Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This Digital Life - October 2011's East Side Monthly Column

My education column in October's East Side Monthly focuses not on school but on learning as it happens throughout our lives--in this case, learning as a family about ways to live safely and confidently in the digital world. It's not yet online as I write this though it may be as you read this--click on the link back there in the previous sentence to see it in context once it's available, or keep reading.

This Digital Life 

Recently, our family traveled internationally. My kids left the country for the first time, a fantastic experience that allowed them to see the world from an alternative perspective, hear the business of daily life conducted in a different language, and, because we didn’t purchase international data plans for our phones, interact rather more than usual with their father and me. This unanticipated benefit revealed how habitually we tend to peek at email and other information served up on our little handheld devices. This is a real boon, as it untethers us from our desks, but it also chips away at sustained interactions with our kids—not to mention each other and the world around us—in ways of which I had not been particularly thoughtful.

Now that we’re back in Providence with data flowing freely, I’m incorporating aspects of lessons learned from our analog week to our daily lives. After absorbing the insight my inadvertent or intentional uses of interactive technology teach my kids about the role and value of technologically mediated communication, I’m committed to spending far less time and attention monitoring messages while we’re together. This, of course, increases my chances of thinking an uninterrupted thought, and one of those thoughts prompted me to wonder about the ways family members can learn from each other about our increasingly digital lives.

To get my head around this issue, I connected with local experts Trevor O’Driscoll, Wheeler Middle School’s dean and creator of Wheeler Middle School’s parent technology handbook, Anisa Raoof, founder and publisher of, and David Niguidula, educational technology researcher and founder of Ideas Consulting. In addition to their professional perspectives, they live what they learn: O’Driscoll, Raoof, and Niguidula are parents of kids ranging in age from preschool to college. Here are some of the takeaways:

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 93 percent of children in the United States between the ages of 12 and 17 are online, and that online connection increasingly comes from any form of technology that has a screen. The days of using a desktop or laptop to get online are long past. For many parents and educators, this ubiquity of social media may make us feel like we’re at the fabulous hub of technological innovation—as Anisa Raoof put it, like “kids in a candy store.”

While this newly digital life feels tempting to many adults, it’s the native habitat of our kids. Many adults formed interpersonal and work habits without the current presence of ever-present connectivity.  Our kids are digital natives who can help us understand our world now, and in turn often need help understanding how to navigate it. Parents and teachers can help by “modeling good behavior,” says Raoof. “As parents we need to set boundaries for ourselves. What messages am I sending to them if I behave as if it’s okay to be online all the time? It’s extremely important to have boundaries that apply to everyone in the family.” The analogy of teaching kids about building lifelong healthy nutritional habits applies.

Henry and R2D2 IRL
At the same time, expressing interest in our kids’ online lives allows us to become more fluent in the online world’s opportunities and challenges and helps parents stay connected to our kids’ interests. All three experts strongly advocated situating online access in a family’s public spaces when possible in order to encourage family interaction as well as visibility. Raoff notes, “Putting the computer in kitchen works well for us. When my kids use it, we can have a discussion. I am right there and they are excited to share what they find with me.”

Online access made visible to parents also allows us to coach our kids to make good decisions about their technologically mediated interactions. The best filter, Trevor O’Driscoll suggests, is between a kid’s own ears rather than site blocking software, and that filter is best installed through family conversations. “First of all,” says O’Driscoll, “You have to know what kids are expected to do and want to do with technology. Adults in kids’ lives have to stay up to date and everyone needs to keep talking. If we never have the conversations with kids, then they have no guidelines. If your decision is to ban online access or install site blocking programs, that will backfire, because when you release them into the wild, which will happen sooner or later, they will have no concept about how to filter any of this independently.”

David Niguidula offers another useful analogy, suggesting that teaching kids about how to conduct healthy online lives is similar to teaching children to be safe drivers. He explains, “You’re in control of a machine that is very cool and gets you to places you want to go. The skills and understanding about how to work that machine doesn’t come automatically; adults need to teach levels of safety and consciousness. We want kids to have the ability and benefits, and that requires training and conversations about behavior and an awareness not only of your own actions bout also about what everyone else could do.”

Your family may already have agreements and ongoing conversations about your online lives. If your family is more like mine and could use some help thinking more coherently about the benefits and possible pitfalls of online interactions, here are a couple of resources: check out Common Sense Media at and the Family Online Safety Institute at In whatever way makes sense, you do take the time to talk with the people in your life about how to be smart digital citizens.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Providence Schools need a clear, equitable staffing plan

With her permission, I am posting a letter that Providence Public Schools parent Lorraine Lalli sent to Nina Pande, Acting President of the Providence School Board, cc-ed to all school board members and Superintendent Susan Lusi. Lorraine and I have kids who attend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, the school that she describes here.

The problem Lorraine outlines - that PPSD needs clear guidelines for school staffing - applies to all schools within the district. Please read Lorraine's letter and consider adding your own thoughts about ways to use resources as equitably as possible throughout our school system. The professionalism of King's principal, Derrick Ciesla, and the school's staff members go farther than one could ever expect to ensure good conditions for teaching and learning, but without appropriate staffing, the situation at King is precarious, and the situation is likely to repeat at other schools if we do not adopt and adhere to clear staffing guidelines.

Dear Ms. Pande,

I am writing to urge the Providence School Board to implement a staffing plan for Providence Public Schools that indicates clear guidelines about when a school needs the support of a second building administrator. This staffing plan is essential to ensure adequate staffing resources in the District's Elementary Schools.

Currently, my children attend the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School ("King"). This school was greatly impacted by the closing of other District schools at the end of last academic year. As a result, enrollment at King increased by about 25% (120 students) to over 620 pupils for the 2011-2012 academic year. When the School Board voted to close Windmill Elementary, it was explained that approximately 100+ students would be reassigned to King School. The determination of King's ability to service additional students from Windmill Elementary was at all times dependent upon an additional building administrator, namely an Assistant Principal, being assigned to the school to support a larger student body. This additional building administrator was never assigned. Resources saved from the closing of Windmill School failed to follow the impacted students as expected. As a result, King does not have adequate administrative staffing.

While I am sensitive to the budget realities of the Providence School District, I am disappointed by the failure to provide the administrative support necessary to ensure the success of the students at King School. While we currently have an unassigned teacher serving in the role of "Special Assistant to the Principal" this in unacceptable and inadequate support for our students. Highly-qualified professionals should be serving as administrative leaders in our buildings.

At this point in time, it appears that the District leadership is unwilling to make an affirmative statement about when a school should have additional administrative support. That is why I urge the Providence School Board to adopt guidelines for administrative staffing of schools. Best practices from the National Association of Elementary School Principals indicate that an assistant principal should be assigned where enrollment is over 400 students. Past District practice was to assign assistant principals where enrollment was over 500 students (i.e., Veazie Street Elementary). If the District is unwilling to assign administrate support where it is so clearly needed, then the School Board must establish a policy that dictates when an assistant principal is necessary.

The students of King School need the support of highly qualified teachers and administrators. While I have complete confidence in our Principal, Derrick Cielsa, additional administrative support is needed to service a school of our size. This week, I learned that one of our strongest building staff members, Reading Specialist Susan Martin, has been hired as an Assistant Principal at Woods-Young Elementary School. Ms. Martin has been at King for 11 years, providing essential support for the under-resourced King school above and beyond her assigned duties. The loss of Ms. Martin makes the need for additional administrative support at King even more urgent.

Some important factors to consider about King School:
  • Our current enrollment is well over 600 students. This includes two self-contained special education classrooms and an inclusion class at each grade level.
  • Since last year, we have an additional 120 students, increasing our student population by approximately 25%. Increases were heavier at the higher grades levels, with a doubling in size of the fourth and fifth grades.
  • We have 7 new faculty members, with at least one new faculty member in each grade from first to fifth. Our overall faculty size increased by over 10%.
  • Although we have met AYP, last year 30% of our students did not meet proficiency in reading and 53% were below proficiency in math. We must continue to make academic improvements and need the full support of the District to continue our progress.
  • The latest InfoWorks data indicates that 71% of our students qualified for free or reduced lunch.
  • Our school is over 80% diverse. We have the one of the highest (if not the highest) percentage of African-American students, at 40%.
As a parent, I urge the School Board to take a leadership position in defining adequate staffing levels for our elementary schools by adopting a staffing plan for the District's elementary schools.

Thank you,

Lorraine Lalli

Monday, September 19, 2011

City Council teachers contract hearings this week - please participate!

I am passing on a message from Karina Wood, executive director of Better Providence, about several important public education-related meetings happening this week. Please attend if you can and help spread the word. Thanks!

FYI, also from Better Providence, you can download and read the full text of the proposed teachers' contract here (PDF download).

From Karina:

It is super-important that lots of parents from all across Providence come to the following Council hearings and meetings this week at City Hall and speak out on the teachers contract.

Issues to raise could include: 
  • teacher hiring policy: is the Criterion-Based Hiring (interview) agreement in this contract null and void because all vacancies will be filled internally with the teachers who currently have no positions?
  • no recess time allocated in school day
  • abolition of site-based management
  • no parent-teacher meetings required in school year
  • school day lengthened by just 5 minutes this year and to just 15 mins in 3 years' time
  • no improvement in restoring art and music to our schools 
MONDAY, 9/19, 5:30pm: The Education Subcommittee Hearing is at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19, City Hall, 3rd floor, on TEACHER HIRING PRACTICES as codified in the new teachers contract. Public comment will be taken. Parents and all PVD residents are encouraged to attend, express your views and ask questions.

TUESDAY, 9/20, 5:00pm: Council Finance Committee meets, 3rd floor conference room, City Hall -- Council's Internal Auditor will present FISCAL AUDIT OF THE NEW TEACHERS CONTRACT.

WEDNESDAY, 9/21, 5:30pm: PUBLIC HEARING ON THE TEACHERS CONTRACT, City Council Chambers, 3rd Floor, City Hall. Parents and all PVD residents encouraged to give public comment.

If you can only come on one night, the most important one is the PUBLIC HEARING on the Teachers Contract on WEDNESDAY, 9/19, 5:30pm.

Please let me know if you are able to come and please forward this information to others.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Help Save Central Falls' Library! Adams Memorial Library Gala, September 30

Please join my friends from Leadership Rhode Island and many others at Central Falls' Adams Memorial Library Gala on September 30 at 6:30pm. It's going to be a fabulous night for a cause that could  not be better. As Central Falls struggles financially, services are being cut and its library is at immediate risk of closing. Here's some of what you will enjoy at the Gala and ways to help:
The Fundraiser will be held on Friday, September 30, 2011 at the Adams Memorial Library, 205 Central Street in Central Falls. The evening will begin at 6:30PM with live entertainment by Steve Palumbo, music by Broad Street Ceilli Band featuring members of Pendragon & Freinds, hors d'oeuvres by Tom's Market, open bar from Bartending by Dennis, special appearances by Big Nazo and Ten 31 Productions, and an opportunity to bid at our Silent Auction with items from local businesses and artists. We are asking our immediate and expanded community to support this event by becoming a donor to our silent auction.

Visit the Adams Memorial Library Gala web page for the full line up of fun, and please do what you can to lend your support. Please join us to preserve a safe spot for learning and literacy!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Never stop learning: grad school job fair in Providence, 9/20

I'm passing and fully endorsing a suggestion from my friend Kath Connolly, who suggests that you consider visiting's graduate school fair, happening September 20 in Providence.
And here's some words from Kath on why you should go if you have any inkling that graduate education might be in your future, and why you should help spread the word:, an organization which is near and dear to my heart, is having one of its AMAZING free Grad Fairs in Providence next week. Representatives from 70 different grad school programs that some how are connected to doing good will convene in Providence on Sept. 20 to talk with anyone who is interested about their programs. I've been to these events a few times and it is a really interesting mix of education, policy, advocacy, research, etc. and a wide range of content areas. It is a great way for folks who are not even sure about grad school, but are doing some soul searching about career paths and next steps. It is really interesting to walk around a room with so many different options and think about what feels resonant. 
Here are the particulars: Grad Fair
Sept 20
5-8 pm
Brown University, Andrews Dining Hall
Brown Street and Cushing Streets, Providence

Thanks for the heads-up, Kath!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Volunteer Opportunity: Inspiring Minds' early elementary literacy initiative

In the September 2011 issue of East Side Monthly, I wrote about the powerful work that Inspiring Minds (formerly Volunteers in Providence Schools) is doing to improve early elementary students' literacy skills in a very big way across Providence. The link to the article online is here, and a version of it is below. Read one, read both - and then appreciate the teachers and adults in your life who made it possible to do so and consider seriously whether you can contribute an hour a week to make a real difference in a young person's life and learning.


Hey, you. Yes, you, reading this column right now. I’m about to ask you to channel your general good will toward children and your belief that education has the power to transform us individually and collectively into action. Misanthropes should flip the page. There’s nothing here for you.   

Have the cynics moved on? Excellent. For the rest of you, I have a specific proposal: go back to school. The best thing you can do to support meaningful teaching and learning is to spend time inside a school on a regular basis. It’s the only real way to comprehend the opportunities and challenges that confront schools and the people who work and learn in them. A perennially red-hot topic of public discourse, education actually quite difficult to talk about because so many of us already feel saturated with information about schools. We constantly see portrayals of schools in our media. Most of us have put in plenty of time as students. Many of us are currently or have recently been parents of schoolchildren. A healthy number of us have worked in or with schools at some point in our careers. 

The evidence that a thoughtful person can glean from these exposures is meaningful, but it’s not enough to understand the specific challenges of teaching and learning in today’s schools. Schools of all sorts have changed enormously since many of us spent time in them as students. Most parents have some sort of contact with their kids’ schools that generally happens during the trailing edges of the day or one-off events designed specifically to welcome visitors. The only real way to understand the opportunities and challenges that today’s students and educators face is to be with them as often as you reasonably can. 

By dint of reading this column, you have definitively established your bona fides as a non-cynical person who cares about young people, but you may nonetheless be thinking that I am asking quite a lot of you. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that you drop everything and start hanging out at your neighborhood school. Please, don’t do that. I am suggesting that you consider volunteering with Inspiring Minds (formerly and sometimes still known as Volunteers in Providence Schools, or VIPS) for an hour or two a week helping Providence’s early elementary schoolchildren to become proficient readers by third grade. Without any prior training or skills--with simply the desire to show up on a consistent basis--you can help ensure that children that you work with have the skills they need to become lifelong learners.   

I talked with Executive Director of Inspiring Minds Terri Adelman about “The Time is Now: Proficiency in Reading and Math by Third Grade,” Inspiring Minds’ flagship program that is committed to focusing the powerful resource of adults who are willing to spend time with kids in kindergarten through third grade working on literacy and math skills. Describing the purpose of the program, Adelman said, “Study after study shows that for lifelong academic success, it really matters that kids know how to read by third grade. Until then, their work is to learn, but after third grade, that kids need to use their literacy skills to gain critical knowledge and information. So learning to read by third grade is essential so that our kids are able to do well in school and graduate as well-educated citizens.”   

Driven by the conviction that the best use of its resources--primarily the human resources of volunteers--is to ensure that all early learners are getting the help and support that they need, Inspiring Minds focuses on younger elementary school children Inspiring Minds aims to accelerate the learning of those young students who need extra support. Working in collaboration with the Providence Public Schools in ten elementary schools, the program pairs volunteers with students who have been identified as likely to benefit from added support. During this school year, Inspiring Minds aims to match 800 students with volunteers, who receive training and ongoing support. In future years, Adelman hopes to expand the “The Time Is Now” program to reach students in every elementary school citywide. 

Inspiring Minds volunteers work with students two to three times a week, though individual volunteers can be one member of a team and therefore spend time with the child with whom they are matched once a week. More hours are great, but not necessary. The impact of volunteers’ work is powerful: data collected during prior implementations of the program demonstrate that children who participate in “The Time is Now” program learn 30 percent faster than their peers who don’t get extra help.

An hour a week. Maybe two. I know how hard it is to find that kind of time, I really do, and I acknowledge that not all of us have it. But just consider the clear impact that an hour or two per week working on reading and math with eager young learners can have not only on them but also on you. If the commitment really is too much, and I can understand why for some it may well be, I still urge you to contact Inspiring Minds to offer your help. There are ways that you can participate in the life of a school less intensively, and the organization itself needs support so it can continue to thrive. 

For many of us, the good karma alone is likely enough. In case you need more, you’ll have the opportunity to spend time in a school gaining insight into the lives of teachers and students today that you can get in no other way. We need more citizens with that insight.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Welcome to Mamapedia readers!

Hi to all, new readers from Mamapedia, which today features "Heading to Kindergarten," a version of the starting kindergarten post I shared here recently. And to returning readers, too, of course. Thanks, nice people at Mamapedia!

"Heading to Kindergarten" refers to a photo of my son Elias that didn't make it onto the page, so here he is! Rather, here he was - this little kindergarten kid is now a tall, confident sixth grader starting middle school.

If you're wondering what's up with no recent posts here: getting three boys ready for and launched into the school year plus, you know, life/work/everything has been what's up. It's been one of those weeks when the business of actually having kids in school has expanded into any available time to write about school.

New posts are coming on subjects that will include the recent education goings-on here in Providence and beyond, helping kids stay organized and motivated in the face of homework, transportation policies and kids' safety, making family decisions about thoughtful interactive technology use, and more.