Monday, March 10, 2008

RE Social Network Sites-An Open Letter to the Superintendent

I want to start this post by saying that for the most part, I am very impressed with the communication I get from the district where my children go to school. If ever there is an incident that would lead parents to have concern, it is addressed right away by the administration. For example, all parents received notice when there was an incident of MRSA at the HS with information regarding the steps taken at all schools to prevent health outbreaks. This past Friday however, I received a somewhat distressing letter with regard to some new district policies regarding electronic devices and internet use. Distressing not because of what the letter said, but rather what it did not say.
The letter began:
I would like to make you aware of an emerging national concern regarding the inappropriate use of the Internet and other electronic communication devices by students. This problem has the potential to be harmful, and I ask your support as we work together to address this challenge. I also want to make you aware of a new policy the district has implemented to help protect students from such inappropriate uses
WOW, emerging national concern...I sent a link to the letter out on my twitter network and was AMAZED at the flurry of responses that I received

Please take some time to look at the contents of the letter sent home to all parents as well as the letter of response that I sent to the Superintendent below.
I WELCOME comments here... What is happening in your schools?

Dear Superintendent.

I understand that with stories like Growing Up Online - PBS Frontline it is no wonder parents have concerns about what their children are doing online. But I was a bit taken aback at the nature and tone of the letter I received in my son’s backpack on Friday regarding the district's electronics policy and internet use. Perhaps if there was an “incident” that I was aware of as the parent of an elementary that precipitated such scare tactics I might have been more understanding of the tone and nature of the letter. I agree that parents need to be more aware of what their children are doing on the internet however as a parent, if I didn't have some understanding of some of the benefits of social networks the letter would have scared me. I think parents are often too quick to judge their childrens' actions and this letter may have caused parents to react in a way that they may not had they had more information.

As an educator, I believe it is our responsibility to educate. The National School Boards Association has publicly stated that safety concerns over online social networking are overblown, and recommends that schools become more comfortable with social networks and seek educational uses for online social networking. Rather than pointing parents to the MySpace homepage, it would have been more informative to sent parents interested in learning more to the parent section of my space . I heard mention that iSafe was being implemented in the intermediate school, perhaps a link to their iparent portal to allow parents to become informed as to how to protect their children would have been more useful. Most of the incidents of kids bullying each other via cyber bullying happens outside school. If blocking these sites vs. educating the students and parents as to the reason these sites are being blocked is your only statement, well that to me is of grave concern.

Nowhere in the letter were the positive impacts of social networking mentioned. I think it is necessary for parents to understand WHY kids are involved in social networking.

For the most part, there are no ill intentions. As a matter of fact quite the opposite. I wrote after the tragedy at VA Tech about this facebook group which is still active to this day helping people through their grieving process. You may have been following the articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding a student at my HS who has been struggling with depression and has been fighting back after a suicide attempt earlier this year. Being able to see the students' wishes of support through his facebook group has been extremely powerful. This Sunday’s article, in the Inquirer ended with a text message from Jordan’s best friend “I jus wanna let u no I nvr thought I wud ride that elevator up to ur apartment ever again…N I felt for the first time today I really got my boy back”. Am I advocating that there be no policy? Absolutely not, I just think that we need to recognize that there are positive implications of the use of these tools and work to educate everyone of all sides. When our district is worried about drug and alcohol use by students, we do not simply prohibit likenesses of drugs & alcohol in school and have punitive actions, we educate on the risks of drug and alcohol use outside of school. I would love to see this situation proactively handled. Perhaps the creation of a student group like SADD that can not only peer-educate students about appropriate uses of the Internet but provide information for parents as well would be a more positive step.

In the spirit of education, I wanted to share with you some information for parents regarding internet safety that I have collected.

I hope that you will take some time to share some of these resources within the district. I would be happy to offer some informational sessions for parents. I think that dialogue around this issue is so important

Thanks in advance for your time
Kristin Hokanson
------FOR MY READERS-------
if you have made it this far, PLEASE leave me some comments with your thoughts


  1. It's ironic that the district pointed out in their letter that students don't always report bullying for fear that they will be banned from the internet in a letter about banning kids from facebook & mySpace.

    I agree with your point wholeheartedly, but would take it a step further and say that we have an absolute RESPONSIBILITY to educate students about how to use the sites responsibly & safely. Not doing so is derelict.

    The world isn't going to change because school districts block social networking sites. They're not going away. Refusing to acknowledge them or educating about them is leaving that part of the education to the "streets."

  2. Kristin,
    I agree with you and your assessment of the letter, including its tone. It is too bad that schools feel the need to put this kind of letter out to its community, instead of take responsibility to educate the parents and kids on the reality of the situation.

    I teach English, so I tend to think in metaphors... let's try a few. The PENCIL could potentially be harmful if used in the wrong ways (We all know graphite is lethal when one ingests enough of it.)... So, maybe a letter should go home about the harmful possibilities of the pencil.
    Another, the textbook can portray misguided claims, perspectives, renditions, or historically-inaccurate facts. I think there should be a letter regards the HARM a textbook could cause towards in regard to the well-rounded education most of us want for our children.
    How about the good ole cheatsheet? I hear those are still much more rampant in schools than internet predators, texting to cheat, etc. Has a letter gone home about those?

    Again, this letter seems to be nothing more than a school lawyer saying to an administrator, "We need to CYA about this issue." The tone speaks to that. Now, the letter has gone out... the school can absolve itself from any potential responsibility it might have had in that potential harm.

    Ummm... but the kids still didn't learn anything.

    I think you letter back completely addresses the need for education, and not suppression (which again seems to be another harmful predator as of late).


  3. I think the biggest problem with this is that many of our kids are savvy enough to bypass any filter, any day. Blocking new sites on the Internet is a daily if not hourly excursion. New web proxies pop up every day - there is even one that you can install at home to access from school. If a student keeps THAT site secret, there's no way of knowing what to block.

    Armed with this knowledge, I see no other way to "protect" students than to teach appropriate use, to show them GOOD MySpace pages (like mine ), to model good blog posting and social networking. Just like we (hopefully) do with other social issues in our schools.

    Students leave my school and are NOT blocked (and I don't think they should be) from these Internet sites, so it is preposterous to assume that we are protecting them by blocking access during school hours. Its like saying "if you want to smoke pot, feel free to do it at home, just not here".

  4. I'd also like to add to what Chris said that many of my students have iPhones or similar, and surf the web unsupervised on their cell phones during the school day anyway.

    They are better and better at hidiing their surfing & texting, too. It's impossible to "catch" them every time. (I feel weird saying "catch" here - like they're doing something evil.)

    Also, would I be crazy to suggest that the first amendment right to assembly comes into play here?

    It seems wrong to say that students can't use txt or cell phones during school at all. It seems too much like we're trying to keep them from talking to one another.

  5. Anonymous2:06 PM

    I enjoyed the blog! Thanks! I think it is important as a parent to teach my children about how to be safe and responsible online while at the same time PROMOTE Technology use. We had i-SAFE come to speak to us at our community. They were AWESOME!!! They had a speaker that was young, engaging, and talked to us about why kids "NEED" to be online. They have great resources for parents too. Everything is FREE and the best part is that they DO NOT fear monger.

    It is important that I as a parent I work with my children so they make smart decisions online. I am so surprised to hear that parents do not play a role in their digital lifestyle. They need to - because going online will be more pevasive tomorrow than it is today!

  6. Anonymous2:13 PM

    Why is it the schools responsibility to teach internet safety? Parents, do your job and teach proper netiquette and safety. School can and should block access to any social networking site on school grounds and during school hours. School is for school time not Facebook and MySpace time!

    Why the ban on electronic misuse in schools?
    Cell phone cameras are used in photographing in gym, then transmitted through school and copied on school printers and distributed during school. That kid is now suspended.

    High schoolers partying at school event and captured on cell phone cameras and posted to a social network site. Those teens were suspended from school activities when admin got copies of their social pages.

    *College kids denied jobs due to the content of their social pages. Attend any freshman college orientation session where parents and students are present and get the lecture that they won't be hired if their pages show inappropriate materials and photos. Same goes for underage drinking and other such violations.

    *Scholarships and such can be revoked should board members and trustees find such social pages offensive to the scholarship organization. Many coaches also will come down hard on atheletes portraying inappropriate websites for the university. If you don't represent the school or scholarship in the upmost integrity then you can lose your funding.

    I don't know this school district and I am not condemning social networking sites. There is a time and place for social networking, I think school is not the place for those websites.

    I had to take away three cell phones on Thursday. One was a request from a mom. Mom called school and told the secretary to take phone away from daughter as she was texting during school hours and that is taking away from her education! YEAH mom! So, parents where is your place in teaching proper electronic ettiquette? Or maybe you are the culprit I sat next to in Phantom of the Opera theater production and his cell phone went off and he took it during the mirror scene! There is a time and place for electronics.

  7. I'll try this one more time. Children can either live up to or down to our expectations. It is up to we as educators to guide them in the proper direction.

    I teach 9th graders in Civics. I began using for an online classroom site. The site allows for instant messaging between students and teachers, it can be and is monitored.

    I have only had a few students who pushed the limits of instant messaging, nothing inappropriate, just excessive talking and wasting time. They were asked to stop goofing around and they did.

    After the first semester I was able to open the sire so they can talk with students from all over the United States. The students not only follow the guidelines given to them, they monitor each other so they do not lose their privileges.

    This educational tool has a social platform that allows the students to communicate with each, tutor, and learn from each other and teachers.

    It is up to me, their teacher, to model appropriate behavior to my students. Social networking tools allow us to teach the students how to interact appropriately. If we ignore the issues, then possibly the students may fall into the behaviors the district's policy discusses. Then we as educators will have failed them, by not showing them the way to interact properly.

    Give the students a chance to do the right thing, they just may surprise you.

  8. Anonymous2:23 PM

    Great to see a concerned parent, but as a teacher who teaches using 21st century teaching methods I strongly believe that Facebook and Myspace are a huge distraction, safety issue, and have absolutly no place in the K-12 setting. I don't disagree with you that there is a genuine educational use, but not in the K-12 setting. I would be troubled if my childerns district did not do everything possible to block these sites.

  9. WOW...
    Thanks to everyone for continuing the conversation.
    Taylor & Chris-
    Your comments The world isn't going to change because school districts block social networking sites. They're not going away. Refusing to acknowledge them or educating about them is leaving that part of the education to the "streets." and Students leave my school and are NOT blocked (and I don't think they should be) from these Internet sites, so it is preposterous to assume that we are protecting them by blocking access during school hours. are spot on...Why does this have to go on in school? If we are going to have our kids using the internet for ANY purposes, then we have a responsibility to educate and blocking is simply putting a bandaid on the problem not helping to fix it.

    I hope I made it clear that I am not advocating cell phone use during school hours or opening the floodgates to all sites so that kids can do whatever they want, more as CoachK stated to addresses the need for education, and not suppression.
    My anonymous poster made it even more clear with his/her examples. Parents don't understand what their children are doing nor the implications that this can have on can they educate their children on something which they don't understand themselves. Do you think a parent who understood this would allow their children to post such things online? Of COURSE not! You are right, school is for school time not facebook or myspace time. Tracy I agree that I would want the schools to remove the distraction of sites that are used purely for social purposes, but there are plenty of schools using nings as tools for very rigorous 21st C assignments. Take a look at the horizon project or flat classroom projects or project feel good or teen talk. If I look at the requirements of these projects and the limitations as stated in the superintendent's kids will not be able to learn these valuable skills in an educational setting.
    Sal, thanks for pointing out that if we give the students a chance to do the right thing, they just may surprise you and if they don’t I think we need to help them to continue to try.

  10. Kristen that is a wonderful lett written by a parent. It had great information i it. I just hope the supt. reads it without getting upset that you have made it so "public." You have included AWESOME links. I'm just not sure the public forum was a good approach w/out prior knowledge to your district. Best of luck with whatever your district decides to do. I think they would really like the idea f a panel discussion with experts--And have copies of the information you link to here at the panel discussion. All interested party should have a voice in this discussion-even the board members and the superintendent. Maybe even the IT department who work the filter and decide what get s through, and what doesn't. I don't know why, but I am nervous for you. Hopefully this will only result in a lot of public support and an acknowledgment for more education for all of your school community (including admin down to preschool children.)

  11. After seeing your initial concern yesterday and reading the letter, I'm so glad that you're stepping up and taking action. When I was asked to do my parent workshops, I was supposed to be 'teaching internet safety' but I chose to change the focus a bit to 'how to help your kids use the internet safely and productively while understanding the social issues surrounding social networking' and also inluded a lot of the educational benefits of the internet and social networking itself. I'm glad you found my wiki useful and I'm going to link to yours from mine :-)

  12. School is an institution for learning, exploration and creativity. Each time we take the tools that may open some of that up and ban them, we limit the students. We have been talking election quite a bit in my classes lately and the kids are pretty psyched about the whole process. I had a student walk up to my desk the other day and ask if he could get his phone out so he could show me something. I said sure. He wanted to show me the latest election news that was being txted to his phone 3 times a day. (the student is 13) He expressed that he didn't want to have to wait until the end of school to know what was happening with the election.

    That being said, do we really want to stifle the potential of tools to be employed for exploration and ingenuity? I think most would answer no. But those that seek to 'ban' anyway are caught in a quandry. The problem is that with the imbalance of knowledge and familiarity with such tools, comes the issues of fear that often outweigh the potential benefits. At one point in history, just allowing everyone to read was seen as revolutionary because then the information, the knowledge wasn't controlled anymore. Pandora's box is open ladies and gentlemen and to stick your head in the sand and ignore reality will actually be the situation to be feared in the long run.

    As I have always believed, education is the one great institution that can have a meaningful impact on those issues of concern, but only if all stakeholders honestly and openly address the problems. Dialogue, education and support are those pieces of the puzzle that need to be assembled for true movemnet forward, not banning and fear.

  13. Diana-
    Your question do we really want to stifle the potential of tools to be employed for exploration and ingenuity? really hit home for me. In the district where I teach one of the big pushes is to get students to be self directed learners. What a great example your student is showing.
    I appreciate your concern about the pubic nature of my thoughts. I posted the ideas, my thoughts, here in my blog because I would have done that regardless... I sent the letter direct to the superintendent via email rather than linking her here but I do hope she visits and sees this is a conversation worth having.

    Bottom line, in 10 years my son will graduate and enter a world very different than the one I did. Most likely very different than the one we are living in now. I have 2 more daughters that will follow. When they graduate, they will be competing with kids like Diana's or the one who have been trained to use these tools for personal and "professional" use. Yes, I am teaching that lesson at home, but I would like to ensure that the time they spend at school mirrors what they will have to be prepared for in their futures.

  14. Excellent response, Kristin. I think the only thing I would have added is a request for the superintendent to discuss her attempts to understand the uses of social networking in her own learning practice. If school leaders are making judgements about technologies and taking them out of the hands of students and teachers without assessing their uses first hand, they are not leading but reacting.

  15. Kristin,

    I commend your decision to post this letter and your reaction to it... you are encouraging conversation while bringing to light a common issue in education. So, while you are looking out for your children, you are, in essence, helping many many children! Our district is also using the iSafe curriculum with our students, to teach them how to be safe online. I liken it to teaching kids any kind of safely skills. Do we not let them swim because they might drown? No, we teach them safety skills. Part of the program did include parent sessions at each of our buildings. Thanks again from bringing a common situation to light! Kudos for sticking up for what you know is best for your kids... and all kids.

  16. Anonymous7:09 PM

    Did you really read the letter? It is not blocking EDUCATIONAL sites for teachers and students its blocking MySpace and Facebook. It is also telling parents to check into these sites. Cyber bullying is on the increase and the hanging incident in the midwest indicates that it is far more widespread than we think. It even happens on texting on cell phones.

    Yes, it is a Cover Your A$$ (CYA) policy for the school. Do you have any idea how big texting is with our youth? A quick snapshot with a cell phone camera and you can have the answers to your 6th period history exam. Plus it can be emailed out to everyone through your phone!

    Do not knock this administration for trying to curtail the playing that goes on with those two specified websites and with cell phones. They are NOT trying to stop the digital generation from internet access, just from playing around and from harm.

    As for being afraid for your children 10 yrs down the road, stop worrying. We all know change happens at the blink of an eye and nothing remains stagnate. Why worry about the future? All parents wonder what the world will be like for their graduates. Nobody is holding this school system down from tech advances but they are being cautious. I think your letter was unnecessary and may just as well be dismissed by the superintendent.

  17. As I stated in my original post, it was not what the letter said, but what it did not say.
    There were no resources given for parents to check out...just a scary warning against all things social.

    I don't think I was as you said "knocking" the administration for trying to curtail playing around in school, I am all for that and am not concerned that and are blocked but when you lump them in with "similar Web sites" you cut out entire categories of sites that could be considered objectionable and yet have very valid educational purposes. I have personally experienced ustream, mebo, mebeam, chatzy chat rooms being used appropriately for very rich, very rigorous, very relevant educational purposes. Honestly, if with a quick snap of your cell phone and you can have the answers to your 6th period history exam I am going to argue that perhaps a better form of assessment should be used.

    What I am seeking is that students, teachers, parents, and administration have an opportunity to explore these resources and the educational implications of CYA policies in preparing kids.

  18. James Surowiecki, the author of ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ has wonderful insight into the idea of collective intelligence. Why does this connect to this comment?

    When a single person’s thoughts or ideas are forced onto a group, you get a very bias result. Bringing a diverse group into the decision making process, this includes all educational stakeholders (cafeteria workers, IT guys, parents, students, administrators, etc…), you will get a better perspective and result than any one person can put together on his/her own. Many scientific studies have shown the success of collective intelligence. There are two hurdles that can destroy the benefits of CI.

    1. Group Think – If you put together a homogeneous group, you get roughly the same results as an individual can offer. If you want to solve a problem, don’t talk to your friends.
    2. Aggregation – If one person picks or chooses what information her/she shares with the group, this can eliminate any benefit gained from the collective intelligence of the group.

    In a nutshell, the superintendent’s letter was written based on individual bias or restrictive information. People tend to talk and work with those that have the same perspectives. We justify this to ourselves by saying we trust his/her opinion. The problem with restricting your views is that your narrow your own perspectives of the issue at hand. This is why Republican’s favor Fox news and CNN draws a different audience.

    I learned a lot on the issue of Social Networking in Education when I wrote a point/counterpoint for Leading and Learning with Technology in December of 2006.

    My opinions on the issue have changed slightly since the article was published. Thanks Chuck Favata!

    Last point, if you want buy in, make people a part of the process. In this case, the superintendence’s good intensions did not look to a diverse enough group before the policy was made.


  19. Anonymous8:17 PM


    Wanted to take a moment and respond to your post. After reading the flurry of reactions to your letter, I still maintain, as I did in my initial Twit, that there is a tremendous opportunity being missed by your district to educate not only the students but also staff and community members. You have absolutely done the right thing by offering your services to be part of that educational component. When the stakeholders have all the information available, their stance on the issue might well change. I certainly hope it at least becomes more enlightened.

    The most disconcerting part of the superintendent's letter is the banning of like websites. There are a lot of great websites out there that can be useful in advancing a student's education. As a classroom teacher who has used a number of those potential subversive sites, I know it is critical to have conversations with students as they embark on using them. We need to have those conversations so the students know what is appropriate not only in school but also out of school. Those conversations will help to stave off those potentially serious encounters students might have in situations outside of the classroom. In fact, when you have those conversations with students, they start to police themselves and look out for each other. I personally saw that happen this week in my classroom and will be blogging about it soon myself.

    Keep up the good work! I am hopeful that the your superintendent takes you up on your offer to open and continue this dialog.

  20. KimWood8:46 PM

    I am so glad you brought this to my attention, and that you are using blogging as a way to educate people..... Thank you for the opportunity to rant my .02....

    -As I said before, we need to EDUCATE our children & parents, versus SCARING them. I agree that the school district should pass on information about dangers in the world we live in, however, the message needs to be delivered in an educational manner.
    -I am not a supporter of excessive texting/phone/internet usage in school, however, I am in support of them having their phones. My high schooler has texted me a quick, "Going to friends after school" "Please bring lunch money" "I am going to nurse, please answer weird phone number". I don't know the details, but if I remember correctly, weren't cell phones used at Columbine to call 9-1-1?
    - We all have to educate children on the safety online as well as crossing the street, drugs, gangs, etc. This is no different. Many happy connections have been made online. I joined in when my kids got myspace! (Great way to keep an eye out).

    I could go on and on and on, but I'll save that for my rantpage :)

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I hope the school district(s) listen! And you are doing a great job educating parents/teachers on your site!

  21. Great conversation. This reaction shows just how hot a topic this is. Just as a personal note, no amount of "protection" kept me safe from the trails and tribulations of growing up. What kept me alive was the conversation my parents were willing to have with me.
    The internet changes communication possibilities, but like good teaching, good parenting is just good parenting. The real story is a preceived lack of control by parents. We used to be able to control what our kids see and hear. The only worry was the TV, and the friends. I get a kick out the folks buying their kids cell phones, laptops, and high-speed connections and then throwing up their hands and saying "someone needs to protech our kids!"

    Keep talking.

  22. Seems to me my job is to educate. I am hitting the online safety and antibullying hard. I have parents thanking me and students bringing in newspaper clips. We ALL need to be doing this. Fear of what could go wrong is no reason to hide our heads in the sand! Kids ARE using cellphones. They DO have them & use them in school whether we forbid it or not. Let's teach responsible empathic use instead of...i better get off the soapbox. Anyway, there are tons of educational uses. My Spanish kids can use both iPods and cellphones to do homework. It warms my heart when learners come to the library to use cellphones without penalty. I would rather have them use them, get it over with and then do whatever the required work is for class. I guess I'm just radical or something.

  23. Durff...
    Radical or not, I agree with you...we ALL should be doing this, but in districts where everything is blocked or forbidden, is difficult to do.

  24. Kristen
    Thanks for putting this out there. I agree that there is a huge misconception about the dangers on the internet. I wonder if the telephone had this much growing pain during it's beginning. I need to do some digging on what percentage of kids face predators on the internet? I am sure that there are far more occurrences of cyber bulling.

    I think the parent responsibility aspect needs to be stressed. How many kids just go to their rooms and close the door and the parents never check.