Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sometimes a C+ works

I recently read a book entitled Five-Star Families: Moving yours from good to great by Carol Kuykendall. This book provides suggestions for Moms trying to balance the dreams they had before their kids were born with the realities of motherhood. The best piece of advice in the book (from my perspective) was the idea that sometime “C+ Works.”

I tend to believe that everything I do needs to rate an A+ and, more often than not,I end up beating myself up because I just cannot meet such a standard. I want my fitness level to be at its A+ pre-kids level (it is not working), I want my house to always be clean (definitely not working), I want dinners to be ready, the kids’ rooms to be organized, the dogs to be washed, the garage to be clutter-free and the yard to mowed and trimmed. Needless to say, most of this is not working either.

Then, there is work - I want to be on top of things at the office as well. Yet, anyone familiar with academia knows that the more you do the more you have to do. My advisor used to say that in academia “No good deed goes unpunished.” So the A+ standard is impossible in that realm of my life as well.

As I reflected on the concept of accepting a C+ in some areas of my life I realized that my A+ standards were also stifling my use of technology. For example, I recently sent out our 2006 Christmas. They arrived in friends’ mailboxes over the July 4 weekend. There are a lot of reasons they were so late including my husband’s entire family visiting for the holidays, my husband turning 40 on January 1 and enduring a particularly heavy course load in the Spring semester. Yet, if I am honest with myself I didn’t send out Christmas cards because I wanted to have A+ cards. I was going to make a postcard with a collage of pictures from throughout the year and embed particularly funny sayings from the kids. Why? Everyone except my mother-in-law and my grandmother will either immediately throw away the card or display it on the refrigerator for a short time and then throw it away. An A+ standard doesn’t make sense.

Finally, I used a great service provided by the USPS via Netpost. I uploaded a picture, typed some text, imported my address database and had my cards mailed for me within 15 minutes. I didn’t even have to leave the computer screen. In two days the cards started arriving all over the country. The cards don’t look professional but in this case C+ definitely works. I used technology to my advantage rather than my detriment.

Sometimes technology affords us so much potential that we get caught up in what it can do and feel stifled if our creations don’t measure up to the possibilities. I took the following video of my son and two of his friends last Thursday. I had plans to add music, fancy transitions and to edit out some of the poorly shot video. Something tells me my friends, Laura and Cathy, will be more happy to see their boys on film today than they would be if I held onto the video for the next 10 years until I had time to make it of A+ quality.

Sometimes a C+ does work!!

P.S. For those of you trying to figure out which service to use to host your video I also uploaded the video on Our Media. The video on Our Media was compressed for Web Streaming (2.7 MB). The video on YouTube was compressed for CD quality (8.8 MB) As with any digital content you have to weigh quality versus file size. I personally don't see much of a difference but maybe that is my new C+ attitude talking. I plan to try out other sites such as OneTrueMedia soon.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

(Don't) Grab a Heine

When I was a sophomore in high school a friend gave me a T-shirt that said, “Grab a Heine” on the front with a picture of a Heineken bottle on the back. I thought it was the coolest T-shirt ever. My Dad did not agree. He told me I was presenting a bad image of myself, advertising a product that was illegal and inappropriate for my age and inviting boys to touch me in inappropriate places. He then said he didn’t ever want to see the shirt again. In true teenage fashion I stomped up to my room, threw the shirt in the back of my closet, sulked, pouted, and called all my friends to complain about my unreasonable and irrational father. (There was no text messaging back then.)

I found the shirt a few years later when I was packing for college. Of course, I packed it in the bottom a box. Dad would never know. Plus, I was grown up and ready for the world. I wore the T-shirt to a freshman orientation event. You know, the kind of event where everyone who is away from home for the first time is checking out everyone else in the same boat. During that event two guys pinched my heine. I could not believe it. I didn’t want attention from guys who were so disrespectful; I was annoyed and a bit embarrassed. Worse yet, my Dad was right. The way you present yourself impacts what others think of you. I threw away the T-shirt that evening.

Today’s digital world provides youngsters even more avenues to represent themselves; particularly through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. The only difference is that their audience is the world. Social networking sites enable youngsters to create a profile and communicate with friends in the online community. Some friends are also friends in real life while others are virtual friends. Users can provide a wide array of information about themselves including address, phone number, sexual orientation, relationship status, religious affiliation and what they are looking for (i.e. friendship, random play, whatever I can get, etc.) Users can also join groups that include everything from school classes to political advocacy groups to similar first names to groups inappropriate for me mention on this blog. Likewise, users can share pictures, “tag” pictures taken by others and become “friends” with other individuals in the community.

Essentially, youngsters are able to develop their identify in both face-to-face and virtual environments. The media is quick to scare us with stories about how youngsters are opening themselves up to sexual predators (see “Do you know where your kids are clicking”) and loosing professional opportunities because of their online presence (See Workers fired over Internet postings). Given the number of youngsters participating in social networking communities, instances like these are not the norm.

However, some colleagues (Jade Coutts, Jeff Boyer and Rick Ferdig) and I recently studied how 385 undergraduates were using Facebook. Over half the Facebook profiles were public (it is possible to make an account private and only available to select individuals) and most included screenshots, information about relationships and relationship desires, sexual orientation and a photo album. Not all the profiles were inappropriate but many of the youngsters were wearing a virtual “Grab a Heine” T-shirt.

As Moms we need to be cognizant of the online communities our children frequent. In the younger years such online participation is easier to keep tabs on because we are able to keep our children close. Thus, that is an ideal time for us to encourage reasonable online participation. There is no particular age that this should happen. My 5-year old is not involved in online communities but several of my Mom friends have 2nd graders participating in Club Penguin, Neopets and Webkinz.

Even if you are not willing to allow your youngster to join an online community you can instill healthy habits related to online participation that will hopefully carry over as independence grows. If you need some support in this area, I have always enjoyed the Safekids.com site and I particularly like Daffy Dave's Safe Kids Song. But, there are a host of other resources available.

Most Moms do not assume that their kids will regularly bathe, brush teeth, do homework and eat healthy foods. In the early years we are in complete control of these things and try to instill principles that will carry over as independence grows. The same is true for online participation. There will be many opportunities for our kids to put on a virtual “Grab a Heine” T-shirt. We want to increase the likely that it will stay in the closet or, at the very least, be thrown away after a hard but not devastating lesson.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Who will prepare our kids for their digital futures?

I used to despise writing. My Mom knew it and volunteered me to be the scribe of my Brownie troop when I was in fourth grade. I was not pleased. What a meddling Mom! I had to write an article summarizing each weekly meeting and, worse yet, the articles were actually published in our local newspaper (Yes, I am from Small Town America). Mom would sit with me after each meeting and help me think about how to tell a story to others. Then, she would make me edit and edit and edit. I do not consider myself a stellar writer but I am convinced my writing would be even worse if it weren’t for my Mom. She knew writing was critical to academic success and eventually to success in a variety of careers.

Writing is still critical to academic and professional success but there are new skills that Moms need to ensure their children gain; the skills of using digital technologies to problem solve, communication, collaborate, network, create and multitask. That’s right, whether we like it or not if our children are living in what Dr. Henry Jenkins (MIT) refers to as a participatory culture. Being able to use a mouse, save a file and create a Word document no longer equates to computer literacy.

In fact, Jonathan Fanton (president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur ) claims that “[t]hose who have no opportunity or desire to be part of …revolutionary digital communities may be deprived of vital virtual skills that would prepare them for full participation in the real world of tomorrow” (See New Generations, New Media Challenges).

As I follow the impact of blogs, social networking communities and YouTube on the current Presidential elections I must say that I cannot disagree.

However, I do disagree with Fanton’s assertion that it is up to schools to prepare our students for this new world. In an ideal world the schools would do just this and there are great examples of students using digital technologies in powerful ways in schools across the country. As a matter of fact, meeting the teachers who facilitate these things is one of my favorite things about my job. For example, check out Kids Galore Helping Kids of Darfur, a service learning project for 3rd graders facilitated by Wendy Drexler.

However, there are many more examples of school districts that block all blogs, wikis, videos and podcasts. It is pretty hard to be part of a participatory culture when you don’t even have access to the tools. There are also plenty of examples of federally funded computer labs that can only be used for remedial reading instruction via drill and kill software applications. I could go on and one but you get my point. I am not willing to rely on schools to give my children the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to function in a culture driven by digital technologies any more than my Mom was willing to hope that the schools would eventually teach me to write.

I don’t think fostering new digital skills is a particularly difficult task for Moms to undertake as long as we follow the lead of our children. Once our children hit elementary school they will come home talking about Webkinz, Club Penguin or Doll Emporium. As they get older they will frequent MySpace, become addicted to YouTube, join Second Life and IM or Skype to their heart’s content. (Well, those things may be long gone but they’ll be on top of wherever the digital world goes.)

None of this is inherently bad as long as it is done in moderation and with common sense. Here is where we come in, Moms. Common sense is not necessarily innate (just ask my friend whose 3 year old recently tried to jump off the Empire State Building). If we follow the age-old parenting rule of keeping communication open even the biggest of digital dunces among us will learn a lot and contribute to our children developing the digital skills they need to function in a world in which we may or may not ever fully participate.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Digital audio to the rescue: Please let me practice some more!!

My son, Danny (5), has had bouts with temporary hearing loss since he was 3 years old. Unfortunately, that translates into weekly speech therapy sessions. He’s been taking speech for almost a year and we’re in the home stretch. If he can just master his “L” sounds he’ll be done and ready to start Kindergarten in August. However, it is getting harder and harder to convince him to practice his speech lessons. Today I decided to see what would happen if I gave him a microphone and let him record his voice on the computer.

At first he was tentative and worked very hard to pronounce his sounds correctly as you can hear in these sentences about sailboats and balloons. Then, he became 5-year old silly and started making up stories like this one about the yellow crayon that goes to Africa, China, Florida and Georgia (??). While his pronunciations didn’t show any remarkable improvement the fact that he wants to practice speech tomorrow is a HUGE step forward for us. If I can get him to practice his articulation will improve.

As I was working with Danny today I thought about other ways Moms could use simple audio technologies to support their kids. If your child is shy, have him talk into a microphone to practice a strong, confident voice. If your child struggles with writing have him tell a story instead of writing it. If he likes the story enough he’ll want to put it in written form eventually. If your child has a class presentation, let him record and critique himself. If your child is a comedian, allow him to record jokes to share with distant relatives. If your child struggles with reading fluency allow him to read into the microphone. I am sure you can think of more ideas.

Moms can also use digital audio in powerful ways. If you are going away on a business trip record a couple favorite bedtime stories. Record those adorable little voices before they grow up. My kids are young and I already long for that cute baby talk at times. Plus, what a great way to bring the family together for a few laughs in later years. Record memories for your kids; I lost my mother in my pre-teen years and would love to be able to hear her voice. What advice would she have had for me? What did she always want me to know but never had a chance to say? What did she really sound like? Twenty years can dull even the fondest of memories. If we take time to record our voice now our kids will be so appreciative later.

The best part about the technology used for this activity is that it is totally free. I used a digital audio program called Audacity and saved the files in MP3 format. I uploaded them to a free media storage site called OurMedia and linked them in my blog. The entire process took about 10 minutes. If you are not comfortable uploading files to the Internet, you can always use Audacity to create files that reside on your computer. Once your child has created something too great to keep to yourself (which won’t be long) you can begin the process of sharing the work over the Internet.

Children relish in the opportunity to create and share; digital audio gives us 21st century Moms another tool to support them in such endeavors.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

“Liar, liar pants on fire” and other phrases I taught my kids

I am a portable DVD player holdout. My family took long vacations every summer (Mom, Dad, 4 kids and a dog in the old station wagon with wood paneling) and I have fond memories of playing the license plate game, the alphabet game and getting to snack on normally-forbidden treats. I have some bad memories too - especially of my brother throwing up on me and the dog jumping out the window on the interstate.

But, my best memories are of my Mom reading to us. It was on these trips that I was exposed to Island of the Blue Dolphins, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, Heidi, and the Bobsey Twins, among others. So, why do my kids need a DVD player in the car? I don’t think they do.

Unfortunately, I get carsick while reading so I recently went to the library on the eve of our 7-hour trek to Northern Georgia. There I found most of the audio books I wanted were checked out. Most notably, Mary Pope Osborne was nowhere to be found. The kind librarian suggested I try the Junie B. Jones series. The series had rave reviews from librarians, teachers and professional organizations so I decided it was a pretty good bet. Not so; my first clue should have been one of the titles - “Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus.”

Junie B. is new kindergarten student and while the tales are absolutely hysterical the language is exactly how I DON”T want my kids to talk. For example, there is “Dumb Jim who I hate” and “William, the boy I think I can beat up” There is also a lot of sass by Junie B. to her parents, grandparents and teacher (named “Mrs” because Junie cannot remember her “dumb name”).

Well, my kids ate this up and have been mimicking the language by playing the Junie B. game. They take turns being Junie B. and crack themselves up with all of her ridiculous sayings.

But, yes, I am still a portable DVD player holdout. I failed to get my kids appropriate audio books but I still believe they are a much better form of technology to use in the car. Kids are exposed to stories that are above their reading level (if they read at all) and that are more complex than what can typically be read in one sitting at home. Kids also get to hone in their listening skills, learn new vocabulary, participate in family discussions about the book and hear the inflection in the voices of professional narrators –all things that can instill a love of reading. In addition, they get to use their imagination to visualize what characters and settings look like; essentially, they get to work their mind.

Since my recent failure at audio book selection, I have found a couple online resources other Moms may find interesting: Kids Read & Audio books for Free. I would love to hear about other sources that help Moms locate appropriate audio books.

As we begin to prepare for a driving trip from Florida to Pennsylvania I will search for audio books early and hope that “Liar, liar pants on fire” becomes a passing phase in our household.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

If you give a kid a digital camera....

Laura Numeroff's "If you give..." series delights young children with adorable characters, unexpected consequences and lots of silliness. Whoever heard of giving a pig a pancake any way?

Have you ever heard of giving a 5 and 3 year old a digital camera? That is exactly what I did yesterday. The boys have taken pictures before but it has always been under my direction. Interestingly, when they were given free reign they directed themselves. Prior to this activity Danny (5) was practicing his letters using a laminated folder his preschool teachers gave him at the end of the year. He is obsessed with how to spell things and the letters with which words begin. So, he decided that they should take pictures of things that begin with different letters (No, prompting from me). He then proceeded to write "big" and "small" letters on sheets of paper while Drew (3) took off in search of things that Danny told him to find. I sensed that Danny was thrilled to be in charge and that Drew was happy to have a job.

After all the pictures were taken I helped the boys upload the pictures to BubbleShare (any program would have worked and I will outline other possibilities in future posts). We had to organize the photos, decide which ones to keep and which ones to delete. Then, Danny typed all the words into the bubbles. By this time Drew had lost interest but came back when we started recording the audio (which didn't work very well because my microphone is at work). You can view the resulting slideshow below. Those of you who are technology-savvy may not be too impressed but the learning that happened in this fun activity was amazing. We talked about how "C"" and "K" often make the same sound, why knife doesn't start with an "n", why wristband doesn't start with an "r", how the way you hold the camera influences how the picture will look and why the keyboard is so difficult to use.

This album is powered by BubbleShare - Add to my blog

There are lots of things kids can do with digital cameras but, of course, there are some downfalls for Moms who choose to do activities like this. First, unless you are rolling in cash you have to supervise. Digital cameras are pretty durable but my 3-year could probably damage a steel wall. Second, it takes a lot of time. This activity probably took us about 2.5 hours. Third, if you give a kid a digital camera he'll probably want to use it again and again and again and again.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Electronic games and kids: Not MY kids

I didn't enjoy video games growing up. Pac-man, Kaboom and Asteroids were boring to me. Then again, given the choice I would rather read a book than watch a movie. I would rather play a sport and be outside than use my thumbs to press buttons for hours.

Until recently my kids did not play electronic games either. Why should they? What a waste of time; mind-numbing time. I know many Moms feel the same way. As a matter of fact, I talked to three of them just last week. Essentially the media has Moms believing that all electronic games are violent (much like this heart wrenching video portrays.) Picture your youngster saying these words!! OUCH!

Then, Rick Ferdig, a trusted colleague, started talking about his new research in educational gaming. Rick is a very bright and interesting fellow so I listened skeptically. Then, another respected colleague, Jeff Boyer, gave me a book entitled: "How computer games help children learn" by David Williamson Shaffer. I followed up that read with "Don't bother me, Mom, I am learning" by Mark Prensky. Both Rick and Jeff could be considered gaming junkies but they got me thinking and reading.

My kids now play a limited number of games on the computer and we have recently purchased a Wii thanks to the persistence of my husband (No boxing or other violent games allowed.) The passion and enthusiasm my kids display is amazing. My oldest son, Danny (5), became a bowling "pro" last weekend. He was jazzed and started telling everyone (including me) how they could become a "pro" like him. The skills (social, academic and technical) my little ones have displayed via electronic games over the past couple of months have amazed me.

While we still spend most of our time doing things other than electronic gaming, it has added another dimension to our household and another item to the list of favorites (which includes the art box, the piano keyboard, the bikes, the pool and a wide variety of balls, frisbees, bats and other sports accessories).

While I am still holding tight to the "evils" of most television-viewing, my perspectives on electronic gaming are slowly changing. I see a smirk on many of my colleagues' faces already.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Children on the Internet

My kids are not old enough to read yet but many Moms I know wonder about how to help their children search the Internet safely. Of course, there are no guarantees and the best plan of attack is to arm your children with a strong knowledge of Internet safety rules (just like we teach them about Stranger Danger, 911 and crossing the street). Children's search engines, while not foolproof, are also a good bet.

I have compiled some Internet Safety websites as well as some children's search engines. I did this via a social bookmarking site known as de.licio.us.

I hope you find the resources useful. Please share others with me.

A new blog and a confession

I have started blogs before. I require graduate students in my courses to create their own blogs. I have lamented about how professors should create and maintain their own blogs (See Blog Overload in the Chronicle of Higher Education). Yet, I have repeatedly failed to keep a blog going for more than a semester. Possibly, this blog will meet the same fate but I think I have discovered why my attempts have failed:

(1) There are a lot of people writing about the same kinds of things I am thinking about daily (see, for example, Chris Sessums, Will Richardson and Wesley Fryer for starters - you can also take a look at all the Blogs I subscribe to here). If I am going to take the time to write as eloquently as these folks I need to do to it for grant applications or refereed publications (i.e. the places where I receive credit for my efforts from my institution). In this blog brevity rules which brings me to my next point.

(2) I am a Mom of two young boys. I don't have a lot of extra time and they are my number one priority. I need to make sure any "extra" effort I put into my work serves a personal and professional passion.

(3) I have never targeted an audience. As a matter of fact, one of my blogs was entitled "Random Thoughts." Some people can get away with that quite well. Not me. I need a focus and my number one focus is my children. So, I plan to share with and gain ideas from other Moms trying to use technology as another tool to enrich the lives of their children.

We'll see how it goes.