Good Work Conference: Developing Responsible, Caring, and Balanced Youth

I had the greatest pleasure of attending a Good Work Conference: Developing Responsible, Caring, and Balanced Youth ( at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham this weekend. The conference was made possible by Project Zero Perspectives ( at the Education School at Harvard University in partnership with CASIE Online ( The conference was also almost NOT made possible by the weather!! It too me 2 hours to drive my MINI through the unanticipated snow storm Friday morning from Southie to Dedham. But it was so very worth it, as I expected it to be!

The conference engaged me and about 200 other participants in discussions and reflections on how to help young people deal with the ethical and moral dilemmas they encounter in their digital world and how we as educators can equip them with the integrity, bravery, empathy, and power they will need to be good citizens.

I was especially excited to attend this conference because the Good Work Project was the foundation for my own Masters thesis in 2009 and I have incorporated Good Work into all of my curricula since. The mission – to help adolescents understand the power that they have to positively impact their communities by making new media, not just consuming it. Like many educators during the rapid rise in the use of social media, I also began to explore how to educate my high school students about the consequences of some of their online behavior. In one of my smaller Media Literacy classes at TechBoston Academy, a group of 11th grade students and I created our own Ning, where the students developed the acceptable use policy and behavior guidelines of the community and chose the consequences for “bad behavior.” We began the course looking first at ourselves offline by taking cameras into our homes and neighborhoods and writing “I am from…” poems that express our identities in the real world. Through classroom and online discussion, we then talked about the differences, if any, between their profiles, beliefs and behavior offline and online, and that of their peers. After that year, I began my career at the Boston Renaissance School as the IT Director, and so although my focus turned to more administrative tasks and leadership in education, I still had my group of students after school, called the TechSperts, with whom I could continue to explore these themes. I taught these 4th, 5th and 6th grade students Internet Safety skills and knowledge, computational thinking and game design, all under the umbrella of the mission to produce good workers who understand good play. The findings from the Good Play project, therefore, that are on a MUCH larger scale – over 100 students and 40 adults – have always been of interest to me.

I was able to meet Carrie James and Katie Davis, researchers at Project Zero and on the Good Play project, and attend one of their workshops, “Exploring Digital Ethics and New Media Literacies.” The class was extremely engaged and I think also shared my sentiment at the end that we could have gone on all afternoon with the activity! We discussed the kinds of online activities that raise moral or ethical issues and organized them into the five ethical fault lines in digital life defined by the Good Play project:
1) identity – when does the identity online cross over into deception?
2) privacy – what are the boundaries of sharing something public vs private?
3) ownership and authorship – issues of plaigarism, copyright, and piracy
4) credibility – how do you judge someone as credible online? Even if you know the person, how do you know that what they share is true or authentic?
5) participation – what are norms of behavior and how are they maintained?

Many of the workshop’s members expressed their concern about the immediacy of sharing online and the loss of reflection or forethought before posting to what could be a large-scale audience, especially if it goes viral. Speaker and civic education expert, Danielle Allen, had brought the “boundlessness” of action intrinsic to using digital media to our attention in her presentation on Day 1, and wrestled with how we as educators can prepare young people to handle that kind of response if it happens. Any one of our students could publish a video expressing their belief in something and it could go viral, so how do we help young people respond to the scale, power, and speed of that kind of action with integrity, bravery, and self-discipline? There are adults who can’t even handle it properly!

I was surprised to think more critically about mom’s blogs, too. One member of our workshop, who is a mom, expressed her concern about the lack of guidelines for new moms using digital media. So many moms (and dads) share so many photos of their children online, and although they may be posted within their private social circles, they are still being posted, and essentially, that parent has decided to begin building that child’s digital footprint. I was given an album of my baby pictures and then I could decide what to do with it. Today’s babies are having their photos shared, or even made into a viral video that ends up in a commercial, without their permission. So it was refreshing to hear a young parent recognize the dilemma. As one student from the Youth Underground quoted a parent from Betsy Bard’s book of interviews 6 Years Online, “Look at my cuuuuuute baby! But, wait, who IS looking at my baby? Doesn’t my son have the right to his own privacy? Who am I to make decisions about my son’s privacy?”

We were then given a moral dilemma and 3 responses from 3 different students in the study, and we were asked to reflect on their decision making process – How do youth think about their online lives? (and in relation to their offlinelives) How do they make choices online? How do they respond to dilemmas? Carrie and Katie described the three ways of thinking that each youth experiences:
1) consequence thinking: what will happen to me as a result of this action? Are the rewards worth the risks?
2) moral thinking: consider the impact of your actions on known others (other people’s feelings) and show empathy
3) ethical thinking: your actions can have an impact on a larger group that you had not considered, such as your school, nation, world.

It was clear that most of the young people interviewed had thought about themselves, the individual, first and the effects of their actions on others second. It was also apparent that no matter how many privacy settings we may put in place on our own social media accounts, there is a considerable lack of control of what others share. For example, I could go to a party the night before a big game and be snapped in the background of a photo that was then posted on Facebook, and even though I was not tagged so that my friends did not see the tagged photo on my profile, anyone of the poster’s friends who recognized me would know that I was there.

One post-it asked “Is it ok to break the rules if you don’t get caught?” My mother always told me “be sorry before it happened” and “you’re only sorry you got caught.” She scolded me for not thinking about the consequences of my actions before acting, but I was lucky that the effects of my mistake were contained within the context of the few people involved. In the digital world, however, my mistake could be amplified on a much larger scale. That would have made me MUCH more sorry I got caught, mom!

This is not to say, however, that all young people these days over share information, or can’t distinguish between what to share publicly and what to keep private, or can’t engage in respectful dialogue online. We had the pleasure of hearing from a panel of some high school students who very much had made thoughtful decisions about how they behave online, but it was also clear that they still have questions and will continue to struggle with the dilemmas that we all deal with in digital media. Some didn’t have a Facebook or a Twitter account while others create accounts in every new social media tool that comes along. Some thought social media helped them engage in deeper discussions about topics than they would offline, while others didn’t feel the need to post their opinions online. Some thought it was cool to connect with their teachers on Twitter – it “humanizes them” – while others didn’t like having to be more careful about what they shared because of being friends, or friends of friends, with teachers.

Founder of Design for Change, Kiran Sethi, wrapped up Day 1 with her inspirational message that is summed up in 2 words: “I CAN!” She was motivated to change her son’s educational experience in India when he came home from school one day suddenly saying “the teacher said I can’t.” She has made it her mission to instill the “I CAN!” attitude in young people all over the world to not only be what they want to be but to be able to help others be what they want to be, by making changes in the world now, as young people. The Design for Change curriculum is implemented in over 100 countries, and its web site is an inspiring community of sharing the good work that kids can do.

I was also able to attend founder, Justin Reich’s workshop, where we were asked “What does awesome look like?” Instead of focusing on what technology can ruin in a child’s life, ask instead what is awesome about it, and where do we want our students to be? We looked at to what degree young people are different and acknowledged that kids are not doing less stuff, they’re just doing different stuff. He asks educators to not see the loss of what kids used to do and don’t do now, but instead see the gains in what kids are doing now. Technology integration can sometimes lead teachers away from the learning goals of the lesson. One student on the panel later that day remarked that one of his teachers uses a chalkboard, “…and that’s awesome! I don’t want him to change that!” while in another one of his classes, a teacher uses a smart board effectively to help collect and distribute classroom notes. Justin posed two questions to educators: To what extent does technology allow us to create learning environments that are truly different? To what extent does technology allow us to do old things faster or more easily? I left thinking about how much more control of their own learning young people have these days, and realized that this is probably super scary for most teachers. BYOD models greatly increase the variety of and inequity to problem-solving tools that kids can have access to, so how does a teacher prepare an assignment that integrates with the unanticipated and ever-changing types and numbers of resources while still being a challenging and meaningful problem to solve? I also left the workshop with this declaration from Justin: “Our iPhone 5 will be their Commodore 64!” YIKES!!

We heard a panel discuss how to teach children not only to feel empathy but to translate it into action. Harvard professor Richard Weissbourd moderated the panel which included
Karen Campbell, Parent Proof blogger and Brookline Parent Education Network founder, Erika Guy, Nobles & Greenough Dean of Students, and Shelly London, Family Dinner Project founder. It was a pleasure to meet Shelly London, who co-founded the ethical video game, Quandary, that was launched last summer by the Learning Games Network, a spin-off of MIT’s Education Arcade. Quandary was developed by a team of experts across the fields of child development, social and emotional learning, moral development and game design. Scholars from Harvard and Tufts University devised a prototype that was tested for viability. Designers at the MIT Education Arcade and the Learning Games Network refined the game, which was produced by FableVision, an award-winning digital production and learning company. Quandary provides a framework for how to approach ethical decision-making without telling players what to think. I learned about Quandary last summer when I attended the Game Design Boot Camp and expressed my interests in teaching moral and ethical thinking through video game play. Peter Stidwill presented at the Good Work project and gained some great feedback from educators about the game and its application in the classroom.

We were all entranced by famous Finnish philosopher Esa Saarinen’s presentation (“I’m a famous guy in Finland. This is funny. But it’s a fact.”) where we were challenged to help our students achieve the “magical uplift” to an elevated state of thinking – thinking about love, beauty, empathy, justice…the bigger picture that too often is postponed in the face of the everyday task lists (what do I have to do?) and the competitive pursuit of the goodies (what do I want?). I heard the audience snicker when he posted a photo of Lady Gaga and her quote that she is trying to “figure out a way to make it cool or normal to be kind and loving.” But I think the eyes stopped rolling when he remarked that, when he saw her in concert and observed the way she approached two fans in her audience, “It is a possibility for a pop star to think on the upscale level and actually be…loving.” In our Good Play workshop we discussed the humanization of celebrities as a result of social media and the possible deterioration of hero worship that may in fact help young people understand and be empowered by the good work that is possible by the collective actions of a group of people, rather than be discouraged by the improbability of their own stardom, and thus feel a lack of individual efficacy.

Overall I thought that the Conference was wonderfully organized into a variety of engaging presentations – lectures, panel discussions, interviews, and videos – by some of the world’s leading researchers, philosophers, educators, philanthropists, and activists in education. It was a joy to meet in person so many of the researchers who have shaped my teaching and thinking and to meet so many people who are as passionate about increasing the incidents of good work, good play, and good citizenship in the world. You can check out my tweets live from the 2 days that I attended at lisakatesspace, #pzgw.

I am left with one essential question from Howard Gardner: how will you take what you have learned this weekend and translate it into action?

To that I say…stay tuned… ( :

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