From Facebook to Social Learning Networks: Overcoming the fear of social media in schools

It is time that we expand our conception of social networking services beyond that of  Facebook.  New digital platforms have been developed that support a safe solution to integrating social media into schools. These digital platforms are set apart from Facebook in that these platforms are designed for schools and learning. Called “social learning networks,” platforms such as iRemix and Edmodo are designed to enable schools and educators to create closed, private social networking services while also allowing schools to customize settings according to the school’s needs.

This mini plug for social learning network platforms is needed. Recently, I read in Edutopia’s New Teachers Forum a discussion thread about what to say in a job interview. A teacher candidate was visited at his/ her university by a group of principals and superintendents that gave advice for how to interview for a teaching position. One of the recommendations  was NOT to discuss using social networking services for learning. It’s understandable why school administrators would not want teachers using open platforms such as Facebook.  Privacy is very hard to maintain and activity on these platforms such as Facebook are hard to supervise.

Our worst fears about social media are realized when we hear stories such as those related to cyber bullying.

When we do not have time and access to information that is connected to the latest technological learning tools that are available, we rely on our own personal experiences using social media services such as Facebook and what we consume from the media about social networking services.

However, integrating social learning platforms into schools enable opportunities for administrators, teachers and youth to design interactions that are respectful and promote learning. Through positive interactions with both peers, teachers, mentors and even a broader community of members, social learning networks have the potential to promote greater access for all children to participate and learn. Teachers can reposition themselves on line as mentors, facilitating conversations, and perhaps participating as well. Experts from outside the schools can become members and join in on conversations and give feedback.  (For more information on creating an expert learning network, see The Educurious Expert Network (TEEN) that uses the iRemix platform).

New teachers and innovative expert teachers must be courageous!

Lisa Michelle Dabbs, the moderator in the New Teacher forum challenged new teachers to take a professional stand and have the courage to help communicate to administrators the benefits of using social media as well as the tools and research that support how using these platforms can promote learning in schools. We need new teachers to be the leaders in integrating innovative digital tools into schools. Administrators need to recognize and support the abundant knowledge and expertise that new teachers bring to the school and mentor, guide the development of safe and effective social learning networks. We all need to stay current, informed and open to bringing our schools into the digital age!

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Mindfulness, Technology and Learning

As I prepared for the day, I let the video news feed play on a major network’s website. When I sat down with my cup of tea, I picked up my iPad. A video was streaming.  Playing on this video were images I had never seen before. I saw a gymnasium full of young African American and Latino children doing the yoga ‘bridge’ pose. There were three yoga teachers who were helping the children with their poses. These teachers were Brothers Ali and Atman Smith and Andres Gonzalez, founders of the Holistic Life Foundation. As part of the foundation’s Stress and Mindfulness Curriculum, children participating in the 24-week curriculum learn to use yoga and meditation as tools to calm the mind and relax the body through the practice of “mindfulness.” A randomized research study focused on the stress reduction and mindfulness curriculum and its effects on children. Findings suggest that children who participated in the program have more awareness and control of thoughts, emotions and behaviors (Mendelson et al., 2010). Further analysis is exploring how these outcomes affect academic performance and social skills in the classroom setting.

Video about the research

The Holistic Life Foundation has something to teach the teachers, researchers, and designers. This program is remarkable for so many reasons. As a former K-12 teacher in Chicago, I witnessed the effects of stress on a child’s ability to learn and build healthy relationships. The levels of anxiety that many children lived with day in and day out were the result of living in poverty, violence, and for some children, the threat of or the effects of deportation of family members.

So what does this have to do with technology?

As our children become more networked to information, images and people from all over the world, and as they may sit immobilized in front of a computer or TV, cognitively, they will be bombarded with images, information and situations that can be at times overwhelming to the mind. Physically, the body will be neglected and repetitive stress injuries may plague a young person for the rest of their lives.  These stressors can make building healthy relationships, attention and engagement in face to face settings very challenging for young people and adults!

As researchers, designers, educators and parents think about how people learn and the best conditions to support this learning, we must also not take for granted the need for an open mind and the emotional intelligence needed to support learning. The ability to “unplug” and connect with the mind and body is essential to being healthy and thriving within a digitally and non-digitally networked world. Awareness of the mind and body will lead to healthier interactions, and relationships both online and offline.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

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Designing Games that Use Evidence to Play with History

It’s a very exciting time when game designers, artists and historians team up to create an interactive gaming experience.  The game is called Drama in the Delta. The purpose of the game is to expose players to an oppressive period in US history when the US government forcibly interned Japanese Americans into concentration camps. The game takes place in the Delta region of Arkansas at the Jerome concentration camp. The visual setting of the game integrates actual archival photos of the Jerome camp during WWII.  Avatars in the game represent a range of various figures who were involved in the concentration camp experience, from a young Japanese American woman who is a prisoner in the camp, to a European American male who is a prison guard, or an African American man who works as a laborer in the camp.

Prototype Image Retrieved from

As a former high school history teacher and now researcher of historical literacies, I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of historical empathy in understanding the past. Basically, historical empathy is being able to make an interpretation of the past from another person’s point of view who lived during that time. A person’s point of view is created based on a thorough analysis of evidence made available in relevant and trustworthy primary, secondary sources. This evidence is then contextualized into a particular historical period. Given all this complexity, practicing historical empathy when making interpretations of the past is perhaps the most sophisticated literacy for a historian because it involves a variety of practices, skills and thought processes.

I wondered how would playing a role-playing game such as Drama in the Delta influence the development of historical empathy?

The use of actual archival photos to help create the setting of the game is an innovative approach to building background that is based on historical evidence. As Mark Sample explains in his review of the game, this use of the photos creates a sense of what he calls, “in context” artifact display. The use of historical evidence in this way, causes the viewer to embed the image into the game world. This is a powerful technique where the game designer is becoming the historian, making interpretations about the past.

Prototype image retrieved from

It seems that the challenge when designing games that play with history is how to negotiate the role of aesthetics, historical accuracy and game rules to avoid “presentist” interpretations of the past.   Drama in the Delta uses role play and missions to dictate the actions on the space that in turn create the narrative. There are several roles or avatars for the game. Yet, what is not clear to me from interacting on the website is how these roles and missions are designed. For example, one of the avatars on the site is a teenaged girl named Jane and her mission is to figure out how to escape the camp. Why was this mission tied to Jane?  Was there a diary or interview of a historical figure who lived in the camps and wanted to escape? While a teenager today might be able to relate to Jane if she wanted to escape, it may be more of a challenge to understand why someone did not attempt to escape. If Jane is a real historical figure, what was behind her psychology to escape and how would escaping impact her family and other prisoners? How did concentration camp prisoners make sense of their own racial/ ethnic identity and persecution at that time? How did people persevere through the experience and what impact did this experience have on individuals and families?

These are just some of the questions that have perplexed me when studying oppressive events from the past. As an American Jew, I was always drawn to the question of resistance during the Holocaust and could not understand how my ancestors and their neighbors could be caught in such an oppressive system that would eventually lead to their murders. Yet, it wasn’t until I studied the culture, the history of Jewish identity and life in 1930’s Poland and Germany that I could begin to understand the decisions and actions of my ancestors and the subsequent events that led to their murder.

There is so much potential for video games to scaffold and develop historical empathy through the experience of taking on a role and navigating through that person’s world virtually.  This experience makes it essential that the design decisions are historically and culturally accurate and serve to provide nuanced details about the past and what it means to understand someone different from oneself. There is room for aesthetics and imagination, but if we are re-creating the past, we must be accountable to the representations that are put forth in these narratives and avoid designing revisionist realities that merely conform to our present situations.

Check out the storyboards and other pages on the website to watch the process for designing and making the game. There are updates often and watching the process unfold is truly fascinating.

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Alternative Education Needs to Go Mainstream

Learning to teach in the alternative school system challenged me to  listen and design with the learner at the center of our design decisions. We were still mandated to use state standards, yet we used project based learning, collaboration and creative pathways for expression and exploration of concepts, ideas and information. Our curriculum was designed based on community and social justices issues and also provided spaces for youth to participate in the curriculum design process.

Many of the young people that came to an alternative school were critical thinkers, and they were hungry for meaning in an increasingly chaotic world.

Today, youth are becoming adults in a very uncertain time in history. There are no clear pathways, or guarantees and schools can no longer hold on to the attention of the young mind with promises that an education will lead to the attainment of some mythologized “American Dream.” Like in the alternative schools, educators must provide a space for young people to find meaning in their world. Schools must become a place for us to be human beings. Leveraging our curiosities and challenging our views in connection with others is the best argument for preserving civilization.

Yet far too many times, schools and teachers loose the attention of the adolescent mind because what we have to teach them is perceived to have no value. For the student that must work to pay rent and put food on the table,  it is hard to make a strong case for going to school.

And of course, economically we need relevant education in our schools. See the Chicago Tonight report on how youth who dropout of school costs both individuals and society.

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Interpersonal skills and designing safe learning environments

The field of neuroscience offers incredible evidence about how the brain processes information. According to this evidence, emotions dictate how and where information is stored. In the video below, Judy Willis, a neuroscientist and K-8 educator discusses how the brain reacts to stressful situations. These stressful situations trigger a fight or flight response that inhibits learning within the classroom. Within the classroom setting, these responses and behaviors may be labeled as “boredom, ” “acting out,” “hyperactive,” “unfocused,” or “disruptive.”

If learning communities are to exist, whether in the classroom, or any organizational setting, then members within the learning community must develop norms, and healthy interactions with one another that limit stress.

Digital tools can cultivate these safe environments through online interactions among peers and informal feedback from mentors and teachers. Inquiry based projects help develop shared goals among members in the classroom community that can nurture and fuel curiosity that supports learning and development.

Fostering a community of learners (FCL) is a type of classroom learning model that was originally developed by Ann Brown and Joe Campione. This model advocates for the design of classrooms where mistakes are learning opportunities, where every member feels welcome to participate and take risks. Once this culture is established, then members can collectively and individually interact with new knowledge within each individual’s zone of proximal development (ZPD).

Using artifacts from a person’s cultural world can build connections and trust. This is why designing interactions for youth to engage with texts and information that is familiar to them, using popular culture and participation genres that exist within video games and social media sites are so powerful because these tools allow learners to interact in a shared space with their peers around common goals, discuss topics, make mistakes, and get feedback from the environment. Video games, social media spaces, blogs, discussion boards and other Web 2.0 technologies can also be integrated into the learning environment to create a safe environment, foster a community of learners and spark curiosity and imagination.

See articles written by: Pinkard and Austin, 2010; Richards and Gomez, 2010Zywica, Richards and Gomez, 2010)

For more on how a community of learners with technology looks in the classroom (McGrath, 2003)

FCL and Technology

For more on the research and theory guiding the FCL framework

Brown Advancement of Learning

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Youth Designing Educational Games for Classroom Learning

World Wide Workshop develops open source social media applications and digital game designs that promote learning, and participating within interactive, design-based learning communities.

See how integrating STEM enhances learning disciplinary concepts within a series of public high schools for under served youth in West Virginia.

Check out how teachers are integrating design-based learning outcomes in low income, public school classrooms-

Learning Civics through Game Design

Addressing Social Issues affecting Youth


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The Revolution Will Not be Standardized

How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education

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