Go Slow: A Twist on HELLO

As many of you know, I spend a lot of time on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, engaging the homeless in meaningful conversation.  The project, Beyond HELLO, captures the untold stories of a neighbourhood often forgotten and misunderstood.  Recently, I created a new blog BeyondHELLO.org where I share these stories – and where I encourage others to seize the opportunity to go Beyond HELLO in their own lives.  While most the stories I have written about with Beyond HELLO relate to the homeless, the simple concept of buying lunch for a stranger and engaging in conversation could happen anytime, anywhere.   This week at school, our students decided to go Beyond HELLO and form some beautiful new friendships…  Here’s how the story unfolded:

Last week our principal arranged for our school to host some very special visitors.  Residents from a local seniors home filled their shuttle and drove to our school for lunch.  In anticipation of the event, we planned the details…. our culinary students set the tables and prepared the meal; our leadership students waited near the door, a yearbook student was ready with his camera and the welcome sign was in place to greet our guests.  We took care of the details and everything ran smoothly as expected.  From a tangible perspective, the event was similar to what I have seen in other schools.  However – this visit was anything but average or routine.  This two hours of time was magical.

You see – there are some things we didn’t plan – or at least some things where we could not anticipate the outcome.  The first happened just as they arrived.   First of all, we did not realize how elderly our guests would be.  It turns out that most of our guests were over 90 years old.  One spry woman named Dorothy surprised us all when she let us know she had recently celebrated her 101th birthday.  As our guests stepped off the bus, some of them struggled to find their footing as they navigated the curves of the sidewalk and waited for their walkers to be unloaded.  One woman named Joan reached out her hand and placed it in my hand – not with a sense of panic or nervousness – but just for comfort and a little extra support.  Within seconds, I felt a special connection with Joan.  Together we stood, holding hands, introducing ourselves, preparing for the walk down our long hallway.  A hallway I rush down every day.  A hallway that seemed so much more enjoyable when I took the time to go slow.

When we reached the last room down the hallway, our guests sat down to an amazing meal.  They enjoyed the lunch and raved about our chef’s homemade chicken pot pie.  When the dishes were cleared, we asked if we could invite some students in simply to enjoy conversation.  Our guests agreed and our leadership students entered the room.  Rather than planning who sat with who, we just let the relationships form.  Within seconds, each student had found a senior to connect with. Some spoke in small groups, some in pairs.  Together they shared conversation about their high school experiences – marvelling in the similarities and differences of school 3 generations apart.  I sat with Joan, and together we discussed her career in nursing, her family, and her love of learning.  She giggled as she spoke of Halloween – where she had painted her face black and dressed in costume so the other residents could not identify her.  She spoke of her journey learning to paint with acrylics – something she began for the first time just a year ago, at the age of 97.   I asked what she would like to learn next year – and she smiled and said she didn’t know yet – but there would be something.  Together we chuckled about our dislike for e-readers and and our love for paper books.  In one moment, when I looked in her eyes, I didn’t see Joan – instead I saw my grandmother – a woman I miss dearly. A wonderful woman with a generous spirit, and great sense of humour who had  also been a nurse and loved nothing more than a good meal and time with family.  I know my grandmother would have liked Joan.  In fact, we discovered they may have even worked at the same hospital at one time.   Holding Joan’s hand and seeing her eyes sparkle was a gift: a delicate blend of new friendship woven eloquently with cherished memories from my past.   Looking around the room I could see our students beaming, as they to took time to have meaningful conversations.  Their eyes filled with joy as they made real connections sharing stories, building friendships and learning from one another.

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Shortly before 2 PM, we thanked our guests for coming, and decided to take one slight risk.  You see – our school is just about to embark on an exciting learning journey.  One of our fabulous teachers, Nicole Von Krogh was moved by the book and documentary ‘15 Reasons to Live‘.  She has decided to weave this into her Family Studies curriculum in the coming months.  The idea is simple.  She will ask each of her student to be thoughtful and take the time to recognize their 15 Reasons to Live.  How they present their reasons will be up to them – some may choose to use technology, others may use photography or spoken word.  What’s most exciting is that Nicole’s contagious enthusiasm for her project has inspired many other teachers on staff to join in with their classes. Both staff and students have committed to the ’15 Reasons to Live Project’.  So far our staff have found ways to build cross curricular connections blending this project with the learning outcomes for Grad Transitions, Social Justice, English, Learning Support, Leadership and Family Studies.   The project has yet to begin but the momentum is growing each day.

Nicole took some time to explain this powerful project to our seniors and we left them with an invitation.  Without any pressure, we invited them to leave with ‘homework’.  We asked them to think about their 15 Reasons to Live.  We also left them with a promise – if they decide to participate – and they are willing to develop their list, our students are willing to use their technology skills to capture the project  (perhaps a movie or slideshow that they can pass on to their families).  We also left them with the idea of attending a spring exhibit – where students and seniors could shine together showcasing their 15 Reasons to Live.

To our delight, our guests were quite willing to share their stories and think about what really mattered to them.  One by one they agreed to do their homework.  A retired principal from the group put his hand up and clarified by saying “what I hear is that you are willing to help us with our autobiographies.”  We smiled and said yes.  With certainty he let us know we could sign him up.  Another guest, Frank, chuckled and shook his head in disbelief “We are going to be friends with the Principal!  Now this is different!”

In just two hours, our students and our local seniors created magic.  They took the time to have conversation that mattered – time to get to know one another on a real level.  They took time to go Beyond HELLO.

I’m hoping that this post will inspire you to go Beyond HELLO as well.  Whether you are connecting with a senior, a child, a neighbour you have never met, or a passerby whose untold story intrigues you, I hope you take the time to go Beyond HELLO.   Invite someone to coffee or lunch and take time to hear their story.   If you do, please share your stories at www.beyondhello.org   I guarantee you will get more than you give.   And who knows – if you are like me, this simple act may just become one of your 15 Reasons to Live.

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Kids These Days

It’s Sunday morning, the sun is shining, I just finished a run with a friend, I have Starbucks in hand and my kids are off on a weekend adventure with their grandparents so one would think that my head would be full of positive thoughts.  For the most part it is, yet there is this nagging topic I feel compelled to write about.  So, unlike most of my blog posts, this one may come across as more of a rant.

So – here’s what’s on my mind…  I have this little pet peeve, and I just can’t shake it.  Like my otherwise calm neighbour who becomes a different person when he’s on the road with ‘bad drivers’, I find I can feel my blood boil when a certain expression arises.  There is nothing that frustrates me more than the moment when you are mid conversation with other adults and someone says “Kids these days,” assuming everyone will nod in agreement supporting the notion that society is doomed with today’s youth.

To be fair, I understand why the general population may have a poor impression of youth.  I get it. Bad news sells and it is far more likely that criminal activity or social disruption will dominate the headlines.  This notion isn’t true just for teens, it’s true for all ages and an unfortunate reality of the way we allow media to be portrayed.  Believe me, if a newspaper or TV network decided to cover only positive news stories, or the triumph and heroes that emerge with each disaster I would be the first to subscribe.

I also get that I often find myself in conversation with my neighbours, who are truly wonderful people, but whose careers offer a different perspective.  I have re-named our street emergency row as our street would vacate quickly if our city had a crisis as each house seems to have either a fireman, police officer, paramedic or hazmat team member.  With these industries responding to crises, I understand that they are not able to get an accurate perception of average kids or teens.

I understand that my view is also limited in scope as I have not researched all trends in youth behaviour, however I can speak confidently about the type of kids I get to work with on a regular basis.  As a vice principal, part of my job includes the responsibility of student discipline. Yet, unlike the movies would suggest, discipline does not dominate the day.  Why?  Two reasons really.  First of all, we don’t have many kids misbehaving.  Second, when we do, we see it as an opportunity for the student to learn from the situation, repair relationships and leave the situation strengthened so they are unlikely to find themselves in the same situation again.  Our schools are not plagued by bad kids.  We have great kids, who just like adults make some mistakes.  More often than not, it is hurt kids who hurt other kids.  Getting to the root of what is driving their behaviour and helping them heal allows our kids to learn from their mistakes and move forward.

So, if my day is not spent dealing with rowdy teenagers reeking havoc, then what are our teens really like?  This year, I worked the first half of the school year at Dr. Charles Best in Coquitlam, and the second half of the year at Thomas Haney in Maple Ridge.  In June I was fortunate to be part of two graduation ceremonies recognizing the accomplishments of the amazing kids leaving school ready to embrace the world.

When I look at our graduates, here is what I see:  They are fun, they are polite, they are intelligent, they are curious and they embrace the world beyond high school with a sense of curiosity and composure unlike when I was in school.  Unlike the past, they understand that they will likely have multiple career paths and the job they make end up in may not even exist today.  They are technologically savvy, the understand that the questions are just as important as the answers, and they embrace that learning is a lifelong process, rather than a rite of passage they have now completed.  They love their friends, family and community.  They balance the challenges of social media and live with both the communication and connection benefits that it brings, but also the exposure and immediacy that it offers.  When I think back to my own teenage years I can only imagine how different things would have been if every one of my friends had a phone in their pocket with a built in camera and access to the internet.  Let’s just say I’m happy my close friends knew some things about me that we didn’t capture on film and share with the world! I’m sure most adults can relate!

If we look to statistics, the Mcleary Foundation confirms that youth today are far less likely to smoke than youth a decade ago, 84% are in good or excellent health, drug use is not on the rise, and pregnancy rates are stable at less than 2%.  Major injuries have declined and most injuries that occur happen during sports.  Statistics Canada confirms that crime rates continue to decline across Canada, reaching a new low matching levels not seen since 1972. BC has the second lowest youth crime rate in the country with rates falling since 1991.  A study conducted by the BC Ministry and Representative for Children and Youth concludes less than 2% of children regularly present intensive behaviour challenges in schools.  However, children who have been abused become twice as likely to commit crimes, again confirming the notion that kids who  act out may be doing so based on their own hurt.  When our schools and families teach social emotional learning as well as curriculum we can help all students flourish.  We truly have great kids.

Kids today have a sense of responsibility far greater in scope than when I graduated.   They are global citizens, care deeply about recycling, volunteering, taking care of the environment and giving back to the less fortunate.  The kids I worked with this year spent time giving back at local elementary schools, homeless shelters, seniors homes, community events, sporting events and hospitals.  Many have helped raise funds through organizations such as Me to We helping impoverished nations, and some have even travelled to developing countries to help build schools and improve the access to clean water.  They smile, use manners and open doors for people.

As an example of what kids are really like, I’ve included links to two student blogs.

Selin Jessa, a graduate from Dr. Charles Best, is making headway around the world with her scientific research and commitment to leaving the world in an even better place than she found it.  Her blog ‘Thinking Out Loud’ gives a glimpse at her impressive journey.

Miranda Tymoschuk, a grade 11 student at Thomas Haney has overcome more adversity than any child should have to face, yet she uses it as motivation to improve conditions for others.  Please click here to see her story and her current fundraising efforts. http://ilaughlovedream.blogspot.ca

While these two students are the outliers with phenomenal accomplishments, they are not alone.  During graduation ceremonies, the grads from Dr. Charles Best and Thomas Haney were recognized for their accomplishments in academics, athletics, the arts, and in service, earning an impressive scholarship total of over one million dollars.

I am humbled to work with today’s youth as I get to learn from them as much as they learn from us.  Our kids are great.  Canada continues to be ranked as one of the top three education systems in the world, and we continue to focus on educating both the mind and the heart.   Our schools, our parents, and our communities are doing a great job. Unfortunately, that’s the news that doesn’t always make the headlines.  However, this is the story we should be telling.   Next time you are mid-conversation and someone mutters the expression “Kids these days,” please do me a favour, and  respond by saying, “Yes, they are pretty amazing aren’t they!”

OK – enough of my rant.  I’m off to enjoy this amazing sunny Sunday.

Redefining School: Thomas Haney’s Self Directed Model

Imagine you are on an airplane, mid-flight, and you strike up a conversation with the passenger beside you.  Together you start comparing high school as you know it from your hometown.  If you are from BC, you would likely share some personal experience while outlining the basic framework: 30 students per classroom, 1 teacher per room, different curriculum for each course, 4 classes per day, 5 days of school per week, 8 courses per year, bells to dictate start and end times, etc.  Although your description may include some variations on school culture and unique attributes, the basic learning environment would likely sound similar regardless of who was telling the story…unless you are from Thomas Haney!

Six weeks ago I began a new position as Vice Principal at Thomas Haney Secondary.  I have held off blogging about the school until now as I wanted to have time to experience the culture and understand the model before sharing it publicly.  Although I am certainly not an expert, I feel confident describing what makes Thomas Haney so incredibly unique!

Thomas Haney is part of the Canadian Coalition for Self Directed Learning. Following a unique model, each student is on a personalized learning program where they have the ability to explore their passions and focus on their strengths as they work towards graduation.  Students develop competencies necessary for life after graduation including communication skills, planning, an understanding of their learning style, organization, negotiation and technological literacy skills.

When students begin grade eight, they become part of a multi-grade Teacher Advisory (TA) Group.  Essentially, this becomes their home base or family at school.  TA meets at the start and end of each day.  Students stay with the same teacher for TA throughout their five years of high school. This allows for very strong relationships between teachers and students, and allows parents to have a key contact at the school for communicating about their child.  The teacher advisor is in frequent communication with the other teachers to stay informed of the progress the students in TA are making in their coursework.

Each day, students use their planner to set their learning goals for the day.  They use the morning TA time to determine what they are going to work on, where they will be working, and what their weekly goals are.  The teacher advisor signs off on the plan after discussing it with the students.

Each course at Thomas Haney is divided into twenty learning guides.  As students complete learning guides, they track their progress in their planner to communicate with their TA and their parents.  Teachers from each course will pace the course and communicate with students about which learning guide they should be working on.  The school is not self paced, though the structure and learning is self-directed so that the students have opportunities to decide what to work on when, and how to demonstrate their learning.  This often leads to creative explorations where students follow their passions  and engage in projects that meet the learning outcomes of multiple courses at the same time.

As students progress through the grades, their schedules allow them more flexibility, and more control over their own learning.  In grade eight, all students are in set classes all day.  Each of the eight set classes meet three times per week.  Many choose to participate in our grade eight laptop pod where every student has a laptop with the necessary resources instead of a bag full of textbooks.  On Mondays, grade eight’s join all other grades in a one hour ‘Y’ block where students choose where to work and what to work on.

In grade nine, each course meets two times per week instead of three. The remaining blocks become work blocks, where students plan their own day and choose their work areas.  Each department has a ‘Great Hall’ where students can choose to work.  Teachers also have flexible schedules with a mix of set classes or time in the great halls supporting learning.  In grades ten through twelve, most courses meet for one set class per week with the expectation that the student attend the great hall at least two times per week to work on that particular course.

What is the result?  Well, here are some of my first impressions.  First of all, the teachers have an increased amount of time to collaborate as they are often in shared work spaces that lend themselves to natural collaboration.  Next, the relationship between students and teachers is very strong.  As you walk through the great halls you see teachers sitting next to students working one on one or in small groups, allowing for individual attention and meaningful dialogue.

What surprised me most, is how able the students are at handling the increased responsibility.  Almost all students rise to the challenge and as a result, there are very few behaviour issues.  As you walk through the school you see students from all grades working in the same areas, helping one another, and working with the teachers to guide their learning.  While working on curriculum, students are also developing competencies that range from time management to creativity.  As an example, just last week, two students who had never worked together before began talking and decided to create this amazing spoken poem about social justice. They will share it live at the upcoming Maple Ridge Social Justice conference.  They will also share this with their Socials and English teachers to see what learning outcomes this project meets.

The open structure and flexible scheduling also lends itself nicely to unique school events during the day such as the recent ‘Poetry Slam’ contest pictured here photothat took place in our English Great Hall.  Next week for spirit week, all students dress in colours representing their TA’s, and participate in a variety of events culminating with the annual Gym Riot where the colours compete in friendly competition.

Finally, what I have recognized in my short time here, is that the staff and students of Thomas Haney absolutely love their school.  They are incredibly proud of the unique model, and appreciate learning in a way that models what we see in the changing workplace.  Graduates leave feeling ready to embrace the world, with the competencies necessary to navigate their next adventure in life.  And, if that next adventure finds them on a flight, I can assure you they will have lots to talk about when they spark up a  conversation addressing what high school is like in their hometown.

Change Your Perception… Change Everything

It has been said that if you can change the lens through which you view the world, you can change your reality.   The famous image below is perhaps the best example of this:  to some, this picture shows a beautiful young woman with a feather in her hair and a black necklace.  Others see an elderly woman in a thick fur coat.  With intention, we can allow our mind to look at this image and see it both ways. 

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Our perception, is shaped by our upbringing and our past experiences.  Depending on what we value and what we assume, we are able to judge a situation and form an opinion about what we see. Have a look at this next picture and think about what you see.

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Perhaps when you looked at this picture you saw students off task, distracted by their phones.  Or, conversely, perhaps you saw students embracing technology and using one of the functions on their smart phones as a learning tool.  Regardless of what you saw, I think it is important to note that it is very plausible that others saw it differently.   Recently, I have found myself in a couple of situations where I recognize that the use of technology creates different perceptions, depending on the lens through which it is viewed.  Here are three examples:

After a recent professional development workshop, I met with a teacher on staff who was quite disappointed about the level of respect our audience showed the speaker.  When I dug a bit deeper, I discovered that this particular teacher considered it very rude to type on a computer during someone’s presentation.   I then suggested that teachers may have been using their computer to take notes, as that is what I had been doing.   This was a shift in thinking, as this particular teachers saw the audience members with paper and pen as ‘on task’ and those with computers as ‘off task’.   Personally, I am intentionally trying to make an effort to use less paper and write notes on the computer as much as possible.  However this conversation helped me recognize that the use of technology may need to be addressed in the ‘housekeeping’ details at the beginning of a workshop or meeting so there is shared belief around whether or not it is appropriate to use technology.  At the most recent conference I attended, they encouraged the use of social media and created hashtags so conference delegates could share thoughts and add to the conversation through Twitter.  However, for those viewing technology as a distraction, this creates a very different image.

These instances occur in the community as well.  One of my friends is a hockey coach for his son’s hockey team.  He uses his cell phone as a stop watch to record playing time of individual players.  Mid season he received a complaint letter from a parent claiming that he was not focused on coaching as he was on the phone the whole time.  Again, depending on the lens you use, you can either see this situation as a ‘coach actively finding ways to give every child play time’ or a ‘distracted coach who is on his phone during the game’.  I’m sure the parent would have had a different perception if they saw him holding a stop watch.  Sometimes we need to recognize that our perceptions shape our reality, and that our assumptions are not always correct. 

In a third example, I had an hour to kill in a pediatric dentist office while I was waiting for my son.  As I looked around the room, I noticed every parent was actively engaged with their cell phone.  I sat looking at the room wondering what a passerby would think.  Would they see parents distracted by their phones?  Would they think the same thing if they walked by and saw parents flipping through books or magazines in the waiting room?  I recognize that phones have so many functions, and there is no way of knowing what the parents were doing.  Perhaps they were creating shopping lists. Perhaps they were reading e-books, perhaps they were using the internet, or answering emails for work.  And, of course, there is a chance they were filling their time playing Angry Birds. 

Regardless, each situation reminds me of the power of perception, and that as technology changes, we need to be aware of our own judgments when we see someone focused on their ‘smart’ phone.  If we rewind five years, we were quick to prohibit cell phones and pagers in class as they disrupted the learning environment.  Now, phones are capable of so much more, and many schools have moved to a ‘BYOD’ or bring your own device policy, as phones have the ability to enhance learning, if used responsibly.  If we recognize the potential good of cell phones in the classroom, then we have successfully shifted our thinking, and changed our reality. 

Similarly, security systems are primarily used to capture negative events.  However, what they really capture is a snapshot of reality.  As this uplifting video recognizes, it is up to us to determine whether we want to see the positive or the negative.  And most importantly, it’s a great reminder that we have the ability to shift the lens through which we see the world.   Our perception is our reality.  Change your perception… change everything.

Teens, Teachers and Social Media: Same Tools, Different Purpose

This school year I decided to develop my personal growth plan around technological literacy.  I did so for a number of reasons:  First, I was hearing from our students that they were using Facebook less than in the past, but their use of Twitter was on the rise.  I had no idea how to use Twitter at the time, and I was not comfortable knowing that our students were communicating in ways I did not understand.  For years I have used Facebook as a way to communicate with students, post information about school events, and stay up to date with issues impacting our students. If our students were switching to Twitter, I wanted to learn so I could stay connected.  Second, I wanted to explore how the use of blogging and social media could improve learning, professional development, communication and reflection.  I wasn’t sure what to expect….

Eight weeks later….

To be honest, it feels funny to type ‘eight weeks later’ because I can’t believe that two months ago, I did not embrace social media and blogging the way I do now.  It reminds me of the Buddhist Proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Both Twitter and blogging have re-shaped the way I learn and reflect.  Twitter is one of the best mediums of professional development I have ever experienced.  It allows me the opportunity to share ideas, engage in professional dialogue and learn from students and educators around the world.  And the best part? It takes place anytime, anywhere, and it’s free.  Similarly, I absolutely love taking time each week to blog.  Some people have asked if it feels like one more obligation competing for my time.  The answer is a definite no. In fact, it has the opposite effect.  The commitment to blog is a commitment I have made for myself reminding me to take time to slow down and reflect, and to focus on what I am learning, rather than getting consumed by the never ending to do list.

The second lesson I have learned since the start of the school year, is that I do not use social media the same way our students do.  I adopted Twitter to understand student behaviour, but instead I ended up on a professional development journey.  Knowing that our students were not all using Twitter to read articles and share ideas around the world, I decided to host two events with students to better understand how they use social media.  First I hosted a focus group with a small group of students from grades 9-12.  Second, I invited some students I didn’t know well to come in for a working lunch…. we provided lunch and they taught our admin team and youth worker how teens at our school are using Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media sites. 

It is important to note that the observations I have made do not necessarily represent how all students use social media.  Nonetheless, the students I spoke with offered some interesting insight.

Facebook:  Facebook is used by most, to post pictures, comment on friends’ status updates and stay connected with friends.  Most of their parents also use Facebook or feel that they understand Facebook.  However,  many students shared that it is quite common for teens alter the privacy settings so their parents only see parts of their Facebook page.  Similarly, some students admit to having two Facebook profiles…. one their parents know about, and one they don’t.   Most of our students felt that Facebook enhanced their learning in many ways…. they use Facebook to form study groups, to upload homework files, and to stay connected with meeting times and practice schedules for extra-curricular commitments.  Almost all students also have Facebook on their phone so they receive alerts as new messages arrive in their Facebook inbox.  Most students noted that they are always on facebook while doing their homework, allowing them to collaborate, ask questions, or just chat.   At our school we post many of our school announcements on Facebook.  We now have over 800 of our 1300 students connected to our school Facebook page.  When we need students to sign up for something we post it on Facebook and we have responses in seconds.  The speed is almost instantaneous, and much more effective than using PA announcements that often get missed.

Twitter:  Many students told me that they use twitter to ‘vent’ or to express emotion.  They create hashtags that match their emotion and have conversations about how they feel about something or someone.  Most felt that their parents do not know how to monitor their use of Twitter.   Many explain that their general conversations with friends have switched from Facebook to Twitter.  Twitter appears to be the platform with the greatest opportunity for learning.  A teacher can use Twitter to have students tweet answers while in the classroom or from home, and students can connect with other classes around the world engaging in conversation, learning with one another.

Tumblr:  I have to admit, I still don’t really get this one.  Many students use it to upload photos, and comment on each other’s pictures.  They also use it as a blogging tool.  Tumblr seems to be more popular with our younger grades than our senior students.  What many like about Tumblr is the ability to post and receive anonymous comments.  As a past school counsellor, this is what I really don’t like about Tumblr.  The anonymous feature allows people to say things they would not say with their name attached.  Students mentioned that Tumblr is useful for school projects on teen issues such as eating disorders, depression, etc.  Searching on topics such as these leads to teen pages with blogs and photos, giving the student an understanding of how other teens are thinking. Many also shared that this is a platform where they post positive messages to support one another.

Texting: Our students shed some light on how texting impacts student to student relationships.  From my ‘old person’ perspective, it seems like texting has replaced old school flirting.  Unfortunately, it seems like younger girls sometimes feel obligated to engage in very private conversations or photo sharing because they believe a genuine connection exists. When relationships don’t develop further, or teens break up, some girls mentioned feeling regret around the information they have shared through their phones. Again, this seemed to be more of a concern to our younger students in grades 9 and 10.   This conversation gave us insight to the importance of education around healthy relationships, and the importance of conversations with both our male and female students about appropriate use of technology.  With the average teenager sending and receiving over 3000 texts per month, we need to provide education on how to embrace digital communication in a responsible way, fostering the same sense of citizenship that we expect in face to face interactions. 

I am thankful to our students for taking time to engage in conversation and allow me to understand social media through a different lens. Our students are growing up with technology and they have much to teach us when we give them the opportunity to do so. As I continue on my own personal journey with social media, I am mindful that our students may use the same tools, but in different ways.  And no matter how much I learn with social media, I am again reminded that the best way to connect with our kids will always be face to face conversations.

A is for Apple…

Last spring I took the morning off work to take my seven year old son to the doctor.  On the way back from his appointment it crossed my mind that he may be hungry.  Knowing I had an apple in my work bag, I turned slightly from my driver’s seat and asked Jaden if he would like an apple.  His face lit up like Christmas morning and with excitement he exclaimed “Yes! I want a new IPod-touch!”   You can imagine his disappointment as I explained that I was only offering him a piece of fruit.  Moments like these are humourous, yet they also bring to light the way technology is changing the way our children grow up and the way they experience the world. 

When I compare my childhood to my children’s childhood I can see that we are living similar experiences though technology is changing how these experiences happen.  Many of us grew up watching cartoons on Saturday morning.  Today, my children set the PVR and watch their favourite cartoons when it is convenient in their schedule.  My brother and I used to collect pop cans as kids and we would save our money for a trip to the store for a new toy.  My boys also love to spend their money on something new but more often than not, they choose eBay over the toy store.  They have discovered that Pokemon toys are much cheaper if they order them from Hong Kong so they often spend their allowance on PayPal purchases and wait three weeks for their favourite toys to arrive in the mail.  They use their IPod to record music, take photos and play video games.  They use the computer to write stories, create and share artwork, and print colouring sheets.  Their computer skills are phenomenal, and unlike when I grew up, they are learning the keyboard at the same time they are learning to write on paper. These experiences shape how they learn, despite the fact that the concepts and knowledge they are acquiring are for the most part the same. 

For children, their ability to use technology seems natural as each experience is new for them and they do not have a pre-defined method of completing their tasks.  For adults, we need to re-think how we do things which sometimes requires a greater adjustment.  My mother has recently learned to text, to program her PVR and to read on a Kindle; although we have a ways to go before she will be able to understand some of the other capabilities of her smart phone such as photography or recording music.  When I think back to the past year, I am amazed at how many changes I have made as an adult adjusting to new technology.  I use my I-Pad rather than paper to take notes in meetings, I create to do lists on my phone, I use Twitter to share articles about education and I have replaced the traditional photo albums with online photo books.  I use the Starbucks app to scan my morning purchase, use the EEBA app to budget our family finances and I track my fitness goals and weight through health related apps.  When I told one of my colleagues I was using the phone to record my weight every day she looked at me in disbelief and said “you do that on your work phone?”  When I affirmed this, thinking that the worst that could happen would be that someone would discover my weight she replied with “you stand on your phone?”  Just as my son’s comment had drawn attention to the changes technology is making on childhood, this comment drew attention to the shift we experience as adults re-teaching our brains how to complete functions in a different way.

As an educator, technology has changed the way we communicate with parents and students.  Every adult in our building uses email and many have created their own websites to share lessons and homework expectations.  Our library has grown exponentially as our librarian has embraced the digital world and resources available.  We use Facebook daily to send school messages to students, as the response time is almost immediate and yields faster results than the old fashion daily announcements read over the PA or posted on paper.  Social media provides insight into the social relationships that impact our students and the emotional wellbeing of our kids.  Our counsellors and youth workers are often made aware of issues kids are struggling with through their Facebook status updates or their tweets.

As our world changes rapidly, we as educators need to stop and ask ourselves “What role does technology play in school?”  At our recent professional development day, I was surprised by the range of answers this question provoked amongst our staff.  Some feel that schools would be better without technology while others are on the cutting edge of technology and wanting to purchase the newest and fastest devices.   Some focused on the limitations we face with school budgets and bandwidth issues.

Personally I feel that we owe it to our students to understand how they are learning.  As educators, we need to model learning, and we need to have a vested interest in understanding the students we work with.  Perhaps we will not shift how we do our weekly tasks, but an awareness and understanding will only enhance the options we have when we develop lessons or plan activities for our students.  Who knows? Perhaps what we learn will leave a lasting impact and teach an old dog a new trick.  Technology has certainly allowed us the opportunity to see ourselves as learners as our students are often able to teach us the latest technological skills.

Our world is changing rapidly and entrepreneurs in our society are busy finding ways that technology can improve our lives.  Whether or not these changes ‘improve our lives’ may be a personal opinion though I believe there are some fundamental principles we must address as educators. 

First, we need to teach our students how to filter the information they are bombarded with.  Knowledge is no longer a scarce commodity shared amongst the educated.  Instead, knowledge is available, free of charge, almost instantaneously through Google or the Khan Academy. Even Harvard University offers lectures free of charge to the online audience.  As educators we need to continue to teach content, but we must put even more emphasis on how our students sift through content, ask questions and think critically about the information they are gathering.  These skills have always been important but as access to information grows exponentially, so must our ability to process information effectively.  Our students’ information literacy and ability to learn will become more important than what they learn.  As teachers we need to keep up with our students, continue to learn, and see ourselves as facilitators guiding the learning process rather than subject experts teaching kids.

Second, I feel it is important to speak the language our students speak.  If they are using Facebook to communicate, we need to at least understand this process so we can take care of our kids.  We need to educate them about the dangers of social media, and teach them how to use social media as a positive way to connect and network with others.

Third, in a time when education budgets are tight, we need to be creative and understand that the students may have the solution.  A teacher on our staff recently shared that he gives the same assignment, and discussed the learning outcomes that the students need to achieve but he allows the students to choose the medium of their project.  If they want to integrate technology into their project or present through an online medium they are welcome to do so.  We also need to be aware that our students already own many of the latest gadgets, long before the schools have the ability to purchase them.  Many if not most of our high school students have smart phones with them in class.  Teachers teaching in a regular classroom can group students in teams and have each group access the internet through their phones to find answers to questions or ideas to explore.  Sometimes these changes to education don’t cost a thing.  Vancouver School Board recently embraced this idea and launched their BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) campaign to encourage students to bring their phones and laptops to school. Encouraging students to bring their own device seems easier to implement than trying to police technology and asking everyone to keep their phones off.  In fact, asking for technology to stay out of schools may be near impossible.  Last year our school experienced an emergency situation where we needed to put the school on lockdown as a preventive measure as there was an intruder in the area.  When I announced the lockdown over the PA system, I asked teachers to turn on their email for further detail.  It took me three minutes to correspond with police and send out the first email.  However, a local radio station broadcasted that we were on lockdown just 90 seconds after my PA announcement.  Students had used their phones to contact parents the second the announcement was made.  We discovered that our ability to send out accurate information and update people as much as possible kept everyone calm and safe.  Trying to refrain from using technology during emergency situations may only lead to chaos, especially for people on the outside who are worried about the students.  

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we as parents and educators need to help our children understand when to turn technology off.  Family dinners will be more meaningful when families have face to face conversations rather than texting friends during the meal.  Allowing face to face friendships to develop serves us well as children and adults. Facebook has re-defined the definition of a ‘friend’ and it is important that we let face to face authentic friendships develop.  We can help our children get a good night sleep by allowing them downtime without technology before they go to bed.  We also know that students who do not have computers in their room are less likely to stay up all night checking their Facebook and Twitter.

Personally I know that I am often able to find the answer I am looking for when I turn the gadgets off.  Having time to self-reflect allows our character to develop and allows us the opportunity to discover our inner voice.  Technology is here to stay, and it is shifting the way we learn.  Our challenge is no longer what to learn, but rather how to learn, and deciding when we should welcome technology and when we should turn it off.  Although I embrace the impact technology has had on my family, I am still hesitant to book a camping trip at a campsite offering free wireless service.  Sometimes it’s nice just to get away with friends and family, power down, pack up the cooler, and enjoy an ‘old fashioned’ type of apple.