Author Archives: Eric Wolarsky

About Eric Wolarsky

Eric is interim Dean of Students at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. Favorite subjects include education, technology, the arts and literature.

Embracing eSISO

This spring a project I’ve been imagining for four years is finally coming to fruition: our school has moved to an electronic sign-in/sign-out (SISO) system for our boarding students. After generations of tracking students’ departures from campus using carbon paper cards and a clipboard, we are, bit by bit, moving onto an online platform built for this purpose by a company called Reach Boarding.

Reach is one of the two players in this very-nichy industry (SISO software for boarding schools). We demoed the system of their main competitor, Boardingware, last year, and made the decision to go with Reach. Though we are only a few months into this new world of eSISO, so far I’ve been very pleased.

There are a lot of problems that software of this nature can solve for us. We won’t have to spend hours manually checking students’ standing permissions and collating paper cards. Reach sends requests for permission directly to parents via auto-generated emails. Then it holds those permissions and organizes leave requests for you, presenting data on several different, visually intuitive dashboards. Unlike our paper system, which is archived in filing cabinets and mostly useless from a data-analysis standpoint, Reach will allow our deans’ office to easily analyze SISO data and learn from trends in student behavior.

There are many more potential gains that eSISO will offer us. Right now, students sign in and out for study hall in their dorms, the library, and the deans’ office, depending on where they are planning to study. There are clipboards for that purpose in all three locations. Of course the paper on those clipboards isn’t telepathic, and the clipboards don’t talk to one another, so locating a given student during study hall can require multiple phone calls. With Reach, a student can check-in to a given location using the app, and then any adult with credentials to login to the system can see where they are during study hall. We expect to eventually get our Student Health and Wellness Center on Reach, and we expect to run permissions for college visits through Reach, too. Though it may take a year to get all of the workflows sorted and build consensus at our Quaker school that this is how we want to handle all of these tasks, once that is done we will be saving ourselves a lot of time and hassle.

Our school is a particularly challenging one in terms of moving from paper to eSISO. Many boarding schools are composed of almost entirely boarding students with just a tiny population of day students. And many of those schools are located in the middle of nowhere. Our school is 55% boarding/45% day, and we are in the middle of a dense suburb that is 40 minutes from Philadelphia and 90 minutes from New York. As a result, we have an enormous variety of campus-leaves that our students request to make. We have boarders spending the night at day student houses, day students spending the night in the dorm, students making day trips on foot to the shopping center across the street, students being driven to destinations by their parents, students being driven by other students, and on and on. Reach can handle all of those different leave types, but building those workflows takes time, and replacing the paper system with an electronic one causes lots of small changes that some people find unwelcome or confusing.

Imagine what it was like to drop your child off at boarding school in the year 1900. There was no ubiquitous electronic communication, so you kept in touch with your child via snail mail. If the school wanted to take your child on a field trip, they were in loco parentis, and they just did it. You found out about it when your son or daughter came home for the Christmas holiday. Not surprisingly, boarding schools have mostly worked on a system of standing permissions. Parents fill out of a form telling the school what their child can and can’t do, and if they need a special permission, you get the parent on the phone. ESISO moves the industry away from standing permissions and into a world in which parents must click that they approve of their child’s plans each and every time they want to leave campus. (Well, only for riskier leave types. We don’t ask for parental permission when students walk off campus to local destinations.) Reach makes it easy for parents to keep track of what their children are doing while away at school, and it gives them the ability to approve or not approve their child’s plans each and every time. Early feedback from parents since we started rolling out Reach has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of them were tired of our antiquated carbon paper system, so anything that replaced it would have made them happy. But a number of parents have shared with me that they specifically like the way in which Reach allows them to know more about what their kids are up to, and they find the email interface easy to use.

Reach isn’t perfect, so not everything has been a bed of roses. The mobile apps need work to become more intuitive, and some students are having login problems. Reach doesn’t really know what to do with day students, so they are treated like boarders with their dorm being “day student.” Despite these and other cavils, I’m overwhelmingly enthused about what Reach is providing to our deans’ office, and I know that the company is working to improve the platform all the time. I can’t wait to see where we are a year from now when we’ve truly deployed Reach fully across the school.

Digital Distractions vs. Substances

For the last few weeks the article “Are teenagers replacing drugs with smartphones” from the NYTimes has been lingering in my mind. Written by Matt Richtel and published on 3.13.17, the article explores the theory that substance abuse has declined among teenage students over the last decade because the time they would have used to experiment with drugs has been squeezed out by all the time they are spending on their mobile devices. While the article admits that there have been no conclusive studies done yet to support the theory, it certainly seems plausible — even likely — to me and my colleagues. I brought the article to a recent deans staff meeting for discussion, and our subjective, anecdotal evidence makes us feel like the theory must be true.

The news that substance abuse is down, in some categories roughly 10%, among teens, should of course be greeted with joy. But the idea that substances are being crowded out by a new addiction, mobile devices, makes one wonder if the cure isn’t worse than the disease. I bring a pro-tech bias to my work as an educator, but I also worry that addiction to mobile devices may end up being a more widespread and insidious social ill than nicotine, alcohol, and other substances were in the 20th century. Will deaths caused by distracted driving eventually exceed those caused by drunk driving? (Not if cars are all self-driving in the near future.) Will addiction to social media and mobile gaming lead to a generation of zombies more sleepless and in need of their fix than addicts during the crack epidemic? (Not if parents and boarding school faculty like me equip children with tools and habits to help them unplug at night and during community time.)

I’m focused on asking myself what a dean of students at a boarding school should do if we grant that the thesis is correct. The problem with addressing this mobile-device addiction is that our use of these devices switches back and forth hundreds of times each day among different modes of use. One minute we are using our devices for important work, the next minute we are checking our feeds, the next minute we are responding to a text from a family member, and the next minute we are pulled back into that new game we really love. Teachers can’t possibly know how a student is using their device at any moment, and the temptation to overreact is strong.

Where is all this heading? Speaking only for myself, I think we need greater clarity in our school-wide policies as to what sort of mobile device use is acceptable in which contexts. We must carve out community spaces and times in which no use is permitted at all. Boarding schools need to think about sleep issues as well. (I’m influenced here by Jonathan Crary’s haunting book 24/7.) A small number of teenage boarding students are able to unplug from their devices at night without prompting or assistance from adults, but most cannot. True to the Swiss army knife aspect of smartphones, most teens now use their device as their alarm clock, which means that if you confiscate their phone to help them get undistracted sleep, you’ve increased the likelihood that they’ll be late to class! Wristwatches and old-fashioned alarm clocks are not very popular among today’s teens.

The most worrying factoid from Richtel’s article is that the drop in substance use seen in young people ages 12-18 is not showing up among college students. Those college students are using substances as much as ever. How do we understand this data? Will substance use among college-aged people drop as the current 12-18 year-olds age, or are we seeing something much more troubling? If use has dropped so significantly among middle school and high school kids, but not among college students, that means that we are seeing more college students than ever who left for college having never experimented with or abused substances but who begin to do so after leaving home. This strikes me as a terrifying prospect. Colleges simply do not provide the careful attention to student well-being and safety net that secondary schools do. Therefore, high school teachers must continue to educate their students about the perils of substances even if the data suggests that fewer and fewer of our kids are actually at risk while under our care. We educate not just for the present, but mostly for the future.

The Death of Four Square?

history-foursquare-03by Eric Wolarsky

It’s not too often that great moments in history light up like a neon sign and flicker at us through the ages. The competition to design the new bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence in 1401 shouts out “The Italian Renaissance begins here!” And the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 dramatically signaled the end of the Cold War, though teenage me was too obtuse to understand that at the time.

As George School inches closer to its 125th year, we need only look at the images of its earliest students on the walls of the Meetinghouse to see how much the school has changed over the years. But most of that change occurred in a long, slow evolution, and the obvious watershed moments were few and far between. However, a momentous change is underway at George School this year, and the rapidity of its…

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Building a Chatbot for the Deans’ Office

Summer vacation is a time that growth-oriented educators use for reflection, rejuvenation, and professional development. As a new dad with a baby at home, this wasn’t an ideal summer for me to travel to conferences or take courses; instead, I focused on growing my tech skills. The end result is a cool product that I built to satisfy my curiosity in artificial intelligence: a chatbot.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a chatbot yet, you soon will be, as they are on the brink of becoming ubiquitous. In brief, a chatbot is a bit of code that masquerades as an interlocutor inside a messaging app, such as Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp, or iOS’s native text-messaging app. You typically use these messaging apps to talk to people you know, but more and more you are going to find yourself talking to businesses though this medium. Or rather, you will be talking to bots that are programmed to do a limited number of tasks while interacting with you in what seems like natural language.

Why is this process going to happen? Because that’s where the eyeballs are. I remember seeing a Wired Magazine article in 2010 declaring the death of the Web, and thinking to myself, “That’s ridiculous; the Web is still young, and I love the Web. Why would I ever stop using the Web?” But the authors (Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff) were prescient. I avoid using a web browser as much as possible these days and interact with the internet through apps instead. I don’t open Firefox and navigate to google.com; instead I tap the Google app on my iPad. But now, not even six years later, the techno futurists are assuring us that we are on the brink of the next era. In this new phase of the internet, we will interact with all of our favorite sites and services without ever leaving our texting app. How do they know this? Well, it’s already happening in Asia. (WeChat and Line are two of the messaging apps that are on the cutting edge of this change.)

As recently as this past May, it would never have occurred to me to build a chatbot. But about a year ago, I heard about a much-ballyhooed a.i. digital scheduling assistant named Amy, produced by a company called x.ai. I signed up for a beta account, and then waited, and waited, and waited. Then suddenly in May I came off the wait list and started testing out Amy. Amy isn’t a chatbot, but she is an a.i. bot that works through your email and calendar. While complex and powerful a.i. personas such as Siri get most of the attention, the new wave of useful bots are built to do very specific tasks, but do them with excellent results. Amy only does one thing: If you have agreed to set up a meeting with someone, she takes care of the irritating emails back-and-forth as you and the other party(s) try to find the right time and place. She does this amazingly well, and uses such convincing natural language that you would believe that she is a real person.

I got to use Amy for about a week to impress a couple of colleagues at work, but then summer vacation began, and I was left wondering what other bots are out there that I should know about. I began reading every article on the topic that I could get my hands on, and I discovered a young but rapidly expanding world of chatbots. For the last month I’ve been using a chatbot that helps you save money, called Digit. It isn’t exactly a bank account, but it’s very close, and you can see that very soon we will all be interacting with our banks via bots like this. Unlike quite a few bots that I’ve tried out this summer, Digit really works. It isn’t buggy and it does what it says it’s going to do; namely, it sweeps tiny amounts of cash out of your checking account when you aren’t looking, and then holds them in a (rather lame, non-interest-paying) savings account. Digit sends you upbeat text messages to update you on your savings, and you can text message it back to ask it how much money is in your account, or to ask it to transfer cash back to your real bank account

The success of Amy and Digit got me thinking about my job in the Deans’ Office at George School. We are a high-traffic corner of the school’s administration, and we are frequently bogged down in onerous data-collection tasks. What if we had a chatbot that worked on a platform that the students use often, such as Facebook Messenger? Would this more frictionless medium make it easier for us to collect information that we need, such as vacation travel plans? And would we be able to reduce the number of phone calls that we receive asking for information that is available on the school’s web site if people could just ask a bot that lives in their phone? Too bad, I thought, I’ll never get to find out, since I don’t have the coding skills to build a chatbot, and this cutting edge tech must be far beyond my abilities, right?

As a flag-waving member of the Connected Educator community, I do a lot of my professional development through Twitter. And good old Twitter brought me the solution in the form of a tweet from a company called Flowxo. They claim that you can use their platform to build a chatbot without having to write any code. And so my three-week adventure in building a chatbot for our Deans’ Office began in earnest.

After signing up on Flowxo’s website and poking around a little, I tried brainstorming a list of all of the things with which a chatbot might be able to help the Deans’ Office. Examples include:

  • Collecting vacation travel information
  • Providing information on upcoming assembly times/subjects
  • Providing information about sports contests times/locations
  • Answering questions about school rules
  • Answering questions about sign-out procedures
  • Communicating about minor discipline
  • Submitting reports about missing belongings
  • Providing updates about inclement weather delays/closings
  • Allowing students to pull up individualized schedule information

I spent a couple of weeks tinkering during spare moments when my son was asleep. (Time: a rare commodity when you have an eight-month old.) Through a lot of trial and error and ignorant bumbling, I came to the conclusion that Flowxo’s “application” template would help me design successful functionality for collecting vacation travel information and allowing students to submit reports of missing belongings. My attempts to use RSS feeds from the school’s website to move information in the other direction (from the school to the end user, as opposed to from the end user to the school) were unsuccessful. After my chatbot is unveiled, it’s possible that members of the school’s IT team will be able to quickly help me to figure out the things that I couldn’t do on my own. I wanted to stubbornly work on this project by myself, so I didn’t ask anyone for help. (Although my wife, mother-in-law, and an advisee helped me test the bot once I activated it.)

The two “flows” that the chatbot now performs are simple, but they work beautifully. Both gather information from users through relatively elegant natural language, then they fire off automated emails with the data collected. The vacation travel information flow isn’t nearly as detailed as the online form we have on our web-based parent portal, but we struggle to get anything close to 100% of parents to submit the information using that form. If students or parents will adopt the chatbot and enter the information that way, it will be a big win as far as I’m concerned.  Over time, I may be able to improve upon the flow to get it closer to the full online form, but in the meantime, it collects the basic facts that my office needs.

Chatbot

Dean Eric’s Chatbot in action

In case you are I thinking about making a chatbot for your school, I should warn you that there are a lot of hurdles on which one can trip. Flowxo has a great site and provides a wonderful service, but it took a long time for me to understand their system. (You need to hit the “refresh” button on your browser after everything you do, and it took me days to figure that out.) The Flowxo directions also make it sound pretty easy to submit your bot to Facebook so that they’ll let it run in Messenger, but that step nearly tripped me up completely. You need to submit a privacy document full of legal language, plus a screencast of your chatbot in action. I didn’t know how to do either of those things. Some rapid googling helped me get those tasks done, and ultimately Facebook approved my app within a day. After that, I still found that the bot wasn’t operating correctly, and I nearly destroyed all of my work in a panic as I tried to fix it.

The chatbot is now running on the Facebook Messenger app if you want to check it out, but it is useless if you aren’t a George School student or parent. There’s nothing to be ashamed of there. Just as Amy from x.ai does one thing and does it very well, my bot does two things, and does them (fairly) well. It’s the right tool for the specific task; nothing more. I’d like to expand the chatbot to other messaging apps other than FB Messenger, but Flowxo doesn’t yet offer those integrations. (It works with Slack, which is awesome, but we don’t use Slack at GS.) If I could run the bot on the native iOS and Android messaging apps, that would cover something close to 100% of our student body.

As I wrap up this post, there are still a couple of weeks until the start of school. I don’t know if the chatbot will be adopted with love or mocked and misused for the amusement of teenagers. However, I feel satisfied that I tried something I didn’t think I could pull off, and it is now up and running. I’m not aware of any other secondary schools that have a chatbot yet, so for once I’m truly out there on the cutting edge. It may never happen again. (There are an awful lot of schools out there, so I’m guessing some other enterprising faculty members have got some bots online.)

Final note: In the chatbot community, people care about the distinction between bots that are truly a.i. and those that are not. Dean Eric’s Chatbot is not a.i.; it is basically a glorified voicemail automated phone tree type of setup, albeit operating via a much hipper medium. While I was working on building the bot using Flowxo, I saw a tweet from IBM saying that you could build a bot in ten minutes using Watson and Bluemix. For one glorious day, I abandoned Flowxo and worked on a truly a.i. bot on IBM’s platform, but I found their interface to be buggy, and I had to give up. So my chatbot isn’t powered by IBM’s amazing Watson technology, and I’m at peace with that.

The one thing I can do

I’m sure you don’t need me to point this out, but we’re having a tragically terrible summer. More innocent black Americans have been killed by the police, the police in turn have been targeted and murdered, the Leave camp won the Brexit referendum, a terrorist murdered 84 people in Nice, France, the Rio Olympics are likely to be a zika-virus/Russian-doping/inept-government disaster, and there was just a failed coup attempt in Turkey. The upcoming election in the US is a source of dreadful angst. The stock market is at an all-time high, but with bond yields at record lows, this is not a source of comfort or optimism. Essentially, all the news is bad news, and it’s hard not to take it to heart.

Sure, the summer months are always filled with unrest, and since I’m on vacation and have more time to pay attention to the news, world events weigh more heavily on me. Normally the Olympics would be a delightful diversion since the Columbia fencing team always sends some great representatives to the games (this year there is the amazing Nzingha Prescod to cheer on), but I can’t help feeling like the games in Rio may be the economic and human-rights disaster that finally seals the coffin for the whole modern Olympic movement.

When things get this bad, I ask myself, “What should I be doing to help heal the world?” Should I be marching in protests? (Yes, I’ve got the time.) Volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen? (Yes, although the logistics are tough with an infant in the family.) Running for political office? (I have little faith that I could make a difference in our current system.) But then I remember: I’m already doing the one, best thing I can to help make a better future. I work at a school.

The world of the present is seemingly unredeemable, or, if it can be fixed, it will take powers well beyond my small influence. But the world of the future is very much in my hands (and yours!), and working as a teacher is the strongest commitment I can make to construct a less discordant tomorrow. It’s times like these that I take pride and feel relief that I work at an institution devoted to the Quaker ideals of peace and equality. The world needs a lot more of both, and education is how we will get there.

Although I’m about to retreat to a cabin in the woods in Vermont for the next month, I’ll still be managing George School’s rising sophomores’ summer reading and blogging project. Some prescient colleagues selected The Other Wes Moore as the required text for the rising sophs, plus our school is doing a community-wide “one book” reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Thus, even though I and our students are on vacation, we are still at work pollinating our minds with narratives that broaden our understanding of injustice and discrimination in the US. After a year off from the classroom, I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year (AP Language and Composition), so I need to reflect and plan carefully how I can address these two powerful books in the opening week of the school year.

Merlyn’s speech about the power of learning as the best cure for boredom (and all the other ills of the world) from The Once and Future King has been over-popularized lately, but I feel a special closeness to it since I taught the book for seven years. Also, I read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk this year, and T.H. White looms in the background throughout the book. Every time we return to a work of art, or a text, we bring a slightly different set of life experiences and find ourselves noticing nuances that escaped us on previous viewings. The piece of Merlyn’s speech that jumps out at me today is, “you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics,” which always struck me as too strongly worded in the past. The world I grew up in, despite the Cold War that was going on, seemed lacking in evil lunatics. The world of 2016 seems to have an overabundance of them. Time to take Merlyn’s advice and focus on learning (and, in my case, teaching). Luckily, it’s the one thing I can do.

Father’s Day Number One

I enjoyed my first Father’s Day as a dad today. My son is only seven months old, but somehow he managed to buy me a card and a framed photo collage! Maybe he has found a paid, freelance night job writing copy for online advertisers. Kids these days; they grow up fast.

My father hosted the family at his house. I got to see my sister, who was in from the west coast, and my in-laws. It’s a joy being the sandwich generation; I am both a dad and I have a dad at the same time. Father’s Day makes us stop and think about the debts we owe our fathers, but at the same time reflect on the kind of father we wish to be.

Fatherhood has already changed me in ways that are predictable. I can’t dedicate as many hours to work as I used to. I can’t indulge my every whim the way I used to. As Aziz Ansari put it in that episode of Master of None, if I want to go out for pasta in the evening, I might not be able to. (Although my son is getting better at behaving in restaurants, his 6:30pm bedtime is a bit of a challenge.) Still, I knew what I was getting into before we decided to have our first child, and I had been looking forward to those trade-offs for more than a decade.

The unpredictable part of becoming a parent, for me anyway, has been the way in which it makes me reevaluate time. How old will I be when my son is 18? When he’s 30? When he’s 45? How many years do I have to save for his college tuition? How  many more years do I have to work, and how old will he be if I retire early? Or late? How old will he be when the mortgage is paid off? (Because I’m a 42-year-old new dad, the answers to some of those questions aren’t pretty.)

That stuff is all a cliche, however. I also have to wonder: How many years until climate change makes the planet uninhabitable? Will I teach my son to drive, or will driverless cars be the norm before he turns 16? Will the professions that my generation aspired to even exist when he is done with college? Will Congress ever pass sensible gun control legislation?

These questions about the future of technology, the nation, and the globe explain why so many parents of young kids seem to be politically active, and sometimes radically so. Look out Washington; I’m coming to a march near you soon! The idea that I might spend my final years in an environmentally degraded ecosystem is troubling, but the idea that my grandkids might grow up in such a world are unconscionable. Time to get to work on the problem(s).

Some book recommendations for the rising sophomores

Members of our Class of ’19 (rising sophomores) have a summer reading assignment for English to read The Other Wes Moore and write five blog posts about it. Additionally, they must read one other book of their choice from a list of authors/works compiled by the department. The list can be found here. Since the list is long and a little chaotic, I thought I’d give some recommendations.

Each year over Winter Break, I like to read books from the NYTimes “10 Best Books” list. Two books from The 10 Best Books of 2015 that I read over break made it onto the summer reading list: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. I loved both books, but it is the Berlin collection that has really stayed with me. It is long, and since she returns to the same themes often, some of the stories feel repetitive. However, the investment in time is well worth the effort, and any young writer interested in writing short stories in an autobiographical mode should consider picking up that collection. You’ll notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is also on the NYTimes Best of 2015 list. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but the entire faculty is reading it this summer, so stay tuned.

There are a lot of other authors on the list for the rising sophomores that my English department colleagues recommended, and whom I adore and enthusiastically endorse. We put Evelyn Waugh on there. My two favorite books by Waugh are Scoop and A Handful of Dust. Scoop is a satire about the media and journalism, and it is as funny and fresh today as it was when it was written (1938). I taught it one summer about seventeen years ago when I was teaching summer school at Hun, and I’ve often thought about teaching it again. The Modern Library Association put three novels by Waugh on their 100 Best Novels list, the two I mentioned plus the over-hyped Brideshead Revisited. Back at the turn of the millenium, I made a project of trying to read all 100 novels on their (just-published) list, but I only made it through about 80 of them before I gave up. Go ahead, call me a quitter!

A few books that we recommended last summer and the summer before (when the blogging assignment was different and students only had five books to choose from) have reappeared on this year’s list. I strongly recommend Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They are two of the best novels written in the last decade, and rising sophomore bloggers who have written about them over the last few summers have enjoyed them immensely. The Art of Fielding is great if you happen to be a baseball fan, but it is funny and brilliant and can be enjoyed by anyone. Wolf Hall is perfect for readers who enjoy historical fiction. It is set in the England of Henry VIII, and it has spun off an entire industry of TV shows, stage adaptations, etc. Read it! (And then read the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, and get ready for the final book of the trilogy, which is coming soon.)

I was a fantasy and sci-fi fanboy in my younger years, and we put some great options on the list. I’m not particularly a fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but it’s there if you want to go in that direction. (I read the first six books in the series, or something like that, in high school and college, and I admit that peoples’ tastes change over time. I find his work too derivative now.) I’d rather see you get to know the work of Terry Pratchett, who died in 2015, and who is one of the funniest fantasy writers of all time. (The Discworld series is the obvious starting point.) We also put Philip K. Dick on the list, and his writing is so influential, eerie, and intelligent that I would encourage everyone to read him. I guess I would recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a starting point, but I like VALIS, too.

Finally, you’ll see that Raymond Chandler is on the list, and you pretty much have to read Chandler if you want to call yourself a well-read citizen of the planet. Start with The Big Sleep, and then read The Long Goodbye. His detective stories don’t ever quite make sense, but the pleasure is in Chandler’s style, and the atmosphere, and the wonderful narrative voice of his protagonist, Philip Marlowe. High school students often try to write in this genre, so it is a good idea to feed yourself the roots of great detective fiction.

Disagree with my recommendations? Have some recommendations of your own? Leave a comment!