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Thursday, October 3, 2013

What the Scrap is Digital Citizenship?

Cross-posted at Ethics 4 A Digital World

A new school year has begun, and the very best parts of my job are back in the classroom with me on a regular basis. As a technology specialist, I spend my time with kids in grades 3 through 9 teaching technical skills, finding great ways to incorporate technology into curricular projects, and best of all, really getting to spend time talking to kids about what it means to participate in our digital world.

Though it's quite easy nowadays to do a quick Google search and find millions of results for this term to help us grasp the concept, creating authentic experiences for our students (or your kids) to actually practice digital citizenship is essential for true understanding to take place. Horror stories abound depicting all the negative consequences of unchecked social media, including cyberbullying, sexting, hate speech, ruined reputations, poor decision-making and the like. Far too often we read stories of adults who have relinquished their responsibility in this realm by writing technology off as something "they don't get."  Well, Sam and I can tell you that the more we work with kids and digital tools, the more we talk to them about behavior. You don't have to "get it" to talk to your kids about the kind of people they are growing up to be. Behavior isn't really about technology at's about the choices we make. Technology just gives us more opportunities to make choices, and sometimes, unfortunately, those choices have bigger consequences because they create a digital trail.

So how do we talk to kids about this in a way that makes sense to them? I've learned, sometimes the hard way, that talking isn't enough. Kids need PRACTICE. But they also need language that they can understand and remember. With my youngest students, I explain to them that technology vocabulary is like learning a new language. Words that mean something in our daily usage of English have a different meaning when it comes to computers. Take the word "menu," for example. When I ask them to find a particular menu,  I'm not asking them to order me an entrĂ©e, amirite? If we need to find something in the dock, I'm not talking about a place you tie up boats.

Thank you technologyrocksseriously!
Language matters!

Last year, when we solicited advice for youngsters from our 8th graders, many groups responded with something like, "Think before you post online."  GREAT advice, right? But what does that actually mean? Think about what? How do I stop and think about the future impact of my decisions when I'm not developmentally able or ready to do that? Looking for help, I found this great infographic from a generous and sharing educator. Breaking down what it means to "think" into smaller elements, and a series of questions that kids could easily understand and answer, helped them get it. And this year? They've seen the posters and read the words, and when I ask them what Digital Citizenship is, they say, "THINK!"

I love that.

So knowing that this whole acronym thing works pretty well with kids, and that I have a new group of bright young minds to introduce to Digital Citizenship, we went back to the drawing board with our official definition.  I shared this with my 3rd graders:

Being a good "digital citizen" means using technology...
  • safely
  • responsibly
  • critically
  • productively
We will spend a great deal of time picking this apart and really figuring out what each part of the definition means in practice, but first we need to remember the words. So let me share the genius of one particular student in this introductory phase.  Having seen the T.H.I.N.K. poster, she looked at my definition of Digital Citizenship and said, "You know, the letters in that almost spell SCRAP." Indeed they do, so we quickly did a little adjusting:

Being a good "digital citizen" means using technology...
  • Safely
  • Critically
  • Responsibly
  • And
  • Productively
I feel another cool poster coming on...

Of course, I still need to figure out some brilliant metaphor for SCRAP in the digital world. The definition doesn't easily lend itself to my cause.

If you have an idea, please share! But for now, we're going with it. Kids tend to remember safe and responsible pretty easily, but we need to really dig into critical and productive to find all the great ways we can use technology for our own learning and to make the world a better place. If SCRAP helps, so be it. 

That's my little scrap for you.  (I tried...)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Little Alchemy Sweeps Through the LS

Fire + Air = Energy
Mud + Plant = Swamp
Energy + Swamp = Life
Earth + Life = Human
Human + Lightsaber = Jedi
Jedi + Swamp = YODA!!

In search of educational games that our students can safely play during their free time, I have wandered far and wide. And here's the thing. ALL games are educational. They all teach something. But the real question is, "What is it kids are learning?"

Well, Little Alchemy appeared on my radar when I noticed this cute purple app had been installed in Google Chrome on my home computer (by my wily 4th grader). "Mooooommm! [you know the one where 'Mom' suddenly becomes a two or three syllable word?] You said we could install free apps from the Chrome I picked this one." She played around with it, I played around with it, I installed it on my school laptop, I sent the link to the Lower School science teacher to check it out, and then I sort of forgot about it.

Then it went viral.

By "viral" I mean I started noticing a lot of kids playing with it in the Lower School during recess, particularly 1st and 2nd graders.  Occasionally the kids all learn some cool new thing and suddenly it's everywhere. Other game sites come to mind, or the flight simulator in Google Earth, or when they figure out how to hide the dock/make the computer talk/reverse the display colors...they all have to try it. Recess in the LS multimedia room is where I learn all the hot things.  And the middle school computer lab during lunch.

Available in the Chrome Web Store
(also web-based, or a desktop app for PC)

Little Alchemy is one of those games, like most, that sucks you in and then you can't stop until you've found all the possible combinations.  You start with the four basic elements (water, fire, earth, and air) and start combining them together to see what you can make.  The science teacher and I talked about how the first few combinations of elements were pretty neat, and even kind of scientific (earth + water = mud), but then as you create more and more elements, it gets a little sketchy on the science (wolf + human = werewolf). In addition, there are combinations that capture the kids' interest and spread like wildfire much more quickly than others (gunpowder, bullet, vampire, unicorn, etc), and there are a few elements that I know they'll eventually find, but maybe won't totally understand (alcohol + human = drunk).


I have noticed an entirely separate set of skills that the kids are picking up while playing this game at recess. They are collaborating to share learned information. They are making hypotheses about what they can possibly create. They test these hypotheses. They are problem solving when combinations don't yield the results they expect. They are remarkably good at REMEMBERING how to create an astonishing number of elements. And let's be honest, they are in competition to see who can figure out the most. Now, there is no shortage of "cheat codes" available to help one accomplish this task. (I myself have just achieved 349/350 by using a variety of web "helpers," and that last elusive element is driving me absolutely bonkers!) But even if you reset and start over multiple times, the challenge remains fun and engaging, and there is an excited buzz in the room as the kids work, share, and show off how much they have accomplished. Sometimes, if I play in the room with them, we start making up our own combinations that we think SHOULD work, and perhaps we'll propose to the Little Alchemy folks. What I notice more than anything is the overall atmosphere of collaboration that exists when a group of students is playing together. "How do you make energy?" and "How'd you get hurricane?" fly around the room, with one or more helpers jumping up from their seat to show a fellow 'alchemist' the what for.
Real science? Medieval History? 

Is it fun? Yes. Is it scientifically accurate? Not so much. But the name of the game isn't Little's Little Alchemy. And it has sure captured the interest and imagination of our kids. Obviously, they are not "learning" to throw cows in the ocean to see what happens (sea + cow = manatee).  But this game, and most others, reinforce many skills we want our students to have. According to Peggy Sheehy, as cited in the article linked below, “Gaming is almost like the scientific method. You get your quest, you form a hypothesis, you try it out, you encounter challenges and you draw conclusions.” In gaming, failure is expected, but in this realm kids usually don't give up, call it quits, and say "I can't do it." They try again. And again and again and again.  What can teachers learn from video games?

World of Warcraft in the Classroom