TeachMama – Hands-On & Thumbs-On Education

I’ve been following TeachMama’s blog for several years now. She may not fall directly into an academic category because she’s an educator writing primarily on how to “sneak in learning” with her three young children. In my mind, she’s a hybrid Mom-Teacher blogger, so her blog name is perfect.

Some of my favorite posts from TeachMama are about creative ways of practicing skills. For instance, she got me into using clothespin and letter match-ups to practice numbers and games like alphabingo to practice lower case letters. She’s also inspired me to try the  Me in the World craft orienting children to their place in the larger world.


me-on-the-map-37TeachMama’s “Me on the Map” photo.

I’ve been wanting to do that one with my English Language Learners. Every time I browse her website, I keep finding new things to try with students, such as Using the Daily Weather Forecast for Sneaky Math Learning. You also have the option of subscribing via RSS or by email, and I do both.

Recently, TeachMama’s been working on a series of posts addressing digital literacy.

Early on, she referenced this article from the Washington Post: Helping Your Kids Navigate the Stormy Seas of Social Media as something she is thinking about. The article takes the stance that “everyone is doing it” so one shouldn’t make social pariahs out of ones children by denying them digital media. The article quotes Caroline Knorr, parenting editor of Common Sense Media, and says that “if parents don’t let their children use social media, they are not equipping them with the skills they need to function in the digital world.” That seems a little overstated to me. Young children don’t necessarily need social media to learn digital skills. They do need to learn to navigate social media, though, and the article gives several examples of early teenager’s social trials magnified by social media. I don’t see that as an argument for more exposure, though.

The article does include some ideas of limited-use applications that younger children can use to practice their digital or social media skills, such as Webkinz.

My focus here, though, is TeachMama because she writes about specific learning strategies as she practices them on her specific children, all of them under the age of 10, too young for most social media sites.

In her series, our digital kids: teaching, supporting, and parenting 21st century learners, she shows us how she is “slowly introducing [her] kids to cool tools of social media.”

One post from the series that caught my eye is how to get your kids started with texting: texting 101. In this post, she tells us how she is introducing her children to texting with a stripped down old phone and numerous limitations.

I think the first time I saw this post, I flinched. I don’t like to introduce kids to digital toys any earlier than necessary. I saw the texting as a toy, of course. But as I read further, it started to make more sense. She tells us:

Our goal with this was simple:

  • to give the kids a bit of controlled freedom as they communicate with family members and friends that we agree upon;
  • to let them have the feeling they have their own technological ‘space’ to have games that we decide upon and to take photos;
  • to give them a chance to show us that they can handle this bit of technological freedom and room to breathe.

She also places numerous limits and alerts on their usage, such as limiting where (in the living room), when (taking turns), how (with all alert volumes turned on high, and no clicking on ads), and with who (family members) they could use the phone. I was also reassured when she stripped the phone of extra temptations and limited its use to texting only. I also appreciated reading that “our first and foremost message was that texting is the same as talking–you interact with respect, kindness, and manners.” That’s a valuable component to digital literacy that would compliment concerns from the Washington Post article.

What I am finding especially interesting about TeachMama’s approach is that she recognizes that the digital world will creep into our children’s (and students’) worlds despite our efforts to shield them, and she concludes that it’s best to give them controlled experiences with such media and have them gain experience under supervision. This is a proactive approach I’d like to take with my own child and my present and future students.

As my esteemed TA has mentioned, all teachers should gain permission from parents before introducing any new digital media (or social media, specifically). It seems even more important to lay out the exact uses and safety measures ahead of time, not only for the parents’ benefit, but for our own, so we are careful and deliberate about how we use social media and other digital devices. Ideally, their use should be tied to specific educational goals in addition to digital literacy.

At first I was hoping that TeachMama would write a little about the educational benefits of texting (I don’t know; is there such a thing?), but I think that this may fall under the realm of digital literacy, which is as much a reality for today’s children as learning how to read, write, and think critically.

Another inspiring “on-the-ground” TeachMama post is how to teach kids to search the web, read, research and evaluate. It’s a quick story about a quick web search to identify the fruit of a favorite tree. I wish she had talked a little more about the choices one makes to narrow a search, but maybe that’s for another day. I could see this as a plan-able teachable moment with younger children. You could learn about how you search for information, evaluate sources, and fine-tune a search. For that matter, you could learn about what to do if you came across some inappropriate content. There are numerous teachable moments in trying to find information.

I must also mention TeachMama’s educational app round up, Best iPad Apps For Learning and Fun. She took suggestions from her readers and tried out all of them, I think, then collected her results into this post. She has many great ideas here!
Disclaimer: I contributed the idea for Numbers League math app. A musician/programmer friend developed and made it for the parent company, and it’s so fun and useful that I talk it up every chance I get.

In short, TeachMama has some interesting things to say about teaching digital literacy to children, and lots of great ideas to make learning fun for elementary-aged students. I hope you’ll drop in on her some time and read more.


Organizing Via RSS Feeds

One of my tasks today has been to organize my RSS feeds. I’ve never used RSS feeds before, preferring to go to each blog individually for the visuals. After reading Richardson‘s assertion that I could “read more content from more sources in less time” (p. 72 in Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts), I realized that was exactly what I needed from my RSS. The amount of information I’m trying to keep up with is too much for me to read effectively without some “power” strategies to help me skim and filter.

I had started up a newsreader in Bloglines, somewhat at random, and had stuffed a number of interesting blogs and sources into it. I had already saved all of the class blogs that I needed to follow in a bookmarks folder on my browser (my usual method). Today I started the process of opening all of them and transferring the links to the RSS aggregator. None of them have a specialized RSS link for me to click on (since these are mostly beginner learning blogs), but I was able to use the home web address of each blog into the RSS list. Only two of the blog addresses did not cooperate with the process.

I also set up a folder on the reader for “class blogs” to organize the content. It seemed to work well to set up the folder first, and enter the links I wanted.  To be clear about that process, I pasted blog web address into the “new context” box, which generated several “widgets.” I then picked one widget for each blog (usually the one marked RSS), and dragged it into the appropriate folder.

This gave me instant information (how many new posts for each blog in the reader), and all of the blogs neatly arranged to assess easily. Best of all, I did not have to constantly click back to a bookmark folder to find the next blog or post.

Screen Shot 2013-05-25 at 6.12.10 PM
Screenshot of current folders in Bloglines.

Blogs with new content were bolded and numbered, showing me at a glance what had not been read. I could mark single or several posts as read or unread. I expect this is standard procedure for most RSS feeds.

Although I was a little lukewarm about the usefulness of the RSS feed initially, I am won over by the ease with which I can follow all of my fellow students’ postings. Now to organize my other educational feeds. I don’t know if I would use feeds for my usual recreational reading because the visuals are part of the pleasure of the visit, but for churning through other reading, it’s a Godsend. Now if I can figure out how to post a few of these feeds to my blog, I’d be set. I’d settle for my blogroll links showing up as they are supposed to. Next up: introducing a few of my regular reads.

Web Tools + Face Time: Recent Collaboration via Blended Learning

It’s been an interesting last few days as I and my group have been whipping up a collaborative presentation within a single week.  My group has been evaluating and summarizing the third chapter of Dr. Curtis Bonk’s book, The World is Open, in preparation for presenting it to the rest of our class. It’s been a steep curve to something that feels like proficiency. It’s been especially interesting to evaluate our group process and my own learning as it relates to the different technologies I am learning about.

First, we each had to read Chapter Three on E-Learning and Blended Learning. I found this a task in itself because I’m reading the electronic version on a Kindle app, and my preferred text and line width size renders one page of the book into at least two different pages. 49 pages x 2 = more pages. (Oh no, math already!)  I am much more of a paper-page person, so being glued to the screen for long periods of time – even if skimming – became a little wearing. I bought the electronic version of this book on purpose so I could try it out, and sure enough, I still prefer books on paper. I am, however, becoming more comfortable with navigating books on the Kindle app.

My group first started a conversation about our chapter on our class wiki page during the weekend while we were all busy with our own schedules. This classic “asynchronous” technology worked fairly well to help us start a conversation about what we felt were some of the key ideas of the chapter and ideas on how to present them. The wiki felt a little clunky as we had not set up a design protocol, but it worked well from a utilitarian standpoint. My biggest concerns were keeping up with whatever changes or comments showed up on the wiki (it did not allow us track changes, so I had to go into each section of the wiki to check), and keeping all of our group members informed. I sent a couple emails to our whole group to inform them when I had started a wiki or changed it, or to encourage those who we had not heard from yet. We started to rough out some ideas for how to divvy up the tasks, but we hadn’t really decided what we wanted to do yet.

When we met in person for our work session tonight, we had only a basic idea of what each of us thought. We spent some time face to face to hash out both the information, and how we felt about it. It felt like a good opportunity to air our ideas and qualms about the chapter, and sift through our ideas. I don’t think we could have done that as effectively online, partly because some issues may have felt too trivial to write about formally, but yet they nagged at us, and needed to be shared. Another advantage of  our face to face discussion was that I was able to feel closer and even more sympathetic to and appreciative of each group member and their perspectives. It was also fairly easy to propose different strategies and have the rest of the group give a quick response.

Once we had gone around the circle a few times proposing different structures or frameworks, inspirations, or concerns, we turned our attention to the format of our presentation. I felt we (okay, I) was having a hard time focusing on our different options. We quickly considered a number of presentation ideas, but many of them would involve either more time than we had or rely heavily on a single person. Then someone suggested a collaborative presentation program named Prezi. Within seconds they had it upon their laptop and had confirmed that we could all edit the document at the same time. Within a few more seconds, I had found the program on my laptop and had signed up while someone chose a template for us. A few moments later, I received an invite someone sent me to the document, and signed in. It was fun to see each of our icons pop up on the common document and float around as we figured out the navigation. This was simultaneous collaboration made possible by this particular web tool. Before too long, we were testing out entering text and arranging our slides. We confirmed each of our topics for the slides we’d be responsible for creating. This portion relied heavily on our face to face interaction as various people proposed different ideas in rapid succession and were confirmed or altered on the spot until we reached a consensus. Yet at the same time, we were able to set up placeholders for our content as we talked and made decisions.

We attempted to set up a time to check in via a hangout or web talk, but were stymied by our options. Skype was possible, but one needed to pay for multiple users in the same room. Google hangouts seemed ideal, until we were reminded that our college accounts did not allow us to use certain programs. None of us had set up for “Enlightenment” yet, and the old wiki would be too clunky for the quick call and response we’d need to finalize our project. We spent what felt like a long time trying to bring everyone into one Google doc using non-college accounts. I could not remember which of my passwords related to which google account (none of which played well together), and other people were having a challenging time getting in as well. This was where technology was not helping us collaborate as much as we would have liked. The frustration outweighed any benefits. I proposed that we drop our attempts as Google, and try something else. Someone else proposed that we decide some things right then, and again, within seconds, we came to agreement on that and commenced coaxing the slides into a credible arrangement.

To me, this was blended learning at its best: using face to face interactions to discuss, sort opinions, and make decisions, while using the technology to help us collaborate and collect. Creating our presentation either way by itself would have been less efficient and more frustrating to implement, especially with our time constraints due to the accelerated Summer work schedule. I’m finding it very interesting and satisfying to find the ways which work best for different tasks and scenarios.

I didn’t realize how important it was to me to connect with people in person until I started reflecting on our process. When I remarked on this, another group member told how a long-running planning group she belonged had managed to keep in touch over time and distance.  They  met a couple of times a year in person, mostly for team-building activities, and then used social media to keep in touch and work on their projects the rest of their time apart. It seems we benefit from a balance of both face to face interactions and asynchronous communication. It’s something to think about for our students.

A Tangle of Technology and 21st Century Skills

Technology forces a new medium for the message, the means to transmit or support learning content and skills. In our society’s rush to embrace the latest technology (and to keep up with the younger generation who are already thoroughly plugged in), many people seem to confuse the means with the method, which sometimes shows up in literature about education and technology. When people talk about using 21st century skills, they clearly mean using technology. Yet simply using more technology does not automatically to higher-level or critical thinking. 

Some writers like Dr. Bonk speak sweepingly about technology connecting people, freeing the flow of information, and transforming the educational landscape for everyone’s betterment. Some authors scold us to use technology so that our students will pay attention and presumably be “engaged.” Are the students not engaged because they have become used to digital formats and digital speeds for entertainment, and haven’t learned to focus on non-entertainment? This seems to suggest that we must entertain students to hold their focus. Interestingly, the same video that challenges us to use technology shows students holding phrases written on low-tech white boards. 

I was interested in the story about the one boy who was very plugged in digitally and yet was doing very poorly in several classes. He could not stay focused on his reading because he kept getting pulled away by the internet and the many little snippets of information and interaction available at any time. 

When this same boy was working independently on editing a video project, he was focused and productive for hours. The key phrase there seemed to be was “interactivity.” Rather than operating primarily in a “transmittal” learning model, he was actively creating something that interested him. There digital technology made it easier for him to shoot and edit outside of class so he could work both collaboratively and independently. 

Other authors focus on jobs and being “literate” or “prepared.” If, as the earlier video claims, technological information doubles every two years, how can we possibly keep up? Other phrases that came up in my readings included “exponential times.” We are generating so much information and forced to navigate so much information, that we have to sift the incoming information and decide what is relevant. 

The idea of literacy seems to be changing as well. Writing by hand has been replaced by keyboarding or otherwise manipulating digital devices. Technology looms so large that it has gained equal footing with actual content in a T-PACK model. I might argue that part of technology literacy is learning/teaching to navigate the flood of information.

The quote that resonated the most was from Mr. Mishra et al’s article about 7 trans-disciplinary skills. 

“We suggest that trans-disciplinary knowledge which emerges from disciplinary practices, and also transcends them, is critical. Trans-disciplinary knowledge helps students move beyond looking for one “correct” solution, towards an approach that integrates different solutions, viewpoints, or perspectives.”

This perspective seems to include technology as a component, but it only includes it and does not make it front and center. The important skills are the new ways of combining, interacting and creating information, with technology facilitating produced work, not as an end to itself. 

So the key component for me is not so much that we use more technology, but that we use it more effectively to engage in higher level thinking, and to teach our students to use it effectively as well. Mishra et al’s seven “trans-disciplinary” skills  – perceiving, playing, patterning, abstracting, modeling, embodied thinking (perhaps this is producing work?), and finally synthesis – seem to fall more in line with critical thinking, and even compliment the WIDA learning objectives.