Mrs. Ryan's Class

A Digital Learning Hub for students and parents

Being Present and Ignoring your Device

images-1There is no arguing that the explosion of technology has changed the way people interact and connect with each other. Gone are the days of friendly chit-chat in line at a store, parking lot, bus stop, or park bench. People use their devices to socialize, communicate, learn, and share.

The constant tethering to devices is pervasive in social settings, and is creeping its way into education. As more and more schools adopt BYOD, or 1-1 models, this issue of constant device usage has become a topic of conversation in education. Since I teach at the elementary level, my reality is a little different. I still control how technology enters and is used in my classroom. My school still has rules about when and how kids can use personal devices in school. These plans all have to be discussed and agreed upon by the student, teacher, and parents.

When my students use technology to interact and communicate with each other in an academic setting I still feel like I have control over when and how they do it. We have had several lessons, and I am developing rubric about how to communicate in with others online in an academic way. What I am more concerned about is how people use technology for their personal and social communication. As a proponent of technology, it is my hope that students use digital tools outside of the classroom walls, so then I am also accountable for teaching them how to use these tools appropriately. I can teach students to be aware of how they use devices and help them to be reflective in their use.

In Americans’ Views on Mobile Etiquette By Lee Rainie and Kathryn Zickuhr of the Pew Research Center we learn that “Fully 98% of young adults used their cellphone for one reason or another during their most recent get-together with others.” This survey shows that only 30% of those surveyed use their phones to “retreat from the group” and  78% claimed to use their phones for “group-contributing reasons.”

Although I am also guilty of engaging with my cellphone in social situations, I find this statistic grossly problematic. When you look closely at the “group contributing reasons” in this survey, a large portion of people (86%) are using their mobile devices to post about the gathering on social networking sites, instead of continuing to engage with the people around them with whom they are experiencing this “share-worthy” moment. Here is a funny video of a group of young adults at a baseball game. These young adults were so engaged with their devices (and disengaged from the experience of watching a baseball game) that they didn’t notice they were broadcasted on the jumbo-tron, and as a result, the punch line of a joke. 

In Chapter 8 of her book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle writes, “It is the more mundane examples of attention sharing that change the fabric of daily life. Parents check e-mail as they push strollers. Children and parents text during family dinners.” This prompts me to think about the importance of being present.

I believe that the greatest gift you can give is the gift of your time, and not just physical time, but quality, present, mindful time. Eden Kozlowski writes about this practice of Mindfulness in her blog post,  An Awesome Place to Practice Mindfulness. Here, she discusses the simple ways to practice mindfulness in daily activities like grocery shopping. Simply disconnecting from your device and being aware of how your cell phone use affects other people is enough to change your thinking and practice.

Instead of practicing mindful thinking and reflection, we are using technology as a way to retreat from our surroundings. Not only are 30% of young adults using devices to retreat from social interactions (as we learned from the Pew Research Study), we are even teaching children to use technology in this way.  In the post, Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children, Jane Brody quotes Catherine Steiner-Adair citing, “We’re throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe, to calm themselves down.” 

Herein lies another problem with the heavy use of technology – we are replacing human needs like communication, reflection, and stillness with the easy connectivity of technology. Children, teens, and adults alike have become dependent on technology to relax, de-stress, and find happiness. This idea has made me question my desire to plug into social networking sites when I am alone at home, or watch a favorite show on my iPad in bed when I have trouble sleeping. Although technology can offer alternatives to feel connected and important, we cannot replace the importance of a quiet mind and the need for human relationships.

I recently attended the Connect Educators Computer Association Conference “Break Down Walls: Empowering Learners.” The keynote speaker was Angela MaiersMaiers is an educator, technology consultant, and proponent of the use of technology to allow everyone to share their genius and know that they matter. See her acclaimed TedTalk “You Matter.”

As I listened to her speech at the CECA Conference I was struck by the simple analogy she made to address the issue of teaching people how to use digital tools in a healthy and productive way. Angela Maiers aligned using the internet and digital tools to driving.

She argued that when we learn how to drive, the first thing we think about is not “fatality.” We take the risk of dying every day when we drive but most of us are able to get into our cars and take those chances. Why, then, do we focus so heavily on the risks of using digital tools to learn, communicate, and socialize? Why would we allow ourselves to not get in the car?

During her Key-Note Address, Maiers’ overall argument was to acknowledge the possibility of danger when using digital tools, but understand that as parents and teachers we can drastically decrease the nature of those things if we educate. Maiers said, “We are giving kids keys to the car, and we can’t just block the bad roads. The challenge isn’t learning the roads, it’s learning how to drive. It is taking your knowledge of how to drive to feel comfortable driving in Florida, or Iowa, or Connecticut.”

Maiers argues that people need models, time, experience, and education in order to navigate the roads of technology. I think that we all can be those models and provide the experiences and education in how to balance the use of digital tools with human-to-human connections. Our over-reliance on technology in social interactions is not an addiction, it’s a dependency, and a bad habit. We can teach people to create a more balanced life through exposure, education, and self-awareness.


*Note on the media chosen: I chose to create this response in a written format help myself reflect and practice the mindful thinking that I discuss here. I read the assigned texts last weekend, and attended the in person CECA this past Monday. Instead of writing this response early in the week (as I have done in pervious assignments), I decided to give myself more time to notice, think, and reflect before fleshing out my ideas in a written format. As a result, I think that I achieved a more concise summary of my thoughts and ideas this week. Although I realize the irony, I chose to share this post publicly on my blog as a model to think differently about how we use digital tools as a crutch instead of engaging in real human interactions and mindful reflections on ourselves.

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Technology Throughout Development

I decided to try a vlog this week. I felt that since the topic of discussion this week had a large reflective component, talking through my ideas would be a natural and meaningful representation of my thoughts. I also reference only print media that was easy to refer to in a spoken narrative, unlike past weeks where I have wanted my audience to engage with video content during their reading of my narrative.

I have never gone through with sharing video of myself talking about my beliefs and experiences even though I have tried to do a discussion response this way a few times. Creating and posting a video certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone and I struggled with finding a “take” that I felt fully represents my ideas and is clear and articulate. The video that I finally settled on is not perfect (and I definitely need to reduce the amount of times I say “ummm”!!) but I hope that I will get better at relaying ideas over this medium with more practice and experience.

Please click below to access my video reflection about Technology Throughout Development:


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Artificial Intelligence Past and Present

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a popular subject in the world of science fiction, but how close are we to what was once perceived as fantasy? As we begin to think about artificial intelligence, Alan Turing comes to mind immediately. Turing designed a test that he believed would help scientists monitor whether or not a machine had achieved intelligence.


Alan Turing

Philip Ball, author of the BBC article The Truth about The Turing Test writes, “fictional representations misrepresent the Turing Test, turning it into a measure of whether a robot can pass for human. The original Turing Test wasn’t intended for that, but rather, for deciding whether a machine can be considered to think in a manner indistinguishable from a human – and that, even Turing himself discerned, depends on which questions you ask.”

Many scientists and philosophers acknowledge that a machine can be fully capable of producing content that matches an input, but the true aspect of communication that a machine can not currently achieve is the ability to think, reason, and rationalize in order to answer questions and communicate.

The ability to combine emotion with thought it was makes human conversation unique. In Alone Together Sherry Turkle reminds us, though, that “In AI, the position that begins with “computers need bodies in order to be intelligent” becomes “computers need affect in order to be intelligent.” This raises another question: if a computer is able to combine an algorithm for affect that was programmed by a human, does that mean the computer is able to feel and rationalize emotion? I would argue that even then, a computer does not have true intelligence and could not substitute for a human, thus, failing The Turing Test.

Taking this discussion of AI a step further we can ask ourselves about the future of artificial intelligence, and the possibility of the existence of “the Singularity.” Ray Kurzweil uses the term the Singularity to describe a point in the future when artificial intelligence will become exponentially intelligent, and humans will become one with technology. He believes that by 2029 we will have reverse-engineered the brain and scientists will understand all of the brain’s capabilities, including emotional intelligence. Then, scientists will be able to simulate the function of the brain, and create machines to outperform the human brain. Kurzweil argues that one day (very soon) there will be a time that humans will become indistinguishable from machines through augmentation, and genetic modification.

We have not yet reached the day that humans are indistinguishable from the technology that surrounds them. Honestly, this viewpoint of the Singularity is slightly disturbing to me, and I’m not sure where I stand from both a moral and ethical standpoint, but I found the video “The Coming Singularity” by Ray Kurzweil helpful in understanding the concept of the Singularity and also the the “double edged-sword” that technological advances bring.

Finally, ELIZA is a program developed to simulate human conversation. ELIZA was originally developed to simulate a psychiatrist by responding to the questions or concerns asked by a patient. ELIZA responds to a human’s question with another question (similar to how a psychiatrist may ask probing questions to help a patient arrive at the heart of an issue.) ELIZA works through algorithms that select key-words and phrases for the program to turn into a question.

I found a website where you can interact with ELIZA. I will admit that I had fun trying to test the limits of ELIZA’s capabilities (see below). Try it for yourself!

Here is my conversation with Eliza:

>Hello, I’m Eliza.

* Hello

> How are you today.. What would you like to discuss?

* I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.

> Can you elaborate on that?

* It takes me a long time to fall asleep, and I fear that I might be sleep walking.

> What does that suggest to you?

* I think that I might be under a lot of stress.

> Do you really think so?

* Yes, it makes sense. I have a lot going on right now.

> I see.

We may not realize it at first, but ELIZA is alive and well today in the form of her daughter/student/descendant…SIRI. Here are some questions I asked SIRI today about her relationship with ELIZA.

IMG_5576 IMG_5574 IMG_5571

To learn more about how ELIZA works, check out this article “ELIZA-A Computer Program For the Study of Natural Language Communication Between Man and Machine” by Joseph Weizenbaum from the journal, “Communications of the ACM.”

We can not ignore the changing nature of our society and our (over?)reliance on technology for educational, professional, personal, and social interactions. Turkle writes, Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone.” I hope that before we reach a point of exponential technological growth through the Singularity, we are able to revert back to more basic personal interactions and achieve balance and togetherness in our lives.

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Modes of Communicating

I began this week’s discussion questions with the intention of completing my first Vlog in order to address the importance of face to face communication that Turkle refers to in her book, Alone Together. As I read Chapters 6-8 (and part of 9) and began research about AI scientists, I found myself making connections to other videos/texts and I had many ideas of what to include in my response this week. I experimented with a few “takes” of my video, but I didn’t feel that I was getting my point across clearly and effectively. After much time, thought, and reflection I have decided to complete this week’s discussion response in a blog format in order to include all of the visuals, video, and links to articles that I would want my audience to interact with. I will leave vlogging to another time, perhaps next week with our discussion of identity, control, and hiding.

There are many modes of communication that we navigate daily. In this portion of my response I will delve into four: presentations, discussions, conversations, and internet-only communication.

The Presentation: The presentation as I know it is a direct stream of information from an author/superior to an audience with the intention that the recipients will learn about a topic or concept. In my experience, I fairly consistently find presentations at building based Professional Development sessions that are intended to educate faculty on a new initiative, policy, or way of teaching/assessing. Recently I have viewed a presentation for OSHA Training and the updated teacher evaluation rubric in my district. Perhaps my most recent example of a productive and meaningful presentation was at convocation this year when the superintendent shared funny and interesting videos in his Prezi presentation to engage, entertain, and inspire teachers at the beginning of the school year. Using additional media in presentations certainly increases the enjoy-ability and retention of a presentation from the audience’s perspective.

Below, please see my illustration of the power dynamic that exists in a presentation form of communication.


In this mode of communication, the power is entirely in the hands of the presenter. Presentations remind me of an old-school way of teaching where the teacher is the “sage on the stage” and the students absorb information.

The Discussion: The discussion is a more collaborative (yet formal) structure to present information and elicit feedback and ideas from the audience. Like a presentation, the author of the communication content is in control to lead the discussion and provide a context, however in this form of communication the audience has a larger role. The audience members/participants are provided with the opportunity to interact with each other and the author to gain a deeper understanding of the content.

protocolsIn my experience, I have participated in discussions in larger group settings, and we are often given prompt/question to discuss and then share out to larger group so that we can come to a deepened group consensus and understanding. In my role as team leader at my school, I am responsible for leading discussions with my colleagues on certain topics using protocols that I have learned from my study of the book The Power of Protocols by Joseph P. McDonald.

The discussion is a communication tool that has adapted well to an online format. Resources like Google+, Google Chat, Google Hangout, and blogging have made our participation in discussions more deliberate, planned, and thorough. I think the nature of online discussions encourage participants/audience members to be more thoughtful and take more time to respond than a face to face discussion would allow. One drawback, however, is that we lose nuances like tone and expression that in person discussion provides.

Below, please see my illustration of the power dynamic in a discussion. The author is in control of the content, and can shift the course of the communication, but the audience has a larger role.


The Conversation: The conversation is something that Sherry Turkle might refer to as the lost art in modern communication. Face-to-face communication is the most informal, personable, and perhaps meaningful and connected way of communicating that I will discuss here. In a conversation there is a shared control of the topic, nature, and tone of the communication. There is more opportunity to listen, react, and respond to another person. I have conversations in my professional and personal life constantly (as do all teachers). Every day I have conversations with my team members, colleagues, students, administrators, husband, parents, siblings, and friends. Some of these conversations are in person, and some are had over the phone, through texting, emailing, or online. I personally prefer in person conversations, but sometimes that is not possible due to time and logistical constraints.

Below, please see my illustration of the power dynamic in a conversation. There really is no author, really an initiator who begins the conversation. Both members are equal contributors and have the ability to guide the communication.


Internet-Only Communication: Online communication is perhaps the mode of communication in which the author has the most control. In this way of communicating, the author has control not only of the content, but of the viewer’s impression of the author. The author controls the images/avatars the the audience will see and interact with, and if the author does not like the commentary that comes from the audience, he/she has the option to delete or ignore it.

In Chapter 9 of Alone Together, Turkle presents the struggle that students face to create online identities for each phase of their lives: the transition to middle school, high school, and college. Turkle writes, Each [identity] serves a different purpose, but they must overlap, or questions of authenticity will arise. Creating the illusion of authenticity demands virtuosity. Presenting a self in these circumstances, with multiple media and multiple goals, is not easy work.”

Turkle also discusses the online world of Second Life in Alone Together. I don’t think anyone can explain Second Life better than Dwight K. Shrute  from the NBC Original Series (and my favorite show), The Office.

Second Life, Facebook and other social media communication outlets allow authors of the communication the ultimate control to manipulate communication and reality in order to create new identities, protect vulnerabilities, or have total control over the perception of others.

Below, please see my illustration of a power dynamic in an online communication. Here, the author has the ultimate control, and can choose whether or not to accept communication from the audience.


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Image and Stereotypes

In some ways, I believe that profiling is a natural part of being human. In order to make sense of unknown situations, we lump people into categories that we know. On the flip side, we make assumptions about what people should look like based on the category they are in (I alluded to this in my last discussion about the image of a typical teacher.)

At what point does this profiling become damaging? What are the indicators that we analyze to make these judgements? Do we have the right to make these judgements at all?

In an educational setting, profiling can become harmful to both adults and students. Professionals can be quick to mentally put people into categories based on their level of education and appearance. Students can put themselves in boxes based on their perceptions of themselves, and what societal categories they fit into. This leads to close-mindedness and for students, limits the possibilities that they see for themselves.

To illustrate my point, I did a little experiment with my 3rd graders. Here is a glimpse into the minds of my eight year old students, particularly their view of a scientist.

As you can see from this video, aside from a few of my female students, most of my class views a scientist as a an older male, usually with glasses and crazy hair. Although their depictions of a scientist are adorable, find the limited view of a scientist to be problematic, not only for my girls but also all students who might not fit with the appearance/image of a scientist.

The majority of my students have the image of what me might call a “mad scientist”, instead of the reality of diversity in both race and gender in the sciences. If students don’t see themselves fitting into the “normal” image of a scientist, they will be less likely to consider this as an option for their futures. I consider myself privileged to have the opportunity to challenge this type of thinking in my students when they are still young, to hopefully reduce the likelihood that they take on more damaging and limiting perceptions in their futures.


Dana Robertson

Students also have perceptions of teachers, and make judgements based on their perception of credibility. The video “Teaching Reading 3-5: Close Reading for Understanding” is a good example of a teacher trying to connect to a student population that has a different racial background. The teacher Dana Robertson is a white male, and is depicted talking to his racially diverse students about poverty, and his experiences living in a city while connecting to a text about a homeless family. This teacher is a picture of “professionalism” in his clothing and mannerisms.


Rick Kleine

In another video about teaching reading, “Rick’s Reading Workshop” from The Teaching Channel, a different teacher is depicted working with a racially diverse student population, but his efforts to connect to the students seem to be based more on the student experience rather than his own. His appearance is much more relaxed and casual, and his class seems a bit more informal.

It would be easy to judge Rick Kleine based on his appearance alone. In contrast to the buttoned-up Dana Robertson, Kleine is seen wearing facial hair, a long earring, and a cut-off tank top. Some might assume he is unprofessional, not serious, or lacking rigor and order in his classroom. However, when you watch the video, it is clear that students are being challenged, and there is structure and differentiation in his classroom. All students are engaged in personally meaningful and relevant work, and I was engaged as an audience member. I teach reading workshop in the same way, and can attest that student achievement skyrockets when they are given this type of personal and relevant academic instruction.

Perhaps we are also influenced by Rick Kleine’s mannerisms, and his body language. This teacher exudes a strong and engaging presence, in part due to his welcoming and open body language. Amy Cuddy would certainly notice his outgoing and confident body language, and might argue that this makes him appear confident and in control. It is clear that his students connect to him, and have probably dispelled any initial negative assumptions about his ability as a teacher based on his appearance.

A snap judgement based on the visual appearance of these two men would be a harmful, unfair, and inaccurate representation of their teaching. Moreover, this type of judgement in general presents a limited understanding of the complex nature of identity and ability. Instead of judging based on visual cues, we need to see “what people are made of” before making decisions or assumptions.

This type of acceptance can be applied to our American identity as well. Some people argue that a purpose of public education is to learn how to become an American. I agree that it is critical to teach students about community, and important landmark events in US history. I also believe that students need to be taught about what is means to be American focusing on the reality that everyone aside from Native Americans are descendants of immigrants.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

There is no mold, there is no identity that could possibly apply to all Americans. Cultural identity changes based not only country of origin, but also the region, state, city, and even neighborhood a person lives in. We cannot define an identity for others, but should rather step back to give individuals the control to define their own identity.

In fact, the American identity shouldn’t really be a physical identity at all. I think it can be better understood as a state of mind about freedom and equality (though I would argue that we have work to do in both of those areas). Some people believe that the notion of an American identity is outdated and no longer relevant; they advocate for a more global view of identity. This viewpoint is expressed in Dennis Prager’s article “Is National Identity Necessary in Modern America?” 

If we adopt a more global and accepting perception of identity and experience, we would avoid situations in schools in which students from the non-dominant culture share experiences and language that are not valued in the same was as students who fit neatly into the social norms and cultural model of a school community. Gee discusses an example of this scenario in Social Linguistic and Literacies through his analysis of a teacher’s interactions with two students, Leona and Mindy. He writes that Leona’s stories about her experiences “failed at school” because of the teacher’s inability to affirm and acknowledge the significance and meaning of her experiences. Mindy’s story, in contrast, was “in sync” with the resources of the sorts of school-based social practices” and thus her story was more well received by her teacher.  If we take on a more global view of American identity and expected social behavior based on our collective and diverse culture, then all students’ experiences could be affirmed and accepted.


*Note on the media used to create this response:

I chose to design this response in a blog format because of the flexibility to embed different types of media into my response. I wanted to incorporate the video of my teaching and the slideshow of my students’ work to both share the image of my professional visual identity in school, and also the assumptions of identity held by my students. Had I chosen a traditional written, video, or podcast format I would not have the same flexibility to embed media directly into the narrative that I was granted here.

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