Tag Archives: literacy

What’s it take to go from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center’?

As the National Week of Making comes to a close, there’s equal measure of excitement and motivation going around. Excitement for the potential of the maker movement to empower a new generation of creative and capable builders, inventors, and tinkerers ready to overcome today’s most pressing challenges and re-energize the economy. Motivation to determine exactly how such a diffuse and decentralized movement can achieve that lofty vision in a way that is accessible and equitable to all.

A few weeks ago, more than 50 educators and municipal leaders from more than a dozen cities across the country met in Washington, DC to take the first steps toward making hands-on, technology-enhanced learning opportunities not just something that a few children experience at occasional events, but something that cities and towns invest in and support as part of the public, municipal infrastructure.

The idea goes like this: many cities maintain community recreation centers in parks, public housing buildings, libraries, or other neighborhood-based sites and with the right mix of human capital and equipment, many of these recreation centers could be activated anew as makerspaces and tech labs—in other words, going from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center.’

Andrew Coy

The meeting was convened by Andrew Coy, Senior Advisor for Making at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Andrew’s experience as the former Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit that led a Rec2Tech conversion project in Baltimore, inspired him to explore opportunities to build a model for similar projects communities across the country, especially in under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Participating cities came from across the U.S., from Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis in the Midwest, to New Orleans in the South and Palo Alto in the West. The size of the cities ranged from major metropolitan centers like Chicago and Los Angeles to small towns like Ithaca, NY and Wenatchee, WA.

Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network was there, represented by staff from the Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh City Parks, the Maker’s Place, the Remake Learning Council, and The Sprout Fund. The network is working to deepen the impact of local educators and youth workers to provide more young people with hands-on learning experiences that are engaging to their interests and relevant to their future success. The Rec2Tech model is one of several approaches network members are exploring to expand access and equity.

Models to Consider

Two guest speakers shared insights from their experience working to expand access to innovative learning opportunities in partnership with municipal and community spaces.

Shawn Grimes, Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, recalled the history of risk taking, sweat equity, and practical problem solving that went in to the launch of their Rec2Tech conversion in Baltimore. First opened in 2013, Digital Harbor’s Tech Center emerged from a collaboration between Baltimore City Recreation & Parks, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Digital Harbor. Today, they serve 1,300 youth per year with an average engagement of some 40 hours through year-round progressive programs.

Dr. Nichole Pinkard

Dr. Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network, grounded the discussion in the critical issue of equitable access and the changing meaning of literacy in today’s world.

“If a society’s definition of what it means to be literate is tied to the technological innovations of the time,” said Dr. Pinkard, “Then today’s technologies have created a world where computational thinking and making are becoming essential literacies for all.”

To Dr. Pinkard, the Rec2Tech concept has the potential to answer both the equity question and the literacy question: it embeds technology and talent in the communities that children call home and it exposes them to new modes of thinking and the future rewards they can lead to.

Exploring Critical Issues

During the afternoon session, The Sprout Fund led a facilitated discussion about four critical issues related to municipal makerspaces:

  1. Establishing partnerships and collaborations that can support Rec2Tech conversions
  2. Creating high-quality youth programming that is engaging and relevant
  3. Building work readiness skills relevant to careers in high-demand sectors
  4. Identifying best practices regarding space design and technology

Key findings from this discussion will guide ongoing conversations among the emerging national community of practice about municipal makerspaces. You can read the Key Findings and contribute your own thoughts on Medium.

 A Rec2Tech Framework for Pittsburgh

In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Network is committed to expanding equitable access to powerful experiences related to making and digital learning.

As announced during the National Week of Making kick off last Friday, the City of Pittsburgh and The Sprout Fund, together with partners from the Remake Learning Network, are working to develop a community-informed plan for Rec2Tech along with site-specific curriculum and demonstration programming for kids at multiple recreation centers across the city. While these efforts are just getting underway, they signal what is possible when educators, youth-serving nonprofits, and municipal leaders come together to make deep investments in community assets for learning.

App Opens New Chapter in Childhood Literacy

Think back on your favorite children’s book. “The Rainbow Fish.” “Curious George.” “Green Eggs and Ham.” Reading is a critical part of childhood, but for too many low-income families, children’s books are an expense beyond reach.

That’s why last month the Obama administration announced that it is helping teachers, parents, and children download thousands of ebooks on smartphones or tablets for free. Teachers and librarians in more than 66,000 low-income Title I schools, families on military bases, and special education teachers can now access those books with the new Open eBooks app.

To obtain the books, teachers or librarians sign up online and receive codes for each of their students. Students and their parents take the codes, download the app onto a smartphone or tablet, and select what they want to read. In the first week after launching the app, over 1,000,000 codes were issued to educators, according to the White House.

In addition to partnering with 10 major publishers, including Random House and Penguin, the White House worked with other organizations to create the app, including the New York Public Library, the Digital Public Library of America, and a nonprofit called First Book, which sells deeply discounted books (around $2) to groups serving children. The initiative was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, while the publishers contributed the content.

Unlike the case when borrowing an ebook from a public library, children and families don’t have to wait until the item is available or somebody checks it back in. They can browse titles and download at will.

“As a former teacher in a Title I school, I know an app like Open eBooks would have been a game changer for my students,” Colin Rogister, a who helps to lead the administration’s ConnectED initiative, told EdSurge.

Opening the floodgates to thousands of free books is undeniably a bonus for advocates trying to boost early literacy. Research has found that kids from lower-income families have fewer books in their homes and often start school months or years behind their peers. Meanwhile, being read to and having books at home can be predictive of success in school. And one study found providing children with access to printed materials helped them read more frequently for longer periods and widened their vocabularies.

Media can help literacy, but only if teachers and parents use it intentionally and offer supervision.

Books are only part of the equation. Despite national and local efforts to strengthen reading skills, two out of every three American children are not reading proficiently by fourth grade, and half of children from low-income families do not meet the low level of “basic” on reading tests. Meanwhile, technology (like the tablets and phones kids use to read ebooks) is often treated as a silver bullet or as harmful to children’s literacy.

In their recent book, “Tap, Click, Read,” Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine describe how a third option is needed—one where media and technology support reading and literacy in ways that were never possible. They say media could help literacy, but only if teachers and parents use it intentionally and offer supervision. Examples include Skyping or FaceTiming with a grandparent, watching videos of new animals after a field trip to the zoo, or conducting iPad scavenger hunts where kids take pictures of the words they are learning.

Accessing thousands of ebooks for free is another emerging example of this. About 8 in 10 Americans under age 50 own a smartphone, meaning millions of parents and educators are a few clicks from finding a book on a topic that interests their child.

There are other barriers to using technology to enhance literacy. Ten percent of Americans who own a smartphone lack in-home broadband (which can make downloading faster), in large part because internet connections are too pricey. And for parents who are stressed or overworked, it may be difficult for reading to take priority.

Literacy, like learning as a whole, is a complicated concept. Even if Open eBooks is a single step in the right direction to democratizing books, it remains encouraging to see government and national partners making literacy a priority.

In Pittsburgh, Young Children Learn While They Wait

Ever thought that waiting for the bus was a waste of time? Experts in Pittsburgh may have figured out how to make the daily commute educational.

The Fred Rogers Company developed a new public art project that aims to teach early literacy skills and improve communication between young children and their parents. It’s a new “while you wait” learning game that has taken the place of advertisements in 23 transit shelters and 10 Port Authority light rail cars in the Pittsburgh region.

The game, titled “WORD PLAY,” is a large, game board-like display featuring vocabulary words and matching icons that all relate to a certain theme. August’s theme, for example is “Summer Fun;” it includes words like: caterpillar, strawberries, and flip-flops. Above the pictures are question prompts for parents to ask their kids while waiting for public transit. WORDPLAY

Margy Whitmer, media producer and WORD PLAY project manager at the Fred Rogers Company, explained the motivation behind the question prompts to Pittsburgh public radio station WESA. “There are some prompts up there because sometimes it’s hard to get started so things like, ‘Look at your favorite word, look at the picture, what’s your favorite picture? Tell me a story about it. Tell me about ice cream, what’s your favorite flavor?’ Or parents can take a picture of their child making up a story,” Whitmer said.

The beginning of the school year is the best time to encourage young learners to talk about their experiences because it helps kids jumpstart their vocabularies before school begins. “We just wanna make people aware of that time that they can spend with their children, and we really are hoping we can get these kids to get their literacy skills, their pre-literacy skill up to snuff so that they’re ready for school, so that it’s not so hard,” Whitmer said.

Research shows grade-level reading proficiency is an essential step toward increasing the number of children from low-income families who succeed academically, graduate from high school on time, and succeed in the workforce.

“Research has determined that children who are read to and talked to and are exposed to words from birth end up having incredible vocabularies,” Whitmer told the Trib Live. “Communicating with a child, and a child communicating with you, is so important to the child’s total healthy growth.”

In addition to boosting reading comprehension and vocabulary, one of the main goals of WORD PLAY is to encourage fun, casual conversation between parent and child. “We want them to have fun with it, to take a few minutes out of their hectic, over-scheduled, busy, stressful day and just play Word Play,” said Whitmer. “That’s why it’s called ‘Word Play.’ The play is so important to kids; it’s the work of kids, so it’s part of their development.”

The game also includes a telephone number that parents can text to receive more questions for children to answer after they study the poster. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the questions in greater detail:

“Welcome! 1st clue: Look at the picture and count the words starting with S. Reply FOUR (text message) to guess 4 or FIVE to guess 5,” reads the first message in one game. The next clue invites the child to find the lake on the poster and identify the first letter in the word.

The game has received funding to continue on for the next few months, thanks to its sponsors: The Sprout Fund, The Grable Foundation, and the James F. McCandless Charitable Trust. September’s theme is set to be “space adventure,” and a number of community organizations, such as libraries and childcare centers, have agreed to support the effort by displaying smaller posters of the game in their facilities.

As WESA reported, the program has been well received, and when students were asked if they were having fun with WORD PLAY, they all shouted, “YES!” Leave it to Pittsburgh to make waiting for the bus productive and engaging.

How Museums and Libraries Are Creating Lifelong Learners

This post originally appeared at the Fred Rogers Center.

Far too often, children, and particularly low-income children, show up for school already behind, lacking the cognitive and social-emotional tools in their toolbox that make them ready to learn. In this highly competitive world, where education increasingly means greater security, falling behind so early in life can lead to disastrous consequences.

Educators do their best to bolster children’s skills once they arrive at school, but they shouldn’t have to go it alone. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation put it in their 2010 report on school readiness, children “need to have high-quality learning opportunities, beginning at birth and continuing in school and during out-of-school time, including summers ….”

A new report, “Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners” published by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), argues that museums and libraries can be that crucial piece in the puzzle of early-learning networks.

growingyoungminds-230x300“Brain development during a child’s first few years—before he or she is in school—is critical for later learning,” Susan Hildreth, director of IMLS, told us. “But not all children have access to early learning opportunities and resources. Many children from low-income families don’t gain the language, cognitive, and social tools they need as a foundation,” she said. “These children have the most to gain from the accessible programs and services of museums and libraries.”

The report details the enormous role museums and libraries around the country already play in informal education for children, from acting as children’s first teachers to providing access to digital technologies—and how they can do more. The report features several Pittsburgh organizations as examples of institutions doing exceptional work in this area.  We were delighted to see some of our own work among them—the authors mentioned the Fred Rogers Center Early Learning Environment (Ele), an online hub where educators, families, and others can find and share quality digital resources that support early learning and development.

Also in Pittsburgh, the Kids+Creativity Network collaborates with more than 100 organizations to exchange ideas and support connected learning opportunities. The IMLS report also spotlights the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh for its ongoing research of informal learning environments, community partnerships, and MAKESHOP, a hands-on and digital learning space rooted in early learning, literacy, and STEM.

Despite these advances, the report also points out the gap by family income in museum and library attendance, arguing that now more than ever, libraries and museums should be emphasized as crucial parts of a national early-learning system. Only 36 percent of children from the lowest socioeconomic status visited libraries in their kindergarten year compared with 66 percent of children in the highest socioeconomic bracket. Likewise, only 43 percent of children in the lowest socioeconomic bracket visited a museum, versus 65 percent in the highest.

It seems that now, more than ever, libraries and museums can play an integral role in a national, early-learning system, and particularly for low-income children.

As Hildreth told us, “The disparity of access to learning resources has created a ‘knowledge gap’ with serious implications for society.  If we can strengthen the country’s network of museums and libraries to be a greater force for early learning, effective learning opportunities for all children can deepen and grow.”

Hildreth emphasized that now is the time for policymakers to act and use libraries and museums, especially in cash-strapped communities, to their fullest capacity as key parts of an extensive informal learning infrastructure.

To support this effort, IMLS in 2013 provided $2.5 million in grants to museums and libraries to help children from low-income families reach the goal of reading at grade level. Nationally, two out of every three fourth graders were not proficient in reading in 2010, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  Worse, four of five fourth graders from low-income families were not proficient readers.

However, the report explains, it takes more than just funding to truly integrate museums and libraries into children’s early lives. State and federal policymakers, administrators, educators, and parents all play a role in supporting the valuable learning that takes place inside museums and libraries.

Below, from the report, are 10 ways museums and libraries contribute to early learning.

  1. Increasing high-quality early learning experiences
  2. Engaging and supporting families as their child’s first teachers
  3. Supporting development of executive function and “deeper learning” skills through literacy and STEM-based experience
  4. Creating seamless links across early learning and the early grades
  5. Positioning children for meeting expectations of the Common Core State Standards
  6. Addressing the summer slide
  7. Linking new digital technologies to learning
  8. Improving family health and nutrition
  9. Leveraging community partnerships
  10. Adding capacity to early learning networks

Pennsylvania corporate tax credit will pay for private-school scholarships

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett succeeded in expanding the amount of tax breaks made available to corporations in return for donations made for private school scholarships.

Gov. Corbett, who has pushed hard for a school-voucher program, achieved much of that goal Saturday night through the expansion of a corporate tax credit that for the first time will pay for public school students to attend private schools.

As part of the budget deal concluded just before midnight, the legislature broadened the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC), adding $50 million in tax breaks to businesses that donate money for scholarships to students in the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The new tax credit applies only to students in the attendance area of the lowest-performing 15 percent of public schools, more than one-third of which are in Philadelphia.

The possible impact on the city’s struggling Catholic schools was reflected in a statement from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who praised the legislation as “a strong first step toward what we need to help secure Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and to provide families . . . with real choices in how to best educate their children.”

The budget provides for corporate donations to pay up to $8,500 in tuition for the students to attend private schools. Special-education students can get up to $15,000 in tuition.

Preference is given to low-income students; those in a family of four earning less than $41,348 would get priority, for example. It also gives preference to Philadelphia School District students, as well as students from Delaware County’s Chester Upland District and three other districts – Harrisburg, York City and Duquesne – about to be declared distressed under new state legislation.

The legislation also increased funding for the original EITC program, adopted in 2001, which gives corporate tax breaks to fund tuition only for students already in private schools, by $25 million.

The existing tax credit program will expand from $75 million to $100 million this fall. Of that amount, $60 million will go for private school scholarships, $30 million for educational organizations that offer special programs for schools, and $10 million for pre-kindergarten private school programs.

Legislators found it difficult during the last 18 months, since Corbett began advocating vouchers, to spend money directly from the state education budget for the program. They apparently found it more palatable to instead expand corporate tax credits for the same purpose.

Pittsburgh’s own Duquesne community is among those eligible to receive vouchers under the plan, as well as Harrisburg, York City, Chester Upland, and Philadelphia public schools.

For the full story, including quotes from Philadelphia’s Archbishop, Charles J. Chaput welcoming the inclusion of the new program, and Lawrence Feinberg, co-chair of the Keystone State Education Coalition, voicing opposition to the use of scare state funds for private and religious institutions, visit the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Read.Share.Give. and The Future of Children’s Literature

The idea of using a rewards system to encourage reluctant readers is nothing new. When trying to foster excitement over reading, parents and teachers will offer everything from gold stickers to free pizza. Read.Share.Give. is a program that puts a new twist on an old idea. By integrating technology, philanthropy, and education, Read.Share.Give. is making a big impact on early literacy learning across the nation.

How it works

Read.Share.Give. isn’t your typical reading reward program. While most programs ask children to read a book and reward them with an object or acknowledgment upon completion, Read.Share.Give. has created a more innovative system. Children begin by selecting a title and reading it alone or with an adult. They then locate the book’s Read.Share.Give. label, and enter its tracking number. Parents can even create a new label by visiting the program’s website. They then pass on the title to a friend, classmate, or family member who does the same. For each book that is read, a donation is made to early literacy programs. It’s a cyclical process that uses reading to boost literacy. Pretty neat, right?

Jonathan Liu, senior editor for wired.com’s popular blog GeekDad, recently interviewed David Roy, the director of community partnerships at Knowledge Universe, the organization responsible for the creation of Read.Share.Give. When asked if he thought the rising popularity of digital books would create a “challenge getting books into the hands of kids,” Roy shared some interesting thoughts on digital books and the future of children’s literature:

“Digital books can be a great way to learn – they’re interactive. Although digital books are becoming more and more prevalent, I think they’re unlikely to reach critical mass in children’s books. Such a large part of the experience of reading for children is their tactile development and fine motor skills. Even a baby chewing on a board book is part of the learning process. The challenge is that digital books make it more complicated to reach every child. Digital books are logistically easy, assuming kids have an e-reader. What about the kids who don’t have books at home? We know that in some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the country, there’s only one book available for every 300 children and roughly 31 million children live in a home where there isn’t enough income to cover basic needs, including access to books. While digital books present a challenge as far as ensuring kids have access to books, we’re undaunted and will continue our partnerships with various organizations to get books into children’s hands.”

Roy brings up an interesting point in discussing the relevancy of income disparity. So many current discussions over e-readers and digital books seem to ignore a very basic fact — that many children lack access to regular paper books, let alone their digital incarnations. Although many organizations are aimed at closing that gap, the work being done by Read.Share.Give. is an innovative system for working through income disparities to use technology to boost the literacy of children everywhere. If you’re interested in getting in on the action, grab a book and head over to kindercare.com for more information.

Take a Walk Down Sesame Street with Xbox Kinect

Do you have a child that watches Sesame Street? If you do, you’ve probably watched them respond to questions or commands from their favorite characters. Children naturally want to interact with what they see on screen, but the depth of that interaction has always had strict limitations–until now. Enter the Xbox Kinect, Microsoft’s answer to breaking down the fourth wall of children’s entertainment.

The Xbox Kinect itself isn’t new–the console is already a popular household gaming system–but the focus on children’s education and entertainment is. The Kinect offers a unique opportunity for the pre-K set because it doesn’t require the use of controllers that young children often have trouble utilizing. Kinect also uses a camera to display players on screen, letting children actually see themselves in the middle of the action.

Microsoft calls the initiative “playful learning” and will be partnering with Sesame Street and National Geographic to create educational and interactive games for children. Check out the video below to see the system in action!

One of the most interesting applications of the “playful learning” initiative might be Project Columbia–a program geared toward boosting literacy through game play. As the video below states, “The single statistic that correlates most closely with future success in life is the age at which you become comfortably literate.” Spark is already aware of the importance of early childhood literacy, which is why we support successful programs like Ready Freddy. We hope that Project Columbia will bring literacy to living rooms all over the nation. We know that the more fun children have the more interested they are in learning and these games certainly look like fun! Watch the video below to see more!

YOUMedia Chicago: Digital Media Library of the Future?

Our nation’s libraries are in a crisis. Massive budget cuts and lack of support have led to libraries in several states closing their doors. Those that manage to remain open struggle to retain relevance in a society who’s main forms of information are increasingly digital in nature. So it’s no surprise that many libraries are working to implement programs that use new technology to appeal to a new generation of readers. One particularly successful program is making headlines in USA Today this week: Chicago’s YOUmedia — a Digital Library Space for Teens.

Once a storage space in Chicago’s Harold Washington Library Center, YOUmedia is packed  with all of the latest digital media–laptop computers, music keyboards, recording equipment, video cameras and gaming consoles. “When people see it they’re completely gobsmacked,” says Mary Dempsey, library commissioner. Perhaps the most surprising feature of all is the amount of students that can be found in the space. Talking, playing video games, and composing music–the students here are actively engaging and creating. Gone are the days of hushed studying in the stacks. If YOUmedia is any indication, the library of the future is loud!

Funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation, YOUmedia sprang out of research on children’s literacy and how it is affected by digital media. The research and the ongoing success of YOUmedia have proven that new forms of media are changing the definition of literacy as we know it.

“We are in one of these rare moments in time where what it means to be literate today, what it meant for us, is going to be different from what it means to be literate for our kids,” Nichole Pinkard, who first envisioned the space, told USAToday. “Just as schools have always pushed teens to read critically and pick apart authors’ arguments, she says, educators must now teach kids how to consume media critically and, ideally, to produce it.”

The center has become so popular that the library plans to replicate it city-wide. Soon, new media centers like YOUmedia could be popping up in libraries all over the country. Could such centers help to close the digital gap by providing access to media tools that might be otherwise out of reach for low income teens? Would you like to see a new media center in your neighborhood’s library? Tell us what you think!