First Person

Ask an Expert: Buying tech gadgets for kids/teens as holiday gifts.

Q. What should parents consider when thinking about buying new technological gadgets for their kids this holiday season?

A. Voltaire warned us that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and as gadgets advance further with each passing release, parents may feel trepidation as they think about handing over the season’s latest device to a child. What follow are some special considerations for mobile technology for school-aged children.

Get smart: Smart phones and parental controls

Ninety-eight percent of parents of cell phone-owning teens say a major reason their child has a phone is that they can be in touch no matter where the teen is. Along with calling, most smart gadgets today connect to the internet. Internet connectivity on a mobile device comes with all of the same perils of the internet on a desktop computer — girl on cell phonerisk of untimely exposure to mature or disturbing content, sexually explicit material, contact with strangers, and cyberbullying.

Thankfully, almost all of these gadgets come with helpful parental controls; generally, the more sophisticated the gadget, the more sophisticated the restrictions. Parental controls are built into Apple’s iOS, the mobile device operating system that comes on devices like iPods, iPhones and iPads.

Here’s a detailed explanation of how to turn on Parental Controls in iOS5, from Ask Dave Taylor. The Android OS also has a lot of third-party developed Parental Control applications, and a few useful options are outlined here, by Kids and Media.

If you are thinking of giving your child an iPhone or iPod Touch, check out 11 Things to Do Before Giving Kids an iPod Touch or iPhone, which includes setting up parental controls, setting up an iTunes allowance for app and music purchases, and setting an access passcode that you and your child can remember.

Protect your investment: Repair and replacement

  • Most adults can’t keep all accidents from happening to their gadgets, so consider a warranty or device replacement plan. After all, many of the latest smartphones and gadgets have glass screens. And though it’s reinforced, heavy-duty Gorilla glass that enhances the screen’s colors and the device’s touch capabilities, it’s still glass.
  • Additionally, contact your family insurance agent before visiting the store to see if they would cover repair or replacement costs.

Boon or bane: Mobile devices and schools

Schools have been struggling with what to do with mobile technology, as their firewall evasion capabilities race beyond schools’ capacity to update their infrastructure. Although some schools are making efforts to integrate technology with learning, many are still caught between banning and bonding with new technologies.

In May 2011, The National Association of Secondary School Principals released a position statement about mobile technology in the classroom, urging schools to work with technology instead of against it, and even outlined specific steps leaders should take towards this end. The Department of Education’s 2010 report, “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,” urges schools to leverage technology to provide richer learning experiences, better assessment systems, and to improve student learning and teacher collaboration.

Regardless, many schools are still banning cell phones and other mobile devices for now, so know your school’s current rules about phones and other gadgets, before sending their new devices with them to school.

Mobile devices and your child

Technological ubiquity can also be a new source of anxiety for kids. Close to half of teens feel the strain, as “48 percent of cell-owning teens get irritated when a call or a text message interrupts what they are doing, compared with 38 percent of the cell-owning parents.” The younger the child is, the more likely they are to feel annoyed by their phone.

Developing a healthy sense of balance between the offline and online is a process, and kids, particularly younger kids and teens, could use some help figuring out when it’s time to put down (or turn off) the phone and connect with their surroundings and concentrate on an important task, like studying for a test.

  • Consider the cell phone bill as a starting point for a technological armistice. Further, as suggested in this article from Great Schools, consider having the child  pay for the phone bill herself.
  • If you can work with your child around metering their own usage, you may also be helping them manage their distraction or discomfort their ultra-connectedness may bring. It may help kids better manage their time when attempting to complete any task that requires prolonged concentration. After all, this responsibility shifts entirely to them once they head to into adulthood.

– By Samantha Harms

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.