When A Screen Is No Longer Just A Screen

Ever find yourself beginning a blog post in an atypical place? Ever write an email to a friend only to later complete the reflection on your blog? Ever tap out the seeds of an essay while posting a photo online? I’ve done both many times. What about while tagging something to read later in a social bookmarking site? No? I hadn’t either… until quite recently.

Yesterday this little bit of text floated by in the stream and caught my eye on a very busy day. It was a nod toward an article by Bethe Almeras via the Twitter:

Bethe Almeras tweet

The piece in question is an interesting one. Perhaps it is even more than interesting for a parent of two little girls. Give it a read. To cut to the chase, the author points to the debate emerging among pediatricians, parents and others about how much “screen time” is healthy and wise for toddlers.

For the love of screens

This issue has been around as long as television itself. Smart doctors and smart parents alike soon recognized that staring passively at moving pictures could quite possibly do some rather unfavorable things to the emerging brains of children. That argument soon became bastardized by those who believed Wile E. Coyote being bashed by a fleet-footed bird would create a wave of violent adolescents. Still, there is little doubt that our brains weren’t wired for such rapidly-blinking stimuli, especially during crucial formative stages. Perhaps most importantly, when little ones should be acquiring the foundations of literacy skills, an imagination,  and, well… the roots of real interaction with other warm, mushy humans in the household… TV gets in the way. The small bit I know about biology leads me to that understanding almost immediately.

coyote

The article asserts that while these realities no doubt exist, very recent advances in technology that allow child-paced interaction via the touch of a finger, might change this “screen time” equation. This is something one of my favorite board-certified pediatricians and I have batted back and forth before. The comment thread on this related post was a fun retro read today.

From my notes in Delicious:

Much as I have long-suspected, even careful folks will eventually warm to the idea that 80% of the problem with TV or computer use by toddlers is the mind-numbing passivity of it all. True interaction, where children are pointing the way and making independent choices -particularly within experiences designed to boost pre-literacy skills- can be positive time for even young children. We’re very judicious about how our daughters actually use a computer. We wouldn’t dream of employing one as digital babysitter.

I’m betting there is a significant correlation between toddler time in front of television and a litany of anomalies such as ADHD. The intensity of such rapidly changing imagery coming in at a speed the developing brain has likely not evolved to handle is, in a word, scary. And yet, from where I sit,  there seems to be something fundamentally different about a child touching a screen to make choices and to learn cause/effect on their own. Though quite different from the 3D real-world wrangling of stacking blocks or poking tadpoles in a shallow pond, it can allow child-paced hand-eye coordination while developing pre-literacy skills, etc.

The Spiders Create Tightropes from Bulb to Bulb

The final qualifier

Life is complex. The key word here is balance. The electric lightbulb has caused almost immeasurable changes in the course of human history. Some of these are desirable, some are not. The development of that technology was an arguably inevitable event in the annals of our species. Television happened later on down the line, as did computers, video games, and now touch screens. At some point this new technology will do the same as artificial light; reach ubiquity and fade into the fabric of who we are. There will be good in that. There will be bad in that. It seems to be the way of things.

“Technology is us. There is no separation. It’s a pure expression of human creative will.”  ~David Cronenberg

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of kids being pacified by handheld computer screens as you read this. Let it be clear that this is absolutely not what I’m advocating. Whether it’s a plastic nipple, an iPhone, or a wall-sized television, isn’t too much of just about anything detrimental?

I dont have a formula for this. I don’t have a formula for most things I do as a parent. It’s tough to choke something as complex as parenting into a set of bullet points declaring what to do or not to do. I tend to agree with the Minnesota parent in the aforementioned article who suggests screen time limits are “an easy out for parents.” This is not to say that I don’t make decisions based on research and the wisdom of those who have gone before me. It just means that I’m a rather right-brained chap who tends to focus on the big picture and make informed decisions as they are needed when and where along the way. Therefore, in the course of providing a warm, caring, and appropriately-stimulating environment for my children, I sometimes allow them to engage in self-directed play on magically-glowing touchscreens from time to time. I think I’m doing right by them. Time will tell, but hey, it’s an uncontrolled experiment. Isn’t life in general?

So yes, the bottom line as I see it… is balance. Our oldest girl reads almost frighteningly fluently as a three year old. She’d rather be outside digging in the soil of our garden. She loves the tickle of caterpillar’s feet upon her fingers. She’s funny. She’s compassionate. We haven’t damaged her too badly just yet. It’s still early. Balance.

Delaney before naptime during a Summer vacation trip.

before naptime during a summer vacation trip...

Artwork

*Image of Wile E. from Wikipedia. I might be a tad bit off on fair use of this one, but I like the rationale they list here. Surely I’m as solid as Wikipedia, right?
*”The Spiders Create Tightropes from Bulb to Bulb” by Nicki Varkevisser on Flickr.
*Image of adorable child + iPad is all mine. However, I credit most of the genes for that beautiful face to her mother.
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The Octopus Gets Due Respect

My last post highlighted a train wreck of a children’s book.  Readers of the post typically had one of three responses:

1)  This is sick, but hilarious. It was easy to get a kick out of something as blatantly incorrect as this book.  In fact, my current marine biology students enjoyed it quite a bit.  Those riled enough suggested file #13.

2)  Don’t sweat it. A minority remarked even though the book has glaring errors, none are worth getting too fired up about.  Kids are resilient, and misconceptions learned that young are easily unlearned.

3)  What an opportunity! Several also remarked that this book is a valuable potential lesson to hold on to.  Keeping the book as a media literacy lesson is the best answer.

What can I do?

Regardless of your take on The Septapus, I have felt the need for a review of a really super piece of children’s literature since publishing that post.  I guess I just feel the need for some positivity to balance out the force.  In reality, I am not a children’s lit expert.  I’m as much of an early childhood expert as a terribly curious father of two youngsters can possibly be, but certainly no more than that.  I know my limitations.  That said, I think I have one really sweet little piece of art to share with all of you.  This is a book that is not only deeply accurate from a scientific perspective, lyrically engaging, and amazingly illustrated…  but also seems to be a nearly 180 degree parallel of “Numbers” in so many ways.  (Please appreciate the tattered scans here which show the tough love of a toddler’s touch.)

over in the ocean - cover

In fact, this was definitely Delaney’s first favorite book.  She still loves to have this one read to her.  I’m not bad, but her mommy reads this one like a champ.  Find a small child.  Any child will do.  No matter how far you have to look, find a kid and buy this book for them:  Over in the Ocean in a Coral Reef. This book was written by Marianne Berkes and illustrated by Jeanette Canyon.  I know little of the history of the creation of this book, but it is a masterpiece.  Not only is it refreshingly accurate, and written in a fun and lyrical way, it is illustrated so beautifully that it makes me want to go buy clay.  Seriously.  Take it from a discerning dad who teaches marine biology- this is a fantastic book to read with a toddler.

Perfection

The book called out to my wife and I from a shelf in the exhibit hall of the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) national convention in St. Louis just before our babe was born.  The book came in two forms and we bought both on the spot.  One is a thick board book that we figured she could have her way with, and the other is a paperback that contains more information at the end on the creation of the polymer-clay art that adorns each page.

If you do nothing else, do a comparison of the treatment of the octopus on page one of this book, with the “septapus” in question from page seven of the previous review:

over in the ocean in a coral reef

When looking at any of the pages here, keep in mind these things…  every illustration:  clay.  Illustrate the riot of color and complexity of a coral reef…  in clay?  Absolutely.  This is a serious work of art in my opinion.  The ocean looks like Vincent’s Starry Night, and the lyrics (which correspond to music in the final pages) are quite fun.  And to think- this book is a “numbers” book as well.  Hard to compare to the previous book.  Over in the Ocean truly builds the counting exercise into the structure of the story in a very organic and engaging way.

In Over in the Ocean, parrotfish “grind,” clownfish “dart,” stingrays “stir,” pufferfish “puff,” dophins “jump,” angelfish “graze,” needlefish “skitter,” grunts “grunt,” and seahorses “flutter.”  The octopus has eight tentacles.  Parrotfish grind coral.  Stingrays stir in sandflats.  Emperor angelfish look exactly like emperor angelfish.  Bluestriped grunts, both mommy and babies look precisely and act exactly like Haemulon sciurus-  just ask my marine biology students.

Connections

Of course before publishing this post, I wanted to ask explicit permission to include a page from the author herself.  In that correspondence, I gained even more insight into the book including her opinion on the Septapus:

“As a former children’s librarian, I can tell you it would never have made it in my library, or my school for that matter (I was also an early childhood educator in NY before moving to Florida).”

Enjoy this book.  Enjoy the proud scientific accuracy.  Enjoy the gorgeous art adorning each page.  But perhaps most importantly, enjoy a book that is an interdisciplinary dive onto a coral reefs for kids.

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My Daughter’s Favorite “Gift”

“Play game, ‘puter game… play ‘puter game… gaaaame… yayyy!”

My almost-two year old has a thing for letters and numbers.  That, of course makes me delighted because from there, many more things are exciting.  I spend my professional life trying either to help teenagers find excitement in the natural world or colleagues find excitement in refining their practice.  Those two groups of people in my professional life have little in common with preschoolers.  Yet, the content carrots I have to work with there are far more thrilling than the bare bones geometric shapes and associated sounds of letters and numbers.

read \'til you collapse

Now, it is here that I must tell you (as if you didn’t know) that I am no kind of authority on early childhood education.  I have spent nearly 18 years as a teacher or an instructional coach.  However, those years have been spent working in secondary education.  I have developed a really healthy love of the process of learning itself, but I first walked to the plate in 1991 swinging a love for science.  Now that I think about it, I suppose there would be a bit of overlap in a Venn diagram of those two entities.  I have now spent less than two years on a case study of early childhood education.  How could I not?  Instructional coach + new father = easy fit.  That said, I welcome the comments here of anyone and everyone who might carry a bit fatter portfolio of educating children.  Please allow me to extend the educational technology discussion down a grade level or ten.

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So let’s get back to the leadoff quote.  Yes, that is exactly what our little beast now exclaims when either of us sits down by her with laptop in hand.  In reality, all it takes is the slightest hint.  What on Earth is she speaking of while in the throes of such excitement?  Starfall.  She is fired up about the online reading site at Starfall.com.  This is not a new site.  It was founded well prior to the “Web 2.0″ boom around 2004.  If you are an early childhood educator -and computers don’t frighten you- you likely already know about Starfall.  Since this is not my largest reader demographic, allow me to point most of you in this direction.  Even if you don’t have your own larvae at home, you can certainly share this link with friends who do.  They might just thank you.

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At Starfall, you will not be blown away by slick graphics nor amazing audio.  What you will find is a rather engaging little site for curious tykes that seems to be very sound at what it does.  What does it do?  It provides a rather laid-back version of online reading instruction starting with ABC’s and moving on to various levels of early reading.  The ABC’s introduce students to the sounds of letters (phonemes).  Learn to Read teaches students how letters are combined to create words.  The simple animations associated here are quite good as the letters (always pronounced by a child’s voice) move closer together as they become a word.  The It’s Fun to Read section uses learning activities to begin simple sentence construction.  Finally, I’m Reading uses plays, myths and folk stories to increase fluency.

main links @ Starfall

How well does it work?  I honestly have nothing to compare to.  I do know that my little girlie could identify all letters by sight when she was 18 months old.  She has actually delighted in the phonemes for each of the letters, and is starting to identify simple words.  Is this website the only thing she has explored in that time?  Certainly not.  Erin & I read a fair bit.  That’s a pretty common thing to happen in our family room.  Whether we are reading to ourselves, or to the babe, we read tons…  and much of it is online.  Our little bookworm even finds little corners in the house to hide away and “read.”

hiding and reading

Will Starfall raise a child through the screen of a laptop?  Not so much.  Will it help out in the early stages of learning to read?  I certainly think so.  It is a very cool part of the puzzle.  In fact, my wife just remarked about how she also first began to actually nail down colors and numbers as a side effect of several of the mini-lessons on the site.  I guess watching mom & dad work & play on laptops influences the way a child likes to learn.  Whether you see that as good or bad, in 2008 it just is.  She gets so fired up when we let her take center stage in front of the ol’ Mac and click her own way through the site.  No physical gift or toy we have yet given her has been met with the enthusiasm this website has, and continues to deliver.  Ok, maybe Discovery Channel dinosaur flicks.

just watching... or thinking?

Check out Starfall.  Copy the link to anyone in your world with small children.  Or really-  perhaps even older kids who struggle with reading.  I would be curious about that.  Are the animations & examples too young for somewhat older kids to gain from the program?  Or is this something that might be utilized in a school setting?  As I said above, my “expertise” with early-childhood education amounts to one case study with a 23-month old princess.  If you need a “testimonial,” link back to this page. Check it out.  Check back.  Let us know what you think here.

And oh…  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and many others.  May you all glow in the warmth of any celebration of light in the middle of Winter’s darkness.

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And what do we teach our children?

While reading a post this morning on Punya Mishra’s blog, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Pablo Picasso.  In fact, as an educator, it is one of my favorite quotes by a human… period.  I found it a while back during a research project on creativity in grad school.

Mishra’s post is on creativity, genius, and age and references a recent article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell.  The author speaks about our fascination with youthful genius.  He finishes by making the case that many artists do their best work late in their careers.  Perhaps the really interesting thoughts to be had are concerning the variables between such artists.  In the end, I certainly agree with Punya, though, that the article leaves hope for those of us who are still in the unending hunt for brilliance.

And so the reason I came to this blog today in the first place, the quote.  Swallow this one down today- especially if you are an educator, parent, or both.  Never lose sight of the big picture.  Print it.  Copy it to your “stickies” file.  Get a lengthy tattoo.  Share it.  Whatever you do, don’t hide these words:

“Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again.  And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the  capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.”

~Pablo Picasso (Spanish Artist and Painter. 1881-1973)

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A Window Into Constructivism

Glass has been the main component in creating the flat surface in windows as early as the 17th Century. It is a simple substance- the main chemical component being silicon dioxide (SiO2). This is one technology that people of 2008 would scarcely consider “technology”, as it contains not even a single computer chip. However, a few fun observations of late have led me to a better understanding of the true nature of constructivist learning principles.

I have known for years that the ultimate birth of my children would bring profound changes in my life. Perhaps that is why I waited until I was 38 years old to undertake such an awesome task. Almost daily my schema on learning changes as a result of observing and interacting with my precious daughter during her everyday exploits.

delaney

You see, secondary teachers rarely enter the profession from a constructivist vista. Yes- we are creatures in love with learning. However, we are also creatures in love with a particular field of study and the body of knowledge that accompanies it. This is no doubt a pretty noble thing in itself. To love learning about a system of knowledge so amazing and awesome that we choose to dedicate our lives creating an environment where others can arrive at the same epiphanies is largely an honorable and unselfish thing. Nonetheless, I would argue that our weaknesses often center around the ways in which we came to learn the nuts and bolts of learning itself.

Delaney has a love/hate relationship with glass. At times, she stands tall with her bengal cats to take in views of the outside world through the eight-foot picture window in the front room. The butterflies that flit to and fro for their delight as well as the flying by of cars that evoke a “vrooooooom” from her lips are simple delights for felines and 18-month-olds alike. And yet, lately her interactions with glass can produce mild terror as well.

When my babe was an infant, a roll through the local automated carwash was a breeze from the viewpoint of her cushy carseat in back. This same event, for the past few months has been anything less than pleasant. Just today it hit me- my daughter simply does not understand glass. This ubiquitous substance we have taken for granted for so long is still so mysterious in her world.

Today, upon completion of my weekly mowing ritual, I set about watering the myriad flowering plants that adorn the entrance of our home. Delaney loves flowers. She also loves her Daddy. These two facts combined created a most interesting reaction today as she keenly watched my work from behind the glass of our front door. Sensing her gaze, I quickly turned to her with hose in hand and sprayed water carelessly into the air around me for the sole purpose of seeing her nose crinkle and eyes glisten as she laughed at me like she does so wonderfully often.

She didn’t laugh. She didn’t crinkle her nose impishly. In fact, her first move was a simple backward step so as not to get wet. Her second was to let out a squeek letting her Mommy know she was quite scared. She looked at me as if my very next move might douse her with damp droplets of cold cold water from the hose. She looked at me with an uncertainty that made me pause mid-swipe with the hose and dampen the ground where my feet tread bare. After repeating the action a time or two (i am a scientist by training and multiple trials are needed for any real conclusion) it was quite clear that she was terrified that she might actually get soaked within the shelter of the front hallway she has come to love.

Drawing room - stained glass

Glass is ethereal. It is such a subtle technology we take it for granted until it becomes soiled. It provides shelter and yet allows views of the world from inside the refuge of our homes. Behind glass, we are safe from all but the most terrifying of storms. Though apparently, from my observations of late, glass is so mysterious at some level of development that we don’t just “get it” at first glance. Who teaches us about glass? Who sits us down in front of chalk or PowerPoint extolling the wonders of this see-through substance?

See my point? Glass is Delaney’s “photosynthesis”. Glass is her “pythagorean theorem.” At eighteen months, glass is her “democracy”, her “cubism”. How will she ever come to understand the simple realities of such a mundane, yet developmentally-abstract thing?

Well, I must tell you… I am working on the lecture as you read this. “Look here… see… it doesn’t hurt you.” “You aren’t getting wet… Daddy is… big time.” As silly as that sounds, that is largely what we do in high schools and universities across the nation and likely, the world. While we inherently know that the path toward understanding of something as simple as glass to a child is marked with trial and error, we continue to deliver beasts such as “tone” and “metaphor” as things to listen to… to remember… to write down in a notebook for later use.

Tonight I will rest assured that our windows will soon seem a shelter for my babe. I know she will come to this understanding on her own. I also wonder how I might enhance this learning, how I might “teach” her sooner that she has nothing to fear of water behind glass. As humans and as parents we know that through creating safe situation after safe situation for our kids to realize that all is well, we might hasten the learning of our children. Building an environment ripe for learning is our number one goal at home. Why is it less than simple in our classrooms?

I know we have a thousand standardized bits of knowledge to impart. I know that benchmarks loom which require a march through a sometimes-scripted curriculum. Do we really think that a lecture and discussion will suffice in delivering the concept of a coffee table that will not collapse? Regardless of what the “ticket out” says that day, do we believe in our hearts that this shotgun approach to learning will leave our students with a true understanding of what it means to deliver a speech to a specific audience?

Inside, I know we don’t believe that. We are a collection of intelligent and creative people. This is why I believe that the only true path toward reformation of our schools is to learn again all we can about what it means to discover “glass” all over again. We need to drop the bravado that comes with being amazingly smart in the subjects we teach. We need to sink not only our minds but also our hearts into the ideals that Piaget first dabbled in and figure out how to create an environment for our children to learn about the complexities of our world in the 21st Century.

*image of stained glass graciously attributed to “Wealie” on FLICKR.