Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My 8-year old Outlaw

I'd like to let you in on a conversation that happened at my house the other day...

Me: What are you doing on the computer?
Daughter : Reading.
Me: What?
Daughter: Harry Potter, The Half Blood Prince
Me: Oh you are reading about the book?
Daughter: No the actual book. It was out at the library.
Me: So.....
Daughter: So I googled "Read Harry Potter online" and found the book on this website.
Me: Ummm, I don't think you can do that.
Daughter: Why not?
Me: Well the person who scanned that book and put it online didn't have permission.
Daughter: But it's her book right? She bought it. Can't she do whatever she wants with it?
Me: HHMMM no it doesn't work that way -- she bought the book but that only means she can read it.
Daughter: But the library bought the book and they let a lot of people read it.
Me: That's different.
Daughter: How?
Me: Well in the library only one person can read that book at a time and online many people can read the book at the same time.
Daughter: So then there wouldn't need to be as many books if a lot of people could read the same book all at the same time.
Me: Exactly. The author of the book wouldn't be able to sell as many books if everyone put it up online.
Daughter: OOOH, so she wants to make lots of money.
Me: Well no, that's not entirely the point. Errrr -- can't you just wait until it is back in the library?
Daughter: I guess, but I still don't know why I can't read that girls book online.
Me: (muttering) Where is the email of that guy who talks about copyright stuff again.. maybe he can do a better job than me.

Harry Potter was taken off of that website today due to suspected copyright infringement but the fact remains that for a short period of time my 8-year old was an outlaw. It's a sticky subject, and an important one but I'm not sure I'm up to the task of translating into a form that an 8-year old can fathom. Her logic has me a bit stumped. It really is a whole new world out there...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Constructing Environments for Success

We have a guiding principle in our family that "each person will contribute to the best of their abilities" to accomplish what needs to get done. It is a small nod to communism in a home that, according to the kids, is run as a dictatorship with mere glimpses of democracy. As head dictators, err I mean parents, we try to give away as many of our responsibilities as we can, as soon as we can. Some may call it lazy parenting but we prefer to think of it as smart resource management.

What does smart resource management look like? Well if you know your colours -- you can sort laundry. If you can walk and have use of your hands -- pick up a few toys. If you can do up your zipper you can probably do up your sisters as well. If you are big enough to have "stuff" then you keep track of it(ok that ones a bit of a stretch but we try). I think you get the picture.

When we decided to design and build our house a few years back this expectation of "each to their own abilities" took on new significance. We figured if we embedded the expectation into the design we would be much more successful in turning those expectations into reality. Some of the ideas that worked are featured below and the ones that didn't ... well I left those out.

Alright I admit, the 3year old vacuuming is a bit of a stretch but it illustrates a point. Designing spaces that support your guiding principle helps to achieve goals.

The opposite can be true as well. When I was at my child's school the other day helping with a VoiceThread project we spent a lot of time trucking back and forth to the computer lab. When I was in school, almost 20 years ago, we had a computer lab so it didn't strike me as out of the ordinary. However later that night on Twitter there was some talk about ICT curriculum that got me curious enough to check out what the ICT curriculum looks like here. I found this statement --

"The ICT curriculum is not intended to be taught as a stand-alone course but rather to be infused within the teaching of other programs of study."

I thought that sounded like a pretty impressive guiding principle. Infusing ICT into all portions of the curriculum -- computers becoming as ubiquitous as paper and pen, textbooks and bulletin boards -- seems like a great idea to me. But wait, we don't have a textbook room or a pen and paper room, why do we still have a computer room? If we expect teachers to seamlessly integrate technology into the other programs of study shouldn't the technology come to the students instead of the other way around?

If we really want to change the way technology is used in our schools we need to change the physical environment. Having a separate computer room while expecting seamless tech integration seems as silly to me as placing all my dishes in upper cupboards when I expect my kids to help set the table. Sure they could get a stool and climb up to the dishes but would it be worth the effort (for me and for them)?

Designing our house in such a way that our kids can easily meet our expectations has not always ensured sucess but it certainly has made it more attainable. As I trudged down to the computer room for the fourth time that morning I realized that the school is not set up to meet the ICT expectations as outlined in the curriculum. As long as there is a stand-alone computer room, it will be difficut not to teach ICT as a stand-alone course. For me it feels like someone put the dishes on the top shelf, and I, for one, don't enjoy climbing up and down the stool.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Do we need to teach literacy?

The other day Lorna sent this request out into the twitterverse

"looking for examples of how to teach literacy skills to your child"

As I thought about that request it reminded me of an exchange I had with a public health nurse years ago when my oldest child was a little over one. My daughter had picked up a new stuffed toy that still had the little book-like tag in it's ear. She was looking at the tag and after awhile the nurse commented that I must read to my daughter a lot. I told her that we did read to her and asked her how she knew.

She said that the tag started out upside-down and my daughter had turned it over so that the spine was on the left-hand side. She also turned the pages starting from the front and working her way to the end of the tag. These actions seem innate but I realized that day even those things need to be learned. In order to eventually read books she had to understand the mechanics of a book and of the written word.

The nurse shared that she had seen children as old as five not understand what end of a book was up, which way to hold it, or even know enough to turn pages let alone that text is read from left to right. This was simply because the child had never had access to books in their entire life. It seems hard to imagine but it happens.

So what is a parent to do? How do we "teach" literacy skills as Lorna mentioned? I would suggest that word "teach" is a very dangerous word to use with parents. It brings us back to our "drill and grill" education and transforms us into parents who buy our kids workbooks like we had in school, find structured programs that will "teach" our 2 year olds, and gobble up every "educational" toy in the store.

Why can't we change our language and talk about how to create an environment that allows multiple literacy skills (digital, cultural, informational, numeracy etc) to flourish? In my house that means books, lot's of books everywhere. Reading a bedtime story every night. Going to the local library. Baking cookies. Sorting laundry. Starting rock collections. Taking a walk. Painting pitures. Playing with clay. Planting a garden. Telling the stories of our day around the supper table. Helping pay at the grocery store. Using the computer in multiple ways. The list could go on forever and every parents list will be different.

Will you find those "workbooks" and "educational" toys in my house? Well of course you will but it seems these days they are off collecting dust. As my family life has gotten increasingly busy with each child, the time available to "teach" my kids has decreased. The fantastic thing is that it has allowed us to learn instead.

Sometimes it's hard for us, as parents, to feel successful. We are so focused on the big prize, things like reading, that we forget to notice the little successes, like holding a book and turning the pages, along the way. I'm glad someone noticed it for me and taught me an important lesson, that every day in ordinary ways I'm helping my child to learn literacy skills, even if I'm not consciously "teaching" them.

So here is what "teaching" literacy looks like for me:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


When I checked my email today I had a peculiar message from the United States Geological Survey about bloodstone and soda lite. Turns out that while my 8 year old daughter was researching rocks (their current science unit) she came across the ask a geologist link on the USGS website and used it to get some clarification on a few points about the above-mentioned rocks. When I called her to the computer, terribly excited that she had a response from a real geologist, she simply read the email, jotted down the pertinent facts and carried on. She expected to get a response and, now, she also has an expectation that she can and should be able to access not only information on the internet but also people who can clarify and expand upon that information.

At first those expecations floored me, but I have to admit my own expectations of the internet and learning have changed dramatically in the past 6 months. Through blogs, webcasts, Facebook and Twitter I have connected with a group of people who can clarify and put into context the information that I access. Keep in mind I am not an educator, or an IT professional and yet a university professor, a couple of Ed Tech integration specialists, a masters student, a fantastic teacher, other involved parents, a parent involvement advocate and many more have all answered my questions, encouraged my efforts and challenged my thinking. Their knowledge, experiences, expertise and sometimes silliness has made a huge difference in my ability to help with Ed Tech both at home and as a volunteer in the school.

My amazement has been what I thought a third grader getting a response from a real geologist would be. Our expectations are different. She expects what I could have only imagined. I wonder how schools and educators are ever going to manage and meet those expecations. The kids themselves are raising the bar and it looks pretty high from where I'm standing.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Dreaded (or not so dreaded) Diorama

One of my most vivid memories from Junior High is an eighth grade social project where we had to make a diorama to illustrate all that we had learned about Australian Aboriginal culture. That project was truly my undoing. You see I could have scored top marks by writing a paper, taking an exam or concocting a short story to illustrate my understanding of the material but to bring it into three dimensions was maddening. In my head I could see perfectly how the project should look but no matter how hard I tried that vision would not materialize in the diorama. My group received a dismal mark, even though we had a good proportion of "top" students. Meanwhile, across the room, a group of "non-top"students had created this wonderfully intricate scene utilizing carvings they had done from bars of soap. Not only was it beautiful but it truly did incorporate all of what we had learned. They got the mark that was traditionally mine.

Even now as I recount that story I get a sickly feeling in my stomach. I hated every moment of it, hated feeling stupid and hated the frustration of knowing what they wanted me to know but being unable express it in the way they were asking. I only had one project that made me feel that way but some of the other students, who didn't excel at writing and exam taking, probably felt that way more days than not. Looking back I realize that my academic success had less to do with knowledge and more to do with the fact I didn't have to prove my knowledge by building 3D objects.

Although my Grade 8 experience was many, many years ago, sometimes I am getting the feeling that not much has changed. Academic success is still determined by how well you can demonstrate what you know in the format the school/teacher/district chooses. I am still seeing really bright children feel as stupid and as frustrated on a daily basis as I felt trying to complete that project so long ago. It's not right.

One of the most exciting possibilities I see with all of the Web 2.0 tools is the ease in which students can demonstrate their knowledge in individual ways. Videos, slideshows, blogs, voicethreads, the list is really quite endless. And to semi-quote Clay Shirkey "it (the web) has become technologically boring enough to be socially" (and dare I say educationally) "interesting". It no longer takes a technical genius to use these web 2.0 offerings, basic computer skills are often enough. I feel that students need these tools in their hands, teachers need support to implement change and parents need to be the advocates for both.

The possibilites are out there we just need to capitalize on them. Every child deserves to demonstrate what they know. In whatever way they can. Even if it's in a diorama.

I'd like to draw your attention to a K12online presentation "Oh the Possibilites" by Lisa Parisi. The presentation is aimed at teachers but as a parent I found all the different ways that children could demonstrate knowledge interesting. I thought about which of my children may fare best using each of the approaches and how I could introduce those things at home to unlock their potential. I hope you enjoy it...