Trying to Raise Techno-Responsible Kids: Story 1

April 10, 2013

Digital Footprints Copyright 2013, Julia Hengstler
(Permission: image may be reused with attribution and a link to this page)

  I just read a piece where a parent was dumfounded by what kids post on Instagram. The author called for parents to check all their children’s Instagram accounts–those of their friends, etc. So many people get hung up on what people–including kids–are posting on Facebook, what they’re putting on Instagram, what they are putting here, there and everywhere, that they can’t see the forest for the trees. People are focusing on what users are doing with specific TOOLS. Kids–and adults–need general guidelines to help frame behaviours. Kids are literal—they grow into the ability to transfer knowledge and think abstractly. (That said, I know quite a few adults who are still pretty literal.) You give them a rule for one tool—and it’s just that, a rule for ONE tool. As adults, and for myself as an educator, I feel an obligation to think wider and deeper than the implications of behaviour with or in one tool. We, socially, and as individuals, need to take a step back from focusing on the tools and look at the behaviours we want to encourage. Some additional details may be needed for specific tools, but the bedrock needs to be a general guideline or value. Ultimately, I have no idea what tools my kids will be using in adulthood–so I need to try to prepare them in a way that deals with current technology and will accommodate future ones as well.

This is the first of what will likely be a few posts on what I actually do with my own kids when I’m wearing my tech-savvy parent hat. I hope it makes you think.

When My Kids Got Their iPods

The first thing I did before handing over the iPods was to tie them to my personal iTunes account. I consciously set it up so that I would manage and monitor their devices and approve any app purchases and installs. The boys were 6 and 8 at the time.  [I haven’t yet decided when I will let them do some downloading and managing on their own. I’m not there yet.]

I knew from all the social media training, research, writing that I do—images are powerful tools. That’s nothing new—“a picture says a thousand words”.  As soon as my kids got their first iPods with built-in cameras about a year and a half ago, we had a couple cardinal rules from the very beginning:

  1. no pictures of naked bodies or naked body parts EVER;
  2. no pictures of any other kid without permission from the kid’s parents.

These were rules writ LARGE.  I explained that we don’t want people doing things with our images without our permission and that there were bad people out there who could use our pictures to do bad things.

I added another rule after the first week or two, because the boys were getting app recommendations from friends for first person shooter games, gang themed apps, etc:

3) we don’t download apps to do things electronically that we would have issues with in  real life.

Under this rule, I’ve allowed my boys to virtually kill dinosaurs to protect villages, and mow down zombies to protect the living—but no hurting virtual humans.

The boys had been SOO excited to get these ipods. In the first couple of weeks, my younger son absolutely bombarded me with requests to download this or that app. I couldn’t take it, so I designated every Friday as “App Day”. (Since then, the novelty has worn off and I just take the requests as they come.) About 3 weeks after my boys got the iPods in their hot little hands, we were commuting on the ferry to school and work. As we were waiting to disembark in the car, my older son asks me if I would download an app his friend had called Office Jerk. (We had a later incident with another app recommendation from the same friend–for a later post). Not liking the implications of the title, I asked my older son to explain to me a bit more about the game. My projections from the title weren’t far off. Basically, you virtually bully a character in a virtual office. When my older son finished his explanation, this is how our conversation went:

  • Me: “Isn’t that bullying?’
  • Older Son: “Yes.”
  • Me: “Is it OK to bully people in real life?’
  • OS: “But it’s not real! It’s just a game.”
  • Me: “What’s our rule?”
  • OS: “No apps for stuff we wouldn’t really do in real life. [Pause…..] So is it ok that Younger Son took a picture of his penis and used it as an avatar on the Star Wars game?”

I was dumfounded. “WHAT????” my inner voice screamed for about 3 real seconds.I do this stuff for a living, and here my kid was doing exactly what I thought was a HUGE techno no-no. What kind of tech savvy parent was I? [Let me just note here, that the Star Wars app in question was NOT networked or multiplayer and only functioned on the device itself. Thank heavens!]

  • Me: “Give me the iPod, YS. Right now! I want to see that.”
  • YS: “I already deleted it.”

He handed it over and the picture was gone. I kid you not—mere SECONDS  had elapsed—and  my youngest ( a fairly sharp laddie) knowing I was about to blow a gasket, had deleted it. As if that would mitigate his situation….

  • Me: “What rule did you break?”
  • YS: “The one about no picture of naked body parts.”

There was no hesitation in his response–so it was obvious to me that he knew and remembered this rule quite clearly.

  • Me: “What were you thinking?
  • YS: “I don’t know…”
  • Me: “That’s it. You are not getting your iPod back for 6 months. This is major.”

I could not believe that MY son could do this: I mean I train adults and students on technology use all the time. It’s my job–did I already say that? You’d be amazed by how many more times I was to say that to myself.  I was literally side-swiped. (Just realized the pun in there when reading for errors!)

So, within weeks of getting the iPod—a device he’d been pleading for for months, of hounding me for the latest and greatest apps in the first 3 weeks of ownership—my youngest found himself cut-off from the coveted device. By the time school and work had ended, and I was back home, I did relent somewhat. In discussion with my husband, I reduced the banishment to 3 months. For 3 months that iPod sat in plain sight on the highest kitchen cabinet where YS could see it daily and repeatedly. Periodically, my younger son would look at the iPod high on the kitchen cabinet and say to me:

  • YS: “It’s been 3 months, right?”
  • Me: “No. It’s been 2 weeks.”

A week later,

  • YS: “Friend X said that it’s been 3 months now. Do I get my iPod back today?”
  • Me: “Friend X can say whatever he likes, you have almost X more weeks to go.”

This little dialogue was a refrain in our house for quite a while—with the calendar check-ins dropping off until we got closer to the actual device return date.

From the day it happened, I spoke about this incident with my friends, parents of my kids’ friends, and colleagues.  Every adult in YS’s circle knew why he had lost his iPod and that he’d lost it for 3 WHOLE MONTHS! OMG! OS learned his lesson by proxy—and I think quite a few other kids did too. My friend, Kelly, said, “Do you mind if I use you as a cautionary tale?” A colleague, Sally McLean, was doing some professional development about the time that this took place. When I told her what happened, she asked if she could use my story during her session. I spoke about what I had done during a radio talk show. The host accused me of being a bit hard on my son.

I was hard enough to ensure that my son has the basic concepts that will help him deal with the major and far reaching issue of sexting when it comes up in his pre-teen & teen years. I have taught him that I take certain technology rules very seriously. I have taught him that images are powerful things and that images–especially those of children–require special care and handling. When the whole Amanda Todd  story arose, and I explained the course of events as I understood them, I asked my boys what Amanda might have done to have changed her story. Both boys promptly answered that she shouldn’t have shown her breasts on the video chat when the stranger asked her to.

I can happily say that we’ve not had any more explicit picture incidents in the last couple years. We’ve had about 2 issues with taking pictures of other kids—even friends—small potatoes in comparison with the first big rule situation we had. I’ll post about how I handled those another day. I’m happy to say that I have seen YS at school picnics asking parents if he could take a picture of a friend–and asking the friend too.

Hope this helps you frame some responsible device use for your kids and students! Let me know what you think or what you do to help guide responsible device use.


Magic Beans for Families Raising Readers To Do Well in School

November 29, 2011

I thought this was an ed tech blog, what’s up?

While technology is my main gig right now, being a teacher is in my blood–and I’m a dedicated parent. While this post is a bit out of the ordinary for my blog, I felt I needed to write it as a teacher and a mom of 2 young boys…
What if someone gave you a handful of magic bean to help you grow your child’s success in school and later life by increasing their ability to read? I say ‘magic’ because magic is associated with getting something you want without a lot of work. What if those ‘magic beans’ were actions that didn’t require advanced degrees or intense efforts? What if they were backed by research that showed they were effective across the world? Would you do them? Would any loving parent/guardian commit to them? I think so. I found out about them via two articles on how to do just that:

  • T. Friedman’s NY Times piece, “How about better parents?” discussing the results of the 2009 PISA report, “PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning and Outcomes (Vol. II)”.
  • and

  • The easy to digest overview of the PISA test findings in “What can parents do to help their children succeed in school?”.

  • What is PISA?

    PISA is an organization that tests students (age 15) globally and ranks countries on their performance. PISA has been doing this since 2000, but in their 2009 testing PISA also collected data from the students’ parents/guardians regarding what they did with their children at home. When PISA looked into parent/guardian activities and student achievement, they found that regardless of how much money or social status a student’s family had, students scored better in reading if parents/guardians were doing a few key simple things.

    What Counts Most In the First & Early School Years?

    PISA research determined the trifecta for student reading achievement to be:

  • Reading with children in the first year of school–regularly and often
  • Talking with children about what they did in their day
  • Telling stories to children
  • Not having an advanced degree, doing handstands, or spending hours tutoring–plain old reading, talking and telling stories. Sounds simple, no?

    One of the most important activities that parents/guardians could do with their children that made the most impact on their later achievement was when parents/guardians read to children in their first year of primary school–regularly and often. On average, simply reading regularly to a child during that first year in school made ‘well over’ 1/2 year’s difference in achievement (on average 25 points different on PISA test). [I would hazard a guess that families didn’t suddenly start reading often and regularly in that first year–but likely would have been doing it for some time.] Now people might say, rich and educated people would be the ones to really benefit from that, but when compared in similar socio-economic brackets, parents/guardians reading to students regularly and often in the first year of school accounted for a 14 point difference in PISA test scores when the students were 15! When that was combined with talking to children and discussing their day with them, as well as telling stories with them, the impact was amplified.

    What Counts Most in the Teen Years?
    The research said that when parents/guardians did these 5 things with their children, they made a significant impact on their reading test scores:

  • Discussing social or political issues regularly
  • Discussing books, movies or TV programs
  • Discussing how well children are doing at school
  • Eating meals together
  • Spending time just talking together
  • Of these, PISA found the activity with the greatest impact was when parents/guardians discussed social or political issues with their children weekly or daily. In these families, students scored 28 points higher on average–well over 1/2 year’s worth of achievement.

    What Can You Do About It?
    Here are a few ideas I can think of…
    Get to the Kids Before Official School Starts:

  • Work with local preschools, daycares, playgroups, community centres, etc to send out flyers encouraging reading–giving book suggestions, etc. Flyer might even have a full story on it.
  • Create postcards with storytelling games and prompts.
  • Over the summer, a school could create a package–activites or ideas for preschool/daycare/community support programs to hand out weekly or bi-weekly. They could also be posted on website.
  • Early School Years:

  • At beginning of each year, school administration & teachers should make a statement introducing their plan for encouraging parent/guardian support through simple, low impact means. For example, something like, “This year/semester, you’ll be receiving prompts and activities that you can do with your children at home. These types of simple activities have been proven to improve reading–even in high school–and improve their test scores–and have been shown to work around the world. Look for them in ….[name deliver means]”
  • Encourage every teacher to send home an “Ask your child about…” with a list of 3 things or more regularly (weekly–at beginning of week). It could be things students are doing in class, something good they did that day, etc. Determine if technology is appropriate for disseminating this type of information or whether it will reinforce socio-economic stratification.
  • Encourage teachers to regularly send prompts for storytelling–biographical, fictional–home for famiiles. Teacher can prepare the students to “Ask your parent/guardian about…” and have each student share one interesting detail the following day.
  • Where students do not have a reliable adult presence at home, think of starting a ‘breakfast club” or ‘snack club’ where a teacher or volunteer cleared by the school offers to do these things with students over some food at regularly scheduled times.
  • Teen Years:

  • At beginning of each year, school administration & teachers should make a statement introducing their plan for encouraging parent/guardian support through simple, low impact means. For example, something like, “This year/semester, you’ll be receiving prompts and activities that you can do with your children at home. These types of simple activities have been proven to improve reading–even in high school–and improve their test scores–and have been shown to work around the world. Look for them in ….[name deliver means]”
  • Teachers can send home prompts re. social or political discussions related to materials students are reading. Reading “Romeo and Juliet”? Why not have students ask their parents/guardians, “Do you know any families that ever feuded? Why do you think that happens?
  • Survey the student body re. movies, books, and films that are popular. Provide some critical thinking questions that parents/guardians could ask kids–without having to really know the item. For example, “I heard “Twilight” was about vampires. Is it just about vampires killing people”?Or, “I saw a promo for Glee, do the students in that show act like real high school kids?” Or, “Do you think I would like that book you read? Why/why not?”
  • Suggest families ask students, “What was the best thing that happened to you at school today?What made it good?” and “What was your biggest challenge at school today? Why do you think that was?
  • Send home an “Eating Together” commitment sheet. Ask families to commit as best as possible to eat at least 3 meals a week together (pick your number). Provide some type of tally or recording sheet.
  • Where students do not have a reliable adult presence at home, think of starting a ‘breakfast club” or ‘snack club’ where a teacher or volunteer cleared by the school offers to do these things with students over some food at regularly scheduled times.
  • What other things are you doing–or could do–to encourage families to plant a few magic reading beans of their own?