How Close Is Too Close?

One of my most respected virtual friends (who will become a “real” friend if Educon 2.3 doesn’t get snowed out) recently blogged about five reasons to avoid Facebook in the classroom.  His post was a response to another by Jeff Utecht advocating the use of Facebook in classrooms.  While it might seem a bit odd, allow me to take a position that is tenuously negative and positive at the same time.  The way I see it, in reality, Doyle’s post was less about Facebook and more about teacher-student communication in 2010.

Facebook in education

Let me start by saying that Facebook might be something interesting for education at some point.  As for now, I avoid Facebook as a purposeful classroom tool.  Do I have students and former students as “friends” on Facebook?  Yes, I do.  I do not initiate those connections, but I do reciprocate them.  I am consciously aware of the potential of the idea of the “creepy treehouse” and so I act accordingly.

a very big birdhouse

I live and work in a town/school district that has one of the more liberal filtering policies I have seen in public education.  We don’t get too hung up on tools.  Within the rule of law, we open things up and allow our local curriculum to be addressed however our professionals see fit.  That does allow students and teachers in my little corner of the world to use Blogs, Wikis, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, Ning, ad infinitum, to achieve our stated goals.  That said, we do currently block Facebook and MySpace in house.  We do not forbid the use outside of the school day.  For example, the LMC at Benton High School uses a Facebook fan page (among a dozen other ways to connect the world of learning to the world of kids).

So why do we block those two entities in a sea of social connections?  The answer is rather simple as of now.  The signal to noise ratio on FB is just too low for what we are trying to accomplish locally.  This does not mean that we will not one day open FB during the school day.  What it does mean is that for now…  we haven’t yet developed rigorous educational landscapes in that realm to a value point that overcomes the bleed-off due to just being “social.”

In my own scheming toward social connectedness and global awareness, I stepped into the realm of Ning several years ago for the two courses I taught as well as for building and district-level professional development goals.  This is a direct repurposing of social tools to fit an educational goal.  In short, those networks were created by an educator for the sole purpose of learning and sharing.  FB is social space defined by the user.  Students colonized that realm before we did.  With aging demographics in the teacher ranks, that will soon change.  Herein lies an essential element of the discussion as I see it:  Many students resist the idea of being forced to relay educational “stuff” within their Facebook lifestream.  I get that.  I’m not excited about pushing my way into someone’s social space either.

He parked kinda close

Too close?

So I’m not yet an advocate of FB in the classroom.  True.  I’m not yet willing to dive educationally into a social tool currently dominated by silliness and pablum.  That said, my argument is not one of a “digital divide” between students and teachers.  I get the need for clear lines between professional and otherwise.  I’m late to Facebook.  I was a professional when I arrived there, and I am a professional in those spaces.  Sure, I connect with family and friends there.  However, one look at my profile will give you mostly a list of the blog posts I have recently written, the most current photos from my Flickr stream, and a host of distant family members I have recently befriended.

Let’s now take this one step further.  Let’s look at AT&T or Verizon, or any other entity facilitating instantaneous communication…….

During each of the past four years, I have been a building-level instructional coach.  My daily teaching duties included one course (Dual-Credit Biology) and my Marine Biology course which includes students from three local high schools and meets during 22 Monday nights throughout the year.  In general, I work with good students, but that schedule is a “21st Century” challenge if such a thing exists.  I’m most often not present in the flesh.  I potentially visit classrooms in 26 buildings.  I engage students from all corners of our town and we spend a week abroad in the Bahamas on sailboats in what could best be described as the middle of nowhere, North America.

Perhaps “trust” is already implied in those relationships.  Perhaps the fact that I meet with parents early and often tends to change the dynamic a bit.  However, at some point within our first meeting of the Summer (prior to students heading home with laptops to work on class projects) I scribble my mobile number on the board.  I don’t “teach” responsibility at that point.  I merely say:  don’t message me unless it is important.  If you’re stuck in a snowbank headed to class at 7:00pm, I want to know.  If you’re 500 yards away on a sailboat in the Bahamas, and you have an allergy medicine question…  I want to know, etc.

What emerges is good for all involved.  You’re current or former student “X.”  You’ve decided to do your Ph.D. research on…   You’re thinking about switching to university X because…  You wonder if Chilean Seabass is an environmentally-responsible menu choice.  You need someone to give you a ride to class tonight because…  whatever.  This isn’t about the device used for communication.  It IS about making things happen for kids.  It IS about being professionally available.  It IS about boundaries.  It IS about teaching those boundaries…  step by step.  Message by message.  Txt by txt.  In a comment to Doyle’s post, Alec Couros said it rather well:

“…I think a genuine type of closeness is what we are missing most in schools. This doesn’t have to come via Facebook (by any means), but the tendency to have more sterile relationships with kids is a huge detriment to any lasting relevance of our school system.”

I stand by this:  some folks freak about digital communications between students and teachers.  And yet they think nothing about the face-to-face conversation in the hall where no one else is listening.  This is merely lack of comfort with something new.  I find comfort in digital.  Let’s be honest, while any authority can check a cell or FB account, no one…  no one can check a face-to-face conversation.  Am I wrong?  Stand by your interactions as a professional and a model for children, and frankly- there’s a digital record to go along as a bonus.

iPhone 4

I care what my kids are doing.  We all do.  But when they care enough to stop and tap out a text to ask a question about whether the dish they are about to order is ecologically sustainable…  or to celebrate being the smartest kid in their Bio class half a world away…  I see value.  Life moves pretty fast in 2010.  That waiter isn’t waiting.  When you’ve acquired a resource, you use it.  I like to think I’ve instilled that in my students.  Case-in-point, a former student in my Dual-Credit Biology class sent a text to my phone out of the blue a few days ago:

hannahs txt

A day or so later I asked if I could add this to a simple little blog post (that was supposed to be 15 lines long or less before Doyle’s post).  She obviously said yes.  I’m not entirely sure of the details.  Was her friend uncomfortable with digital communications?  Was she stressed when asked to respond to a rigorous discussion?  Was it a combination of both?  I’m not sure.  There’s a better than fair chance that Hannah will grace us with that information in the comments section.  Feedback from my students of this sort helps me be the the relevant professional I strive to be today.  Regardless-  Hannah is a confident learner in these spaces, and for that I am largely thankful and a slight bit proud.  I get it if you’re in different circumstances.  That’s exactly what I’m trying to convey here:  context matters.  Rules here are different when applied there.  Your reality should dictate your professional choices.

Bullet the blue sky

If I were forced to do this post as a set of bullet points it might roll out like this…

  • Facebook isn’t evil, though in my opinion, it rarely has proven a valuable classroom tool in our world at this time.
  • Kids (and teachers) today need boundaries between professional and casual conversation.
  • Boundaries must be clear and must be maintained.  A line in the sand is a boundary.  A good boundary needn’t be a wall in all cases.
  • Relevant communication is different from what it was years (even a few) ago.
  • Be a pro.  No doubt that looks different on the surface in 2010 than in the past, though the rules are still the same.
  • You’ll never cease to be a member of your local community.  Act accordingly.
  • Relevancy.  Do smart professional values equal the need to be irrelevant in the modes of communication of today?
  • It’s not the media, it’s the boundaries negotiated by wise adults that matter.

Social media in eduction isn’t a simple topic.  There is no one answer for all.  Nothing in education escapes the powerful pull of context.  What works in one situation doesn’t in another.  What is amazing for one teacher is scary for another.  What is scary for one is freedom for an entire set of children begging for leaders.  Children look to adults for leadership.  They always have and they always will.  Those of you reading this likely know the communications landscape has changed (for better or for worse).  No matter how you feel about it, this isn’t your father’s education.  Pick your battles.  Make your choices.  Be a leader.  Make the world a better place for the children in your charge.  Be ethical.  Be smart.  Be available as only you know how.  Millions of our children need the absolute best of what you have to offer.

Take my hand

Artwork

*”A Very Big Bird House” by James Gray-King on Flickr
*”He parked kinda close” by Vagabond Shutterbug on Flickr
*”iPhone 4” by Brian Wilkins on Flickr.
*”Take my Hand” by Gregory Bastien on Flickr.

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Principals as Teachers Part II – Early feedback

Once again

Yesterday in “Principals as Teachers” I pitched a general proposal that would encourage and empower principals to cross some artificial lines we have created in the business of public schooling.  Sure, we could have allowed building principals all along to retain the teacher hat and with it-  many of the potential benefits I spoke of yesterday.  I’m sure it’s done somewhere.  Odds are, it almost has to take place, right?  We’re a big, diverse country that has invented more than one way to tackle a problem.  Actually, now that I think down this line, it must be at least a strange enough idea that I don’t personally know a school system that has done this.  I’m sure they’re out there.  There’s no way the idea of allowing an administrator to retain a classroom is that bizarre.

Surely the entirety of our public school system isn’t as monotonously vanilla as to not have any school system at least experimenting along these lines.  It’s an info-rich world out there.  In my experience, if you can think it, there’s a good chance that you’re not the first…  and that makes someone out there somewhere…  your potential best friend to come.  Or hey, perhaps it’s that out-of-bounds.  Perhaps I finally found a really edgy proposition that rides the true margin of what is being done.  Not likely.  I understand statistics better than that.  I’d love to chat with administrators who have retained the “teaching” hat in their school.  I’d love to hear the pros and cons from someone with insider knowledge.  Anyone?

Earth Science Distance Learning Event

The whole thing reminds me to the “distance learning” discussions that were once had in my district (and elsewhere) once the technology to allow such a thing had finally matured.  If a gadget is out there…  I can promise you we have one somewhere in a closet.  You know the drill:

  • Step 1) Plop a teacher in front of a camera in one building.
  • Step 2) Sit kids in rows around a massive TV monitor in the same place in another building all at the same time.
  • Step 3) Essentially add electricity and awkwardness to a nearly century-old instructional model that has outlasted its match to society.

I avoided that scenario like the plague in its day.  To some it sounded edgy and forward-thinking.  To me, it would have stifled the open classroom environment that I work so hard to create.  I’m glad the shine of that promise has dulled a bit.  Don’t get me wrong, if you’re in a rural area with little else to do in order to get the coursework your students desperately desire, that approach might still be worth the effort.

Fast forward to the past five years or so when freely-accessible, digital, two-way communication tools became ubiquitous.  Many of those tools allow a pretty slick asynchronous connection as well.  At the very least, the addition of read/write digital tools today could add an element of interactivity and presence “outside of class” to make such a venture meaningful today.  It is the advent of these various simple tools that allow an interplay between synchronous and asynchronous communication modes that I believe brings us to the realm of feasibility.  And by feasibility here, I mean… getting some smart cookies back into a classroom experience of sorts.  Getting more smart folks into the game at the ground level will help keep us from ever heading recklessly down a path of fully online instruction until we can do so to a high standard.

Barbershop Quartet

Initial feedback

Before pitching ideas that seem to come from fuzzy internal space, I tend to find my favorite filters.  By “filters” I mean trusted colleagues who will shoot me straight.  I think it’s important not to filter everything you wish to assert, but when stepping out of the box a bit, it helps to seek the advice of friends in the know.  Having smart and passionate friends is a good thing.  I highly recommend it.

The first person I pitched these ideas to was Roberta Dias, a friend of mine and principal of Bode Middle School in Saint Joseph.  She’s been a trusted friend and a model administrator for years.  Roberta said that she agreed on many of the aspects of such a plan.  However, she added a really excellent addition with regard to collaboration and personal learning.  In her feedback, she said that rather than teach a course she was personally certified in (Business Ed.), she would rather team with someone teaching science since that is the subject area where she is charged with facilitating district professional development.  To me, that idea was golden.  No better way for an administrator in charge of PD to see the ground floor aspects of its application.  Roberta seemed to think that even though some might balk at the additional work load, this might be valuable enough to warrant such a thing.

Luke McCoy is the Assistant Principal of Benton High School.  I’m pleased to say that I’ve been able to work side by side with Luke for the past couple of years.  He is a thoughtful and considerate leader.  He rarely jumps to conclusions and often returns to a discussion after much thought and reflection.  That is exactly what Luke did in this case as well.  In his words, “…after I got past the whoa, dude, I have three little kids and zero extra time…  night supervision, committee work, etc., I came up with the following.”  Below is a synopsis of Luke’s replies:

  • I would LOVE to collaborate with another administrator on something like this.  I think we’d learn a ton in the process.  Talk about breaking down some walls.  Our district needs those walls broken down, in my opinion.
  • I think we could also offer PD to staff in such a fashion.  We’re not far from that.
  • Collaborating with a teacher on an online course would be very interesting.  The conversations that are limited because I am no longer a direct practitioner anymore would suddenly have more juice.
  • Credit recovery courses?  (and not from a can!?! <=my emphasis)
  • What about a summer course for incoming freshmen when we go 1:1 that really preps them for the upcoming adventure of high school?  That would certainly be a hook for getting the computer early.  If the first taste of high school was such positive instructional interaction (in their world) with a master teacher or administrator… can you imagine?
  • This might also impact my relationship with staff members.  I would be forced to talk instructionally with a variety of folks beyond what I currently do.  Asking questions, seeking advice, the opportunity for real collaboration.  Takes a principal “from the wheelhouse to the rail.” (Deadliest Catch reference).  This could help change the climate of a building.

Deadliest Catch's Sea Star

I’ll let Luke comment on any of the rest, as he continued to stream in new thoughts and ideas via email after our initial back and forth.  The final featured feedback I will mention come from Corey Vorthmann and Jeanette Westfall.  The initial feedback from Corey & Jeanette was more focused on the inability to devote their true attention to teaching when they have such a steady list of duties already.  To be honest, this is more of what I thought I’d receive from building administrators.  I’ve seen what they face during the day, and I understand the hesitation to look at wearing another hat…  even if it is a favorite hat from days past.  Corey and I chatted via Facebook chat and forgive me for not taking notes, but we were likely both tired.  It was late.  In busy times, I could only connect with Jeanette, co-principal of Benton High School via a series of emails.  Again, Jeanette’s first reply was closer to what I thought I might get from many building administrators.  At the end of a long and frustrating day, she provided an excellent litany of the potential frustrations and challenges of principals as teachers.  Like I said, these are people that will tell me I’m off if I’m off.

The very next day I received another email that started out “oh wow…,” that sought to deliver a more rounded appraisal of such an endeavor.  She said, “I find the idea very intriguing.  I like the connection with kids.  That in itself lures me.  I do wonder if I would enjoy doing this outside of the scheduled school day, but I suppose if I were compensated it would be much like teaching a college class.”  She then went on to say, “Does that change what my teachers think of me?  I don’t necessarily think so.  I think that can even work against you in some ways.”

So at least I now have this idea “on paper” so to speak.  I tend to use this blog very personally and do not market it in such a lean way as to draw a large readership, nor to get everyone to read every post to its intended end.  I use this space as a way to think…  to reflect…  to share…  and sometimes to lay out the foundation of projects, beliefs, assertions, or policy changes I’d like to see.  If you’re reading this far into this two-post adventure, you are in too deep.  I promise lighter and more universal fare next week.  ;)

Artwork

*”Earth Science Distance Learning Event with Dr. James Hansen” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr
*”Barbershop Quartet” by Eric Kilby on Flickr
*”Deadliest Catch’s Sea Star” by Shawn McClung on Flickr
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