Tearing Down Walls

using social media to expand the classroom community

Digital Citizenship-Process and Products

In my last post, I unveiled a graphic, the PD Digital Citizenship Compass, which is a visual guide for our community members to “navigate” the world wide web.  In this post, I would like to give you some sense of how we arrived at this poster which now adorns the wall in every classroom and common space:

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PDSDigitalCompass (full size pdf)

As our school witnessed the influx of smart phones and moved through two years of piloting 1:1 classes (iPad), we became more and more aware of issues created by near universal web access during and after school hours.  Last year, we engaged our parents in a “town hall” meeting process monthly through a program called Parenting in the Digital Age (created by our Technology Director, Matt Scully).  We found parents eager to learn more about the impact of social media on their children’s digital footprints.  Along the way, we keep notes and explored resources like digitalcitizenship.net .  I was especially impressed by clear definitions of the 9 elements of digital citizenship and the concept of “REPs” presented at the site:

Respect Your Self/Respect Others
Educate Your Self/Connect with Others
Protect Your Self/Protect Others

This lends itself nicely to saying, digital citizenship is about protecting your “REP” online!

A wonderful site, but a meaty list of 9 elements and their definitions seemed too much information for students, teachers, or parents to hold in their heads.  We looked to develop simpler, common language that could be remember as “nuggets of wisdom”-like the sayings your grandparents and parents have passed on to you.

We assembled a group of deans, assistant heads, technology staff, and our librarian to develop this language and a process to vet in within our community.  We developed a list of 7 precepts (pictured on the poster above) and then ran the list by focus groups of students in lower, middle and upper school as well as teachers and parents.  In the end, we developed a tool we hope will help be a catalyst for conversations and lessons on digital citizenship.

Additionally, we developed an iBook format teacher and parent resource guide to supplement the posters.  Teachers received a copy two weeks in advance of the return of students this school year.  As we launch this year’s Parenting in the Digital Age sessions, we will distribute the book to our parent community and offer one session a month for 7 months-one for each point (and chapter in book) on the compass.

As mobile devices become ubiquitous in our schools, we cannot shy away from these topics.  At PDS, we are confronting the issues of digital citizenship head-on and trying to engage our entire community.

*Matt and I will be presenting on this process and product at the 2014 SAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta October 20th.

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Digital Citizenship

In my last post, I wrote about the “challenging challenges” independent schools are grappling with in regards to academic programming.  Independent schools have always been mission-driven and are now working through the idea that college prep is not enough.  One of those topics that is a challenging challenge for all schools in the 21st Century is digital citizenship.

With a quick search, you will find no shortage of resources on the topic.  In some cases, governments (Australia) have tackled the task of delivering curriculum and resources.  In other cases, non-profits (namely Common Sense Media) have tackled this task.
As our school transitioned to 1:1 (we prefer and have adopted Alan November’s “One-to-World” proposal) iPad mini tablets in grades 4-12 over the last two years, we have tackled the issues of digital citizenship head on with a new curricular and co-curricular initiative.
According to www.digitalcitizenship.net , digital citizenship can be defined as “the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use.”  Just because our “digital natives” are often more familiar with digital tools doesn’t mean they know “appropriate and responsible” behaviors.  A large part of the problem, in my mind, is our lack of common or shared expectations.
In order to help students avoid negative consequences of online use, many schools have developed a set of rules (contract) for use-an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) for students to sign.  While such an approach seems to “cover the bases” in terms of due diligence or legal liability, it puts students in a “gotcha” situation with teachers and administrators.  Essentially, the student promises to obey the rules in said signed document and when caught, will accept the punishment.  Human nature says the student will hide unsanctioned use behaviors and/or lie when caught.
The PD Digital Compass (graphic below-click to enlarge) and related resource guide is meant to take a different approach to the traditional AUP.  These seven precepts were developed by our community to be common language within our community.  Constant use of this language with our students by teachers and parents should help shift culture from one of reactive punishment for infractions to proactive guidance about positive use.

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PDSDigitalCompass (full size pdf)

The seven precepts are:
1. Be present.
2. Nothing is private
3. There is no delete
4. Credit others
5. Manners matter
6. Be real
7. Protect yourself

Notice that this language is not specific to any technology or app on the iPad.  This is by design-we want language that focuses on desired behaviors, not the tech tools. You do not have to be” tech savvy” to give this advice!  As the graphic on your new classroom poster suggests, these precepts are meant to help function as a “moral compass” for our students as they operate in the virtual world.  The goal is not to scare our students, rather, to inform and guide them.
Why? Because we want students who internalize sound advice and smart practices instead of memorizing rules. Enculturation is the process by which an individual learns the traditional content of a culture and assimilates its practices and values. At PDS we have embarked on creating a culture of positive digital citizenship by developing common language and practices for all grades.  Parents, teachers and peers are all agents of this enculturation process.  It is imperative that everyone in our community understands and uses the language on the classroom poster-it cannot just be another decoration on the wall!

In my next post I’ll explain how our technology director, Matt Scully, and I, created a process to get to this poster and the other product-an iBook digital citizenship teacher resource guide.


*Article that was our inspiration for our One-to-World program.

*Lesson plan that was our inspiration for our own custom digital compass:


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Challenging Changes

I had the good fortune of attending a gathering of academic heads from some of the best independent schools in the country in Chicago this past April.  This is a yearly gathering where we can share challenges and kick around solutions.  Here is the short list of “challenging changes” that independent schools are grappling with in 2014:


I was most intrigued by the “tension between what we have to be and want to be.”  This line summed up almost every issue discussed.  For example, if a school wants to pursue interdisciplinary work in the Upper School, it will have to meet the constraints of the NCAA Clearinghouse and the Carnegie Unit.  We (indy schools) have to provide excellent college preparation (often meaning great AP programs), but we want to be mission driven instead of test driven.  In the Information Age, numerous voices (like Tony Wagner and Yong Zhao) keep telling us college prep is not enough!

So, here is the challenge for (public and private) administrators: How do we stay true to our mission, encourage innovation, AND provide excellent college-prep programs?  Some schools have adopted new mission statements that focus on innovation so the institution does not rest on tradition.  This I would call revolution.  Others cling to tradition, but “chip away at the edges” with new courses, programs, or in-house institutes allow for thoughtful exploration.  This I would call evolution.

What do we owe our current students as we prepare them for the third and fourth decades (time flies!) of the 21st Century?  Will your school go for revolution or evolution?

For our students sake we surely can’t sit still…


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Does anybody blog anymore?

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with a consultant recently, and we were fondly recalling our days in a Powerful Learning Practice cohort in what (seems to me) was the early days of this massive edtech online community (2008-ish).  The subject of blogging came up and he remarked, “does anybody blog anymore” with a chuckle.   If you do a quick Google search, you can see there are many posts about the topic-writing or reading blogs.  I wonder if the rise of Twitter and its concise verse has discouraged folks from wading through more dense blogs?

I know this past year has been a struggle for me to continue this discipline on a regular basis.  I’ve taken on a new role (Asst. Head for Academics) at my school  and travelled more for work in 12 months (Costa Rica, China, and at least three major US cities)  than I have in the last five years.  While I usually take an intentional hiatus from twitter and blogging each summer (read this brief post as to why I recommend it), this is probably the first year since 2009 that the entire year was punctuated by breaks from social media.

Have I run out of things to say? I don’t think so.  Look, I don’t pretend that I do have some special wisdom the thousands of other ed bloggers do not.  I developed blogging as a discipline for some very specific reasons (see this brief post on why I blog).  This site has been a wonderful digital portfolio for me-if you have an interest how I learned to integrate iPads or blogs into my classroom, check out the tags or categories to the right.  I think I’ve just put the demands of learning a new role over taking the time to blog (and reflect) instead.  Now that I’ve “lived a year in the cycle,” I think I’m game to start typing again…

There are some great topics being debated in the educational community (esp. independent schools) right now like digital citizenship, 21st Century Skills, design thinking, beyond college prep…how are you working through those issues? What would you add to the list?





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China Reflections-School Visit Two

In my last post, I gave my impressions of a visit to a public boarding school in a major city in China.  If you don’t want to follow the link and read more, know it seemed a very traditional school with large classrooms set up for stand-and-deliver teaching and test prep.

After visiting that school, our group was fortunate to tour a large (4,000 students!) private boarding school in the same city.  Even though there were more students enrolled in the school, individual class sizes were roughly half those we saw in the public boarding school.

Right away we could notice a difference.  Instead of being ushered into one featured classroom, we were separated into groups of three and invited into different classrooms.  In my room, two students used Power Point slides to detail their adventures during an exchange week in North Carolina.  A few other students did Power Point presentations on Chinese cultures and traditions for us.  The room was filled with laughter most of the class period.  We were obviously not seeing a typical class day for these kids, but overall it was a very different feel from the previous school.  I even got an opportunity to spend about 15 minutes in a small group Q & A with part of the class.

My new buddies

My new buddies

The rooms were very similar in both school-hard floors, old desks and chairs, and no central heat or air conditioning.  It is apparent that millions were spend on the facilities, but student/teacher comfort was not part of the overall plan!  This is a stark contrast to the recent trend in American schools to design “innovative” comfortable class spaces.

After classes we were once again ushered into a roundtable discussion with school leaders about education in our two countries.  These are my notes, as I understood points made by the school principle via a translator:
-The school seeks to master traditional education and institute reforms-moving from more passive learning to more active learning, respecting personalities of students in order to motivate them better, encouraging more creativity, and social responsibility (helping others).
-The school has an “international program” which pulls out about 50 students from the 1,000 kids in a grade after grade 9 (the end of Chinese middle school grades) in order to prepare for US colleges.
-The school is looking for US partners to bring in more “authentic” courses.

In hindsight, this school seems dedicated to some of the same ideals and types of education we seek to provide at our private day school here in the USA!

If you have read both posts, please do NOT think I am proposing private schools in China are better than public schools in China.  In fact, I am told that public schools (government sponsored) tend to be the better schools in China-but they are slaved to Gaokao prep (college entrance exam).  I simply offer these reflections to show the tension in Chinese education right now between the traditional Chinese college prep route and a more (creative) Western-influenced version of education.  Is this really that different than tensions in our own country?



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China Reflections-School Visit One

In my last post, I explained why Chinese schools seek to emulate ours and why is there this incredible market for Chinese kids to attend school in the USA.  For this post, I wanted to share some observations from visiting four different schools in China in March.  Please understand our host schools were most gracious, and treated us as foreign dignitaries.  Rather than hold individual schools under a microscope and run the risk of offending anyone there, I am presenting more general observations.

I got to tour four types of schools in major (10 million plus citizens) cities; public-boarding, public-day, private-boarding, and private day.  Please understand these are my impressions-not trends based on extensive research.  Rather than discuss differences between these four types of schools, I would rather focus on differences between US and Chinese experiences.

My first stop was a public, boarding school. Yes, public boarding-a strange concept for Americans.  My understanding is parents there faced such an rough commute (in a city of 10 million plus) and wanted their kids to focus on academics, so they boarded them in a great school during the week and welcomed them home on weekends.


The class held 48 uniformed students.  It was similar to any traditional classroom you might see in the US, including the ceiling-mounted projector and whiteboard.  We were all ushered into the back of the classroom, and witnessed a well-rehearsed English lesson.  The teacher asked for answers and the students gave a sing-song response.  The students were engaged, and knew the answers well enough to answer enthusiastically in unison.  Correct answers were showered with applause.  The curriculum came from a workbook (and even had a cassette tape to go with it), and the students were lead through exercises in order that included worksheets.  After class, we all went outside to watch a group exercise session.


Our hosts arranged an educator’s roundtable discussion of US and Chinese systems.  The principal of the school explained, through a translator, that they must teach to the test, National Higher Education Entrance Examination, aka, the Gaokao.  He said the new curriculum had been through eight reforms, and there is now a focus on innovative approaches over just practical knowledge.  He also lauded the value of daily exercise and seemed proud that the students had free time daily after 5:30 pm.  Finally, he mentioned that students had electives on Friday.

I was blown away by the most impressive academic complex which housed about 2,000 kids and 500 educators.  If you have visions of dirty, old schools in a developing country, this would blow your mind.

Next time, impressions from a private boarding school…



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China Reflections

In my last post, I mentioned I would be traveling for two weeks in China.  My plan was to blog from the road, but we were so busy my plans failed.  It was the trip of a lifetime, and I got to experience 6 major cities-Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.

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Climbing the Great Wall

Along the way I got to tour four Chinese schools seeking to emulate American schools (in some way) and interview about 50 Chinese students (mostly 8th or 9th graders) interested in coming to the USA for high school and college.  Why do these schools seek to emulate ours and why is there this incredible market for Chinese kids to attend school in the USA?

To answer that question, I think back to a presentation by Yong Zhao at the SAIS Annual Conference last fall.  During that presentation he made a case for entrepreneurial education.  I was so impressed with his presentation, I immediately ordered his new book World Class Learners.  If you have read Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, this is a nice complement to that work (and if are an educator and you haven’t read Tony’s book yet then you MUST).

Zhao makes a great case that countries that score high on international tests like the PISA tend to show a low level of entrepreneurship (p. 11-12).   In other words, countries that gear their educational systems to testing (especially in math and science) produce kids that are really good at taking tests-but not necessarily students with a desire to solve problems creatively.

To get back to the question-why do these schools seek to emulate ours and why is there this incredible market for Chinese kids to attend school in the USA-I think Zhao summarizes it very well on page 133:

What the Chinese find valuable in American education is a decentralized, autonomous system that does not have standards, uses multiple criteria for judging the value of talent, and celebrates individual differences.

Wow! Score one for a much maligned US educational system, yes?  No, unfortunately, since the turn of the century Zhao also notes on page 133:

However, what the Chinese enthusiastically embrace is just what the Americans have been as enthusiastically trying to get rid of.  Over the past few decades, America has been on a journey to centralize its education system, standardize its curriculum, and impose uniform practices…As the Common Core standards movement accomplishes its goal, America will have lost what the Chinese envy and admire.

So, are private schools like the one I work in going to be the last bastions of what has traditionally been best in American education?  I am not sure, but I would love to hear your thoughts below.

As for my next few posts, I hope to share my observations of four schools I got to visit in China (public and private).  Please check in next week.


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China bound!

Today I am about to leave for the airport to fly direct from Washington, D.C. to Beijing. Why?

I am fortunately to be the guest of our partner in recruiting, hosting and supporting our international students, New Oasis. The company’s vision states:

Our vision is of a new world of learning, a place where society is empowered to change international education, study abroad and cultural exchange for the better.

Providence Day School has been a leader in global education for the last decade. Two of the core values at PDS that inspire our curriculum and programming are:

-We believe the school community should promote global awareness and connections to the world and local community.

-We believe in developing within our students an ability to appreciate and value the differences among people in our school community, as well as those in the larger world around us.

While we have had international students on campus for decades, we are excited to partner with New Oasis to help us strengthen our program.

While I have lived for a year in Asia (Korea, more specifically), this will be my first trip to China and I am very excited. On my journey I hope to study and write about the differences I observe in Chinese and American education. If you are interested, follow my journey that will last from February 26th through March 11th, 2014.

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A little paint and a change of perspective?

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been ruminating on design thinking and classroom design over the last few months.  Kinda ironic that after starting this blog four years ago and focusing on how social media and tablets can extend the impact of the physical classroom (thus the title, “Tearing Down Walls”), that I am now fascinated with tinkering with physical walls and what goes on inside them…

While you can find some schools that are making pretty radical changes in building and classroom design (more on that in a later post), sometimes small changes can have valuable changes in behavior.  Recently, English teacher Ryan Welsh approached me about painting two of his four walls in Idea Paint.  So, we found the paint and had our maintenance staff complete the work over the holidays.


Note the new dry-erase walls over the student’s shoulders

The walls are now dry-erase walls…Ok-so, what?  Ryan describes the changes he noticed within several days of painting two walls with Idea Paint:

First, there is an eye-catching difference between the panels of the room that serve as walls and those panels now covered in Idea Paint.  The clean, white surface provides a visual contrast that sets off the corner of the room as a potentially different kind of space.  Teaching from the corner of the two white board walls creates a sharp point of focus where student attention can be funneled effectively as desired.  Teaching from what would be typically considered the back or side of the room shifts the sense of student and teacher space.  The boundary or line of demarcation between the two kinds of space blurs.  The walls feel more collaborative as a result given the students added willingness to write in a space that hasn’t been claimed or identified as teacher (or teacher permission requisite) space.

Unlike the whiteboards on the opposite wall of the room, these writing surfaces seem less confined given that they take up the entire wall.  Instead of being bound in frames and placed at the traditional front of the room, the white walls provide a more inviting writing surface that students have already used to write up whatever they might like to share with a classroom audience.  The fixed quality of the white wall lends a special sort of credibility to whatever happens to be written there.  Students seem more willing to share their ideas on the board and more willing to respond to one another writing on the wall next to some earlier comment or idea. 

For me, that’s a neat change.  I am intrigued further with how the visible impacts the invisible in the classroom…


Student artwork on Ryan’s new whiteboard walls


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Winter is for hibernation…

From WikipediaHibernation (from Latin: hībernus, of winter) is a suppressed metabolic state that falls under the umbrella-term of torpor or dormancy…

It has been quite a fall and winter for me, a transition from full-time teacher to full-time administrator.  Unfortunately, this period has been one of hibernation from that very public form of reflection known as blogging.

Over these last five years in the blogosphere, I have taken purposeful “walkabouts” each summer-intentional reflective time away from writing here.  This time, I simply fell into a “suppressed metabolic state,” and quit typing.

Sometimes, I find this type of failure very fruitful.  Why? In this case I have had the time to chew and re-chew cud about the idea of design.  While in Atlanta for the SAIS annual conference in October, I was lucky to visit The Lovett School and Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.  At both places, I was able to witness progressive school programs built around the process of design thinking.

Want to see a school focused leveraging design thinking to birth innovation, go visit MVP.  Want to see a school focused on leveraging design thinking to change pedagogy, go visit Lovett.

So, what does this mean for me and my school? Stay tuned…


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