Beyond the Screentime Debate: NCTE Panel Presentation

With colleagues, I will be adding my perspectives on children and screentime to an important session at the NCTE Annual Convention in Houston, TX today.

From our proposal: “There are legitimate concerns about children’s physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being; yet conversations about screentime focus predominantly on the time spent on devices, often overlooking fundamentally important questions about what youth are learning by using technology. How do we navigate our own parenting lives when we are immersed in a field that values critical and creative use of devices, both in school and out, in order to build skills that are necessary for success in today’s world? What challenges do we as educators and parents face? How do we approach parenting in an age of screentime?

This session will bring together teachers and professors who are also parents to explore these questions and the notion of screentime itself. The opening keynote will situate the context by exploring the following questions. How is screentime portrayed in the media? Is all screentime created equal? What do we actually know from research? Then roundtable presenters will share challenges faced as parents.”

For my part, my Ignite-style talk (which, if you’ve never done one or seen one is 20 slides, timed to transition every 15 seconds) explores the challenges and opportunities that Virtual Playgrounds offer tweens going through tough transitions. Soon after we moved to Ottawa, my then 10-year old daughter started playing in a virtual world called Animal Jam. She loved it because her friends from school were playing, and as she told me in a conversation a couple of months ago, she felt successful there. At a time when everything was new, and she was always “the new girl” at school, she could be special in Animal Jam because she had “rare items” such as a coveted pair of butterfly wings. One afternoon, though, the wings were stolen by another player. Through her sobs, my daughter admitted she was tricked into giving out her account password by someone who had been her “friend” for some time in the game.

In the talk I offer five insights that align with and extend research on tweens’ virtual play in these kinds of virtual worlds. I also offer three big take-aways that could inform teaching and research.


  • For tweens, virtual playgrounds are about making and strengthening friendships.
  • Virtual worlds are an onramp to social media platforms and participation.
  • In virtual playgrounds tweens can feel more successful, powerful, liked, important and altruistic than they feel at school.
  • Getting scammed in a virtual playground can teach children important life lessons about trust.
  • Kids need grounded, lived experiences, not lectures about “not giving out their passwords”.  Kids don’t believe they’ll be scammed — but when they are scammed, they learn.

Implications for Teaching and Research

  • Creating safe opportunities for kids to experience online scams could be an effective approach to teaching online interactions, safety and citizenship. Role play online scams and then talk about it with students.
  • Open reflection over time with a loving adult, and without fear of judgment, seems important. My daughter was ashamed at first. She knew what she did. But reflection in the short and longer term has allowed her to articulate why she was tricked and learn from her mistake.
  • For tweens going through tough transitions, online games can be important social onramps. But parents and teachers need to help kids find other ways to connect with friends and community in real (rather than virtual) life too.

Online and Offline Resilience?

Going through a difficult move, and then experiencing an online deception left my daughter feeling vulnerable. However, situating stress in opportunities for connection and conversation may enable tweens to become more resilient both online and offline. As a parent, this is my hope. As a researcher, this question warrants future study.

The full transcript of my talk, with the interview that I conducted with my daughter, Zoë, can be found here.

I have published all of this with her permission, but I ask that if you use this talk, or the transcript of our conversation for any reason (research, professional development sessions etc.) that you do not use images of my daughter, or of her art, without permission from me.

Thanks to Kristen Hawley Turner, Troy Hicks, Tom Liam Lynch, Bill Bass, Lindy Johnson, Sara Kajder, Lauren King, William Kist, Ian O’Byrne, Kristy Pytash, Michelle Walker, Angela Wiseman, Carl Young and Andrea Zellner for their work for this panel and for their collaborations on this session.


Kafai, Y.B. & Fields, D.A. (2013). Connected play: Tweens in a virtual world. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Reading Instruction in a Time of Accountability: Multimodality and Physical Exercise Matter

IMG_6436Over the last few months, we’ve come to establish something of a round robin routine at dinner. I ask, “What were the highlights and lowlights from your day?” and then we go around the table, everyone sharing their ups and downs. Last week, our older daughter reported a lowlight that got me thinking, again, about the ideas that are emphasized in schools as part of reading instruction.

“I had to stay in from recess because I haven’t met my AR goal for the month,” she said.

AR is Accelerated Reader, a software program that my daughter’s school uses to measure students’ reading comprehension skills. When students read AR-endorsed books, they take an online test which, ostensibly, shows how much they understood about the book’s content. Students progressively set and work toward higher reading goals each month — reading more challenging texts and scoring higher scores — and the software provides an easy-to-interpret graph of how well students performed on the tests. These data are then used to make inferences about students’ reading skill levels.

“Hmmm,” I said. “Doesn’t your teacher know that you’re already a pretty confident reader?” I asked. “At our parent-teacher conference he expressed no concerns about your reading.”

“Ya, Mom,” she replied. “But the State of Michigan requires us to do these AR tests, so I have to do it.”

“Hmmm,” I said again, knowing full well that the State doesn’t mandate the use of any particular program, but also aware of the ways that each school is held accountable and must document improvement. “Don’t you think it’s more important for you to have a little outside time so you can get some exercise? Exercise makes your brain work better, you know. If you had recess, your reading would be even better.”

By this time, our younger daughter had already interrupted with news of her day which featured a field trip to sing Christmas carols at a local retirement center.

Later that evening, catching up on my FaceBook news feed, a colleague and friend who, last week, led the study group on graphic novels at the Literacy Research Association conference posted:

“In the car after picking up the big one, “so mom, I have to redo my ‘pages read’ report. My teacher said graphic novels and audio books don’t count.” My head almost exploded.”

Again, I said, “Hmmm.”

On the same day, in Massachusetts, where her son attends school, a teacher said that pages read need to be counted, and that graphic, multimodal pages don’t count. In Michigan, where my daughter attends school, a teacher said that reading to take a computer test was a more important priority than getting fifteen minutes of fresh air and exercise.

At that moment, I felt a bit disheartened that the research that could inform teachers’ instructional choices around reading seems to have been trumped by something else. That something else, seems to be the need to account for very particular skills in very particular ways. To me, the accounting in both of these cases seems to have been driven by simple views of reading that could, in fact, undermine students’ growth and development as readers.

Here’s why I think this.

First, my colleague’s research (Jiménez, 2014) has shown that the expert construction of meaning from graphic novels is a very complex cognitive process, requiring sophisticated, flexible integration of print-based and visual literacies strategies. Telling students that “graphic novels don’t count” privileges print-based literacies that, although obviously important, are not the only literacies that children need to develop. In a world where texts have become increasingly multimodal, especially online, does it not stand to reason that children should practice the construction of meaning from visual, auditory, and print-based texts?

Second, my own work has investigated the contributions of executive functions to reading comprehension — they’re sizable, as has been shown by more than 30 years of research by scholars all over the world (e.g., Daneman & Carpenter, 1980; Keiffer, Vukovic & Berry, 2013). Individual differences in inhibitory control, set-shifting and working memory correlate positively with individual differences in reading comprehension. Adele Diamond’s work tells us that physical activity supports children’s development of inhibitory control, the ability to switch between sets of information, and use working memory (e.g., Diamond & Lee, 2011). Together, these lines of research show that children who have better executive functioning tend to be better readers and that children who exercise have better executive functioning. A study by Reynolds, Nicholson & Hambly (2003), for instance, brings these ideas together. Their research showed that children diagnosed with dyslexia, made statistically significant gains on reading comprehension measures when they exercised their bodies. Children who used a balance board, practiced throwing and catching bean bags and engaged in various stretching and coordination exercises over a period of six months showed greater reading gains than a control group who did not exercise systematically. Although this research focused on children with particular reading pathologies, the fact that exercise enabled growth on reading comprehension measures for the children who struggle most to construct meaning from printed texts suggests an important mind-body link that, I would argue, teachers should consider.

I think it is important to note that I know these two teachers in MA and MI are operating in a time of incredible constraint, and that their directions to students are surely motivated by a desire to support reading growth. Teachers do this work because they care about students in every way — I would never question this. And yet, the push for teachers to show the impact of their work in ways that can be measured may influence their choices about which kinds of texts get privileged, or how students are asked to use their time.14713741441_320d2c653e_o

Given the research that I’ve summarized above, I think it’s time, actually, for teachers to push back and use expanded notions of the kinds of activities that will support reading gains. I think it’s time for teachers to push back against views of reading in school that privilege the printed word. Multimodal text pages should definitely count. In fact, as my colleague’s research has shown (Jiménez, 2014) graphic novel readers may be engaging even MORE cognitive processes as they construct meaning. I also think it’s time for teachers to embrace the complexities of reading as an embodied process that improves as children’s whole bodies are nurtured. Recess may actually be the most important 15 minutes of the reading curriculum each day.


Daneman, M. & Carpenter, P.A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 450-466.

Diamond, A. & Lee, K. (2011, August). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959-964.

Jiménez, L. M. (2014). Out of the box: Expert readers allocating time and attention in graphic novels. [Dissertation]. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation Abstracts International, 74:8. Dissertation ID: DA3560470.

Keiffer, M.J., Vukovic, R.K., & Berry, D. (2013). Roles of attention shifting and inhibitory control in fourth-grade reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(4), 333-348. doi: 10.1002/rrq.54

Reynolds, D., Nicholson, R.I.,  & Hambly, H. (2013).  Evaluation of an exercise-based treatment for children with reading difficulties. Dyslexia, 9, 48-71. doi: 10.1002/dys.235

You can read more about Dr. Laura Jiménez’s work at her blog.

Tadpoles: Building school-to-home connections and (digital) literacies

Because I’m a working mom, my youngest daughter attends a pre-school child development center every day of the week. Working parents know that the feelings underlying this reality and my writing of this sentence are multifaceted and complex. These are precious years. I marvel at the incredible power and potential of my two young daughters and wish, as every parent does, that there were just more time to share in the small moments. In an ideal world, we would have infinite time to pursue our individual ambitions while also having infinite time to linger in the delights (and even the challenges) of parenting. The truth, of course, is that the choices my husband and I have made about our careers have meant making choices about the ways we manage our responsibilities to one another and most importantly, to our children. Part of our solution, then, has been to depend on the professionalism and kindnesses of the early childhood educators at our daughter’s pre-school. They’re smart, loving, caring adults who have provided for our daughter’s needs. Without them, I couldn’t do the work that I do as a teacher educator and researcher of digital literacies.

And so — imagine my delight as my two most important priorities have come together via an iPad app. A few months ago, my daughter’s teachers started to use Tadpoles to document their work, their observations of students’ learning, and to communicate with families. Every day, I now receive a detailed report of my daughter’s activities. Her teachers document what she had for lunch, for snack and how much she ate. They document her bathroom breaks, whether she napped (she never does — except for two days last week), what she did at large group time, small group time, during her work time, and outside time. They document special projects, and share anecdotes from the class that demonstrate the ways the children are engaging with one another, and the ideas that ground their lesson designs. Importantly, reports of learning activities are always connected to developmental milestones in literacies, numeracy, social and emotional development, and physical activity. Plus, there are always photos. I just love the photos.

Today, for instance, I have already received four photos, delivered straight to my inbox. The impact of this is profound. My husband and I have both remarked on how these little photo-glimpses into our daughter’s day make us feel more connected to her experiences, and deeply appreciative of the amazing things her teachers do with her and for her every day. Plus, as my daughter and I drive home from school, the photos serve as prompts for our conversations about her day. In this way, the app is supporting her emergent literacies. Often, with just a little prompting based on a photo that I saw, she will retell, in tremendous detail, what she did, with whom, and what they did next.

For the first time today, I also saw evidence of my daughter prompting her teachers to capture two moments in her day in photographs. This photo was captioned: “Ellyn had to take a photo after getting an Elsa braid.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 1.20.19 PM

The other is a photo of my daughter standing proudly beside her friend. Both girls wore huge smiles. The caption read: “Ellyn: Take a picture of me and my friend! Friend: Yeah! Because we’re best friends!”

So, my daughter and her friend have both recognized that there is value in the documenting of moments in photographic images. The first photo allowed her to capture imaginary play as she took on the personnage of Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. The second emphasized the importance of the girls’ relationship to one another.

Tadpoles is an absolute gem. Through it, my daughters’ teachers have made their practice transparent, and have communicated those practices to us in ways that influence our conversations in the car and at home. In turn, these conversations contribute to the development of my daughter’s listening, speaking and recall skills. And now, today, I see that the app has enabled my daughter to think about the affordances of technologies for documenting her lived experiences.

Because I’m a working mom, my youngest daughter attends a pre-school child development center every day of the week. These are precious years. Because of this technology, I have access to delightful small moments in every school day that I would otherwise never know about. Plus, these moments are documented in my inbox, ready to share to my daughter’s gmail account so that when she’s bigger and able to read, she will be able to relive those moments she had at preschool. To me, this is an example of a technology that has enhanced our human capacity to connect with one another in ways that ultimately enable children, families and schools to thrive.

“Cotion: This is a privat space”

photo(8)Today is American Thanksgiving and I’m thankful for so many things, but in this moment, I feel especially thankful for the way that language gives me access to my daughter’s inner life, to her imagination and to the ways that she is growing as writer. After bedtime stories, I returned to my familiar evening working spot at the dining room table and I discovered that at some point between arriving home from our dinner with friends and her bath, she had built a private space for herself in the corner. I could tell it was private because there was a sign to warn me. “Cotion” [caution] the sign states in big letters. “This is a privat space and it belongs to Miss Z.I. Hagerman. If you don’t know the password you will have to ask an adult. If your a villain that wants to steal from this privat space then to bad because Miss Z.I. Hagerman is a trained fighter.” The message is accompanied by a picture of three girls, one of whom seems to be shooting firebolts from her hands, another of whom seems to be casting a spell and a third who is drumming feverishly, perhaps to scare away would-be intruders?

I love this for so many reasons. First, I love that she insisted on creating her cautionary message using both words and images. Clearly, if the words don’t scare you away, then the imagery of fierce (though rather scantily clad?) girls shooting firebolts into the air should set you straight. Invade at risk of your own peril.

I love that she’s planning for contingencies. There is a password (de rigeur for all private spaces) but the instruction to ask an adult is suspiciously contrived to address the inevitable issue of the younger sister. Clearly, the pesky three-year-old will be directed to “the adults” who, incidentally, don’t know the password…which means said pest will be denied access.

I also love her use of the formal register and the way that she refers to herself using her first and middle initials. This rhetorical move tells me so much about how she understands herself and the ways that she can be powerful.  It shows me how she has come to understand the ways that we communicate important messages to others. Plus, I love that she has backed up her “business” persona — that she is a trained fighter, clearly prepared for any and all villains who might find themselves in the need of a throw pillow and/or “The Human Body Book” [the two things presently stashed in the private corner]. Here, I suspect she’s channeling her inner

Tomorrow, this space will become the focus of play. I wonder how the language of the sign will change?  I wonder what new messages will be added to the message string. I wonder how she will defend her space to intruders — both real and imagined. Yes. I’m really thankful for all of this.

Are the crickets singing, Mama?

Inspired by last night’s conversation with my 2 year old…

In through her bedroom window, Ellyn heard the sound of crickets.

She pushed back the sheets and peered into the warm summer night.

“Are the crickets singing, Mama?” she whispered.

“Yes,” said her mother.  “The crickets are singing.”

“Are the crickets happy, Mama?”

“Yes,” said her mother.  “The crickets are happy.”

“Are the crickets in the grass, Mama?”

“Yes,” said her mother. “The crickets are in the grass.”

“Are they in the dirt?”

“Yes, probably,” said her mother. “Some of the crickets are in the dirt.”

“Are they in the mud?”

“Maybe, “ said her mother. “Maybe some of them are in the mud.”

“Why are they in the grass and in the dirt and in the mud, Mama?”

“Because they live outside. The crickets live in the grass and on the ground.”

“I can hear them.” Ellyn put her hand to her ear.

“Why do they sing?”

“They sing for each other,” said her mother. “They sing songs about the day. They sing songs about the night.”

“How do crickets sing, Mama?”

“They sing with their legs,” said her mother. “They rub them together and they make their music.”

Ellyn smiled.

“Will you sing me a song, Mama? Can you sing me a song about the day?”

Ellyn’s head fell slowly to her pillow. Her mother laid the sheets back over her arms.

Out from the bedroom window, on a warm summer night, crickets in the the grass, and in the dirt, and in the mud heard the sound of a mother singing her baby to sleep.

Fan Fiction

Last week, Zoë obsessively searched the Internet for images of Darth Maul. This week, she is all about Ahsoka Tano from The Clone Wars. As for me, I’ve started using Yoda speak around the house — teeth brushed, you should.

For at least two years now, she has written and told herself stories based on texts, games or movies that she has experienced. It just seems to be a part of her fabric to process narrative in this way.

Sadly, in this story, Ahsoka has been captured by Jabba the Hutt and seems conscripted to slavery à la Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi. The details of the “unhygienic clothing” (Zoë’s words) are particularly accurate, as are the expressions on Jabba’s wretched face. The story is not yet done…but I suspect the friends will be back to free Ahsoka from her terrible captor…stay tuned.




Dinner with Laura Ingalls Wilder

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 10.07.11 PM
Photo courtesy of Mrs. Ryan

Yesterday, I blogged about the celebration that my daughter’s teacher organized for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 146th birthday and the biscuits I baked (in truth, that post was mostly an excuse to take pictures of the biscuits!)

As an aspiring literacy scholar, however, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to think about how these kinds of authentic, embodied learning experiences support children’s emergent understanding of literature, and of themselves as readers, thinkers and bricoleurs of understanding in a world that inspires so many questions.

I could wax on theoretically — but I think the necessary points can be made by simply sharing our dinner conversation.

Laura Ingalls Wilder joined us. She sat to my right — in precisely the spot where my 7-year old normally eats. She wore a printed dress and a bonnet. She had a shawl tied around her shoulders. She was surprised to have a fork, spoon and knife with which to eat her supper. Laura Ingalls told us that she didn’t usually have cutlery but instead had to eat with her hands. She also told us that she had only one plate, and that in her house on the Prairie, she had to eat outside, on the ground, because she didn’t have a table.

Laura told us about the great feast at school. Most importantly, she ate three kinds of pie — custard, blueberry and vinegar. The vinegar pie, which nobody else at our dinner table had ever eaten, apparently tasted like, well, vinegar. Other kids thought so too. The blueberry was her favorite. She also ate mashed potatoes, biscuits with maple syrup, and a muffin. She passed on the pickled asparagus but was surprised to find that she liked hulled corn, which is also called hominy. During the feast, there was no electric lighting which made sense, since there was no electric lighting in Laura’s house.

As we discussed what life must have been like for Laura and her family, we heard the story of her dog, Jack, and how he found his family after he had been separated from them — probably because dogs have such a good sense of smell. Laura also told us that Pioneers are girls who move a lot and have to build a new house far away from their grandparents…which makes everyone sad.

Laura Ingalls Wilder came to dinner at our house because a teacher loved a book, and after months of reading that book with her students, created a space in which they could all smell, taste and live, for an afternoon, in the skin of the protagonists. I can’t imagine any better way to make reading, learning, and literature meaningful.

Incidentally, when I asked my daughter whether she might like to read more Laura Ingalls Wilder books at home, she said no. She wants to re-read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. “I want to live those stories again, Mom.”

Biscuits for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Birthday Party

My daughter’s super awesome 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Ryan, sent out the following Facebook message to families this week:

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 10.57.50 PM

Parents were quick to reply! Zoë and her classmates will be treated to a fantastic celebration of food and the pioneering spirit tomorrow!  The menu will include rabbit stew, hominy, corn muffins, whipped cream (churned to butter with luck and strong arms), mashed potatoes, muffins, maple syrup, vinegar pie and biscuits.

I offered to make the biscuits, and here they are. Some are austere and plain, but I added a little Michigan decadence to others — dried Montmorency cherries!

Happy Birthday Laura Ingalls Wilder!

Parenting digital babies: Don’t throw the print out with the bathwater

This past week, I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Informational Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) in Austin, Texas. I have plenty of thoughts to share about sessions I attended and people I met but tonight, I only have a few minutes and I’ve been thinking about this post for a while.

You might have seen this video a couple of months back. It went viral pretty quickly and caused a bit of a stir. The conclusion that this father drew from watching his infant daughter test the characteristic iPad finger swipe on the photos of a magazine was that to her, the magazine must be a “broken iPad”.


For the most part, people lapped up this video and the dad’s conclusions. I mean, the baby WAS amazingly cute. Who could resist? Plus, the myth of the digital native is rather compelling.

I’d like to offer a different interpretation, however. It’s one I shared with my esteemed professor, Punya Mishra over coffee and with fellow Ontario Certified Teachers Anita Drossis (@adrossis) and Deb Kitchener (@kitchenerd) from Abel Professional Learning and Learning Connections at the end of their fabulous roundtable discussion at SITE. (I also ranted about this to Jack Smith one day in January on the 5th Floor of Erickson Hall.)

To me, the dad gets it wrong…and in fact, may be doing his daughter a real disservice by thinking about her emergent literacies in this polarized way. That the child tested her finger swipe on the magazine images shouldn’t surprise anyone if the only texts to which she has had repeated access have been delivered on an i-device. To me, this child’s curiosity about the static image suggests that she has had limited exposure to print media which, lest we forget, have their own set of affordances and constraints — some of which overlap with those of images on the iPad and some of which do not.

I don’t see a child who thinks the magazine image is a broken iPad. I see a young child who has had limited exposure to multiple genres of text and media and who, in the absence of a schema to understand this “new” print media, used her existing iPad schema to make sense of it all. The magazine wasn’t broken. The child just hadn’t had enough experiences with printed media to understand how it worked.

Importantly, I ask why not? What were these parents doing? Obviously, I don’t know, but the baby’s behavior suggests a skewed emphasis on one type of text (i.e., digital) over others.

As the parent of two young children myself, I understand the frisson of delight that comes as we see our kids figure out these powerful new technologies. Heck, my 17-month old baby’s vocabulary includes Google, and Skype. But here’s the thing. She’s no digital-age savant. She’s just talking about her world (she also says book and read!)

My suggestion: don’t throw the print out with the bathwater. Our babies will be smarter and more able to adapt to the unprecedented demands of their literate futures if we bathe them early and often in multiple genres of print and digital texts today.

(P.S. While grabbing the embed code at YouTube for the video, I read several comments that make points similar to mine, though perhaps a little more sharply. I don’t think these parents have “failed” as several YouTube commenters have suggested. Rather, I think their daughter has already had important and rich literacy experiences – they just appear to have been limited in scope. Fortunately, in their case, I’m pretty sure there’s still time to introduce multiple print genres to go along with the digital genres she already knows :))

It seems I’m not the only one worried about leveled reading…

In their article, Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading, Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols question leveled reading. They seem to have the same sorts of concerns that I have expressed here, in my blog. Like their sons who trade insults about reading levels, I, too, have heard my daughter say to one of her imaginary friends, “You’re only reading at a level C…you need to keep trying,” and worse,”I’m at a level J, but you’re only at a level D…” Gotta love a curriculum that provides fodder for put-downs during pretend play and a real chance to gloat. Lovely. Really, really lovely.

Thanks to Angie DeCola for sharing this article with me in the first place. And, thanks to these New York Times authors for bringing to light the injustice of a curriculum that is applied in ways that undermine real reading development.