Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Middle School Life in the Digital Era

Dear Parents,

When I was in middle school I had great days. I had experiences that were transformative. I was becoming me and it was great. I had bad days, as well. Good or bad I went home and the line between home and school was fairly concrete. If I had a bad day - was picked on or called out - I could go home and my issues stayed at school. I had a respite. Nobody was going to come to my door, knock, and continue to pick, pick, pick. Only the boldest - or dumbest - were going to call my house, ask permission to speak with me and pick, pick, pick. I could get away.

Today, for middle school students everywhere, the distinction between home and school has faded to the point of being a wisp of the metaphorical barrier it once was. As a result, middle school life, which has always been a tremendous time of growth socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually, is now something that can be shared 24/7/365 because of the new paradigm of our digital connectivity.

Social interaction in the 21st Century is driven by the APPS nature of our digital connections. On these digital platforms,  interaction is Abundant, Public, Permanent, and Sustained. APPS interaction laid on top of middle school life (msl) and multiplied by the nature of young adolescents in groups (g) means that life experiences become exponentially more powerful. The “life equation” for middle school students around the world now looks like this:

(msl x g)APPS

As with any equation, if one variable is negative the output will be negative. If all the variables remain positive, incredibly constructive experiences are created. Either way, one mustn’t ignore this new equation. It’s not a phase. The scope and pace of the innovation in which we find ourselves should be considered the new normal. The biggest issue today for children is easy access to this new digital paradigm through smartphones, iPods, iPod Touches, laptops, tablets, and desktops.

Smartphones (or iPod Touches, or, or, or....) are tailor-made to appeal to the middle school child. They are easy and intuitive, so the learning curve for use is near zero. In its conception, it was designed to connect people in a social way, something middle school children are dying to do anyway. A smartphone is a status symbol like the shoes we wear or the music we listen to. Like it or not, for adolescent children, the smartphone sends a message about who they are. Again, this is another one of the main goals of the adolescent child. The smartphone facilitates an ego-centric approach to the world. While the communication is, ostensibly, happening between two or more individuals through the digital medium, the user is independent in using that piece of hardware. This feeds what is already a time of self absorption for this age group.

The proliferation of smartphones - a computer for your pocket (did you know that your smartphone has more computing power than NASA had in 1969 when they sent a man to the moon?) - means we find ourselves in an access dilemma. This dilemma presents a number of questions we are either unprepared or uncomfortable answering:

  • Why do they want/need a smartphone anyway?
  • At what age do we allow kids to have smartphones (or iPod Touches, or, or, or....)?
  • How do we manage these devices if children have access?
  • How do I monitor where they go or what they say when they are using this technology?

All of these are questions each family works through. Plenty of resources can be found to help shape how each family approaches smartphones (or iPod Touches, or, or, or....), and I have culled some of the best in earlier posts. The tools we use increase the opportunities for the exponential power of APPS to work for good or for bad.

The easiest approach for parents is to forbid access. Quite frankly, I don’t see any reason why a middle school student needs a smartphone. This does not, however, acknowledge the realities of our world now or in the future. Real innovation does not abide those who choose the sideline. From the printing press to the smartphone, use and access to new inventions necessitate education on how these innovations should be used in appropriate and positive ways. We must acknowledge the power and responsibility that come as a result of the new innovation and then identify guidelines that foster positive and productive use.

Therefore, the changing landscape of children’s experiences necessitates a renewed commitment from all concerned parties - students, parents, teachers, and administrators - to partner with each other in infusing the ethical and spiritual values they cherish into the way we approach these technologies. This begins with open and honest conversation around the issues before, during, and after any bumps in the road we may experience as we navigate the digital world. Together, schools and families can make sure all the variables of a child’s “life equation” (msl x g)APPS are as positive as possible.

At Canterbury we have put a number of policies and programs in place to help our students understand the implications of this new digital APPS world. A baseline policy is that we ask middle school students to leave their phones at home during the school day. If they must bring their phones, they should remain in their backpacks, in their lockers from 7:50am to 3:45pm. Unless granted explicit permission, if a student’s phone is seen or used,  it will be taken and delivered directly to me. The student may retrieve it at the end of the day on his or her way to carpool.

Additionally, in every class we are discussing the digital etiquette of working in Google Docs.  We’ve created technology classes at each grade level and we discuss in advisory the values and expectations of our interactions with one another both online and off. One of the most visible moves we’ve made is to create a Middle School Technology Coordinator position who works directly with students both on learning software/hardware, as well as proper digital etiquette.

In this vein, we presented a parent education session on Tuesday, February 26 at 2:30 in Berry Hall. John Schoultz, the Middle School Technology Coordinator, spoke about smartphones, social media, and cyberbullying. In his presentation he previewed material (see video) that we are sharing with the students on Wednesday and Thursday, March 6 - 7 in small group seminars on the same topic. Parents walked away from this meeting with recommendations on how to manage your child’s interactions in the digital age, what to look for in terms of signs of cyberbullying, and the recourse you and your child can take if things start to feel like they are getting out of control.

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