“Protecting students from high-risk activities should begin as early as kindergarten. It’s never too early and rarely too late to build resilience in students by teaching strategies for dealing with conflict and the temptations of high-risk activities.”
The first time I stepped into a university classroom as a teacher, I felt like a television. After more than 5-10 minutes of lecturing — no matter how interesting the subject — their gazes began to glaze over. Even those students who were engaged in the material seemed to quickly forget I could see them sitting there at their desks.
They picked their noses. Played with their various piercings. Doodled in their notebooks. Activities that would be openly insulting if I was speaking to them one on one.
I quickly learned to jazz up my material with media clips, punctuate lectures with frequent discussion questions, group work, pair and share activities. I moved around the whole classroom, worked hard to modulate my voice and throw in joke. I’d leave each class thoroughly drained but satisfied that I’d kept their attention.
I thought of this as the Sesame Street/ MTV effect. These students had been weaned on non-stop entertainment, on rapid jolts of audio-visual stimulation. They were not accustomed to sustained periods of focused attention. Video games seem to accentuate this tendency to prefer hyper-kinetic media forms.
I’m very sensitive to this with my own children. I have no problem with some exposure to the Wii’s, Nintendo DS’s and iPads that fill their days. I let them eat their Cheerios with Elmo and Dora, and move on to Wizards of Waverly Place and (eventually) Glee. But I was always insistent on time also spent with real books, on the kind of art projects that make your fingers dirty and adventure games played outdoors with flesh-and-blood friends (not just onscreen with avatars).
As they get older, the struggle to keep this balance is harder and harder. Most of their homework is done online (often in very creative ways). There’s no more trudging over to a library to look things up in books. Everything is online. Instantaneous. Rendered in live-streaming, HD-quality video. Teachers instantly email them feedback and answer questions on Saturday afternoons.
Although I still work very hard to make sure they do spend some time outside (not just skiing on the Wii) and meet their friends face to face, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to maintain a more balanced understanding of the time our kids spend online. It isn’t fair to lump it all under the rubric “screen time” as if Photoshop were the same as Phineas andPherb.
Because it’s not.
A couple of years ago I interviewed Michael Hoechsmann, then a professor in McGill University’s Faculty of Education (and now at Lakehead University), for an article in Montreal Families Magazine about whether socializing online was actually bad for our kids. Dr. Hoechsmann, himself a father of two teenaged boys, urged parents to make a distinction between using a computer for production and consumption. When his children are writing on a blog or posting a poem, for example, “I consider it the equivalent of time spent drawing or building a model.” However, ‘”If they are just doing consumption online [such as watching YouTube videos or playing a game], I consider it only a slightly more active version of watching TV.”
Some of the things our kids can do online are downright amazing. They have access to the most powerful, creative and productive technologies ever produced. The potential for learning new things, stimulating their growing brains, developing new interests and exploring new talents is phenomenal.
So I thought that instead of joining the mob decrying the impact of computers and the Internet on our children, I’d use this post to remind us that used judiciously, in moderation, technology is pretty damned amazing.
One of my older daughters has devoted time over the past year to writing her own novel. It’s almost 150 pages long now, and she has enjoyed the writing as much as the research she can do instantly on her iPad. I can’t imagine time better spent.
As both she and her twin sister enjoy different kinds of creative writing, both girls are members of a website called Figment.com, where young writers can post their work and enjoy a moderated, copyright-safe feedback forum of other kids and teens.
A similar site called Deviantart.com invites teens to post their original artwork (the right-click is disabled so images can’t be copied) and invite moderated feedback.
All of my girls have spent hours on a free, user-friendly animation building website called GoAnimate.com, where kids can build all sorts of interesting cartoons. You can check out one of Sophie’s earliest animations here. Kids can build their own stories with graphics, movement and audio and send them to their friends. They can also use them for homework assignments and class presentations.
Kids who are really into animation should check out the National Film Board of Canada’s excellent StopMoStudio workshop online. The scant 19-minute video has some of the NFB’s experts demonstrating their techniques. And once they’ve been inspired, they should go to the NFB’s PixStop stop-motion animation. Available for free on iTunes, this iPad app was originally developed for classroom use, so it has plenty of tutorials and a very intuitive interface.
Other cool animation apps for Apple products include iStopMotion for user-friendly stop-motion animation for iPhone, iPad and Mac, as well as the point and click StopMotion Recorder for iPhone. Users can use the onion-skin views to reposition the camera and integrate Instagram-like features (such as noir, sepia and Lomography).
Do your kids love computer games? Let them try and build their own on My Doodle Game, where they can design the landscape, put in their own challenges and choose from a wide-variety of characters and obstacles. This is a great example of creativity, problem-solving and sequencing.
Have a reluctant reader at home? Check out ReadingRewards.com, a safe social network devoted to reading, which incorporates gaming elements to encourage kids to read, review and recommend books to others.
Curious about the world? Dealing with homework questions mom and dad can’t help with? Direct kids to the award-winning HowStuffWorks website and get lost in a fascinating, informative virtual place where it’s hip to be smart. Aside from articles, there are quizzes, games and podcasts on what Apple called one of the “best apps of 2011.”
These sites and apps offer just a hint of the amazing, innovative and creative potential of the web. It’s not all Facebook, YouTube and World of Warcraft out there. Challenge your kids to check out some of these creative and production-oriented sites so you can cut them a little slack if they want to spend hours in front of their screens.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of addressing all the principals of a major Quebec school board on the subject of bullying. It’s a subject everyone is concerned about these days, particularly given the recent high-profile bullycides in Quebec, Ontario and around North America.
Parents are worried about it. Kids are hyper-aware of it. The courts are trying to figure out legal guidelines for it. Teachers and school administrators are unsure how to handle the blurry link between cyberbullying that may occur off-campus after school hours but cross over into the school yard and classroom.
It isn’t just that high-profile bullycides have placed the issue front and centre in the media, nor is it merely an issue of bullying becoming the scarlet letter of the moment. The truth is that the issue itself has morphed from a fairly standard of bullying has changed mostly because of the uncertainties over how to handle the harassment that can occur online. Schools are unsure of their liability and accountability for those kinds of events. Parents are either unaware of what’s going on. Kids still don’t tend to trust adults to handle these issues, and are uncomfortable with the implications of powerlessness that comes with the term “victim,” so they are unlikely to speak up. And everyone is much more sensitive about these terms than they used to be in the bad old days when bullying was mostly seen as normal (if unpleasant) kid behaviour.
My presentation to these principals covered the emerging legal landscape of cyberbullying, the current best practices for handling bullying incidents, suggestions for policy templates and engaging all stakeholders in awareness and prevention: parents, students, teachers and staff. In the course of our discussion, I heard some recurring points that are worth sharing.
What happens outside of school affects what’s going on inside. And vice versa. Why do principals and teachers care about what kids are doing on their Facebook pages, cellphones, email and Formspring accounts? Because all that energy (positive or negative) gets carried over into the hallways and classroom. Snarky or cruel comments online can mean depressed, anxious or agitated students in school. It can lead to physical confrontations. And when the rumour mill gets whipped up into high gear, nobody is paying attention to geography or math.
Stay connected. School administrators need parents to keep up their supervision and guidance. Their students — your children — need consistent supervision, clear guidelines, consequences for misdeeds and open dialogue about the challenges of growing up in a wired world. The school cannot control what goes on at home, but it relies on you playing your part. At minimum, you should know what accounts your child has, keep track of their passwords, regularly review texts and comments made online.
Support school initiatives for bullying prevention and digital awareness. Schools, like governments, rely on the participation, engagement and support of their stakeholders. That includes you. Take an active role in committees and initiatives that aim to educate and prevent. At very least, show up to meetings and information sessions geared to getting these programs going. If you don’t speak up now, you are relinquishing your right to complain later.
When the school calls to discuss an issue, take a deep breath and really listen. The call home to a parent to discuss a bullying incident is one of the hardest tasks a principal, guidance counsellor or teacher has to make. Whether your child was the aggressor or the target, you will serve their best interests if you can briefly put your emotional reaction aside and really listen to what they are trying to communicate. This is hard to do. But if you leap up to question, defend, make excuses or accuse, you are not being your child’s best advocate. You are only complicating the issue.
Get the story. Discuss the next steps. Remain open to suggestions. There will be time later to get the other sides of the story and investigate. Right now your school needs you to listen with an open mind.
Be honest with yourself. Have you noticed a pattern of bullying behaviour with your child over the years? This doesn’t have to be physical – it can also be taunts, excluding friends, creating a lot of social “drama.” Don’t write it off as “kid stuff” or typical of boys or girls, or being particularly spirited. Don’t make excuses, saying the school doesn’t “get” your kid like you do. If other kids are being hurt or tormented, it’s time to take action. And a parent can do much more than anyone else to stop this cycle.
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
"Alissa is the consummate professional and speaks with great authority. We hope she will be one of our feature speakers at many future workshops." Kelly Wilton, editor and co-publisher of Montreal Families Magazine
RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en