From Fear to Facebook: An Interview with Matt Levinson (Part One)

Today, I am cross posting an interview which Erin Reilly, the research director for the New Media Literacies Project, did for our blog.

From Fear to Facebook

by Erin Reilly

Matt Levinson recently released his book, From Fear to Facebook: One School's Journey.  I had a chance to interview Matt on his journey of moving from New Jersey to California in 2007 to start a 1-to-1 laptop program at the Nueva School. 

This book is a must-read for any school grappling with the questions of what it means to meaningfully support teaching and learning with technology.  Matt shares the promises and perils that he and the Nueva Community faced as they integrated a laptop program. It is an interesting, holistic road map that takes into account each stakeholders position whether it was the teachers to the parents to the students.

Let's begin with expectations... When you started the 1-to-1 laptop program at the Nueva School, what were your goals for the initiative and how did they play out?

I had just moved to Northern California from New Jersey in 2007 at the start of the laptop program, and approached the rollout with confidence that the community, which is made up of tech-savvy teachers and parents in Silicon Valley, would handle the transition smoothly.  Even though most families had home computers and were technologically sophisticated, and the teachers had lived with laptop carts for several years, none of us were prepared for the culture clash that occurred between kids and adults.  Parents and teachers felt overwhelmed by the laptops initially, and we all struggled to figure out how to map out acceptable boundaries, set limits, and also seize on opportunities to enhance teaching and learning with technology.  

From Fear to Facebook shares many of the challenges the Nueva Community overcame when implementing the one-to-one laptop program, but now that it is underway, what are new promises and challenges with the program?

We are now entering year 4 of the laptop program and progressing in our use of technology.  Teachers are more confident now and create curriculum with technology at the forefront of their thinking. The school culture has also been established with buy in from all stakeholders.  We are still taking steps to build a more powerful participatory culture with the use of blogs and wikis, discussion forums, and digital portfolios.  We are running programming and podcasting classes, and further integrating curriculum across multiple disciplines.  The challenge is how to leverage new opportunities with new tools - flip video cameras, iPads (a few teachers have the now and are beginning to think of ways to implement curriculum with iPads).  

Can you share with us an example of one of the most difficult obstacles Nueva has faced in this journey, how you overcame it and the unexpected positive outcomes that resulted?  How did you foster a participatory culture whereby dialogue between all stakeholders in the Nueva Community happened and all voices were heard?

The first two years of the program, we approached the laptop program from the outside looking in.  In year two, we learned the valuable lesson that we had to include the kids in our discussion and planning and develop a model from the inside out.  The kids resisted the boundaries of the acceptable use policy, but at the root of the issue was their feeling that rules were being imposed without their consideration and voice.  We had many community discussions with kids at lunch, with parents at parent coffees, and we held parent education evenings with our very talented Social and Emotional Learning teachers facilitating discussion with parents about how to create agreements in the home.  This turned the tide.  

Parents often break into two sides of connecting children to the world outside of the school walls. One side would like to have less restriction and provide students the freedom to explore while the other side would rather have more restrictions put in place.  In what ways do you and others at Nueva School navigate the school / home relationship and balance between parents of differing viewpoints?

This is a constant, ever evolving challenge and opportunity.  We try to give parents the ability to customize their homes with laptop restrictions, but we do not implement a one size fits all program.  Our Social and Emotional Learning Team is critical to this part of the laptop program.  They serve as a vital resource for parents, and incorporate digital citizenship into their curriculum.  They communicate constantly with parents about what they are doing in the classroom and how parents can follow up at home.  We tell parents that we want to know about their frustrations and challenges with laptops and we want to be a helpful resource for them.  The key thing is for parents to feel that the school is partnering with them on the perils and possibilities of parenting in the digital age.  There will always be different parenting styles, and we learn as much from parents as they learn from us, and it's critical to listen to parents on opposite sides of this type of issue.  It helps us to frame our approaches.   

There is a tension between participatory learning and how schools currently provide a "one size fits all" approach to instruction that can be standardized, measured and assessed.  There also is a certain notion of what the role of both teacher and student looks like which is very prominent in the United States Public Education System.  Knowing Nueva is a private progressive school, do you think the current public education school system can radically change?  What are some characteristics they could adopt from progressive schools to have schools like Nueva can become the norm rather than the exception?

I think there are so many exciting possibilities out there right now.  We can begin to break down the walls of schools with technology, deepen and personalize learning for students, differentiate instruction, and meet the needs of students of all abilities.  One of the virtues of a progressive school environment is that student-centered learning is valued and honored.  Laptop learning is perfect for this environment because it allows and fosters the role of student as engineer, designer, and architect of their own learning with guidance from a teacher.  We need to move to the idea of learning playlists and digital itineraries for students.  With tools like Google Apps for Education, schools can create a participatory culture within their school walls, and depending on comfort with security issues, can open up the school to communities around the worlds.  Also, with tools like Skype, learning world languages can look different and individualized learning can happen more and more.  We need to shift to one size fits each as the operating premise for schools, and that can be applied in every community.    

A graduate of Teachers' College, Columbia University, Matt Levinson is the assistant director and head of the middle school at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, California. Prior to moving into school administration, he taught middle and upper school history for fourteen years at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey. Matt Levinson is the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School's Journey, published by ISTE in August 2010.  He writes and thinks about technology, parenting, and schools.