Archive for the ‘ Learning & Education ’ Category

Digital Helicopter Parenting 101


Helicopter parenting: It’s one concept I firmly believe I avoid. Or at least I thought I did.

As a parent, I’m a big fan of promoting independence and attempt to foster situations that allow my sons to figure things out on their own as much as possible.

Right up until it comes to schoolwork. I blame this on the school as much as on myself. Now that parents and teachers have a much more direct and near instantaneous line of communication we, as parents, are expected to be far more involved with managing our kids day to day school work and study habits.

This all stems from a recent struggle we’ve had with Big Bit. Now in the 6th grade, the workload and expected responsibility level are intensifying. Teachers update grades and homework expectations online daily. It’s great in that I know immediately when my son skips an assignment. We have time for a course correction and at least partial credit.

It’s not so great when a teacher ninja posts a new project after school has released on a Friday afternoon.

So, there we are – helplessly staring in frustration at a small series of zeroes due to yet again, missing assignments – and we ask ourselves, “How do we help him be more responsible for this?” At this point, we’re all exhausted by the daily routine:

  1. Check his completed assignments to what’s listed in his agenda.
  2. Check each teacher’s website to confirm he’s actually written it down properly and that there are no ninja assignments.
  3. Have him complete the at least one inevitably missed assignment.
  4. Check the school’s website that has the posted grades to see what’s missing from previous days. They’re still always at least one. Have him complete that assignment too.

Rinse and repeat daily. Now, despite the zeroes and 50% grades from missing and late work he still has an even split of A’s and B’s for his cumulative grades.

Then it dawned on me. In 6th grade I missed homework. I didn’t have a teacher’s website to check; if I didn’t write it down in class I had to phone a friend or deal with the consequences. My grades slipped and I spent the next quarter grounded. Funny thing happened next, I improved.

In this case, all these wonderful tools are preventing my son from just dealing with the consequences of not keeping track of these things himself. It’s time for him to sink or swim on his own. Time for a skinned knee or two. He’s going to falter and fall down, but he’ll get up, grow and learn. And I just need to step aside and let it happen.

On Dragon’s Wings


This morning I learned that Anne McCaffrey just died.

I can’t tell you the countless hours I’ve spent lost in worlds she created. The Dragonrider’s of Pern was among the first of the science fiction series that truly captured my imagination and mind. I grew up devouring tales of Pern, weyrs, threadfall and dragon’s flight. Through awkward preteen and teenage years I’d escape to Pern, dreaming of bonding with a dragon and sailing through the skies.

As I look back on those years, it’s difficult to put into words just how profoundly her books influenced my life. Short and chubby, with coke-bottle glasses, uncoordinated and clumsy, the “gifted” label placed on me at the tender age of 8 simply cemented the bully’s target onto my forehead. I was awkward, I cried easily and frequently and I honestly had no idea how to relate to most of the kids in my class.

McCaffrey’s heroines were always dealing with much larger adversities, with much more at stake than the simple emotions of one little girl. They were also flawed and made mistakes, they had hopes and disappointments, but they always stood up for themselves and did the right thing. Lessa, Rowan, Acorna, Menolly, Killashandra – they were all remarkable role models that rose above the challenges life threw at them and they did so with grace, humor and style.

Lunch hour after lunch hour, I hid from the cafeteria bullies in my Language Arts teacher’s classroom absorbed in Lessa’s quests, Killashandra’s struggles and the power of the Brainships. These women always looked at the world with a positive view and I desperately wanted to be them. I think I can attribute a good number of my personal values today to their influences while I was growing up.

What I didn’t realize then was that Anne McCaffrey was the first female writer to earn both the Hugo and Nebula awards and that she was reshaping how women were portrayed in science fiction. All I knew, was that these were women I could look up to and aspire to be. To this day, I would take it as a compliment to be compared to any of her heroines.

Soon I’ll introduce these wonderful worlds to my sons, but in the mean time I have some old friends to catch up with. Excuse me, I have some re-reading to do….

Digital Learning


Kids have it so easy today in school. If I’d had all the advantages of the internet, early computer access, digital ‘chalk’ boards and the army of technological gadgets available today I would have breezed through school. Right?

I’m not so sure about that.

For starters, kids at increasingly earlier ages are required to learn so many additional skills beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. Sure, they’ve spongy little brains designed for this task but is it mental overload? Does the need to learn the skills associated with the technology distract from absorbing the information required from their core classes?

My son had to produce his first typed report in the third grade. His rain forest project involved a Papier-mâché animal, a one page research paper and a class presentation. He spent time in class researching his topic: the caiman lizard. After hand-writing a first draft, a fourth grade peer edited his paper and made suggestions for improvement. We spent three weeks on the lizard itself. The final weekend he came home, tasked to type the paper and be ready to present and turn in the assignment on Monday.

Although my son had spent time on the computer playing video games and some limited web browsing, he’d never spent any time with a word processor. It took him hours to type the one page, five paragraph report. Tempted to type it for him, just to relieve his frustration, I resisted the urge to bail him out. Instead I encouraged him to just type it and we would work together to fix the spelling errors and formatting issues. It was the worst part of the entire project. Until that moment he’d enthusiastically thrown himself into the research, the art portion and even the writing of the paper.

On one hand, it’s great that he is learning these skills at a very early age. He will have an advantage when he’s older if he’s competent at typing, word processing and general computer navigation. On the other hand, the complete lack of practice in this skill detracted from his enjoyment of the entire project, leaving a somewhat bitter taste at the end of an otherwise interesting activity. Unfortunately, the teachers do not have time to work in computer skills practice (beyond the limited time they receive as the formal course curriculum).

Are we asking just a bit too much of our elementary school children?

I’m also concerned about fact retention. With the ease of finding general facts, the complete, permanent availability of all information, all the time I grow concerned that we’re getting lazy about remembering actual details and things and stuff.

Now that my phone can tell me when to turn and where, I’ve stopped paying attention to landmarks that help entrench the route I’ve just driven into my memory. Rather than memorizing a map of where I’m headed I dutifully wait for that precise voice to tell me, “At the next light, turn right.”

Knowing that I can refer back to web article on internet security, I no longer bother to remember what the article had to say. Honestly, I don’t even bother to remember the web address of where I saw it because I know that I can just Google it later. Later comes and I’ve moved on to some other topic. Article and information are lost in the caverns of my mind, failing to have made it into long term memory.

Do our children go through this same process? Are they foregoing memorization because they know they can always find it later?

Let’s face it, how we process and remember new information has fundamentally shifted. I love the advantages that these advancements bring my kids (All your textbooks on one reader or tablet? YES!) but I also don’t just assume that it really makes it any easier on them.

What do you think?

The Great Debate


Hummingbirds don’t have feet.

“Hummingbirds don’t have feet,” my younger sister announced to the dinner table. This simple statement sparked a heated family debate that has sprawled across at least a decade. My sister emphatically claimed that hummingbirds did not have feet and my father insisted that hummingbirds did, in fact, have feet. As was standard for unanswerable questions over dinner, my dad walked into the office and returned with one of the maroon bound, gold lettered volumes of our World Book Encyclopedia set.

My dad thumbed to the appropriate page, ready to triumphantly rub those feet in my sister’s face. The image for this particular entry turned out to be an illustration (rather than a photo) and did not include the bird’s feet. Dad was wrong and the World Book proved it. In our minds the World Book was the Final Authority; in the Kids versus Dad debate we’d finally won a round. Nowadays we realize the truth of our Dad’s statement but, to this day, a fantastic way to get under my Dad’s skin is to state that hummingbirds do not have feet, go retrieve the encyclopedia (yes, they still have it) and proudly show him the picture.

I fondly remember the hours we’d spend pouring over those books. When we first ordered the set, one book would arrive each month and we’d eagerly open the box, filled with glee to see what new information was waiting for our hungry minds. Who can forget the volume with the human anatomy and the clear plastic pages that would overlay the skeletal and muscular systems? I think my sister and I have both brought that particular book into school for show and tell. Almost every night questions would pop up that required Dad to reference our encyclopedias; looking up the information – as a family – to settle a dispute was half the fun.

How we find and process information has changed dramatically since those early encyclopedia days. A quick statement into my Google voice search app can yield hundreds, if not thousands, of hummingbird images in less time than it would take me to go fetch the book from another room. On one hand, our deep questions are no longer limited to dinner time. Since questions can be resolved with the quick tap of a screen we are easily able to track down answers and learn something new, if not always useful. On the other hand, we no longer have the pleasure of the extended debate – prolonged to the point where someone throws up their hands in frustration and stands up to ask the World Book what the truth of the matter really is.

But with the ease of finding information, I wonder if we’re still truly storing the newly found facts in our brains? Now that we can find the answer at a moment’s notice, are we still taking the time to file that gem of a fact in our long term memory? It seems that students today have incredible advantages because information is so easily accessible, but I wonder if that very same ease of accessibility is detrimental to the actual act of learning? There was something to the process of going to a library, collecting a variety of books, reading through the topics and writing down notes that helped reinforce the new information streaming into my brain. Are we getting lazier about memorization?

As a parent, I’m excited about all the new methods of teaching and learning. I look forward to the days when all my son’s school books are consolidated into one reader or tablet. Cloud storage means that his school work is always there for him to access. With a split custody situation, we’ve overcome the challenge of the homework assignment having been left at the wrong house. The smart boards the teachers use in the classroom makes for a more interactive presentation and engages my children in actively learning.  But I also feel like my sons are missing out on the joys of digging through library stacks to pinpoint one small fact. Perhaps it’s just my nostalgia kicking in?

Most recently my sister has been waging a campaign for chickens. Specifically she wants me to have chickens so that she can come visit them. Zoning in my area permits chickens as pets and she’s been insistently and persistently making her case. Her tactics? Google image searches for chickens. Here’s the one that almost has me ready to build a coop:

Build me a coop…

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