paneled garage doors, which can lower for a cozier space or rise to create an open space with adjoining common areas. There are indoor-outdoor classroom spaces and an innovation lab so big that you can drive a car straight into it.

Once, when rain would have canceled an outdoor bike demonstration, the show moved indoors, using some big existing spaces and creating others by opening the garage-size classroom doors.

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No lockers, but backpacks (Deb Fallows)
The school is bright and airy. The innards of the building are exposed: brightly painted exposed pipes, color-coded for their functionality and a see-into server closets. Students work in red, blue, or green learning communities. There are studios, design labs, arts-and-media centers, collaboration and seminar rooms. There are no student lockers; students have little to store because they are all given laptops, which hold their books, papers, homework, you name it. They carry backpacks, plenty of which I saw strewn around.

The day I visited, huge winds were blasting through in the wake of fierce rainstorm. Outside, clusters of sixth-graders were picking up and patching together shelters they had designed and built from foraged found-goods—cardboard, plastic bags, wooden pallets, old newspapers. (The cardboard is hard to come by these days, explains Critell, since it commands $400 a bale in the recycling industry.)

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Shelters after the storm (Deb Fallows)
The overnight storm had wreaked some havoc, injecting, no doubt, a big dose of reality as the students must have considered how lucky they were not to have camped out in their shelters. These issues were on the students’ mind, as they were concurrently reading a popular novel called Maniac Magee, about an orphan looking for a home, and woven with themes of homelessness and racism. They also learned that the location of some of their shelters, a protected-looking corner near the outdoor amphitheater, actually turned out to be a wind tunnel.

This kind of teaching and learning takes time. Can you imagine squeezing it into a 45-minute period? Everyone at Fisher talked about their block schedule, with the 90-minute classes, meeting twice each week.
A byproduct of this schedule is capturing an extra period which can be devoted to the arts, opening up a lot of options for student to pursue as electives. Fisher offers, for example, broadcast journalism, video game design, forensics, robotics, all sorts of music, art, and drama, and more.

I saw a similar block schedule working at the Cristo Rey school in Columbus, Ohio, where the captured time was spent on sending students out into the community for internships at businesses and organizations around Columbus.

Think back, if you dare, to your middle-school years. Frankly, I remember junior high, as it was called, as the worst years of my life; social life was mean and academics were boring. I know that my husband, Jim, spent his in a few different schools, because it wasn’t his best time either. One of our sons spent part of his middle school in a Japanese public school, wearing the Prussian-style black uniform that Japanese kids still wear today. Even the name, middle school, is non-descript and probably best forgotten, suggesting time squeezed in between childhood and high school, which both have a more positive ring to them. Learning about Fisher Middle School was therefore, for me, quite astonishing. Instead of letting those years slip quietly by, Fisher is seizing the years and helping students make much of them. Hats off to them.