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.


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...


*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.

I Am Network Literate

I am “network literate,” and thus, I am far less limited as a learner. I am not limited by my personal knowledge and skills, nor my personal affordances of time and or money. I am at the shifting center of an ever-changing, loosely-tied hub of humans and their products. Humans with varied backgrounds, interests, and perspectives.

Look up

I cannot know everything. I cannot even hope to know most things. The flow of human technical knowledge is said to double now every few days. And yet, our schools and our curricula are too often set up to rely on the teacher to be just that: the expert. Statistically-speaking, likely hundreds of books were published during your read of this blog post. If connecting to others has always been a human need, then what, if anything, has changed for the positive in the rather recent past? I suggest that it is a relatively dry tipping point in the construction of digital communication frameworks, tools and their subsequent adoption. The sheer speed and efficacy of digital communication turns this seemingly uninteresting milestone into a communications environment none of us were prepared for. It seems that the old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” has finally found teeth in something other than a political sense.

Tree huggers in the most literal sense grab the critter by the trunk and hold on. And yet, the most interesting work is being done around the periphery, in the luminous green leaves at the tips of its existence. Each one stretching itself closer to the sun. I could go on and on with this rather imperfect yet interesting metaphor, but I have recently sworn to smaller posts. So let’s cut to the chase…

You are likely a node in my network in one or more ways. I read differently because of you. I think differently because of you  I likely even act differently because of you. Perhaps network literate is now merely a subset of literate in today’s world. Does that discount being able to digest rigorous text and ideas? Nope. Does that discount being able to craft a cogent argument? Nope. Does that discount the sense of knowing when to say what? Nope. Does it mean that all of this now happens at an exponentially fast pace in the real world? Yep. At what pace does real human discourse happen in our public schools? Has the process of how our students make meaning of the world changed? Should it have?

the worlds network

I am network literate. At least I think I am. Maybe not. Perhaps I’m overstating the magnitude of this shift. Thoughts?

Are you “network literate?”  Does it matter?


*”Look up” by James Thorpe on Flickr

*”the worlds network” by saschaaa on Flickr


How to be “right” more than twice per day

Eyes past print

Modeling fluent reading. Introduction of outside text every period of every day in every class. The opportunity to bring relevance to adolescents. With whole-school immersion in text and reading, ideas and concepts naturally follow. The teacher reads, the student follow along a copy of the text. Content-area literacy expert, Janet Allen calls it “eyes past print with voice support.” At my school, we call it a requirement… one element of a building-wide literacy plan.

Two years ago, after our sit-down session with Janet Allen in Orlando, Florida, our leadership team decided on a school-wide implementation of this strategy as an element of our focus on literacy skills. Co-Principal in charge of instruction, Dr. Jeanette Westfall, was a former elementary teacher, high school communication arts teacher and instructional coach. There is no doubt that her background helped her decide that a non-negotiable approach to reading improvement across content areas was a valuable thing given our situation.

Iqra: Read

Why we went there

Data analysis in our school improvement planning sessions clearly indicated the need for a systemic effort to improve reading. However, witnessing and characterizing the problem is only the beginning. The ability to design concrete, strategic approaches to solving such a problem is a crucial next step. Bringing the teeth of accountability into the picture is the final piece of the puzzle in comprehensively addressing a systemic educational issue.

The accountability piece tied to EPP is a direct requirement from our building administration to employ this “read aloud” strategy for an absolute minimum of five minutes per class per day. For students this translates to a daily minimum of twenty minutes of engagement with rigorous text with a fluent reader. The next logical step of a strategic teacher is to quickly adjust planning to take advantage of this requirement to bring rigorous and relevant content-specific text into the beginning (or end) of each period.

For a teacher with traditional style, this also forces at least one transition within the daily lesson. In the hands of an effective teacher, these transitions help to keep kids actively engaged and using their brains in varied ways.  Data showed that not only was there a need, but that our kids simply weren’t reading enough.  You can make strong suggestions about what goes on outside of the classroom.  Inside the four walls of a classroom is a different story.  You can guarantee immersion within the walls of a school building.



In other posts this year, I have suggested online services that might add to our implementation of EPP.  In this post, I would like to introduce another interesting online resource from Florida’s Educational Technology Clearinghouse. Lit2Go is a website I remember running across a year or so ago on Apple’s iTunes. On the USF site within iTunes you will find audio files for K-12 education organized by grade level.

However, in my opinion, the organizational website for Lit2Go is what makes it useful for the strategy described above as well as others. The main page allows many typical content searches for literature. Author, Title, Keyword, and Reading Level are all available search functions as well as a direct link to the files on the iTunes service for slipping smoothly into your iPod.

On the platform, reading

My first try was an author search- I pretty randomly chose Lewis Carroll.  I ran down the list of ten offerings for the author and clicked to select The Two Clocks.  The contents page for any selection has a nice set of overview information such as an abstract, word count, reading level, origin, genre, lexile level, theme, suggested educational strategy, Sunshine State Standards (of more use if you are actually IN Florida), and more.  On this page, it is the collection of not only the .mp3 audio file of the work, but also the text in both .html and .pdf format that makes this a valuable resource.  It also looks as if some pieces contain other “support material,” though the attached document for this particular story seems pretty useless.

Overall, the fact that this site provides both audio and clearly-printed text of a good number of classic pieces makes it valuable for efficiently selecting and managing EPP within a literature or communication arts class.

An easy win

The “clock that doesn’t go” in Lewis Carroll’s story is right two times per day.  The other clock which loses a minute a day is only right twice per year.  Surely, implementing EPP in a setting where reading immersion strategies are warranted is a way to be “right” at least four times per day.  If this form of “being right” seems worthwhile to you in your own educational setting, then give Lit2Go a try and come back and tell us what you thought.  Did it work quickly and easily for the described strategy?  Even better…  do you have another innovative use of Lit2Go to share?  Bring it here, and help us all to be right more than two times per day.

Le temps s\'est arrêté

What I have found particularly true in the past year is that even the fanciest website on the Internet doesn’t produce a solid educational event outside of the carefully-created framework of a skilled instructor.  Compared to many of the applications/websites I have talked about on this blog in the past year, this one could be seen as one of the less “sophisticated.”  However, any good teacher knows that what happens when you plug a device into the wall…  pales in comparison to what happens inside the mind of a child.

Artwork thanks:

*Iqra: Read by Swamibu on Flickr
*On the platform, reading by moriza on Flickr
*Le temps s’est arrêté by tany_kely on Flickr

Gifts On A Dark December Day

On a day when the only thing bigger than the snowflakes is the deep gray loneliness of the sky, I bring you a minuscule chunk of one of my favorite Christmas gifts.

Cemetery Angel

My wife, Erin, has a thing for finding the perfect book to send me off on my April exploration of the Bahamian backwoods.  Normally, when I unpack the mystery book from my jumbled bag on board a sailboat anchored on Andros Island, I delight in the pen-sloppy scribblings just inside the front cover.  Last year it was Pablo Neruda.  What will this Spring bring?  Someday perhaps I’ll do a post on those messages.  Though parts, to be sure, will stay private forever for me.

Today’s words for winter:  by Galway Kinnell.  You (and I) can thank some nifty old guy on the east coast for this book.  He knows who he is too.  I’m glad Erin reads his blog as well, for she is an excellent gift-giver.

Cemetary Angels by Galway Kinnell

This verse is from A New Selected Poems from Galway Kinnell.  I feel OK about posting the words to this poem here in hopes that it will gain a larger readership.  I will, of course, retract if ever asked.

We humans do create fires here on Earth.  We create warmth in a universe where, aside from stars, cold is the norm.

Amazing words here.  Poetry compared to language is the inverse of DNA compared to a tree frog.  While poetry can be seen as shiny distillation of our daily talk, biochemicals tell little of the quickness of life.

Artwork thanks:  Cemetery Angel from Adam Selwood on Flickr.


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.


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.


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.