Checking the Cynical Me at the Door: Digital Learning Day

Equity 2

Today is Digital Learning Day. I have some mixed feelings about the whole endeavor to push digital learning into the national conversation with a single day of intense focus (sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education). Something about the way it all gets presented makes me …. uncomfortable.  I can’t quite name it, which seems unfair to the organizers. And the more I look into what I am feeling this year, and the deeper I explore why I am feeling that way, the less certain I am about my stance.

Am I just put off because it seems so slick and professional? That just seems rather silly, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here is some strands of what I have been thinking …

First of all, this year’s Digital Learning Day coincides with our winter break, so I am not even with my students (although maybe I could have set something in motion in advance as a remote activity but I didn’t plan for that). In the past, I have tried to do digital learning activities on Digital Learning Day, if only to bring my students into the national conversation about learning in the age of technology. We even had Fox News visit our classroom one year for Digital Learning Day, which was an odd experience.

Second of all, I can’t shake the feeling of a top-down influence on the event. I know that seems cynical, but the guest lists of events seem to have more than a fair share of government-connected officials, school administrators and paid educational speakers. It can feel as if it is government influencing our views of how to reform education. The mission statement about digital learning reads like a passage of the Common Core. Still, there is an entire page of video tours of various schools who are sparking change with digital learning opportunities for students. And I do see some classroom teachers will be part of the webinars. That’s good, part one.

Third, there’s also the worry about corporate influence on the Digital Learning Day agenda. In the past, this seemed more pronounced than this year. It’s not that the site itself feels overrun with commercial interests — it is not — but the Twitter stream sort of is (and I know that is outside the purview of the organizers …anyone can post into a Twitter stream and why wouldn’t a company with ed tech do that? It’s an audience they dream about, right?) And yet, when I investigated the site, it seems like there is a whole lot less funding by corporations this year than in other years past. And I don’t see a Pearson in the mix. So, that’s good, part two.

And the theme of this year’s Digital Learning Day of access and equity … those are key important themes that all of us should be keeping in mind, so I applaud the theme and the sessions that are being built around those ideas. If we want a brighter future for all of our students, regardless of gender and socioeconomics, then we have to be having these discussions, and here, the folks at Digital Learning Day have given over the stage to it. And let’s face it — these folks are connected to the power players in DC. That means the issue should be on the agenda of those discussions. That’s good, part three.


What all this means is that perhaps I should just put my cynical self aside for the day, and try to pop into some of the conversations when I can (or check out the archives later). The organizers have laid some interesting groundwork to discuss digital access, and the plan to have webinars throughout the day shift from location to location — from school to school — is a solid idea.

In the end, the focus on the central themes of digital access and digital equity has me feeling more a bit more positive about Digital Learning Day than in prior years.

What about you?

Peace (beyond the cynical me),



Looking at the Data of their Digital Lives

DlDay Voicethread
Each year, I present my sixth grade students with what we call the State of Technology and Digital Media Survey. The idea is to get a snapshop of their impressions and to get a glimpse of their use of technology, particularly outside of school. This year, for Digital Learning Day, I put the results into a Voicethread and narrate some of what I see.

I used these results for conversations this week around the idea of digital lives, digital footprints and digital citizenship as we launched into a new unit around technology. (By the way, if you want a copy of the survey, here is a template from my Google Docs. Feel free to steal it, remix it, use it as you need.)

But I invite you, too, to add questions and observations to the Voicethread. Make it a conversation. Do the results of my students resonate with what you know about your students? (Note: I teach sixth grade, so these are 11 year olds). Haven’t used Voicethread before? Now’s the time to give a new tool a try.

Peace (in the sharing),

Social Media: A Note Home About Digital Lives

As part of Digital Learning Day (tomorrow), we have moved into our unit with sixth graders around Digital Lives. One thing we do is put together a letter/email for parents about Facebook and other social media sites, so that the conversations that start in school about privacy, identity and more can continue at home. Feel free to use this letter, or remix it, if it fits your needs.

Dear Parents … About Facebook

We also share this video, from last year, when John Roberts of Fox News visited our classroom on Digital Learning Day.

Peace (in the communication),

Digital Learning Day: A Twitter Chat on Sunday Night

Check it out: Troy Hicks and I are heading up a Twitter Chat sponsored by NCTE in preparation for Digital Learning Day coming in February.

January 19, 2014: Celebrate Digital Learning!

ncte chat logoAs you prepare for Digital Learning Day (#DLDay) — February 5, 2014 — join two NCTE members and edubloggers for a conversation about classroom technology’s past, present, and future.

Kevin Hodgson (@dogtrax) and Troy Hicks (@hickstro) will host #nctechat on Sunday, January 19th, 8 PM EST, and will invite you to consider three big questions while sharing tech tips and teaching tools:

  • To begin, what was your first brush with technology and how did it change the way you wrote, read, and interacted with others?
  • As you think about your classroom right now, what are your plans for Digital Learning Day this year? With critics concerned that technology has become more and more of a distraction, how can we help our students stay focused on smart, intentional work?
  • Finally, what are you looking forward to learning, trying, or making in 2014?

Join us for a conversation about the history of Digital Learning Day and great ideas for teaching digital reading and writing in your English classes!

Peace (in the chat),

When Fox News Comes to Town, Part 2

The other night, the segment about data mining and privacy issues in the digital age ran on Fox News, and my students and I were part of the mix. Some of you may remember that I allowed Fox News, with anchor John Roberts, to come to my sixth grade classroom on Digital Learning Day as we were in the midst of a unit around digital citizenship. The hour-long feature — called Your Secret’s Out — is pretty damning, as Fox examines how companies and the government use data to know who were are and what we’re up, too, etc, and is pretty much, well … Fox News. There’s heightened music, a sense that something is very wrong with the world, and Robert’s arched eyebrows show us that we better be more aware of our use of digital spaces. Now, this is true, but the feature gives is more of a dark underpinning than it needs. But that’s television, for you.

Now, you can imagine my worries about how my students and I would be portrayed in that kind of conversation. The last thing I want is for my students to come across as fools, or inarticulate kids. That didn’t happen. We did OK. I think we all came off as pretty thoughtful, and the brief segments show us in good conversations about the digital world. I think I was able to explain the rationale for teaching about digital footprints, in soundbites. I have edited our section out of the larger piece so that I can show my students. The stories that immediately follow us include references to sex tapes and Charlie Sheen and other pop cultural references that I’d rather not bring into my classroom, if I don’t have to.

Peace (on the small screen),


Close Reading: The Story of Electronics

We wrapped up our discussions about Digital Lives yesterday by moving our topic from issues like identity and privacy and behaviors in online spaces to something more concrete: the lifespan of electronics and the environment. It also gave me a chance to guide my sixth graders to be critical close readers of a video as text, which is difficult and which will require much more practice. The topic of the day was about what happens when companies build for “planned obsolescence” (ie, put out the newest model every six months to a year) and we buy new stuff, only to toss away the old stuff.

The video we used — The Story of Electronics — is an offshoot of the larger The Story of Stuff (worth watching, too) and it provides a great opportunity to talk not only about the issues of e-waste and production cycles, but also about point of view, use of “facts and data,” and visual persuasion. This video has it all. While it is a powerful indictment of the ways electronics are endangering the health of workers and others on production lines, it also mostly avoids bringing in a balanced view, uses data without much direct citation, utilizes powerful animated images to evoke an emotional response, and more.

I won’t lie and say we had as full a discussion as I would have liked. The video came near the end of the period on the day before February vacation, and after a vocabulary quiz. But even so, the video did spark lots of discussion about the ways my students and families view electronics, and that sharing gave me avenues for pointing out the techniques of the video. We’ll be revisiting this topic later in the year, for sure.

Peace (in the stuff),


Teaching about Passwords


We had some interesting discussions in class yesterday about passwords. Stories about getting hacked by friends, about sharing passwords as a sign of friendship, of never even considering how easily a password could be cracked, of forgetting a password. And most of my sixth grade students admitted they think very little about the passwords they come up with, and most use the same password everywhere. (I suspect the same can be said for many adults.) The discussion was part of our Digital Life unit, and I shared an interesting tool that tests the hackability of a password. The kids were jazzed about testing the strength of passwords, and then were suitably shocked when the site would say that their passwords could be hacked “instantly.” The video from Common Craft hit all the right spots, too.

Again, I downplayed the fear factor in all this, and turned it around to a positive, and guided them to think about how we can use language and writing to create strong passwords. This includes reminding them of memory devices for creating passwords that might seem like nonsense to the outside world but will make perfect sense to them. We talked about how the use of symbols and numbers, and mixing upper and lower case letters, all help strengthen a password.

Here is the site we used:

Password Strength Meter Checker

And I did not show this video, but it cracks me up everytime, as this comic laments passwords. Very funny.

Peace (in the password),


Cyberbullying: Upstanders Make a Difference


We’re nearing the end of our Digital Life unit, and yesterday, our topic was cyberbullying and bullying, in general. It was a deep conversation across my sixth grade classes, rich with questions and insights and, unfortunately, experience. One of the topics we discusses is the role of the bystander, and as luck would have it, I came across this activity/event in my National Writing Project network.


It has to do with thinking through and understand the role of the bystander who takes action. The term is a bit odd to say — upstander — but I had my students write down what they thought it meant before we talked about what it meant. Some of those notes have become part of this presentation that I will be sharing with my students and families, and also, submitted to the Upstanders, Not Bystanders event.

See the slideshow: The Role of the Upstander

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad
This also reminds me a presentation that I gave at last year’s NCTE meeting around cyberbullying (thanks to the invite by Kylene Beers). I’ll share it here, too.

Peace (in the strategies),


Our Digital Media Lives

As part of our class discussions around digital footprints, we used an activity from CommonSense Media that has students thinking of a comparison/simile for the way they use digital media. I like it because it allows us to talk about figurative language, and opens up some interesting discussions around themes of responses.

First, I will share the one that I created.

And here are some student responses.
media life similes
media life similes (5)
media life similes (4)
media life similes (3)

What’s your media life like?

Peace (in the simile),