Meta-Okay

Heading into this school year, a bunch of factors are creating an atmosphere of super-stress for my teachers, beyond the regular stresses of the job (and teaching is not a low-stress job). Beyond our giant and ever-present to-do lists, there are also elements of uncertainty – how will this work out? – and confidence – can I do this? Will we make it? 

Our students arrived at school today with many of the same feelings. Can I succeed this school year? How will things go? Will I make it through what feels impossible? 

In the midst of all of that, I’m tempted to say to teachers and students: “Don’t worry, it will all be okay.” “Everything will work out fine.” “Just you wait, it will get better.” 

It’s not a bad thing to be reassuring – but I wonder if instead I can try to foster the feeling of “meta-okay.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase and I can’t take credit for it – but “meta-okay” to me means “It’s not okay, but that’s okay.” Meta-okay means accepting that things are actually not fine – accepting being the key word. 

I might more formally describe this as a type of frustration tolerance. It’s the ability to sit with things being unresolved, undefined, and still feeling alright in the midst of that. This skill takes lots of practice, and I don’t know if it ever stops feeling icky. Think of how you feel in the midst of a conflict with a friend or family member, while waiting for a phone call you know holds bad news, while grappling with a choice you wish you could undo. It takes self-regulation, mindfulness, and patience to tolerate “it’s not okay.” The more we practice, the more readily we reach for those skills when things are hard. 

I like the idea of meta-okay because it acknowledges that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When I say to a student or teacher, “don’t worry,” I dismiss their right to feel however they feel. I minimize that life is enormously difficult. I gloss over the fact that some problems are unsolvable and some questions unanswerable. 

I want to hold hope for my students, my staff and myself, and I do. Fostering the art of meta-okay is a way to strengthen this paradoxical hope: even in the tough times, we can use skills to be okay with the not okay. We can exist in the spaces between certainty and uncertainty. And in striving to live even just a little more comfortably in that space, we can begin to see a way through. 

This quotation from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has been one of my touchstones for a long time, and I leave it here as a reminder of how I’d like to foster the meta-okay as we travel into this school year together. 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Social/emotional skills, the feedback loop, and SuperBetter

What does it mean to be a friend? How do I manage strong emotions so I can meet my personal goals? Who am I? These are the questions my students explore at the therapeutic school where I teach. Developing social and emotional skills is hard work, and traditional talk therapy or skills work face-to-face does not reach every student. When maladaptive skills “work,” students may be less motivated to change. Finding a supportive community to explore these changes is hard, too, especially when a student’s family context is challenging. We need more creative ways to approach this therapeutic work.

We often hear hear about how online communities such as Facebook and Twitter are ruining our ability to communicate with one another. Teens get into texting fights, parents struggle to keep up with the latest form of communication, teachers try to balance technology integration. But what if we looked at online communities from a strengths-based perspective? How can online communities actually help people develop social and emotional skills? What are the ways in which we can use technology to our advantage in building our ability to have positive, meaningful relationships with others? There is not a large field of work on this topic, but I can offer some related thoughts and insights from the research and my own experience.

What can technology offer that face-to-face conversations or supports cannot? One of the most powerful uses of technology for social and emotional learning is the feedback loop. Thomas Goetz in a 2011 Wired Magazine article described the feedback loop this way:

The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Action, information, reaction. It’s the operating principle behind a home thermostat, which fires the furnace to maintain a specific temperature, or the consumption display in a Toyota Prius, which tends to turn drivers into so-called hypermilers trying to wring every last mile from the gas tank. But the simplicity of feedback loops is deceptive. They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior. And thanks to an explosion of new technology, the opportunity to put them into action in nearly every part of our lives is quickly becoming a reality. (Goetz 2011)

The basic cycle of a feedback loop is data collection, meaningful feedback, consequences, and action. Say you want to impact your weight. You  might collect data about how many calories you eat each day. After collecting for a week, you turn this data into a chart of calories consumed – a chart that takes on emotional relevance through your ability to understand and relate to the data. The consequence of your actions become clear: maybe you need to eat fewer calories to lose weight, or you need to eat more to support your workout routine. Finally, you take action and adjust your behavior based on this new information. The feedback loop starts all over again.

Feedback loops are possible without the use of technology, but collecting, displaying, and interpreting data are much easier with the use of the supercomputers we carry around in our backpacks and pockets. Sites that use the feedback loop to positively impact social and emotional behavior could become powerful communities for change, especially with teenagers who often lament, “but how does this apply to me?” Inherent in the feedback loop is relevance, and relevance breeds motivation.

One such website I believe uses the feedback loop to its advantage is SuperBetter.com. SuperBetter was developed by Jane McGonigal, a game designer who created the game when dealing with suicidal thoughts after a traumatic brain injury. The game originated as “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” which she invited her sister and partner to play with her. When McGonigal asked her sister to play a game with her, it was “an easier way to ask for help” (McGonigal 2012). I think about my students and how difficult it is sometimes for them to ask for others to help them work on social and emotional goals, but how easy it might be for them to text or message a friend an invitation to a game.

“Jane the Concussion Slayer” grew into SuperBetter, a free online game (with a paid iOS app) that uses quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies to help anyone get “superbetter” from anything. The game is customizable to a specific challenge, such as quitting smoking, or can be broad: you can set your objective in the game to “I’m just getting SuperBetter!” Once you create a “secret identity” for an avatar, you then specify your “Epic Win” – or why you want to improve. Behind each of these elements of the game is scientific research supporting how playing the game truly improves your health and wellness. Players can find this research distilled into easy-to-digest articles in the “Secret Lab” section of the website interface.

The game itself focuses on developing players’ resilience in four different research-based areas: emotional, social, mental and physical. Players use “power-ups” for small coping strategies, “quests” to learn new skills, and “battle bad guys” for reflecting on larger, overarching challenges. These categories are exactly the ways that we support students at my therapeutic school, but we do not use the feedback loop as effectively as SuperBetter. In SuperBetter, you gain points as you complete quests and power-ups in each area of resilience. You can go into your Secret Lab and view how your resilience has changed over time and the progress you are making in your well-being. SuperBetter collects the data from your actions in the game, presents it to you in meaningful ways through the gamification/”points” approach, and then you can make your decision on further actions based on how you see the activities supporting or not supporting you. The player then takes actions and the feedback loop starts over again.

However, the true power of SuperBetter is in the community it creates. You can do SuperBetter on your own – but the game encourages and rewards for you for enlisting “allies.” Through the design of the site, you essentially create a social network that is focused on you and your wellness. The set-up of the site allows for only people you have specifically invited to support you to access your activity. Your allies can comment and “like” your progress, award you achievements, and recommend tasks for you. The process brings your allies in and transforms them into part of your feedback loop, adding extra data to the set, making feedback more meaningful, and helping you to consider your consequences.

In SuperBetter’s “secret lab” section about allies, the research about social relationships is synthesized: “having at least two strong social relationships dramatically increases positive health outcomes and helps us succeed in our goals” (SuperBetter Labs 2012). Furthermore, SuperBetter defines what makes a positive social relationship: one that includes positivity, honesty, support and closeness. For students like mine, saying “strong social relationship” would not be sufficient to understand what types of allies one needs in the journey to bettering oneself. The research synthesis on SuperBetter (developed from peer-reviewed papers also linked to in the secret lab) describes those characteristics as well as the benefits of developing a strong relationship with an ally. In this way, SuperBetter not only supports the social and emotional growth between people, but actually teaches how to do this.

There is currently wide support in the field of education for “gamification.” In an article for Edutopia, Matthew Farber describes how gaming elements such as leveling up, achievements, badges, and Easter eggs are used in the classroom. Farber concludes that gaming is “the very definition of constructivism” (2013). The Mozilla Foundation further supports elements of gamification in a paper collaborating with Peer 2 Peer University and the MacArthur Foundation. Learning today takes place across multiple settings, not just a classroom, and in multiple means, not just rote memorization and testing. Yet, “institutions still decide what types of learning ‘count’, with little room or innovation, as well as who gets to have access to that learning” (2012). Badges are a “bridge between contexts” and support motivation, flexibility, and community-building. In SuperBetter, badges are called “achievements” and can be awarded from an ally to their “hero,” further supporting the social and emotional connections in the community.

In addition to the impacts of classroom integration, the act of playing games in itself can have positive emotional impacts. In one study, after playing “casual” video games such as Bejeweled, subjects experienced less physical and emotional stress.  (Russoniello et al 2009). However, these casual games are not social – and do not teach a regulation skill, they are in themselves a coping mechanism. Different research suggests that social online games can impact “real-world” relationship. In a study from Michigan State University, researchers found that people playing games on social networks could practice relationship skills such as initiating, maintaining, and enhancing relationship. They also found loose evidence that certain behaviors reinforced by Facebook games in particular – such as reciprocity – had a positive impact on relationship. (Wohn et al, 2011).

Can SuperBetter and gamification replace traditional means of building social/emotional skills? I doubt it, but I do have faith that using elements of gamification in therapeutic work can engage students. Gamification is another way of making learning visible, tangible, and putting it in the hands of the learner – and in my experience those traits lead to successful learning outcomes, both in content areas and in social/emotional skills. I plan to try SuperBetter with some of my students in the upcoming semester, and to encourage my teachers to use visible markers of learning to support our students’ growth.

References
Farber, Matthew. “Gamifying Student Engagement.” Edutopia. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 2 Dec.
2013. <http://www.edutopia.org/blog/gamifying-student-engagement-matthew-farber>.
Goetz, Thomas. “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops.” Wired Magazine 19 June 2011: n.
pag. Wired.com. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
McGonigal, Jane. (2012 June). Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 years of extra life
. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life.html
Mozilla Foundation, People 2 People University and MacArthur Foundation. 2012. Open badges
for lifelong learning. Mozilla Foundation. https://wiki.mozilla.org/File:OpenBadges-Working-Paper_012312.pdf
Russoniello, C. V., O’Brien, K., & Parks, J. M. (2009). The effectiveness of casual video games
in improving mood and decreasing stress. Journal of Cyber Therapy and Rehabilitation, 2(1), 53-66.
“Secret Lab: Allies.” SuperBetter. SuperBetter Labs, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
<https://www.superbetter.com/heroes/197132/secret_lab#alliances>.
Wohn, Donghee Yvette , Cliff Lampe , Rick Wash, Nicole Ellison, and Jessica Vitak. “The ‘S’ in
Social Network Games: Initiating, Maintaining, and Enhancing Relationships.” Proceedings of the 44th Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences (2011): n. pag.Michigan State University. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Reflections on the case against technology integration

Over the past several months I’ve been investigating the case against technology integration in classrooms – or more broadly, the case against internet and smartphones. Because I’m earning my master’s degree in education with a technology focus, I thought it was important to be able to address concerns and opposition to what I believe to be the great benefits of technology.

Throughout my study, I read Alone TogetherThe Shallows, and Last Child in the Woods. I also kept an eye open to articles and conversations in the education world either supporting or countering technology integration. At core, these readings did not change my beliefs about educational technology, but they did expose me to some fascinating research and trends that those in the field are currently exploring. My core belief is that there is no silver bullet or single answer in education. Every student learns differently and every teacher is most effective in a different way. The tool should fit the task, whether that tool is an iPad or a riverbed.

I’m worried to learn about the ways that the internet may impact our ability to do deep, sustained reading, as I learned in The Shallows. I’m concerned that the internet may push people apart rather than draw them together, as Shelly Turkel argues in Alone Together. I don’t want my children to be more connected to their tablets than to nature, as in the future painted by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods. However, these worries don’t outweigh my faith that the internet can help connect disenfranchised youth, that online access can spark interest and availability of higher education, or that real-audience tasks can invigorate reading and writing skill-building. I don’t think it has to be a case of one or the other, of unplugged versus plugged in, of online versus off. We can support our students in ways that make sense for each of them, and blanket acceptance or refusal of any tool doesn’t make sense for all students.

I appreciate the increased awareness I’ve gained over the course of my study, and I hope it will serve me well going forward. I can be more mindful of turning to the internet thoughtlessly, or how Im’ incorporating play in nature into my classes. I can be sure to balance the connections my students build online with the connections they’re making face to face. Throughout it all, I stand steady in my belief that we need to get to know our students well as individuals and then work from there. Relying on my core beliefs and balancing what I know about the drawbacks of screen dependence, I think I will serve my students well.

Beyond curating and sharing – how Cybraryman teaches on Twitter

I have to admit – at first I didn’t see what the big deal was about Cybraryman.

Okay, he has lots of links. That’s cool, I guess. Web curation takes some time and effort and I appreciated that. But there were still so many links! So many resources on each page! What made this different from all the other repositories of links out there?

As you know if you’re reading this and you know anything about Cybraryman, what makes the difference is Jerry. The teacher makes the difference.

I stand by my original impression that if you come to the Cybrary on your own, through its main page, you might be kind of overwhelmed. There are tons of topics, and subtopics, and sub-sub-topics, and dozens of links for each. The Cybrary is not necessarily a good resource for the casual browser.

But in our classrooms, when do we ever lay out all of the content about everything we’re going to teach the entire year, and allow students to just poke around? I doubt we’d engage many kids that way. Yeah, one or two things might be flashy and catch the eye, but curriculum needs context, and that’s one of the main roles of the teacher. Have you ever had the experience of reading a so-called “classic” book on your own and not enjoying it – but having the opposite experience when read with a teacher or a class? Teachers lend context, nuance, and guidance, and help us make sense of the world around us.

That brings me back to Cybraryman, also known as Jerry Blumengarten. I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Jerry face-to-face once, at EdCamp Boston, but he’s a constant fixture in my Twitter feed. And what Jerry’s doing there is teaching.

You see, Jerry doesn’t just blindly promote the Cybrary at any old time, linking folks to the front page and telling them good luck from there. No, Jerry does what great teachers do – he listens.

You can tell he’s doing it by watching where he crops up during an #edchat or an #sschat. During a conversation about alternative models for professional development, he’ll link to the Cybrary’s EdCamp page. While #engchat is discussing the pros and cons of project-based learning, there’s Jerry with his projects page. If there’s buzz on Twitter around a big Apple announcement, Jerry will provide you with his iPads page.

Jerry listens, and he responds with resources. He lends context to conversations – talking about group work? Here’s a collaboration page. He puts his resources in context – here’s my page on differentiated instruction, since we’re talking about meeting individual student needs. He shares his own experiences and then provides external sources so that we can further explore based on our need and desire to learn.

We can learn some great lessons about teaching here. Students need to be directed toward the best resources the web has to offer. They need context, and the timing has to be right. We can show off flashy technology tools all we want, but without a meaningful situation in which to use them, we might as well not bother.

We can also all aspire to do more on Twitter and in online professional development networks. Let’s not limited ourselves to sharing, curating, and connecting – let’s teach one another.

So here’s a tip of my hat to you, Jerry, and thanks for teaching us all!