Sunday, February 28, 2016

Technology: Powerful Weapon or Greatest Foe?

There is mistrust around innovative educators these days because of how technology is being used (or misused) in some schools and districts. By now you’ve heard the stories of tech replacing caring teachers. You’ve heard how class sizes are being increased and students are left to learn by staring at screens rather than interacting with classmates and teachers. You’ve heard complaints from students and teachers who use online learning programs about where they fall short (10 recommendations to address that.). You know that in some cases computers are simply being used as testing machines and that is a travesty.

But this advice is key:

“Technology is the most powerful weapon we have against corporate education reform.  It is also our greatest foe.” -- Dr. Stephen Krashen

Krashen, who is a linguist and education researcher, recently shared with parents concerned about testing and the use of technology in schools that, “In the hands of a classroom teacher, technology can be an excellent tool to help kids learn. However, top-down policies like Competency Based Education only take away educators’ autonomy and turn them into mere facilitators of prepackaged materials of dubious quality.”

He went on to explain that “The Internet is our underground. Facebook and Twitter are our weapons. Though policymakers and journalists rarely listen to experts like classroom teachers, the Internet allows us to spread our message. We don’t need anyone’s permission to speak up. We are all free to do so and should do it more often.”

Krashen is right. I am fortunate to have a career where I am tasked to carry out the important work Krashen discusses: Helping educators and students use their voice to spread their ideas via social media. At a workshop I gave to principals this month I shared this:
“It is a principal’s job to be storyteller-in-chief for their school. It is the job of teachers to be storytellers-in chief for their classrooms and to help students tell their own stories.”

This is nothing new though. I’ve helped teachers and students tell their story since the start of my career at an inner city school in Central Harlem. You know the movie “Precious” or the book “Push?” The school Precious went to is the school where I started my career. I had students like Keryce Davis (who I am still in contact with thanks to Facebook) by my side to help teachers use technology. The first class I taught was showing teachers how to create their own website to tell their story of themselves and their class using Dreamweaver. Keryce and other students joined me at these classes as my trusted assistants in the important work of helping teachers use technology to share their ideas.
Students in my lab learning to use tech to tell their story.
Students holding books that tell their favorite stories from others.
Keryce is sitting next to me.
Fast forward nearly 20 years and my work continues to bring me the joy and pleasure I had back in the 90s. A primary focus on my work today is helping educators and students use their voice to tell their stories using the power of social media and other platforms that didn’t even exist in the 90s. I teach classes directly and also in partnership with organizations like Common Sense Education and EverFi. Together we help teachers share with the world, the wonderful things taking place at their schools. Our teachers learn about how to ensure students are safely and responsibly interacting online via learning opportunities I provide on digital citizenship and literacy. Classes explore topics like posting responsibly, cyberbully prevention and creating a strong digital image that will lead to academic, career, and social success.  
Teachers came together this week to share ideas and key takeaways, challenges,
and successes they've had when teaching digital citizenship.
In addition to teachers and principals I also have the opportunity to teach parent coordinators. I have partnered with  an award-winning Parent Coordinator named Sara Cottone to do this work. I embarrass her sometimes when I share with everyone who will listen how amazing she is. Sara uses Facebook and Twitter to tell the story of her school and keep the school community in touch with what is happening with students. She provides a wonderful example of how parent coordinators can tell the amazing stories of their school while strengthening the home-school connection with technology.  Check out her Facebook page here and Twitter here.

Katrina Gordon is an elementary school teacher I work with from Queens. She is also helping to tell the story of her school using technology. She was able to join me for workshops I offered on Class Story and Edmodo. These tools allow her tell the story of her class to parents and other members of the school community. As a result she explained she saw significant improvement in the parent/ teacher communication and responsiveness at her school. She uses Edmodo as a pathway to teach digital citizenship and facilitate collaboration within her classroom. Edmodo also allows her to be totally transparent in her classroom. Parents can view activities their children are engaging in anytime they want.  

Katrina uses Class Story to post school announcements and snap pictures of letters or fliers sent home which would normally sit in a child's homework folder or at the bottom of their backpack! Class celebrations, trips, school assemblies, plays and class activities and student work on bulletin boards are shared via Class Story through sending pictures or videos.  Parents who aren't able to see these special moments can now see them instantly. She says they immediately respond with feedback and are very appreciative!  

While building and strengthening relationships with families is one powerful use of technology, many teachers use tech provided by the district or via students who bring their own devices to support students in their learning while helping them develop skills to tell their own story.  

Thea Williams, a Brooklyn elementary school teacher I work with, is one of those teachers. She joined me for an opportunity I provided at Google’s New York headquarters. She shared that she and her students are so excited to use Google Classroom. The platform has helped her communicate more effectively and modernize their workflow with her students to one that is more in tune with how people work in the real world. She has found it to be a great way for students to hone their writing skills, critical thinking/evaluation skills and digital etiquette by providing them with a virtual space that makes their thinking visible. It also offers them an avenue to share their voice, creativity and ideas with more of their classmates and develop their ability to reflect on and comment on each other's work and ideas. She is also thrilled that it facilitates her ability to better differentiate and individualize instruction for her students, as well as give them more timely feedback on their thinking and work.

Starr Sackstein is a high school teacher in Queens. Her students produce this amazing site Starr empowers her students to share their voice on an authentic platform with a real audience. She doesn’t assess them with grades, but rather with meaningful feedback. It is part of a movement she spearheads called “Teachers Throwing Out Grades.” The mission is to eliminate traditional grades and make learning a conversation that involves education's most important shareholder--students. Starr’s is the type of work that I share far and wide for other teachers to learn from. Check it out for yourself here and be ready to get inspired.

One of my favorite parts of my job has been working with incredible teachers like Eileen Lennon, Darlynn Alfalla, Jackie Patanio, and many others and their students to do something no other district has done before. We created social media guidelines for students, teachers, and parents with students, teachers, and parents. We also created a teacher guide, parent guide, and student materials which are all vetted and approved by students, parents, and teachers.  You can check em out at

As Krashen shared, social media is so important because it is a tool that can give teachers and students a voice and a platform. Students like Armond MacFadden who is the product of our public school system is a great example of how to do this. He used blogs, YouTube, message boards, a photography site and more to share his voice and his work and connect with others who shared his passion. You can read more about Armond at

The other way we use social media is to allow teachers to connect with one another anytime/anywhere via online communities.  The teachers have found this to be an amazing resource.  It gives them a way to connect, collaborate, and have a voice when they are making important teaching, learning, and relationship building decisions. It has also provided them with fantastic insights as to which tech tools and resources are best for kids and which are ones from which they should steer clear. Here are some of the ways the teachers said our Facebook group has helped them:

  • This group has helped me out in so many ways and the sharing of knowledge has been something I have come to depend on.
  • This community is so helpful. So much knowledge. So inspiring! What a great bunch of educators. Lisa Nielsen I love your passion, it's infectious.
  • I got my first highly effective rating and it is in large part thanks to the support of the online community.  
  • This group has helped me to ensure I am always protecting the privacy of student and parent data.  
  • I have learned how to use social media to stay more connected to parents and students.  
  • Because of this community I know about all the best learning opportunities.
  • This community has helped me know which websites and resources are the best for kids and which to stay away from.  For example, Duolingo has been a great app that I never had heard of. It benefits all my students including my ELLs and Special Ed students- our struggling students who need us the most.
  • The community has taught me how to use documents collaboratively and share videos effectively. It has helped me make more engaging and interactive presentations and learning opportunities for students.
  • I enjoy the sharing of knowledge and the connecting with like minded professionals, who just happen to be awesome people.

As innovative educators we are best positioned to help teachers harness the power of technology and ban together to make the smartest and best decisions for our students. What do you think? Have you used technology as a powerful tool for teaching, learning, and being the storyteller-in-chief of your school or classroom? How have you done that? Are there ideas here you think would be useful where you work?  Please share in the comments.

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