We Need To Talk About Smartphones


A recent article in The Atlantic titled Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?  asserts some dire outcomes due to the use of SmartPhones by our children. While I would say that the headline is a bit hyperbolic, I do think that the article is a must read for all parents and educators.

Here are a few of the excerpts that caught my attention, along with some of my thoughts and questions:

 The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household.

Sadly, I don’t think that SmartPhones have radically changed the way that teenagers are educated. I can’t help wondering if we were more proactive in seeing the opportunity of a web-connected device in every student’s hand if we could have avoided some of the negative consequences outlined. What if we had embraced SmartPhones? What if we at least talked about the implication of these devices for our kids and worked with families to come up with a plan to help our students find some balance?

The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.

Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep.

I can’t help thinking that there is a direct connection to the time spent on devices looking at social media and the lack of sleep. I would love to know the percentage of teens who have their phones in their rooms and are looking at these devices late at night.  I know teens tend to be sleep-deprived in the best of circumstances, but in how many cases is this due to the presence of a SmartPhone in their room?

As the technology writer Nick Bilton has reported, it’s a policy some Silicon Valley executives follow. Even Steve Jobs limited his kids’ use of the devices he brought into the world.

I realize that restricting technology might be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times.

We need to help our kids understand the impact that devices are having on their lives. Are they suffering from Fear of Missing Out? I wrote a bit about this back in February of 2016.

This brings me to my next area of discussion which is about the behavior of adults in our device-laden world. I am sure that I have not always done the best job modeling for my kids in regards to the importance of being present and enjoying some tech-free time. I am guessing that I am not alone in this… How many adults are also stressed out and/or depressed due to the prevalence of SmartPhones in our world?

While we could spend a great deal of time looking at all of the areas of concern outlined in this article, the more constructive activity would be to start creating supports to ensure that we do not continue these destructive patterns.  Thankfully, we have resources like Jennifer Casa-Todd’s Social LEADia  that can help us as we build this support system in our school community.





How Many Educators Are Really Literate?

Literacy is a broad term. The definition from Merriam-Webster defines literacy as “the ability to read and write or knowledge that relates to a specified subject.” The struggle for me comes on the topic of specified subjects. Are these static or changing? Once prioritized, where do we find the most relevant and up-to-date information? Once we find the best source of information, how long does that remain the best resource and how long is that information up-to-date?

One of the words I have heard most often at a number of educational workshops over the past year regarding complicated topics like this is the word iterative. “It is an iterative process,” they say in an effort to help those in the room process the complexity of the work ahead and also understand that this work cannot be expected to be completed overnight.  However, sometimes I get the feeling that this pronouncement is taken as a signal that significant progress is not really expected. Maybe we need to explain that you can’t have an iterative process without making a first iteration? I do find it a bit ironic that the word inertia can be extracted from the word iteration.
One place where I feel this frustration is in the area of digital literacy. A couple of blog posts from Shaelynn Farnsworth and Steven Anderson following the recent ISTE Conference really got me wondering about how much has changed in regards to how we support our students in this area. We are more than eight years beyond the publication of the definition of 21st Century Literacies published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet I question how many of our students are able to do the following by the time they graduate from high school:
  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.
I don’t see anything significant happening here until we accept the words in the title of Steven’s post and ensure that all educators feel that We Are All Teachers of Literacy.  This will not be as much of a shift for elementary teachers as it will be for those in middle and high schools. For those districts looking for resources to help educators get started, Shaelynn’s post provides the following:
Google Inside Search  – Understand how Google Search works, explore the interactive timeline highlighting the advancement of Google Search throughout the years, and view lesson plans for educators.
BrainPop – A video introduces students to search engines and how to use keywords and phrases to locate the information they want. This site also includes lesson plans which include multi-media ideas and also skills to promote with students for online research!
ReadWriteThink – A great lesson plan to help students focus their internet searching. This lesson not only supports skills need in the initial search, but also reading strategies to locate and evaluate information once it is found!
 As I make this statement, please be assured that I include myself in this group playing catch up in regards to how to best find quality information online.  Reading beyond clickbait headlines and titles is a challenge sometimes when I do not feel like I have the time to give due diligence to the source behind that headline.  But if we are committed to fulfilling our mission to develop responsible citizens, then we have to go all-in when it comes to developing responsible digital citizens.
In an area where the majority of our information is coming to us from digital media, can we really claim literacy without digital literacy?

School Leaders Must Be Digital Leaders

In my previous post, I discussed some of the ways school and district leaders could utilize digital tools to improve communication with their school communities. There is another level to this conversation regarding school administrators and the critical role they play as models for what is expected of all of the other learners in their schools.  The second level of this conversation is in regards to the importance of developing a digital presence, something that school leaders need to promote with all of our staff and students.  

While I see an increasing number of  school leaders making the move into digital spaces to communicate, share, and learn, I wonder why there are so many others who are still hesitant to take the leap.  In an effort to reinforce why this important, I want to share a couple of resources that may provide some motivation.  

First, I want to look at the position statement on Using Mobile and Social Technologies in Schools created by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) back in May of 2011.  Here are a couple the Recommendations for School Leaders from the statement:
  • Encourage and model the appropriate and responsible use of mobile and social technologies to maximize students’ opportunities to create and share content.
  • Participate in and provide teachers professional development on the effective use of mobile devices and networking in schools.
Second, let’s take a glance at the Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment that was developed by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in February of 2008. This framework states the following:
“Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to:
  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.”
I encourage school and district leaders to use the bulleted items above as a checklist to see how they are doing on each item. Which of these can you check off confidently as something you are actively involved in? Which items do you have some knowledge of, but need some help in getting up to speed. Which items are totally out of your realm of experience?

In my next post, I will start to look at some of the ways school leaders can develop the proficiency and fluency that NASSP and NCTE describe.  We need to make this issue a priority so that we can lead the important conversations that need to be happening in our schools and classrooms on this topic.  Our failure to lead the educators in our districts in this area will ultimately lead to deficiencies in the critical skills our students need to be developing to succeed beyond the walls of our schools.

My First EdWeek Blog Post – Is Your District Missing the Digital Literacy Boat?

I am thrilled to announce that I have been given the opportunity to Blog regularly for Education Week. You can check out my EdWeek blog here. My first post , which you can read below, was posted on Tuesday. 
In many ways, today represents an unprecedented opportunity to advance student literacy! With tablets, e-readers, and mobile phones, you can literally carry endless shelves of excellent books in your pocket. In addition, education technology offers breakthrough tools to help teachers raise the literacy bar. Yet numerous factors hamper schools’ abilities to bring these benefits into our classrooms.
When it comes to purchasing and utilizing digital books, confusion reigns among educators. Lacking a good understanding of this fast-changing space, I see educators making short-term decisions about the transition to digital books and building ebook libraries without plans for instructional use. Perhaps worst of all, I see districts staying on the sidelines, delaying purchases of ebooks because the options seem too murky to fully understand.   
I believe we need to amplify the national conversation about this critical subject. As a district administrator, I want to highlight three under-recognized points: (1) the emergence of educational technology that can dramatically improve literacy outcomes in schools, (2) the cost-effective options for bringing digital books into schools, and (3) the funding challenges involved in making these new tools available to all students. Let’s address ebook purchasing first.
Best Bang for the District Buck
Some digital book options are simply better for schools than others. Unfortunately, the landscape is not well-understood among school and district leaders. Here is what an informed purchaser should know:
Ebooks for schools are often available from publishers in an “in-perpetuity” purchase model. This means that a school or district purchases the book once and owns it forever. The book will never wear out, be written in, or lost, which saves money in the long term. Such ebooks typically cost more than paperback books, and can sometimes cost more than hardback or library-bound books. For example, when purchased from Follett, Lois Lowry’s The Giver costs $7.69 in paperback, $15.34 in hardback, and $8.99 for an in-perpetuity ebook. Seymour Simon’s Extreme Earth Records costs $6.84 in paperback, $15.34 in hardback, and $16.89 digitally – also in perpetuity. Especially for school libraries, the indestructible, impossible-to-lose digital book is clearly the best long-term value.
Some schools purchase ebooks from providers like Amazon or iBooks because the price tag sounds attractive: The Giver costs $2.99 on Amazon and iBooks, and Extreme Earth Records costs $9.99. Yet those ebook licenses are intended for consumers – and thus are limited to one user account – so these ebooks can’t be shared across a school or classroom with any ease. Only two students need to read Extreme Earth Records for the $16.89 Follett ebook to be a better value than the $9.99 Amazon or iBooks purchase. Similarly, after the third read of The Giver, the school saves by purchasing the ebook. Why, then, do schools still buy from Amazon and iBooks? Usually, I find it boils down to misunderstanding the options.
Some ebook licenses allow multiple students to access an ebook simultaneously, making those texts very cost-effective for whole class work. Cheetahs by Tammy Gagne – which is $20.54 in hardcover – costs $20.49 for an in-perpetuity ebook which can be read one student at a time, and $30.74 for an “unlimited access” license, which could be used by an entire school simultaneously (and again, in perpetuity). At this price, the unlimited-use ebook is more affordable than a class set of any text!
As these examples illustrate, in-perpetuity ebook licenses, which are available to schools through suppliers like Follett or Baker & Taylor, represent the best long-term value for digital books. In many cases, they may even represent a better value than physical texts, especially for classroom-wide use. Yet evidence suggests that educators are still learning these options: in a recent survey featured in School Library Journal, 40% of school and district leaders said they are still unsure which ebook purchase model makes the most sense for their district.
The Challenge of Funding the Digital Transition
If the long-term value of most ebooks is good news, the bad news revolves around the disconnect between classroom needs and district budgeting:
  • Instructional realities: To take advantage of ebooks in the classrooms, teachers need quality classroom libraries and class sets of texts. Teachers can’t leverage new technologies with a few students reading digitally and the rest in a paperback, so a piecemeal approach won’t work – schools need funds to replace book closets with ebook libraries. Yet schools budget to replace a portion of their books each year, not to build new libraries from scratch. A swift digital transition is challenging for schools, whose budgets aren’t designed to absorb one-time costs.
  • Tapped budgets: Districts, pushed to increase their capabilities to handle computer-based testing, have invested heavily in digital devices, costly peripherals such as keyboards, and wireless infrastructure, leaving limited funds for the content and software needed to support digital reading initiatives.
These factors must be brought to the attention of school communities, parents, and philanthropists. Fortunately, efforts to increase students’ access to digital books have gained attention through President Obama’s ConnectED initiative and articles such as Jim Duncan and David Rothman’s recent Education Week commentary calling for a national digital-library endowment. I would add to the calls for philanthropic support, which will be necessary for schools to tap the promise of digital books.  
Unprecedented Instructional Opportunities Using Ebooks
While these challenges delay the transition to digital, our schools are missing out on significant instructional opportunities. The education technology market is currently producing tools that can dramatically alter literacy instruction through the use of ebooks in the classroom. Tools likeLightSailmyOn, and Actively Learn are engaging readers in ways that are impossible with physical books while also providing realtime feedback to educators and students.
In my district, we use LightSail, a literacy platform that assesses students while they read digital books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Book Thief. Based on the assessments, teachers see student progress across a number of metrics, including a daily update of students’ Lexile measures. The software calculates actual reading time, so we accurately know the volume of reading done by each student, and we can correlate reading time with reading performance. Teachers also see student annotations–the kind formerly recorded in reading journals–in real time. By using this tool, our teachers are personalizing and fine-tuning instruction in ways that cannot be replicated with a physical book.
Such classroom tools are true “game changers” for literacy instruction, supporting literacy outcomes in our schools that were previously unimaginable–and the technology keeps improving. But to capitalize on these opportunities, we need to determine how we will ensure the necessary funding to provide all students with access to these tools.