#inheritech: forget the native language

by

“Dad?”
“Yeah, Nicholas?”
“Can you take a look at this?”

Our 13 year old son tilts the MacBook screen toward me and shows me an Instagram posting labeled CuteCupels. It depicts him PhotoShopped into a photo next to a girl he really likes. But only as a close friend. Someone has taken a good deal of time to create the image and obviously thinks he/she is very clever. “I wish I knew who was doing this,” he groans. “It’s so annoying.”

But the way he says the so — it stabs at me. Because he is clearly really upset about the post and slams the lid shut in disgust. And I’m disgusted, too. Because I should have a ready answer. Yet I don’t and instead find myself unsure about the best way to respond.

* * *

“Mr. Werner?”
“Yes, Abby?”
“Have you seen this?”

An 11 year old student visiting the Library and Learning Commons flips her iPad screen toward me to show me a Vine video from NerdAlert. The six second loop depicts Abby sporting huge glasses and skipping around in an enormous library. “It’s kind of hilarious.” But she can see I’m not amused. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m frustrated that NerdAlert is back to his or her old tricks, posting anonymously once again. “It really doesn’t bother me,” she protests. I raise an eyebrow. She flips her iPad the other way so I can see the Nerds Rule! sticker she has affixed prominently to her case. “They probably saw this. I just wanted to tell you it was happening again since you always ask us to let you know if people are acting dumb online.”

At least she’s communicating with me about it. But just as it did with Nicholas, several different possible responses leap to mind. And again, none seems quite right. “Thanks for telling me, Abby,” is all I manage for the moment. But what I’m really stuck on is this: if I don’t have ready responses when these online issues come up for kids, and I do this for a living, who does?

* * *

I spend my work days as a Library and Instructional Technology Specialist for grades 5-12 at a school where nearly every student has a school-issued iPad. I teach everything from the permanence of “digital tattoos” (think “digital footprints,” but ones that don’t easily wash away) to research techniques to professional development to determining website reliability to social media skills to the importance of attribution. Probably the best description for my work is that I am an ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Literacy teacher. But that doesn’t usually mean much to anyone. So I’m often just called “the iPad Guy.”

When I come home, if we are using technology, I might spend an evening helping our eight year old learn to record multiple tracks on GarageBand or spend an afternoon showing him how to access digital audio books and helping him select one. Or I will learn from our ten year old how to make an iMovie about the number Pi or show her geni.com so we can learn more about our family tree. But the most challenging conversations arise with Nicholas as he learns to manage his social media presence. We talk constantly about how to respond — or not respond — to the messages and images that bombard him, about how he wants to be perceived based on his online presence, and about how to set appropriate limits on his use of technology.

Yet as much time as I spend with kids and technology, I rarely feel as though I have easy answers when I run aground. So my standard approach when I am struggling with a particular question, whether about my students or my own children, whether philosophical or practical, is to ask my PLN — my Professional Learning Network — via Twitter. Twitter?! Yes, Twitter.

Having first encountered Twitter through my students who used it to complain about inedible cafeteria offerings, grumpy teachers and lame homework, I was certainly surprised when my friend Page Lennig, Technology Director at Waynflete School and mom to two boys, suggested in 2012 that I use Twitter to create a PLN of “connected educators.” But I trust Page’s judgment and experience and, just as she promised, Twitter has utterly transformed my professional sphere by introducing me to some of the most extraordinarily skilled, thoughtful and respected K-12 teachers and administrators in the United States and abroad. Admittedly, it has taken a long time to get used to cramming what would otherwise be a substantive conversation into 140 characters, the strict limit for each Tweet. As soon as I started Tweeting, it became immediately clear that, by their nature, these incredibly brief messages often limit reflection and analysis, yet can nonetheless serve an important purpose.

The experience of Tweeting was once described to me as akin to sending Morse code between friendly ships — the key information is conveyed, but that’s about it — and this metaphor still strikes me as apt. Yet, if you are willing to accept its limitations, Tweeting can and does serve as an invaluable professional resource because the tiny messages can direct you to larger ideas and discussions, and can help you locate great websites that address almost any question you’d like to explore in depth. Now that the shorthand, jargon and style are familiar to me, Twitter has become the first place I look when I’m exploring a complex issue or idea. But Twitter is never my be all, end all. Because its most important function for me has been to introduce me to these teachers and writers I now call friends and colleagues. And it is my one on one time with them, the conversations that are begun on Twitter but continued via email, on Google Hangouts, or during face to face at conferences, that have truly transformed my learning.

When I decided I needed some advice before crafting this piece, I gathered my PLN for a chat, an online meeting where participants all use the same hashtag (in this case, I chose #inheritech) to label their Tweets. Because you can search by a hashtag, you can winnow the millions of messages zooming around the Twittersphere — yes, they call it the Twittersphere — down to only the ones you want to read. These become a chat about the particular topic you’d like to explore. And this technique can be used for any topic from #seedsaving to #rolltide.

So at the appointed hour, I explained to my Tweeps — yup, Tweeps — a group of ICT teachers who are also parents, that I wanted to get their perspectives on how they view nature/inherited versus nurture/learned technology skills in the context of their parenting. I told them that I was writing for this magazine on the theme Inherit and wanted their point of view based on raising their own kids and on teaching their students as a technology ubiquitous generation. And, as they always do, my PLN delivered.

* * *

Before I say more about the chat, I should explain that, in the world of ICT teaching, there has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the terminology we use and the assumptions we make about this generation of digitally savvy kids. One debate has centered on whether the terms Digital Native (those born into a technological world) versus Digital Immigrant (those who become technologically skilled later in life) are helpful ways to describe kids and their parents in the context of their technology use. For many connected educators in my PLN, myself included, the concept of any such dichotomy seems both inaccurate and counterproductive. Taking that point a step farther, Danah Boyd’s book, It’s Complicated argues “that the digital natives rhetoric is worse than inaccurate: it is dangerous. Because of how society has politicized this language, it allows some to eschew responsibility for helping youth and adults navigate a networked world.” Chris Betcher, Nathan Bierma and many others have made nearly identical arguments.

Creating the native versus immigrant dichotomy seems to imply not only that our children are already technologically skilled at birth but that we have nothing to teach them. And it sets up a false distinction between two groups who both have a lot to learn from one another. The two labels lead to misleading assumptions about what we can offer our kids. I strongly believe we must take an active role in learning about technology alongside our children and our students. Instead of leaving them to their own devices, many of those in my PLN join me in arguing that we must actively teach “Digital Literacy and Citizenship” because, to do otherwise, would be to abdicate a critical responsibility and would leave them to figure it out on their own.

Among those from my PLN joining me for the #inheritech chat were:

  • Rafranz Davis (@rafranzdavis): a recent presenter at the White House about #futureready schools and mother of Braeden, a kid who hates homework but loves learning new things;
  • Andrew T. Wallace (@andrewtwallace): Maine Association of School Library’s Administrator of the Year, father of a one year old and a three year old, and a technology director in Maine;
  • Lyn Hilt (@lynhilt): instructional technology integrator/coach, former elementary school Principal in Pennsylvania, connected learner, reader, writer, and mother of a two year old;
  • Jennifer L. Scheffer (@jlscheffer): Instructional Technology Specialist and Mobile Learning Coach, Burlington (MA) Schools. Google Certified Teacher and parent of a second grader.
  • Cornelius Minor (@MisterMinor): Warrior-nerd for the cause of freakishly rad teaching & learning from Brooklyn, NY. And father of Soleil Sojourner, a fierce fighter of late morning naps.

I realized as I organized the chat that I rarely get to talk to my PLN in their capacity as parents. And I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear them speak about their efforts within their own families and in their communities, as opposed to our usual focus solely on their work as ICT literacy teachers. If you would like to read the entire chat, it is archived here via Storify. However, it may strike you as a bit cryptic in its original form if you haven’t Tweeted much, so I also wanted to highlight particular aspects of the chat as well.

Question 1: Do you believe that our children’s generation has skills and competencies that are different than our own? Why/why not?

Jennifer L. Scheffer: “Our job as parents and educators is to teach students the skills and competencies they need to succeed in the 21st century. Digital Natives are a myth in my humble opinion.” Jennifer has argued eloquently that our children, “while savvy with texting and gaming, do not necessarily possess the skills to understand what is and isn’t appropriate or acceptable to publish online. What happens on the Internet, stays on the Internet,” never disappears and often spills over into day to day life. “We need to ensure that what our children are publishing reflects on them positively.”

Page Lennig observed that kids “are growing up surrounded by tech that allows different access than we had.” Page’s statement echoes her long held belief that “students are growing up in a vastly different world than we did. Notice I used the word different — not better or worse, just different. Today kids are drawn into these devices for several reasons – they are social tools and our brains crave social learning; they provide instant feedback which is so satisfying; and there is always something new out there[.] … Adults need to model and teach students when and where to use or not use technology; help them determine how long is too long on the computer or cell phone; and how to put the distractions away and get to work.”

Question 2: Can you talk about how you define literacy and about the new literacies you feel parents and children need to develop?

Rafranz Davis: “I’m all for the try anything and failrepeat literacy. It’s less about tech and more about willingness to step out and try!” For Rafranz, we need to be willing to fail right alongside our own children and our students. Using the term Inspired to Fail, Rafranz has said that she is “motivated to try new ideas and take risks knowing that failure can happen. I do it with the understanding that my failure is not an end but a lesson in what NOT to do as I dust myself off and start over.”

Cornelius Minor: “Literacy has to include any activity that allows one to interpret the world’s input,” Cornelius argues, and “teachers MUST embrace new technologies… [D]ismissing technology as an unnecessary frill is treasonous to the profession.” Yet Cornelius also frequently reminds listeners when he presents that “Technology is a tool, not a learning outcome,” quoting Bill Ferriter. And so it “must be used to raise awareness, to ask good questions, and to nurture critical thinkers.”

Question 3: What do you see as responsibilities of parents in a digital world? What are ways in which parents can help their children navigate?

Lyn Hilt: From Lyn’s perspective, our digital parenting must be incorporated seamlessly into our regular parenting. She stresses the need for open lines of communication. She encourages parents to explore digital resources and opportunities together, not in isolation. And, she cautions: “Don’t treat it like some big thing. It’s just part of what we do now.” Lyn has also pointed out that, like me with Nicholas and Abby, our impulse is to want to have the right answers when instead we should celebrate the learning we do as we go along. Of her own parenting, she says: “We don’t compare ourselves to other parents. We don’t strive to attain some sort of blue ribbon parenting status, judged by measures that don’t take into account our strengths, needs, and personal circumstances. We work hard to give [our son] a happy life because it’s meaningful work for us.”

Andrew T. Wallace: “We need to teach our kids about online permanence. Not permanent like magic marker, but permanent like a forehead tattoo.” In that same vein, Andrew referenced Kathy Schrock’s work on Digital Literacy and her observation that our work as parents and as teachers must include “using the digital technologies, the communication tools, and the networks to evaluate, use, and create information.”

Final Thoughts: Anything else that comes to mind for you as related to the Inherit theme that we did not address? Any great resources to share?

Jennifer L. Scheffer: Burlington High School’s Student Help Desk has created a fantastic Parent Resource Page. As Jennifer’s students explain in their introduction to their site: “Extending digital citizenship education beyond the classrooms and into the home is the best way to support your children as they navigate their way through an increasingly complex digital world. Being aware of current and emerging technologies, including social media, is important in keeping your children safe and productive online.”

Jonathan R. Werner: I first learned the term “digital tattoo” that Andrew was using instead of “digital footprint” from Kevin Honeycutt and his series Your Digital Dad. Kevin is both warm and hilarious in this video series as he directly addresses kids. “Today, kids have grown up digital,” he tells listeners when describing his mission. “They have had access to a world of new possibilities; some good, some not so good. We believe it is the responsibility of parents, teachers and other adult mentors to join kids on the digital playground and to teach them to be happy and healthy cyber-citizens.”

As we were wrapping up, I found myself focusing on Lyn’s assertion — “It’s just part of what we do now” — and on Page’s point that parenting and digital parenting are not — and cannot be — distinct. I agree with both of them: our work as parents does have an additional facet that our own parents did not have to address. But to treat it as other gives technology a life of its own that it doesn’t deserve, just as thinking of our children as being natives creates a distinction where none exists. Whatever else changes when we enter the intersection of parenting and technology, the basics do not. As Page concluded, although it is often easier to draw distinctions than to see the similarities, “we cannot forget that the digital world is a representation of the physical world.” So the same instincts as and requirements of parenting extend to both spheres.

Assuming you do not yet have a Twitter PLN of your own lined up to help answer your burning questions, I want to offer an alternative starting point to continue your thinking about incorporating a digital focus into your parenting. When pressed for the best place to start looking for help, I will send friends, colleagues and students’ parents to Common Sense Media’s remarkable online collection. In particular, their new Parent Concerns section and their excellent Connecting Families sections are the richest single resource I have found.

And I will leave you with this, a kind of mantra among ICT teachers derived from David Weinberger’s book entitled Too Big to Know. “The smartest person in the room is the room,” Weinberger says and my PLN has certainly proven him right. You have no better resource available to you than discussions with other parents, with teachers, and with your kids and their peers. Common Sense Media offers some great discussion starters. But anything you do that moves you toward “raising kids who think critically, participate responsibly, and behave ethically in their online lives,” is a step in the right direction.

Should you trip and fall flat as I have innumerable times, remember Rafranz’s Inspired to Fail. “Knowing what to do when failure happens is an important lesson and must never be removed from education.” If we allow ourselves to be sidelined because we were not born skilled, if we fear showing our weaknesses to our children, we miss the opportunity to engage them in dialogue about our own growth and change. Moreover, Rafranz points out, if we are willing to let them see us fail, we teach them resiliency. And, most important, we will find ourselves sitting right beside them when they need us most.