Navigating the school system can be difficult, but don't fret: Sarah Brown Wessling is here to help. Each month Sarah will offer insight into the classroom and share tips on how to help your child flourish in school.
They seem to get younger all the time: the phone-carrying, iPod-swinging, tablet-toting kids navigating their way through cyberspace.
It’s an interesting proposition for all of us—parents and teachers alike—who are suddenly outmatched by the young people in our lives when it comes technology.
In fact, our kids are growing up in a virtual Neverland: a place where they’re learning to navigate the world around them without the emotional and social experience of adults. It’s not because our kids have raced off to this mythical island to escape us; rather, it’s more like we’ve given them the island, but don’t know how to get there ourselves.
So, there they are: learning social mores on Facebook, testing friendships on MonkeyQuest or World of Warcraft, and recording every moment on Instagram or SnapChat. It’s exhilarating, it’s immediate and it just keeps evolving.
I’m pretty “plugged in” as a teacher and as a parent. I build basic websites, I stay connected on Facebook, I get lost on Tumblr, and I’m sure parting with my phone would require a mini-intervention. It’s safe to say I understand how convenience turns into necessity. But I also know that when I ask my students how they find information online, they give me one response: “Google.”
I know that when I ask them what truth they’re constructing about themselves online, they get quiet and confused. I know that when I ask them to create something using technology, they stutter in their confidence, having become passive consumers.
And that’s when I get nervous. I worry that their technology is only as savvy as they are and without adults mentoring them through those worlds, they will grow up on their own, relying on each other to explain the rules, the ramifications and the ways in which to navigate them both. That leaves us with a choice: put our heads in the sand or our fingers to a touch screen.
If you’re ready for some version of the screen, here are three ways to start traversing that island.
1. Get curious. I’m learning more about SuperMario and Skylanders than I ever imagined I would want to. But when it’s the world of our kids, we have to know something about it. The easiest way to get curious is to have a few good conversation starters in your back pocket, create the time to talk and then listen.
I want to know more about that game and why you love it. What do you have to do in order to “win?” What do you have to sacrifice to make that happen? How do you know when someone is angry with you online? What do you do if someone posts someone mean about a friend of yours? And if the conversation is going really well…what do you learn about yourself from [insert the name of the game, network, or app you keep hearing about here].
Maybe you want to talk to your child’s teacher about the technology he or she is using at school. In that case, ask how it’s being used differently than a fancy pen or spiral notebook. Ask if your child is creating with the technology or retrieving information with it. Ask what your child is learning because of the technology.
2. Grow your vernacular. If you’re ready to move out of listening and move into talking, it’s helpful to have some of the right words. Marc Prensky coined the phrase “digital natives and digital immigrants” to describe the difference between the people who seem indigenous to our virtual Neverland and those who are welcome, yet speak with an accent.
It happened to me just the other day. I was challenging my students with a public poetry challenge and giving them Twitter as one of their sharing options. I started talking about hash tags and they seemed impressed, then I paused and instead of saying “be sure to tag me” I said, “be sure put my name at the end of your Tweet.”
Not all of my credibility was shattered, but they did look at each other with a smile that said, “good try, you’re almost there.” It’s worth a little reading, a little digging, a little knowing about the difference between a “like” and a “share,” a “post” and a “tag”, a “blog” and a “tweet,” or a “trend” and a “flip.”
3. Try it yourself. Once you’ve listened and created a little street cred with your techy vocabulary, you’ll be ready to jump in. And that’s exactly what it will feel like. Jumping into cold water that may shock your system and leave you a little disoriented.
Here’s my best piece of advice if this is your experience: You’re not going to break it. You’re not going to get it right the first time, the second time, maybe not even the tenth time. But you will find your way. This is what technology has done for our students and children that remains difficult for most of us: When it comes to their devices, they are oblivious to failure. In fact, mistakes are second nature and you earn status by sharing your solutions.
It’s not only going to be a collective effort for us adults, but we’re also going to have to collaborate with our kids. Let me teach us, so that we can teach them.
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Sarah Brown Wessling is an English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. In 2010 she was selected as the National Teacher of the Year and spent the year traveling the world as an ambassador for education. She is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel and a mother of three. She continues to write, speak, and teach throughout the country, but always relishes her role as “mom.”