Monday, February 16, 2015

Technology Tips for Parents

If you have a teenager in your life, there is an excellent chance they are using technology to access social media and online resources.  A recent Pew Research Report found that 95% of teens are “online.”  Having a connected device at home for learning can be a great benefit.  However, with this power comes great responsibility, and it is important for parents to do their part to ensure kids make good choices online.  
  • Play a role in your student’s online life.  If your student has a Facebook, Myspace, or Twitter page, then so should you.  Ask them to “friend you.”  Just as you are involved in shaping your child in the real world, you also need to help them form their digital image.  
  • Keep track of your child’s internet and cell phone (texting) history.  Many parents believe this is a violation of privacy, but kids are more likely to text or post things inappropriate if they don’t believe an adult will find out.  All major phone carriers provide a way for parents to monitor their kid’s devices.  Just make sure to be honest with your student before you hand them the phone for the first time so they know they won’t be surprised if/when the time comes for a conversation about their use.
  • Have frequent conversations with your student about the dangers of talking with strangers online.  Cyber/sexual predators are better at their craft today than at any other point in history.  They are using the internet to collaborate, share tips, and pictures/videos of victims.  In many cases, a cyber predator will attain a single inappropriate picture of a victim by acting as a peer online.  The predator will then threaten to reveal the picture to the victim’s parents, friends, or school mates if they don’t do exactly what they request. 
  • When it comes to cyberbullying, share possible strategies instead of just advice.  Cyberbullying is defined as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text.  If your student is getting bullied online, they are more likely to tell an online friend that they are being bullied.  As a parent you should:  know your child’s online friends, expect no information, watch for mood changes (difficult with teenagers), not step in and do something without your child’s permission, make a plan for what to do if/when bullying happens, and use the school as your ally.
  • Teach your student to be skeptical of internet information.  Most internet sites tend to look the same - professional and informative.  Kids need to question the facts on internet sites and not take them as factual.  Anyone online can pose as a doctor and give dangerous advice.  Encourage your students to research on sites with a .org or .edu, and check the validity of information by checking facts on multiple sites.
  • Help your student make healthy decisions regarding screen time.  The US Department of Health and Human Services released a report recommending no more than two hours of screen time for kids aged 12-15.  Too much time in front of computers, television, and phones can result in issues with weight, anxiety, and mood.  Make a plan with your student about times when devices are not to be used (dinner, bedtime, etc.) and make sure you model these choices as well.  

Monday, January 26, 2015

Pushing Trains, Sailing Boats

As a Director of eLearning, I am in the business of partnering with school leadership teams to launch and move initiatives involving curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Before beginning work with any district, I always share that, “I’m not here to drive the train. I’m just here to help push and make sure we stay on the right track.” In recent months I have come to question the whole “train” analogy or concept of “staying on the right track.” Don’t get me wrong - the idea of a clear track to move forward upon is a wonderful idea, and I understand why we are drawn to the concept. However, within this analogy, the team’s responsibility is to build up steam, get enough people pushing, and keep feeding the engine until everyone reaches their destination. As is often the case, the reality of a “track” is far different when it comes to actual practice. We can certainly get the train moving, but the path is never as clear and straight as we originally hoped it would be.

For this reason, I was quite taken with a quote I saw from the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor a few months ago:
"We want life to be a train, but it is a sailboat.  Every day you check the winds, currents, and resources you have and keep moving."

For me, this analogy represents the multitude of variables educators deal with within schools. We can make extensive plans, but we never know when the next current, wave, or storm may arrive. There are those precious and rare days when the wind blows us in the perfect direction, and many other days when we are dead in the water. In other words, as educators, we are often at the mercy of external forces outside of our control.

Given this reality, how are educators expected to proceed?  When the only certainty is that there will be uncertainty (and lots of it), why even bother to make a plan? The answer is clear: a well-drawn map with clear methods of measuring progress will get you closer to your destination than simply “going with the flow.” Many schools are content to just keep the “boat afloat,” and, as a former administrator, I will admit that I spent many days doing nothing but “bailing water.” However, creating a good plan with clear methods of measuring progress towards your destination before you leave the dock can allow leaders to make those small rudder shifts necessary to keep the bow pointing in the right direction - even on the busiest of days.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that a great plan makes course adjustments a less important part of the process. (After all, the only thing better than a ship with watertight compartments, is not hitting the iceberg in the first place.) What I am saying is that, like guiding a sailboat, school initiatives can be an overall enjoyable experience for all - just have a plan and the tools ready to find your way in case your “three-hour-tour” turns into a whole lot more.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bringing the Awesome

I, like all parents I know, have a desire to find the one thing that my kids are flat-out awesome at - that sport or activity that will come to define them as a person and, further more, result in a full college scholarship, professional career, and, of course, product endorsements.  When Beardsley turned four, I knew it was time to make that sort of life-defining decision.  

I wasn’t foolish enough to believe that we would find his sport of choice on our first try, but I knew we could nail this thing down before his fifth birthday.  My wife suggested dance class, and I almost swallowed my tongue.  Now, before you launch your attacks concerning gender-stereotyping upon me, it is important to know that I was a musical theatre major during my undergraduate program.  I took many dance classes in college, and I can honestly say that it was one of the most intelligent things I ever did.  Think about it: I was in a room with incredibly fit and attractive women, and I was one of the only males interested.  Even for a pale red-headed ginger, these were great odds.  Further evidence of my brilliance was the fact that I ended up marrying a woman way out of my league.  

So, just to be absolutely clear - I was cool with dance, but it was a back-up, a creative off-season strength builder for when Beardsley joined the football team.  I explained to my wife that we needed to figure out Beardsley’s primary sport first, and then we could develop his other talents.  I turned to Beardsley and asked him what sport he wanted to play.  At that moment he was too busy pirouetting to fully hear me, but I knew that with those strong leg muscles he was destined for soccer.

The first YMCA soccer game had everyone in the family on pins and needles - except Beardsley.   He kept asking us what we doing that evening, and I kept reminding him that he had his big soccer game and “Aren’t you so excited?!?”  He stared at me with a confused face for a moment, then sort of yawned and wandered off.  The cool head on this kid was unbelievable.  That evening we arrived at the soccer field and Beardsley confidently ran onto the field where the rest of the kids in yellow shirts were.  I, the proud father, sat back in my chair ready to enjoy some soccer.  

Now, I had very low expectations for how four-year olds would play soccer.  I fully expected it to be crazy clumsy disorganized fun.  However, what I didn’t expect was for it to nearly cause me a mid-life crisis.  The thing is that Beardsley and I hadn’t really ever (technically) played soccer together before.  In fact, we bought his first soccer ball the day before the game.  You see, I assumed part of being a participant in four-year-old soccer was actually being taught the rules and the skills from the beginning….you know…because you’re four.  Boy, I was wrong wrong…so wrong.  

These kids in yellow shirts knew what the heck they were doing.  They were dribbling, weaving, and scoring at will.  I sat slack-jawed as this four-year-old Yetti dribbled the ball from one end of the field to the other and kicked it with enough force to kill a small animal. 

I immediately scanned the field for Beardsley.  He was running and weaving alright, but he was nowhere near the ball  - or anyone else on the field for that matter.  He was leaping with gazelle-like movements sporting a joyful and downright “cocky” look on his face.  He had no idea where the ball even was.  The kid was watching himself and appreciating it in all of his glory.  There’s only one way for me to describe him at this moment – he was bringing the awesome.  

In fact, Beardsley brought awesome and energy at every moment of the game all over the field.  What he didn’t bring was any talent, knowledge of the game, or competitive spirit.  I yelled to him, “Go after the ball!” 

“Heck, go anywhere near the ball,” I thought. 

He broke from his daze and scanned the field. 

“Glory time,” I thought.

I watched in stunned silence as he ran straight to the soccer ball, picked it up, and took off running.  At first, all of the parents sort of laughed, but their laughing stopped when Beardsley continued running past the goal and directly off the field.  We all watched in horror as he ran into an un-mowed and wild-looking area.  The parents grumbled and glanced side to side.  I stood just staring and watching him disappear into the horizon when a troubling question came bubbling from underneath, “Why the heck aren’t you chasing after your child?”  I shamefully knew the answer.  At this point none of the parents knew that this was my kid who had just stolen the game ball and escaped into the wilderness.  I considered just easing back to the car and picking him up on the other side of the Hoosier National Forest, or possibly making a remark about how this talented kid had simply confused American soccer with the European variety.  

After about one awkward minute too long, I came to my senses and ran after my child, therefore identifying myself as the shameful parent who didn’t care enough about his son to put him through intense training and private soccer lessons with David Beckham before enrolling him in a four-year-old YMCA league.  

I gathered my offspring, checked him for ticks, and sent him back onto the field.  The rest of the game I remained silent as each play followed the same script.  The Yetti would run down the field spinning the ball on his head or pouncing it from knee to knee, and Beardsley would perform stunning and awe-inspiring superhero poses as far away from the game as humanly possible.  At one point he actually took off running as fast as he could and lept into the net.  One of the parents laughed and yelled out, “Hey, Beardsley scored one!”  Beardsley heard him and turned to me with joy in his eyes.  I rolled with it, and shouted some encouraging words back at him.  Unfortunately, he had already turned and was attempting to jump up straight in the air and turn in a complete circle while airborne.  

It occurred to me, this kid didn’t need me or anyone else to offer words of encouragement.  Beardsley already knew how awesome he was.  My wife refrained from saying I told you so, but she enrolled Beardsley in dance class the following month.  When Beardsley found out he was going to start dance he was very excited, but he did have one concern:  “Do I have to wear a dress?”  I assured him this would not be happening.

We obviously had indications early on that dance was going to be an important part of Beardsley’s life.  As a very young child, he would close his eyes and move to music in an emotional and personal way that (quite honestly) made me a little uncomfortable.  When we began potty-training him around two, we tried very hard to come up with prizes that would entice him to complete the transaction correctly.  Candy and toys were completely ineffective.  We asked him what he wanted.  
“Beardsley, tell us what you want.  Anything!  You learn to go in the potty and we’ll get you anything!”

He told us he wanted “tapping shoes” and “shaky things.”  This translated to tap shoes and maracas.  We have a picture with him proudly sitting on the toilet shaking the “things” and rockin’ the “tapping shoes” after making a deposit.  The boy knows what he wants.

Another example was when we had our family picture taken.  I came up with the concept of having us pose as a rock band. Each member of the family sported a different instrument and Beardsley, of course, was the man-in-the-middle with the microphone.  The photographer set us in positions and then told us to “do our thing.”  I have absolutely no idea what came over Beardsley.  If Mick Jagger weren’t alive, I would swear that his ghost had entered the boy’s body.  He began lunging, arching his back, and freezing just in time for the click of the camera.  Where the heck did he learn this stuff?  The photographer froze after a few minutes and said with an awed voice, “This kid needs his own Rolling Stone pictorial.”  

The first day of dance we showed up and there were only two other people in his class - two girls in full-out tutus and ballet shoes.  I watched for awhile and it looked harmless enough at first, but then a moment arrived when the teacher taught them to do a dance move where they shook their hips suggestively while moving a raised index finger across their front in an “Oh, no you didn’t!” fashion.  

This was too much.  

I swear that they reviewed that part of the dance at least 53 times, and I had to bite my tongue in half to keep from running in and pulling him out by his dance belt.  When I got home, I told my wife that the move must be adapted.  I didn’t mind him dancing, but I wanted him to do it in a “manly” way.  All I was asking was a little more Gene Kelly and a lot less Beyonce.

My wife came up with a manly adaptation for the “Oh, no you didn’t?” move (the “Oh, no sir you did not,” I suppose).  Beardsley was, of course, oblivious to my reaction, and just wanted to revel in his own awesomeness.  Honestly, he was a little put-off by the idea of a “routine” and wanted to just freestyle in his own way because as he said, “God made me to dance.” 

Who can argue with that?

I made the wise choice not to attend the next dance class, simply because I enjoy the YMCA and I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I might be banned for life.  Apparently, the teacher tried to correct the “Oh, no sir, you did not” move and Beardsley barked at her, “My dad says I can’t dance like that!!!”  And just like that, I am the uptight pastor from Footloose.

Beardsley has now moved from the YMCA into a proper dance academy.  He joined a class over half-way through the year, and I was nervous that he would have difficulty fitting in.  This fear was alleviated when I went to pick him up from his second day of class.  I walked into the studio and saw the students seated in a circle with their mouths gaping in thrilled expressions as Beardsley belted out, “You give love a bad name…” by Bon Jovi and gyrated around the floor.  I realized that soccer be damned…he had found his people.

Beardsley has continued to take his dancing very seriously, and settled on modest aspirations for his future (international rock star).  Even now, when the music goes on, it doesn’t matter if he’s alone in his room or in the middle of the mall at Christmas.  He will launch himself into intense dramatic dance moves that will cause complete strangers to pause and marvel. 

I want to be clear that Beardsley’s dancing isn’t necessarily polished or skilled.  I can tell that he will be excellent one day if he chooses to stick with it.  He is a true beginner who honestly believes he knows all there is to know about dance.  

However, I have come to realize that my oldest boy holds within him the healthiest and sturdiest ego I have ever seen.   There is no need for me to find that “thing” that expresses his talents and defines him.  Beardsley is beyond definition.  Wherever he is, wherever he goes, he knows it will be incredible because he will be there.  While I know that growing up has a way of knocking your feet out from under you and making you doubt your own abilities, I can see that Beardsley’s “thing” is his ability to look the world in the face and say, “Oh yeah?  So, what?”  My job as his father isn’t to shove him in any particular direction.  My job is to set some limits, secure the area, and get the heck out of the way to enjoy the show.