Thursday, July 22, 2010

Just Say Yes to Publishing! Exposing The Man Behind the Curtain If He’s Still Saying No.

“At some point we have to get over our fear of letting students publish!” exclaimed Alan November at the #blc10 conference I recently attended. This is an explicit call to action we’ve heard from the many education thought leaders who are talking, writing, and making videos that make a similar point: If we adults, as responsible educators, administrators, parents, and families, could just, “get past our fear of the unknown and embrace the very tools we are blocking (which are also essential tools for the global economy) then we could build much more motivating and rigorous learning environments. We also have an opportunity to teach the ethics and the social responsibility that accompany the use of such powerful tools.” - Banning Student Containers, June 2007

Sadly, there’s much work to be done. When I speak with educators about this idea of Publish It Teaching, I am frequently met with responses that go something like this.

“Yeah, sure. Publishing and all the tools you talk about are great, but I can’t do any of that because my district bans it.”

It’s time we expose the man behind the curtain who is harming children because s/he refuses to think outside the ban. Our students no longer live in a Nancy Reagan world and while just “saying NO!” to everything is certainly easier, the point of education is not to do what’s easiest for adults. Instead, we need to be doing what is critically important for our students...even if it takes some effort.

Not every leader is a nay sayer
superintendent Michael Davino tells his schools, parents, teachers, and community, “You shouldn’t have techies, who have an easier job if we filter everything from students, making instructional decisions. When he became superintendent he lifted the curtain and unblocked the sites that his students needed to learn and his teachers wanted to use. He also formed a learning network for educators to participate in so they could start sharing, connecting, and getting smart about operating in 21st-century environments.
Another innovative leader, principal Eric Sheninger knows that Banning is the Easy Way Out. He explains that as educators it is our task to teach students how to make responsible decisions, think critically, solve problems and communicate effectively in order to succeed in society. He finds it unfortunate that in some districts, instead of rolling up our sleeves and tackling an issue head on we prohibit students from potential meaningful learning experiences both in and outside of school.

And, where does this fear come from anyway? Perhaps fear of the unknown. In many cases it’s educators, administrators and others who aren’t active digital citizens themselves and/or with their children who are raising these concerns. If they were participating in these digital worlds, there might not be such a fear.

The facts are in and they may not be what you think
Despite the sensationalism of shows like Dateline’s To Catch a Predator,” in his post, Just The Facts, Dean Shareski shares that no one has been able to link the posting of an image on the internet leading to danger associated with predators. He shares information from the Congressional Internet Caucus to shed some light on the real dangers of online activity which indicate that IT IS NOT GIVING OUT PERSONAL INFORMATION THAT PUTS KIDS AT RISK. It’s not having a blog or a personal website that does that either. What puts kids in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers or having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web like going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, kind of behaving as what we call an INTERNET DAREDEVIL.

Social Media Researcher at Microsoft and a Fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Danah Boyd asks this...

Why are we so obsessed with the registered sex offender side of the puzzle when the troubled kids are right in front of us? Why are we so obsessed with the internet side of the puzzle when so many more kids are abused in their own homes? I feel like this whole conversation has turned into a distraction. Money and time is being spent focusing on the things that people fear rather than the very real and known risks that kids face. This breaks my heart.

What about cyberbullying
There are also those folks who bring up the issue of cyberbullying. If they do, use that to make your case! If adults were in these worlds, aware of what students were doing rather than looking the other way or banning access so that students had to sneak such behavior, would the instances of bullying go down? Absolutely. More importantly, as Danah Boyd mentions above, it’s not the medium that is the problem. It is the behavior. Just because the transparency of the internet makes problems like cyberbullying or inappropriate conduct more transparent, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in other areas. Adults need to provide outlets for students to talk and share when they are experiencing inappropriate behavior online or offline.

Students know not to take candy from a stranger in the physical world. What advice are we giving students for operating safely in the virtual world?

Just as we don’t close down or ban playgrounds where bullying is occurring, similarly we shouldn’t be banning or looking the other way when it comes to online environments. The platforms — the playground or the website didn’t cause the issue. Social outlets, whether virtual or physical, are wonderful necessary places. Instead of banning or shutting them down we need to ensure students can go to such places safely and be armed with the knowledge of what to do when danger arises.

No one said educating our youth was supposed to be easy
Successful innovative leaders know that there will always be Roadblocks to Change but that shouldn’t stop us. There is no evidence that these unknown, unnamed people who make the district’s policies are doing anything more than making their jobs easier and/or using scare tactics as smoke and mirrors to misinform the public (often unintentionally because they don’t know better) that they are doing something in student’s best interests.

As a former librarian, I remember how my colleagues and I all knew that the most organized and immaculate libraries had the least student activity. Getting down and dirty with learning can lead to messy environments and that means extra work. As educators, that is the work we signed up for.

Those in districts and schools that don’t enable meaningful learning to occur should find out what procedures are in place to revisit outdated policies. If there are none, that needs to be exposed. It is far too often that rules were made for a time that no longer exists and refusal to revisit and revise is certainly not in anyone’s best interest.

It is the moral imperative of those whose job it is to prepare students for success to question administrators and policy makers who are blocking and banning access to the point of making school a place of irrelevance and the world outside of school a place where learning and creating can occur. Don’t accept this for your students, our future. Find out who these people are. Speak to them. Educate them and make them allow you to let your kids learn, succeed, and be prepared for the connected society in which we now live.

Partner with students to make your case
You don’t have to do this alone either. Partner with your students. Their voices are powerful. Take as one example Dan November. At home he picks his applications and easily moves from one to another. He is self-taught, self-directed, and highly motivated. He is locally and globally connected. As his father, Alan November shares in his Banning Student Containers article, today, School is a "Reality-Free" Zone.

Dan is not totally engaged at school. He is not self-directed or globally connected. For instance, he isn't allowed to download any of the amazing academic podcasts available to help him learn, from "Grammar Girl" to "Berkeley Physics." He is not connected via Skype to students in England when he is studying the American Revolution, for example, which might create an authentic debate that could be turned into a podcast for the world to hear.

He cannot post the official notes that day so those who subscribe to his teacher's math blog via an RSS feed can read what's going on in his class. His assignments do not automatically turn into communities of discussion where students help each other at any time of the day. His school has successfully blocked the cool containers Dan uses at home from "contaminating" any rigorous academic content. It is an irony that in too many schools, educators label these effective learning tools as hindrances to teaching.

As a result, Alan November argues, we, as educators, have decided that the tools or containers that Dan uses when he is home are inappropriate for school and learning. We have decided that because we don’t always like the content students produce on blogs without adult supervision we will not let them near a blog, even with adult supervision. What do we think would happen to student motivation if we actively tapped the containers our students want to use? Educators should co-opt them. What if we had blocked all use of paper at one point because, early on, a student had written some inappropriate content without a teacher's guidance?

I recently met another such student, Blake Copeland, who as a high school freshman was featured on his district’s website for developing an iPhone app. I spoke to Blake at length and learned that everything he knows about programming apps he learned on his own. While his school featured his work, it is not work that is embraced in school nor has anyone at his school or in his district approached him to share his expertise with others.

Do we really want school districts to be celebrating students for the work they can only create outside of school? Does this district really have something to be proud of, or should they be ashamed that upon scratching the surface, this student’s creativity had nothing at all to do with what is offered, or perhaps even allowed, at his school.

Blake is doing exactly the kind of thing Mitch Resnick believes all students need to be doing to become successful today. Resnick, who directs the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Media Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology develops new technologies to engage people (particularly children) in creative learning experiences. He says that being able to create is at the core of becoming a creative thinker. Sadly, much of this important creating can not happen inside of schools, because students are banned from doing so. Resnick explains “Digital fluency” should mean designing, creating, and remixing, not just browsing, chatting, and interacting. Authentic publishing with tools such as his Scratch allow us to democratize digital expression, though all too often schools stand in the way of this and educators are accepting this helplessly while children (who are dropping out in droves) suffer through an education that to most seems irrelevant and meaningless.

I want my students to have these opportunities
Now, to provide full disclosure, I’m writing this post, in part for selfish reasons. You see, in my life as a Technology Innovation Manager I am working with educators to help students publish to real audiences and in most schools the results are nothing short of transformative. But, in some schools, I’m told students can’t participate in many of the activities because policy from above (the mysterious man behind the curtain) won’t allow it. And with that, the teachers often feel they’re off the hook and are helpless to change the fact that they can’t support their students for real-world success.

At the same time other principals who are taking advantage of the opportunities available to their students have experienced great results in just a few short months.

Here’s what they’re saying...
  • Our 5th grade students publish their work in public spaces and get critical feedback. They write for a large audience. They are taking more pride in their work. Their level of attention to the quality of their work has increased.

  • Students are excited about responding to others through the blogs.

  • Publishing work for a broad audience and getting feedback helps students to be more reflective about their work.

  • As a result of the PD, our teachers are engaged in taking students’ writings to a higher level. Students are posting and sharing their writings and enjoying the pride of publication.

  • Teachers who attended the PD came back with ideas for posting student work on websites. The level of teaching and learning and the increased motivation on the part of teachers as well as students is apparent.

  • Our students are not only writing at a much higher level, they are learning to critique their writing, and to help review writing of their classmates. What impressed me as I observed a session in a classroom was that what they weren’t seeing in their own writing they could identify in someone else’s. Their criticisms were in a positive tone; they would make comments like “That wasn’t very clear. Maybe you could…..” The conversation was elevated.

If you are the type of educational or parental leader mentioned above, bravo!!! Please spread the word so that we stop depriving students from results like these that occur when we open our eyes, let go of the fear, and become partners in, not those who ban, opportunities for students. Yes, some adults will argue that we can’t allow this because when children go online they write all sorts of inappropriate things, but where are the adults showing them what is appropriate? Why do adults feel it’s okay to look the other way and not be responsible partners in our student ' s online lives? It is not.

The student, parent, teacher, leader partnership
Dean Shareski tells of a school (it might be his) where students receive a domain upon entry into the school. The parents, teachers, and administrators partner with students to jointly take responsibility for the development not only of the site in particular, but of the student’s digital footprint in general. They know that it’s not good enough to just be a citizen. Today’s students live in a world where we’ve shifted from “Private by Default and Public with Effort” to “Public by Default and Private with Effort” and it’s the job of educators to help students develop a purposeful and meaningful digital footprint of which they can be proud beginning in the primary grades.

Students need us to help them become accomplished creators and makers
Digital ethnographer, Michael Wesch explains it this way. While some educators have come to refer to students as digital natives, the reality is that many students, even those who seem fluent in using technology aren’t quite literate and they need the support of adults. They can read, but they can not write. As innovative educators we need to support the next generation so they become creators and makers. We need to enable students to create meaningful things to express their ideas in many different ways.

The best learning happens when you are creating as part of a communities, and it is important to help students cultivate creative communities. Educators and learners need to realize that copying is not cheating (when credited). It’s an honor to take someone’s work and extend it (as I’ve done with this piece of writing). Schools need to move from helping students to be passive users of technology toward helping them become active shapers. It’s not just about trying what others have done, it’s about making your own creations. In the end if we don’t allow kids to interact and connect beyond the face-to-face then as educators we are contributing to their irrelevance. Students need to be creators and work in community of creators. It’s the only way they will be able to become critical thinkers and full and active participants in society.


  1. An excellent article Lisa. I had not seen that testimony to the US Congress before (even though it is 3 years old). I've quoted from it and you in my blog entry, "Publish! and be safe. Not a contradiction." at

  2. For some smart ideas on saying yest to publishing read this post "5 Steps to Digitizing the Writing Workshop" at