Socioeconomic Inequality in a Digital Age

In mid-March, we got an email survey from my son’s school asking about the availability of internet in our house. Knowing that he was expected to do homework online all year I thought, Now you ask? I knew what was coming because I had been watching the news. I knew the kids were about to be forced onto distance learning. But what if I had answered no? What about the kids who don’t have internet service? The homes where parents choose not to and just use their cell phones? The homes that can’t afford it? I started to think more about it and although the school district had tried hard to form business relationships with businesses that provided free wifi, and advertised where students could work for free, how realistic was it? Would the businesses really let kids who didn’t have the money to buy a soda in the restaurant sit there daily? Our school busses don’t drop off at the library where internet was offered so how were they expected to get there? Were we really providing what students needed to be successful before the pandemic?

Creative Commons Don Harder

The socioeconomic digital divide is much more than just about having access though. There is a study out of Australia found here, where access to computers and internet across all socioeconomic communities is less of an issue. Universal access alone didn’t bridge the digital gap. How the computers were used still varied greatly. This is where we come in as educators. In my child’s school, computers are provided. Internet access is also available for free currently. The access has become less of an issue since March but how are we asking students to use the computers? The students in the advantaged group still had more access to physical activity and music opportunities. Is this something we can provide using our digital tools? Quaver music is just one online music curriculum many schools use. Especially during remote learning, how are we making sure that students are doing physical activity? Are we doing yoga, strength training and cardio classes over Zoom or Google Meets or are students just expected to fill out a log? Do our children have access to dance classes? If not, can we provide them online? These are the things we need to be thinking about. It’s not simply about access.

Lifelong Learning

When I took on the Science of Reading as my Independent Learning Project, I had no idea that I would be falling like Alice down the rabbit hole. This project brings on a whole new meaning to lifelong learning. I could study this topic for the rest of my life and never even begin to feel like I had mastered the topic. When we encourage students to be lifelong learners, one of the things we do is teach is flexibility. As I read things that I knew were being ignored in the classroom I found myself rolling my eyes and snarling a bit at the computer screen. This is definitely a topic that is changing quickly in some ways as MRI imaging verifies theories on brain activity and how we process language. At the same time, it’s a very frustrating topic as we have had a good amount of scientific data that has been proven but goes ignored in practice. It’s difficult to realize that so many things you have been taught by professors you respect are flat wrong and even damaging to students. It’s hard to see that the teachers who have beautiful blogs that are wonderful people with amazing classroom management skills and thoughts on education still know very little about reading. When I started down this path, I didn’t realize my PLC was going to grow so much and that my knowledge and interest in other topics would be sparked. The most recent was the idea that learning styles is a myth. There’s a great article here that explains. This will probably be my next ILP to tackle.

One thing that I’ve learned with my PLC is how easily it is to interact with the world’s foremost experts in a topic. If you’re respectful and engaged, so many people are out there willing to answer questions, make comments and share information. I’m not sure what I thought but they’re not celebrities locked up in the Hollywood hills trying to post and run. When I say the world’s foremost experts, I really do mean the world. One of the things I found was that I was finding information and experts from around the world. From Australia to England, data was consistent with that of the experiments done in the United States. This was confirmation to me that we really are on the right path. Even as an adult, I wasn’t realizing the power of the digital tools placed in front of me and the ability to not only get information but interact with others to learn and expand my world.

Another thing that surprised me was the comments I received on my blog and Twitter on the topic from peers. I knew going in, this is a nerdy topic that many people had no interest in. But it genuinely seemed to get people thinking about their own reading experiences, how their schools approached reading and how this affects us as a culture. In turn, I was also excited to read about the different topics my peers took on. It’s led to some more expansion of my PLC. My Twitter is something that I definitely want to continue to build and learn from. My blog, I’m undecided on. One thing I’ve learned is that it is a lot of work. The amount of time that goes into planning blogs and vlogs in order to make them work well definitely became clear to me. As much as I truly enjoyed writing for the last eight weeks, I’m not sure if it’s something I want to continue to do with my professional life. These tools are definitely strategies I would like to try to utilize with students. I have a million new ideas on blogs, vlogs, daily create challenges and really utilizing technology in a multitude of ways with students. But…we did buy a 1976 camping trailer yesterday and my husband and I are combing through the digital options I’ve been utilizing to decide how to record the remodel journey.

Wait…how long has it been?

One thing I’ve noticed with my family is the amount of time that ticks by when they’re asked to do something when they have a phone in front of their face. “One minute!” or “I’ll do it in five!” quickly turns into thirty minutes. When I brought this up, they all denied it. Then, I started paying attention to my clock and my own time online. I was doing it too. It’s something that I started trying to be more mindful of. The internet was slowly sucking time away from us and no one had noticed.

When I started diving into the topic of the internet and mindfulness this week, the thing that stuck out to me was Paul Miller’s comment in his Ted Talk, “How does the internet use me and how do I use the internet?” So often, there is no real purpose to how we spend our time online. We’ve all gone through the comments on a Facebook news article posted on CNN or Fox news. It’s usually nasty, rude, inaccurate crap but some people spend their entire day reading and responding to this stuff without even a thought. At that point, we’re not using the internet. The internet is using us.

I’m the first to say that I probably spend too much time on my phone, especially after the last few months of limited social gatherings. But what I notice is, when I am picky about where and how I spend my time, I’m happier. This is something that I would like to work harder on. Some people say we just need to put the phone down and walk away but I see it differently. We need to think about intent. I have a group of friends that live across the country who have started doing weekly video calls in the last few months. This is a group that every few years, some portion of gets together in person for a medical conference but without social media, we wouldn’t speak for years. Without social media, we really would have likely passed by each other every few years too shy to speak. This is a carefully crafted group of people that genuinely enjoy each other. It’s also extended into more face to face meetings and friendships rather than taking away from those opportunities. I can’t take the stance that we just need to walk away. We just need to get our priorities straight.

When reading about teens putting their phones down for a few days, I’m embarrassed to say I did relate to the child who said he felt some anxiety going to reach for it and not finding it at the ready. We do tend to pick up our phones and stare mindlessly too long. But I also know that without having their phones, my children wouldn’t have nearly as much freedom. It opens up some connection that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Focusing on the intent of our usage and carefully crafting the places that I spend my time is where I try to focus and I encourage the children I work with to do the same.

Digital Activism – Effective or Not?

I don’t know that I can easily answer whether digital activism is effective or not. It’s far too large of a concept to have such a simple answer. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The potential for anyone at any age to have a massive instantaneous audience can be extremely powerful or quickly damaging.

When I think about the ALS ice bucket challenge, I think about being at school when my children’s teachers had large buckets of ice poured over them while wearing their school shirts on spirit day. The kids enjoyed the whole production, the video was posted online, the parents laughed but absolutely nothing was said about ALS and no money was raised. On one hand, our involvement involved absolutely no activism but on the other, the sheer number of videos posted and people being involved and challenging others prompted more to take notice and get involved. In many of those cases, money was raised. With all the different organizations involved, it’s difficult to determine exactly how much was raised but Wikipedia says over 220 million dollars was raised worldwide. Efforts to keep the momentum going and repeat this challenge yearly have been weak. But, this digital activism created awareness for ALS that was previously lacking. Sometimes the awareness alone is the most powerful thing that happens during digital activism campaigns. People struggling to get a diagnosis, support and find doctors that specialize in less common diseases are for the first time connected through this process. Getting funding from NIH programs is also easier with visibility.

The New York Times article, “The Dangers of Digital Activism” details the darker side of expressing opinions online when not living in a free country. Although it seems like this is something that we don’t have to deal with in the United States, we have to remember why digital activism works. There’s a bit of a mob mentality that takes over. But we tend not to call it that because it’s not always an angry mob holding pitchforks and torches. Sometimes it’s a happy, positive group selling kindness and information. But people join in quickly, whether they understand the facts or not. It’s a little like jumping on the bandwagon a few weeks before the Super Bowl. If people didn’t jump on the bandwagon with only two teams left, the event would be a flop and Super Bowl parties in places like Nebraska that has no team at all would be non-existent. Digital activism can go either way though and it’s difficult to predict. I watched this unfold in the direction of an angry mob on Instagram on “Blackout Tuesday” with a local teenage girl a few weeks ago. In support of Black Lives Matter, people posted a black square on their Instagram and nothing else for the day. She did not. She posted an actual photo of something she was doing that morning. It’s impossible to tell if she had even logged into the app and knew about the blackout since it’s common to post to social media directly from the camera app. Almost instantly, local teens started the attack. She was called a racist, told she hated all black people, threatened, called names and told she had to remove the photo. In a short amount of time she had removed the photo but not before things escalated to the point where she had horrible comments on her entire feed and had to hide her account. When I asked her classmates if there was any background story to why she would be attacked, they were dumbfounded. They said it was going on with many accounts all day. The rules seemed to be different on Facebook where profile pictures were changed but new posts were still being generated. In a time so dependent on social media to teach, learn and get real information, digital activism came down to compliance and mob mentality. Days later, digital activists spread information about Juneteenth and for the first time in many American’s lives, they were diving into African American history they were never taught. Digital Activism goes both ways but it’s unpredictable. This is where we must be cautious as educators and we return back to the need to teach and embed digital citizenship into every lesson. Had the Instagram situation been handled with digital citizenship tools in place, a simple direct message with an invitation to join may have avoided the harassment or at least given her an opportunity to make a decision on the topic.

Spelling in the Early Grades

One of the things I’ve been diving into is spelling. It’s a little dry but confusing, overwhelming and conflicts so much with how I was taught and how my children were taught. I’m going to try to simplify and summarize what I’ve been working on this week.

When we think about learning letter sounds and spelling, we tend to oversimplify things focusing on the 26 letters of the alphabet. But, there are 44 sounds in the English language that are represented by 175 spellings. Although spelling has been fairly standard for a few hundred years, pronunciation has evolved which leads to some of what we often hear as rule breakers or infrequent. They aren’t rule breakers at all, just less common spellings. We commonly see early teachers focus simply on the one to one sounds of the twenty six letters and then quickly put words into the “rule breaker” or “sight word because you can’t sound it out” categories when it’s simply not true. They are just less common spellings. “Was” is one word that is frequently used in early reading texts. It does not meet the one to one sound first taught with “a” saying /a/ so it’s quickly dismissed. That’s the teaching equivalent of saying, “Because I said so!” rather than teaching the reasons and methodology behind letter sounds so that they can be applied as reading progresses. When really, in the word “was” “a” says /o/. It’s not really that infrequent in kindergarten as we see with words like what and want. Although we first start with the one to one 26 letter code, we must adapt and add on to that as context requires.

8th Grader lacking in early phonics & spelling skills

As you can see with just one example above, spelling is complicated. We need to focus first on the one to one code, adding systematically. Up to four letters may be used to represent a single sound. When we consider long a, it’s spelled in a multitude of ways: a, ai, a_e, ay, ea, ei, ey, eigh. We focus on phonics and the connection to orthographics far too little. It takes approximately three years to build the basic phonics and spelling knowledge for students to be successful readers. Often the focus on phonics lasts through kindergarten alone.

I’d like to end with a great blog post that reviews some great dos and don’t of teaching spelling by Charlotte MacKechnie. Some of the don’ts are a little hard to take in since it’s how we were taught ourselves.

Daily Create #18 – Raising Ballers

As a mom, a good bit of my time goes into creating this. The hours in the park playing catch, setting balls on the tee, packing coolers, making hotel reservations, packing for 5, coordinating schedules and playing taxi cab. It’s worth every second. I didn’t even like baseball 15 years ago and now I live for the spring and summer seasons to create these moments.