One of the things I always try to keep in mind when I think about school planning and design, and something I said a lot to the faculty as we planned, was "There is no panacea in education and every great idea has a dark side, so what are the worst consequences of your best ideas?" It’s important to do for two reasons — one because I think that many educational institutions become reactionary too often, throwing the baby out with the bathwater when an unforeseen consequence of a really good idea comes along. I’d rather think about every potential dark side so that when they happen, I’m not surprised, I’ve thought about them first, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a consequence I can live with. And two, because you can look to mitigate them and plan for them, and speak about them before hand.
For example, when I ran the New Teacher program at Beacon, I used to tell new teachers, "The best thing about Beacon is that we have really empowered kids. The worst thing about Beacon is that we have really empowered kids. So, when the moment comes, and that student says, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Lehmann? Your lecture today, a bit teacher-centric, don’t you think?’ before you decide to clobber the child, remember that the same student was at school until 7:00 pm the night before, working, building, creating, practicing, performing… and realize that both actions stem from a sense of empowerment, belonging and ownership of their school." And I’ve said that same thing to every teacher at SLA because nothing is a panacea, and sometimes, even the empowerment that we instill in our students can cross the line into entitlement, no matter how much we preach about the balance of freedom and responsibility. Why does that happen? If nothing else, it’s because we deal with kids, and, by definition, it’s their job to find the limits and test the boundaries.
All this is to say that we’ve found some problems along the way. We had some students use the laptops and instant messaging in really inappropriate ways. It was upsetting teachers and students alike, and we saw a creeping loss of a sense of safety. So what did we do? We talked about it as a community on our moodle site. The student forums were suddenly filled with conversations about what was going on, what screennames to beware of, how to block someone in iChat, and (I’m not kidding) discussion by students about how poorly this reflected on our community. The adults chimed in from time to time to give our perspective, and the conversations continued as we did continue to try to find out who was doing this. What was interesting is that as the conversations about the behavior continued, we saw less of the behavior, and I believe that to be two-fold, 1) We, the adults, made it clear that there would be consequences, and 2) (and more importantly) it quickly became obvious that the kids doing it didn’t have a ton of support in the community. Kids were really upset.
And it took us a little over a week, but we did find out some of the students involved, and they are now in the process of dealing with the consequences. It’s targeted, and we also are doing a lot of talking and research about cyber-harassment, identity theft and other issues of our Web 2.0 world. But this doesn’t negate all the amazing work they are doing in the school using the laptops as a tool. And it doesn’t negate the conversations I have with students at 10:30 at night beause they’re working on a project and see me and ask for advice. We could lock down all these computers and try to guess every chat website out there, but that’s not the right answer either for all sorts of reasons.
So we are also leaving iChat on the computers, and we’re still encouraging students to find ways to use IM in ways that are useful, and we’re still not naive enough to think that every iChat message is on-point and relevant, but it’s a tool, and the kids and need to learn how to use it safely and effectively. And we’ll be there to help, navigate, and — when we have to — punish for when they clearly violate the rules.
So what’s the connection between the first few paragraphs and the last? It’s not like we foresaw the specific way these kids chose to use iChat. But we did think that we would have some problems with it. And we knew we’d have to deal with it. And if we had just thought that 1:1 would make the school perfect, a stumbling block like this might have made us question whether it was worth it… whether we should give the kids access to chat programs… even whether giving kids the kind of responsibility that goes with the sense of freedom and ownership they have at SLA was a good idea. And while, yes, as we were investigating the problem, one teacher said what I’m sure we all were thinking, "You know… sometimes, it’s just easier not to have the computer," it was a comment expressing frustration in the moment, not a true sense of wanting to get rid of the computers. She doesn’t want to give up the podcasting project her kids are about to do, nor would she want to lose the Skypecast author interview they are doing in March, and she doesn’t want to lose how the laptops have enabled us to create a community on moodle. But the problems that go with it are frustrating, even when you have anticipated them.
But we did see them coming. And we tried to warn the kids that we would deal with it when it did. And some kids, by very definition of being teenagers, did test where our limits were. And that’s when the community responded the way that it did. That’s been the good that has come from a lousy situation — watching the community look at a situation and assert its values. With luck, now that the adults also have done their job and stepped in and identified and, yes, punished several of the students involved, we have also shown were limits were and what the consequences are. That’s important too, as much as I hate doing it. It allows the kids who felt really betrayed by the actions of others to see that we care about protecting the community, it shows the kids who broke the rules that there are consequences, but because it was — in my opinion, a reasoned, rational reaction that involved only kids we could prove were engaging in the behavior, it meant that — I hope — we (the adults) showed respect for the rest of the community and didn’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
In the end, of course, this is about much more than how a few students used their laptops. It’s about the culture of SLA, and how we create an open culture where kids aren’t just told what to do, but have a lot of ability to make decisions in a caring community. There’s a Vaclav Havel quote that speaks powerfully to this whole issue:
"Freedom is only one side of the coin, where the other side is represented by responsibility."
We try every day to teach that. In one of my posts on SLA Talk to the kids, I used that quote specifically, and it might go in Version 2.0 of the Family Handbook, just so it’s really out there. And it reminds me every day of my responsibilities to teach the kids that — and that includes teaching consequences to actions. And it means that we always have to consider what we’ll do when high school kids — as they are wont to do — test the limits of their freedom and shirk their responsibility to the greater community. But it also reminds us of our own values and how we have to strike that balance, and not take away the kids freedom to express themselves, freedom to make decisions, freedom to take ownership in our community, because that is our best idea, but rather, we just have to make sure we teach — and embody ourselves — the responsibility that goes with that.