Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Two, no three, no FOUR things that happened today to keep me loving my job

As I was getting ready to leave work today, a little early as I needed to pick up my son and get home to prepare for the first meeting of an online class I'm teaching, a really cool thing happened.  I ended up walking out of the building like I was walking on a rainbow.  It was just one of those things that happens that reminds you why you became a teacher, you know?

I want to tell you ALL about it.  I thought to myself, "That was so amazing! Who can I tell?!?!"  And then I realized I had two cool things like that happen today.  No wait, three.  Hang on, FOUR.  So now I will tell YOU, blogosphere, about the four things that happened today that made me just LOVE what I do.  *Names are changed to protect the identities of the awesome.

1. We've had a little bit of a rocky start getting going with MinecraftEDU in my Digital World class.  Myriad technical difficulties meant it took us quite a few days to get everyone in the game together.  And several of the students just really aren't into gaming at all, or Minecraft specifically.  One of those students is Leslie*.  She told me she wasn't loving it, but she wasn't ill-mannered about it.  She expressed her frustration with the technical glitches and the challenges inherent in the gameplay itself with a polite exasperation in her voice.  I told her it was really okay not to like it, and that I respected her honesty and willingness to trudge through it anyway.

Today something really fun happened.  Leslie started investigating what her Minecraft lesson would be, she started experimenting and reading the Minecraft Wiki to come up with a topic to teach the rest of us.  She stumbled across animals and I gave her some materials to start building a pen to contain her Mooshrooms (they're like cows with mushrooms on them . . . I don't get it either).  Squeals of delight soon followed.  And then I heard Leslie chastising a Mooshroom that had somehow escaped her enclosure.  And she was really having fun and rising to the challenge, and my heart melted a little.  Here was this young person who had gone from "I don't think I can do this" to "Hey, this is fun, and I am enjoying this, and I can handle the challenge" in a matter of moments, literally right before my eyes. (She was sitting directly across from me.)

2. Later this morning, as I sat at my desk, working away on my computer, I heard, as I often do, an English class on the other side of my wall.  (Background info: two of my walls actually have doors that are no longer doors in them, between me and two neighboring English classrooms.)  The discussions, orations, speeches, recitations, and game playing in the class next door frequently get loud enough for me to hear clearly.  I don't mind, because I can tell that teacher has got some amazing, fun, student-centered learning going on in there.  At this moment, though, I heard a young woman clearly sharing her opinion of a "vicious cycle" in life.  (Understand that I work in an expensive, private independent high school where students are often pushed to achieve by everyone in their lives.)

She described how it seems like everyone just works like mad to get fantastic grades so they can get into the absolute perfect (read: Ivy League) college, so they can score a high-paying job, just so they can repeat the cycle for their own children.  Even if that means denying their children a chance to do something they truly love and want to do.  So I hopped out of my seat, scurried to the door, quickly opened the door to the classroom, stuck my head in and told them I could hear what she said from next door, and I thought it was AWESOME.  Then I ducked out, came back with one of my baskets of candy, and offered some to the young lady who had been talking.  Then I told the kids to pass it around, saying they could have candy too . . . if they agreed with her.  And I told them to tell their friends, tell their parents, tell their friends' parents, tell their parents' friends.  This girl's message was spot on.  Then I went back to my office and tweeted about it. #CrazyThingIDid

3. This week is Japan Week and the Japanese National Honor Society has some fun foods and activities planned for each day of the week.  Today, it was Japanese calligraphy outside our dining hall.  As I walked out, one of my colleagues who teaches Japanese motioned me to come over and have a try.  The students who were teaching us how to make the characters were super friendly and helpful, and I was instantly proud of this single incident, one of MANY at my school, that gives our young people a chance to shine and reach out to the rest of our school community.

I chose to paint the Kanji character for "love" and I did a halfway decent job.  My teacher (a student) praised me, and my colleague who had encouraged me to try congratulated me on a job well done.  That felt nice.  But what happened next was really cool.  On the walk back to my office, as I gingerly held my parchment with its ink still drying, someone opened and held open a door for me (which I am totally used to now at my school -- they all do it!), and then I passed two students I know sitting on the hallway floor, and they immediately identified my character as "love."  They complimented my work, and a young man passed by, a student I do not know at all, and he said, "That's some great work! You should hang it."  Gosh, I love these kids.

4. So my day was going really well, but I had to end it early at around 3:00.  As I went to recycle a soda can, I stopped in to chat with a colleague, passing Douglas* along the way.  When I returned to my office, all set to pack up my computer and take off, Douglas was waiting outside my office.  Now, you need to know that Douglas doesn't talk much.  Doesn't smile much.  Doesn't even make eye contact sometimes.  But the past few days in class, we've been playing Minecraft and he's been smiling, laughing, helping two or three classmates within the game.  I've felt really happy for him because it seems like school isn't a drag for a change.  Since Douglas seemed to be reading the Analog Blog Wall outside my office door, I asked him if he was just hanging out or was waiting to see me.

He was there to see me, so we stepped into my office.  He had a question about the Minecraft teaching assignment; he wanted clarification of what needed to be done.  And then he asked me some specific questions about how certain things might work in the game, and he came up with a really cool idea for something he could create in the game and then tell people how he did it.  It was a completely original and extremely creative idea, and I was really impressed with the thought process he used to arrive at his idea.  (I'm not going to share it here, because we want to surprise the class.)  I told Douglas I really liked the way he thought, and I was super impressed with his creativity.  He smiled, and looked kind of embarrassed, really.  If I didn't think he'd slug me one, I'd have hugged the child.

Now, granted, I have looked online, and it seems like some people have already come up with similar ideas that work differently.  That's not surprising.  What I especially liked with Douglas was how outside-the-box he was thinking, and how he wasn't just relying on a quick fix to get the assignment completed.  He walked away knowing he would need to experiment, try out materials, communicate with me while I'm away to get him some of the stuff he'll need for his construction, and be willing to try, fail, and repeat until he found just the right solution.  And I feel really great about the sense of ownership he seems to have adopted with this.

So, when educators get frustrated and want to throw in the towel, I totally get it.  But I also want them to think of these everyday interactions -- we all have them from time to time -- that are so uplifting, and are really simple yet not mundane.  Students getting over obstacles, giving something a chance, challenging the status quo, encouraging their teachers and each other, being willing to put themselves in the teaching role, checking in with us, looking to us for guidance, and getting a little awkward when we remind them how amazing they are.  These kinds of things may happen every day, but they're not really "everyday" occurrences.  And they might not have the immense impact they do if there weren't a teacher there in the moment to enjoy it, to receive it, to notice it, to embrace it.  I feel absolutely privileged to have been allowed to share in each of these four "moments" today.  May I just stay awake and aware enough to notice them so vividly every day.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

To Block or Not To Block: Students' Views on Internet Filters

Recently, my students (mostly sophomores and a few seniors) in Digital World had an in-class writing assignment, and the final prompt they had to respond to was as follows:

"Here at Harker, especially at the upper school, we don’t block as many things on the Internet as other schools do. (Facebook and YouTube, for example.)  Sometimes, we get parents, teachers, and even students telling us they think we should block more websites so that students can’t use them here.  What do you think?  Do you feel there are any sites that should be blocked?  Why or why not?"

I got a lot of great responses. Here are some excerpts:

"I feel that these sites shouldn’t be blocked. Harker students, as a whole, are much more responsible than their counterparts at other schools and have a heightened degree of trust in their relationship with the faculty. Preventing us from accessing these sites would say that the administration doesn’t trust us, weakening our relationship and sending us all the wrong signals. Why should students be expected to be responsible when the faculty/parents can’t even trust the students to pay attention during class. Furthermore, Students should have access to these materials because we often have plenty of free time during school hours to use these websites and they are even sometimes necessary for class. I’m not sure of any additional/current sites that should be blocked, but I believe that a lot of the “uncategorized” sites that are blocked can make it more difficult when I’m conducting research for school projects."

"I don’t think that Harker should block social networking sites.  If you think about the students’ future -college- they aren’t going to have these sites blocked.  The students need to learn to manage their time appropriately.  If sites are inappropriate or illegal to view, then yes they should be blocked."

"I think that everyone on campus is given a time in the day where they have a forty five minute break or even an hour break to use the time as they please, and if they were to use it trying to message a friend or shop online I think they should be given the chance to do so.  I do not think these websites should be blocked because everyone on campus is old enough and mature enough to know when the appropriate time to use those sites are."

"There are obvious websites that should be blocked but social media and others like facebook should not blocked; permanently at least. Websites like facebook should only be blocked when a student is in class, not during their free time."

"I think we should stop blocking uncategorized sites. Many times, it’s difficult to access a useful site because of the Harker filters. While I understand the means for a filter, it’s not going to help us- students will find a way to procrastinate and not do work, regardless if they are using their laptops, the internet or not. People have not done work long ago, and procrastination has simply evolved from a doodle in the margins to a status update on Twitter. I love the amount of access we are given- it symbolizes a trust between the departments and students. I think that we should remove the filters entirely, with the exception of pornography, for obvious reasons."

"I think that sites shouldn’t be blocked at the upper school. At the middle school, everything and anything that was distracting on the internet would lead you to a blocked page. But at the upper school, I think it’s important for the school to give the students freedom and responsibility to manage what they’re looking at online. What websites and what they do online is the student’s choice and responsibility and it shouldn’t concern parents or teachers as much as it seems to. In spare time, as well, it’s nice for students to be able to go online and give themselves a break by doing whatever they want."

"I believe that Harker has a decent system of blocking websites at the Upper School. However, there are times in chemistry when I am doing research, and the school blocks me. I feel like I shouldn’t have to ask the librarians for permission to go on a learning website. I understand that it’s difficult to filter each individual site, but I’m sure it could be improved."

"After the placement of the barracuda web filter, many more websites got blocked by the school. Even websites that could be useful were blocked to students if they were “uncategorized”. However some websites that should have been blocked were not. I have seen students looking up unruly things on google and being able to access them, however if I try to search up a slang word that I don’t know on urbandictionary.com, it is blocked for adult content. I feel as if there are already too many restraints on what we can or cannot view here, and I do not believe that there should be any more."

"I think we should block less websites because there is really no purpose in blocking anything. Judgement based on time and place should be used in terms of going on websites in school time. The only websites that should be blocked are ones that could potentially introduce viruses to individual computers and the wifi network."

"I don’t think many sites should be blocked unless it’s porn. Everything else like games shouldn’t be blocked because isn’t Harker all pro-stress relief and sometimes these games aren’t stressful? http://www.ferryhalim.com/orisinal/g3/casanova.htm This happens to be one of my favorite games to play when I’m stressed out and it’s blocked here at Harker where most of my stressing-of-the-outing is. If we can read news articles about what violence is going on in Afghanistan and Syria, then I think we should be able to play a few relaxing games. Of course, during classes I can understand how these can be distracting however, if you have a free period and you’re on the edge of doing something really destructive or mean to another person or thing, I think you should be able to play a game about a giraffe stretching his or her neck to kiss other giraffes."

"I feel like this is a good thing that many sites are unlocked, as it leaves the decision to be distracted upon the student, rather than the parents. It allows for more freedom of thought and expression while still allowing for focused study."

"I think that Harker should not have to block any websites because they should trust the students to do what is right. I know that this is a radical idea, but Harker does base a lot of trust in their students already and we should be trusted with the simple task of using the internet responsibly. Harker seems to already trust the students because they do not block sites such as Facebook or YouTube. In addition, these sites can be used as learning and communication tools for students."

"I feel that other than the obviously inappropriate “adult” sites, Harker should not block websites, especially not Facebook or YouTube.  I actually find these two sites to be relatively beneficial to my education and school experience.  Because I don’t have a phone, Facebook is extremely useful in terms of communicating with fellow students about assignments and classes.  YouTube, if used properly, can be a great learning tool and source of information.  If a student is distracted by such websites during class, to the point where the teacher can notice, Harker policy allows a teacher to assign detention to a student who is on these websites during class.  While outside of class, such as lunch or free period, I believe that Harker should allow students to explore appropriate internet content freely."

What about you? What do you think? I'd love to share your thoughts and your reactions to my students' ideas with them.