Category: Teachers Demonstrate Leadership

My New Year’s Resolution? Comment More and “Like” Less.

So here we are, 2017.  Pretty glad to see you, if you want to know the truth.  2016 was a year full of more turmoil and tragedy than I care to remember.  

I bet you are buried in promises today, right?  Doesn’t EVERYONE wake up on January 1st ready to make new commitments about how they are going to choose to live during your 365 days?  My guess is that you probably roll your eyes every time that someone casts their promises towards the heavens, knowing full well that most of those promises will be abandoned by the end of your first month.  Don’t believe me?  Go ask 2016.  He’s BOUND to tell you that promises made in the first minutes of a new year aren’t worth a hill of beans.

But I AM going to make a promise to you whether you like it or not:  I promise to spend more of my time behind screens reading and commenting on blogs and less time liking and retweeting the content that I consume.

Now I know what you are thinking:  “Nice promise, Bill.  Really ambitious.  So thankful that you are committed to making our world a better place by commenting more than liking.  You are a real Mother Teresa, aren’t you?!  Sheesh, these people.  So selfish with their resolutions.  Can’t SOMEBODY come up with a promise that matters?”

Here’s the thing, 2017.  I REALLY believe that commenting more and liking less WILL make the world a better place.  It’s NOT a selfish act.  

Here’s why:  No matter what people say, social spaces are decidedly antisocial nowadays.  Most of our interactions in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest are shallow on a good day.  We think mashing the like button or sharing someone’s post out in our own social streams is some kind of meaningful endorsement of the people we are learning from, but those acts require nothing of us — and show nothing to the creators who are sharing content in our streams.

I’m not trying to be all judgy here.  I know why we like and pin and share instead of comment.  We do it because it is fast and easy.

But make no mistake about it:  “Fast and easy” acknowledgement cheapens the value of the very spaces that we’ve embraced.  

Content creators stop seeing their audiences as people they are connected to and start seeing their audiences as people they are trying to sell their ideas to.  And audiences stop seeing the content creators that they follow as actual people who are reflecting transparently and pushing conversations forward.  Instead, content creators are just another brand in the marketplace shouting for attention.  What was supposed to be “networked learning” has become “a network for buying and selling ideas about learning.”  Each Tweet or Pin or Post or Favorite or Share is a transaction instead of a contribution.

Need a different way to think about it?  Likes and pins and retweets are nothing more than the digital equivalent of the Gingerbread soap you gave your grandmother for the holidays because you just so happened to be in the Bath and Body Works the week before Christmas.

Sure, Gingerbread soap is a gift.  No argument there.  But it’s not a thoughtful gift that you put time and energy into.  It was the easiest step you could take to fill your part of the gift-giving bargain and everyone — grandma included — knows it.  While you may not realize it at first, that bar of Gingerbread soap fundamentally changes your relationship with grandma because it is a sign of just how little you really want to think about her.  You’ll do it because you are supposed to — it IS a social expectation, after all — but not out of any real sense of gratitude for Grandma.

Am I making any sense, 2017?  

I guess what I’m saying is that I am making a commitment to LEARNING WITH rather than LEARNING FROM people this year.  I’m going to read and react to the ideas being shared by others.  I’m going to ask questions instead of look for answers.  I’m going to start conversations instead of share content.  I’m going to show people that I’m really listening — and that I’m grateful enough for their efforts and ideas to spend time wrestling with and responding to those ideas in their comment sections.

My bet is that every comment will strengthen the connections that I have with people.  Instead of seeing me as just another icon in their feeds, they’ll see me as a person with a voice who cares enough about them to react to what they’ve written.  Our relationships will be strengthened — something that can only happen one thoughtful interaction at a time — and stronger relationships matter.

Sure, it means that I’ll end up following fewer people.  I can’t magically double the amount of time that I have for interacting in social spaces.  But those fewer people will mean more to me — and hopefully, I will mean more to them.

So there’s my promise, 2017.  I’m going to be a better learning partner to people this year — and while it won’t solve global poverty or keep the Russians from taking over the rest of the world, it WILL encourage and empower more of my peers.  

That has to have some value, doesn’t it?

Respectfully,

Bill Ferriter

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Related Radical Reads:

I’m Going #toplessin215!  Who’s In?

In One Word, I Will Challenge.

 

Three Tips for Novice Bloggers

Over the last several weeks, I’ve had the chance to connect with some really terrific teachers right here in my own county.  That’s been a refreshing change of pace for me simply because the majority of people that I’ve connected with over the course of my time in social spaces have lived hundreds and thousands of miles away.  What I’m digging the most is that many of my newest peers are just beginning their blogging journeys.

As a guy who has “been there and done that,” I’ve been offering tons of tips designed to help them find the same satisfaction that I do as a blogger.

Here are three that are worth sharing with all y’all, too:

Quit Calling it Blogging.  Start Calling it Reflection.

Let’s start with a simple truth:  Blogging takes time.  I sit down once a week — usually on Friday nights or Saturday mornings and bang away at the keys for anywhere from 60-90 minutes.  Carving that time out of my daily schedule isn’t any easier for me than it will be for you!  There are plenty of times when I am blogging that I would rather be on the couch with my kid!

So how do I do it?  How do I commit to blogging week after week and year after year?

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve quit calling it blogging — which feels like some kind of self-centered, silly act reserved for people who make their living by selling their ideas — and started calling it reflection.  After all, that’s what I’m really doing every time that I write here on the Radical.  Taking ideas that are mulling around in my mind and working to put them into coherent sentences and paragraphs depends on thinking deeply about what I know about teaching and learning.

Blogging is something that I’m willing to skip when I’m tired or discouraged.  Reflection feeds me and challenges me and makes me a better practitioner.  It’s something I’d NEVER skip.  By recognizing and naming the reflective value of writing, I’ve turned it into a priority — even a pleasure — instead of a chore.

Quit Thinking about an Audience.  YOU are the Audience.

Here’s another simple truth:  The VAST majority of educational bloggers — including ME — are never going to develop a super impressive audience.  Heck — most of us will be lucky if our entries generate 25-30 views on a regular basis.  That’s not because we are awful writers with nothing important to say.  It’s because we live in a world where (1). people are busy and (2). there are TONS of ways to spend our spare time.  Standing out in someone’s already crowded information stream just ain’t all that easy.

That’s why we have to STOP talking about “the power of audience” in motivating bloggers.  If we’re counting on feedback — views, likes, shares, comments — from an external audience to motivate us, we’re going to quit as soon as we spend hours crafting a thoughtful reflection that no one reads.

But there IS an audience who cares and who learns and who grows every time that you write.  Want to find them?  Look in the mirror. Once you recognize that you aren’t writing for someone else — that you are, instead, writing for yourself — then page views won’t leave you discouraged even when they are lower than you’d like them to be.  After all, the only audience that ever really mattered was you to begin with!

Quit Writing.  Start Commenting.

Here’s a final simple truth for you:  Social spaces aren’t very social anymore.  People don’t interact with each other.  Instead, we spend our time consuming.  We check our Twitterstreams, clicking on links, reading posts, bookmarking sites and then moving on.  Rarely to we pause to acknowledge the contributions that content creators make to our learning.  Sure, we might retweet or like or favorite something that we liked — but even that can be a selfish act designed to build our own networks or organize our own set of killer finds.

So break the cycle.  Set time aside to leave comments on the blogs written by other people.  Doing so is a simple act of gratitude — a way to say thank you to the folks who are taking risks by giving us a look inside their professional minds.  That alone makes commenting worthwhile.

But commenting has a ton of additional added value for you as a writer, too.  Most importantly, each comment that you add is first draft thinking that you can turn into a blog post later.  In fact, I copy and paste every comment that I write into a folder in Evernote so that I can find it and use it again when I’m struggling for a topic to write about here on the Radical.

And if you really do care about building an audience, leaving a comment for someone else makes a ton of sense.  Here’s why:  Odds are that the people that you leave a comment for will stop by your blog and check out your writing, too.  That’s because there’s often an intellectual symbiosis that develops between people who are thinking together.

So whaddya’ think about my recommendations?  More importantly, what suggestions would you make to novice bloggers?

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Related Radical Reads:

Lessons Learned from a Decade of Blogging

The Digital Equivalent of Strip Malls

Three Tips for Classroom Blogging Projects

Wonder = Joy. (And Joy Should be Shared!)

Longtime Radical readers know that there are few people who have influenced my practice as much as Dean Shareski.  Dean has pushed my thinking around everything from the role that humor and humanity should play in our digital spaces to the role that students should play in assessing their own learning.  When I look back at the practices that I use in my classroom, I see elements inspired by Dean everywhere.

That’s why I was completely jazzed to sit down and read through his first book — Embracing a Culture of Joy.

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Dean’s argument throughout the text is that in our quest to bring more rigor and accountability to schools, we’ve stripped away much of what it is that makes learning spaces inspirational — and without inspiration, genuine learning really isn’t possible.  Dean goes on to share several practical ideas about the steps that teachers can take to bring joy back into their classrooms.

The idea that resonated the most with me was Dean’s argument that a sense of wonder is often a prerequisite for joy.  Dean writes:

“Perhaps the most important thing we can do in our classrooms to create a greater sense of wonder is to simply value questions more than answers.  This is certainly contrary to how we’ve traditionally viewed schools.  Schools are places to learn things, find answers to questions, and leave with knowledge.  Questions suggest doubt, uncertainty, and mystery.  Yet the idea that we learn to ask really interesting questions is indeed what sustains us and what makes us true learners.”

As a science teacher, those words ring true.  After all, science is inherently about asking interesting questions about the world around us.  And I’ve always tried to push my kids to take an #alwayswonder approach to the world around them.  In fact, the only homework that I regularly give students is writing two interesting wonder questions per week in a journal.

But here’s the hitch:  I’ve never made time to celebrate those wonder questions during our regular class periods.  The reason is simple:  I’ve always believed that sharing those wonder questions steals minutes from an already short class period — and given the fact that we have an end of grade exam covering an enormous curriculum, the pressure to push forward has always won out over my belief that wondering matters.

What Dean forced me to wrestle with was that by giving lip service to the value of wondering, I was robbing my kids of the opportunity to revel in the joy that comes from curiosity.  NOT knowing the answers is a helluva’ lot more interesting than having to memorize a never-ending stream of answers delivered by the classroom teacher.

So I made a decision on Monday that I think is going to breathe a little more joy back into my classroom:  Now, we are going to start every single day wondering together.

Here are the details:

When my kids roll into class, they know to get out their wonder journals and have them ready to go.  Some kids are journaling on paper.  Others are using a Google Doc or a set of Google Slides to record their thinking.  I’ve simply told them to figure out a system that works for them.

As soon as class starts, I set a timer and ask students to write for five full minutes.  My hope is that they will write a new wonder question each day — but they are also allowed to polish previous questions or look for answers to a question that really moves them. The only rule is that they have to work for the full five minutes.  I’m finding that sitting in their own thoughts isn’t a skill that every student has — so building intellectual stamina is another goal of mine for this task.

When the timer goes off, students spend two minutes sharing their wonder questions with their table mates.  I’m emphasizing that “sharing your wonder questions” doesn’t mean simply reading them to one another.  I ask students to build on the questions asked by their partners — adding related questions, making additional observations, providing predictions or theories as possible answers.

Finally, I ask three students to share interesting wonder questions with our whole class — but they have to share a question asked by someone else!  That accomplishes two things:  First, they learn to see and to celebrate their peers as interesting people with interesting questions — which I hope will build community in my classroom.  Second, it gives me the opportunity to model the process of building on questions asked by other people.

That whole sequence takes about 10 minutes at the beginning of every period — and that’s 10 minutes that I’m more than happy to spend simply because the questions my kids have been writing are really, really cool.

Here’s five of my favorites:

“I wonder how brains work, like how do they send things to your body saying like your hurt? Does your brain also control how you move?”

“In class my teacher was talking about space and I woundered if space doesnt have oxygen and earth does how does the oxygen from earth not flow all the way to space does it just die out and stop flowing? It cant just stop flowing and die out it has to go somewhere and since we have already been to the moon and outer space there is no force that is keeping the oxygen from not flowing to outer space.”

“Today I was printing something for my mom, and I wondered how does an image that originated from the computer pas over to the printer and then the printer magically knows what colors to blend together, were to put them, and what shapes to make? I know that printers only come with 4 or 5 colors, pink, light blue, yellow, black, and maybe grey, so how does the printer create red and lighter colors, with only 4 inks?”

“I’ve always thought fingernails were weird. But, I wonder about is the process of a growing fingernail. Do they grow at the tip (like the white part) or, do they grow near the cuticle part.”

“I read every night, last night I didn’t read before I went to bed and I had a hard time going to sleep. I wonder what effect reading had on my mind before I went to sleep. And does reading help, or hurt your mind?”

All of that in and of itself seemed like a pretty good start at prioritizing wonder in my classroom until I had the chance to hear George Couros speak on Wednesday at the Convergence conference here in Raleigh about building the digital presence of your school .

George made a simple point that stuck with me:  When working in social spaces, your goal should be to make the positives so loud that the negatives are impossible to hear.  If we consistently share the best things that are happening in our classrooms, we can create a culture of outward celebration and build stronger relationships with the stakeholders that we serve.

George’s examples were all incredibly approachable:  Teachers using Twitter to record video reflections after days of professional learning, principals using YouTube to share videos of students reporting on the academic happenings at different grade levels, teachers using Instagram to post pictures of classroom activities.  “As a parent,” George asked,”what would you rather have:  A paper newsletter to hang on the fridge or a video of your child sharing what they’ve learned in class that day?”

So I decided to take my wonder project one step further:  I’m going to record short videos of students sharing their wonder questions and post those on Twitter using our school’s hashtag.

Here’s our first:

My primary goal with our #gnomeswonder Tweets is a simple one:  I want my students to recognize that it is okay wonder out loud.

I also want to give parents the chance to see the curiosity in their own kids and to see my classroom as a place that prioritizes questions over answers.  Finally, I’m hoping that we’ll get some dialogue started between my curious kids and experts in our community that might be willing to post answers to my students online.

Of course, I’ll have to check the video/photo permissions list before choosing kids to record daily wonder tweets — but my guess is that as more and more parents see what we are doing, they will be more than willing to sign our video waiver in order to have the chance to see their kids wondering live, too.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?

Will setting time aside for wondering be worthwhile — even if it means I have ten less minutes of instruction time every day?  Is encouraging my kids to share their wonders publicly a good idea?  Is this something you’d consider trying with the kids in your classrooms, too?

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Related Radical Reads:

How Limited Technology Budgets Failed My Students Today

More on the Challenges of Wondering in Schools.

This is Why I Teach:  They Always Wonder

 

People are Definitely Dumber.

Last week, Paul Horner — a creator of fake news sites who is convinced that his work helped to turn the tide in Trump’s favor in America’s presidential election — sat for an interview with the Washington Post.  In that interview, Horner explained why he thought that fake news stories gain so much traction in social spaces.

Here’s what he wrote:

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Stew in that for a minute, would you?

Here’s a guy who earns a living peddling lies — about world leaders, about important events, about controversial issues — who recognizes just how easy it can be to manipulate thinking in a world where no one questions the content that they come across in their online lives.  That IS scary, isn’t it.  After all, Horner ain’t the only guy with motivation to manipulate thinking.  He’s just the only one willing to talk about it publicly.

Acting responsibly in a world with no filters between publishers and consumers means recognizing that anyone with an agenda can push their ideas — no matter how intentionally flawed they may be — out to huge audiences with nothing more than an Internet connection.  If we are going to develop “global, critical citizens ready to change the world for the better” — a goal that I certainly believe in — our students MUST learn to consume content with a critical eye.

So what are YOU doing to teach those skills?

#goodquestion

Blogger’s Note: If teaching students to judge the reliability of online sources is important to you, check out this lesson on my Teachers Pay Teachers website.  It introduces students to three simple questions that kids can ask to spot fake news sources.  

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Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Kids is YOUR School Producing?

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

What Are You Doing to Teach Kids to Spot Fake News Stories?

What Are You Doing to Teach Students to Spot Fake News Stories?

One of the most interesting conversations currently taking place around Donald Trump’s surprise victory in our Presidential election has been the role that fake news peddled and promoted in Facebook news streams may have played in swaying voters.  Mark Zuckerberg — Facebook’s charismatic founder — has called the notion that fake news is a problem on his site “a pretty crazy idea” and argued that a clear process is in place that allows users to flag suspicious or hateful content for further review.

But that position was openly challenged over and over again all week long.

Buzzfeed, a popular online source covering digital media and technology, opened the criticism by publishing the frightening results of an analysis of the election stories generating the most engagement — think likes, shares and comments — on Facebook in the final three months of the election.  Here’s what they found:

NPR went on to interview Facebook executives and employees to gain insight into just what happens when suspicious or hateful content is flagged for review on the site.  

Turns out, the process isn’t consistent, thorough or reliable.  It’s true that every piece of content is reviewed by a human being, but those human beings are mostly working in other countries simply because Facebook has subcontracted the work to save money.  Worse yet, while every decision is supposed to take the complete context of a situation into consideration before decisions are made, employees are evaluated based on the number of pieces of content that they review in a single day.

From the NPR article:

“Current and former employees of Facebook say that they’ve observed these subcontractors in action; that they are told to go fast — very fast; that they’re evaluated on speed; and that on average, a worker makes a decision about a piece of flagged content once every 10 seconds.

Let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Say a worker is doing an eight-hour shift, at the rate of one post per 10 seconds. That means they’re clearing 2,880 posts a day per person. When NPR ran these numbers by current and former employees, they said that sounds reasonable.”

Perhaps the most interesting article was this Washington Post interview with Paul Horner, who writes fake news stories for a living.  Horner reports making close to $10,000 a MONTH off of the clicks on advertisements included on the fake news sites that he maintains.  Every post that he writes on his slick looking ABC News ripoff website, for example, can make him rich, as long as it goes viral on Facebook.  And what does Horner think of the people sharing his content over and over again?

It’s not pretty:

“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Scrutiny of Facebook’s treatment of fake news and the hefty rewards paid to peddlers of lies by companies like Google who rely on advertising revenue have pressured both services into much-needed action:  They are working to develop policies that will effectively ban fake news sources like Horner’s from access to corporate advertising programs in an attempt to dry up the revenue streams that provide the motivation to pollute the web with hoaxes and lies.

But I think that’s the wrong solution to Facebook’s fake news problem.

We don’t need new policies and tools from tech companies to identify sketchy content on the web.  Instead, we need to develop citizens who take careful steps to verify that the information they are reading anywhere on the web is reliable.  That’s a new literacy in today’s complicated media ecology — and it is a new literacy that we give too little attention to in schools.

The good news is that teaching students to identify sketchy content isn’t all that hard to do.  

There are simple questions that kids can ask when evaluating the reliability of a web source that can turn them into top-notch bunk filters without needing any help from Facebook or Google.  Here are three:

How believable is this story to me?  

The first lesson that I try to teach my students when spotting sketchy news stories is that their common sense is the most powerful tool that they have for fighting back against misinformation on the web.  If a story just doesn’t seem plausible, it’s probably fake — and the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of fake news stories really ARE that easy to spot.  People with good common sense don’t get fooled very often — as long as they are willing to trust their intuition.

Try that with two recent headlines on Horner’s fake ABC News website:  Obama Signs Executive Order Banning National Anthem at All Sporting Events  and Obama Signs Executive Order Banning Pledge of Allegience from All Schools Nationwide.  Do either of those headlines seem even a little bit believable?  Would a person who served as President of our country REALLY want to ban things like the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance?  No matter what you think about the people or parties leading our nation, chances are that they care enough about our country to protect our national symbols.  That’s just common sense.

And double-checking your common sense is super easy:  Just take questionable headlines and drop them into Google.  In most cases — including the notion that Obama is banning the Pledge of Allegiance — you’ll see that reliable sites like Snopes and FactCheck.Org that are committed to debunking lies on the Internet have already reviewed the claims in question.

What do I know about this news source?

I also try to teach my students that spending a few minutes researching the author and the website of every piece of news that they are exploring can help them to spot sketchy news stories.  Does the web address look reliable?  What can you learn from the “About Us” or “Contact” links found on the page?  What kind of search results are returned when you Google the name of the author of the article that you are reading?

Asking those questions about Dan Horner’s ABC News website would identify it as a fraud in no time.

The web address — http://abcnews.com.co/ — is the first giveaway.  Why would a major news network add a “.co’ to the end of its web address?  What’s more, the contact information on the site shows that the headquarters of ABC News is a Tudor style home in Topeka, Kansas — and just a few minutes of digging into the background of Dr. Jimmy Rustling, one of the lead authors on the site, brings up this tongue-in-cheek bio of the author and this set of Google Search Results explaining that “Jimmy Rustling” and “Rustle my Jimmies” are slang terms for evoking strong emotions.

Can I spot any loaded words in the piece I am reading?

The final lesson that I try to teach my students is that loaded words and phrases — descriptions that imply a strong emotion and/or position — are signs indicating that the author or source is trying to push readers to feel a certain way about a topic instead of simply reporting the news in an unbiased way.  They are an easy way to spot opinions instead of facts — and while opinions aren’t automatically wrong, they need to be questioned by readers instead of accepted at face value.

What’s interesting is that Dan Horner’s fake news site avoids loaded words for the most part — which is one of the reasons that it is so successful at generating attention.  Each piece sounds like an unbiased reporting of fact — even if those facts are impossible to believe.

But you don’t have to go far to find loaded words in news sources.  Can you spot the loaded words in these headlines from Fox News and the Huffington Post:  Arizona Presidental Electors Being Harrassed, This is What it Means to Imprison a Whole Category of People.

In the first headline, I’d want my students to notice that “being harassed” is a loaded phrase that could mean a heck of a lot of things.  Good readers would want to know what that harassment looked like before making a decision about the importance of the event.  In the second headline, I’d want my students to notice that “imprison a whole category of people” is a phrase designed to elicit fear.  Good readers would want to unpack that.  Are newly elected officials REALLY trying to imprison entire categories of Americans?  Or is “imprison” a metaphor?

In many ways, this is my favorite lesson to teach because kids LOVE looking for loaded words and phrases.  Spotting the sneaky ways that authors are trying to influence readers — and then trying to decide if the evidence in the article actually supports the author’s opinions — is like a scavenger hunt to them.

I’ve pulled all this content together into a handout that you can use if you are interested in teaching your students how to spot fake news sources.  You can find it posted online here on my Teachers Pay Teachers website.  

Does any of this make sense to you?  More importantly, are you taking active steps to teach your kids the skills necessary to spot sketchy news stories?

#youshouldbe

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If teaching students about managing information, thinking critically and engaging in collaborative dialogue resonates with you, check out Teaching the iGeneration — Bill’s book on using digital tools to introduce students to essential skills like information management, collaborative dialogue and critical thinking.