Kids Media is Common Sense Media’s new app. Free and available for Android, iPhone, and iPad, it's a convenient way to access the content from the website offering parents and educators reviews of games, movies, books, TV shows, and more.
I have a love-hate relationship with Common Sense Media, Unlike typical reviews, Common Sense Media helps parents find age-appropriate media for their children. Each review identifies the most appropriate age group to consume the media, as well as specific content that might concern parents: sex, violence, drug use, materialism. For example, the review of the new "The Great Gatsby" movie identifies the target age as 14 and alerts readers to the following acts of violence, among other things: “A man is held by two others while someone else hits him, in a very brief scene. Another character runs over a woman with a car; her body is shown many times hitting the windshield and thudding to the ground. A man is also shown shooting someone from a distance and then putting the same gun in his mouth. A man strikes a woman hard.”
As a parent, reading aloud or popping in a DVD, I appreciate knowing about scenes that might frighten or confuse my daughter. As a librarian, I sometimes use Common Sense Media to help me determine whether or not a book is going to work with my middle school students, a notoriously tricky age group. But also as a librarian, I bristle at the way Common Sense Media can strip a book down to its faults. While the “Is it Any Good?” section helps balance the quality of the work against its moral pitfalls, this sort of rating can make books and media appear far more sordid than they are. A parent who is concerned with providing age-appropriate reading materials to his or her child may pass by high-quality titles because of a few curse words or a brief description of teen drinking.
The Kids Media app is attractive and easy to use, with a scrolling list of new reviews along the top, including new video reviews, and a breakdown by media-type underneath (movies, games, apps, websites, TV, books, and music). Users can also browse by age (2-17) and select “Top Picks” to quickly access CSM’s “best-of” lists in each category. Among the 71 Top Picks book lists, you’ll see “Strong Female Characters in Books” and “Love Books for Little Ones”; or in the Top Picks apps lists, “Best Zombie Apps” and “Storytelling Apps.”
Users can also search for a specific title. The review includes everything that is published in the website review, including the overall rating, target age, and ratings on specific issues like educational value, positive messages, and language. Tapping on each rating brings details. “Sensitive readers should know that there are graphic descriptions of what it is like to suffer through cancer,” reads the “violence” section of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Users can add the title to their favorites and also see other recommendations at the bottom of the review.
The “My Kids” section is strictly for parents, who can add a profile of their children, including name, age, gender, target age range for recommendations, and a photo. I entered my daughter Evie’s information, and once saved, found “Evie’s Picks,” which include the TV show "Sid the Science Kid," the game "Just Dance: Disney Party," the "Super Why!" app, and the book Mouse was Mad by Linda Urban. I was not impressed by the recommended books list as a whole, as it included mostly classic titles like Hi, Cat! by Ezra Jack Keats, The Lorax and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss, Mommy by Maurice Sendak, and Frog and Toad All Year by Arnold Lobel. While these books are classics for a reason, I also would have liked to learn about exciting new titles that are less familiar.
Finally, the “Favorites” section is where users can access all of the favorites that they have identified through their searching and browsing. These favorites are arranged chronologically as added, rather than by genre, which might make it hard later on to find a specific title. The list can also be edited to remove particular titles.
Common Sense Media has a wonderful mission: they are “dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world full of media and technology.” Our children and students are drenched in media—according to CSM, they “spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school.” Parents often struggle with the challenges of selecting the best media for their kids, and a product like Kids Media can have a positive impact on those decisions. That said, Common Sense Media and its app are not substitutes for hands-on experiences with media, or reviews from librarians, which may come in the form of a conversation as well as text. I recommend this app for those who need quick access to information on specific media, or who want help finding materials based on certain criteria. The app is easy to use, provides an enormous amount of information, and is one powerful tool in any parent's toolkit.
Another Common Sense Media resource of interest to educators is an excellent and comprehensive K-12 digital literacy curriculum. Though too large and complex for me to teach in its entirety, I've used numerous activities as jumping-off points with students. The curriculum includes everything from “My Online Neighborhood,” a lesson on staying safe online for kindergarteners, to “Retouching Reality,” a unit on digital image editing for high schoolers.
One of the best parts of my job is sharing books with students. Sometimes, as a school librarian, I get so overwhelmed with research and technology instruction that I forget about books (it’s true!). But we have a robust YA collection that enjoys high circulation, and partly because three times a year, our middle school students are required to read a free-choice book over a long break in fall, winter, and spring. While requiring reading goes a bit against the grain of pleasure reading, the students can select any book they like and they do not have to finish it, which takes some of the pressure off. Before the break, every one of our middle school English classes comes into the library to hear about new books from me and to browse our collection for something to take home. The best part of this cycle, however, is the reflection.
Rather than asking students to write a report about their book or take a quiz, the English teachers work with the library to craft fun, creative projects that allow students to share books with each other. At my school’s recent afternoon of teacher-driven professional development, one English teacher and I co-presented on our most recent project, using stop-motion technology to create book mashups. The project touches upon numerous critical thinking and creative skills, as well as introduces a new technology to students.
The students were paired up by the teacher. Students had to explain to each other what their book was about. Moreover, each student had to describe in-depth one character in their novel. With that information in mind, the pair collaboratively wrote a script (using Google Docs) that placed the two characters into a new setting and had them interact based on their characteristics. For example, two girls used the character Cassia from Ally Condie’s Matched and Bryce from Lara Avery’s Anything but Ordinary. In their 21-second film, one character falls from a cliff and the other helps her. In the novels, one character is a diver who has a terrible accident at the start of the story, and the other takes refuge in huge rock formations when she is on the run. These interpretations may seem elementary, but script depicted one character’s traits of bravery and drive to help and the other’s stubbornness and independence.
To animate their short films, the students used iPads and Barbies, Legos, play-dough, and cut-out 2D drawings. We first practiced in the classroom by animating a pencil spinning in a circle. Once they were comfortable with the app’s interface, the students then had a day to write their scripts and gather materials. Filming took one day, with a few students needing extra time during their study halls to finish the project. The films were shown in class, giving the students a chance to explain their work.
These tiny movies served multiple purposes. First, the script-writing encouraged creativity and critical thinking—identifying character traits and imagining a new setting and scenario. How could these characters authentically meet and what would happen if they did? In addition, students had to collaborate and share with each other to write a script that made sense and included elements of both books. Te students had to actually film their movies, meaning they had to be adept at using iMotionHD. (And some were better than others, as in all cases). Finally, the project required planning and organizing. The students who tested the filming process and adapted their techniques fared better than others. And the kids had to divide the responsibilities—who would hold the camera, who would move the objects, who would write the speech bubbles. This decision-making encouraged positive communication between the partners as well as problem-solving.
While iMotionHD is one fun way to encourage students to reflect on their reading, tons of other resources that are equally fun and simple for students to use. Here is a sampling:
Toontastic is a free iPad app that allows users to easily make animated shorts using either original characters and backgrounds or preset drawings that come with the app.
Sketch Nation is an iPad app for making games, which could be based on a book. Users can draw directly on the iPad or draw on paper and then photograph the work to use in the app.
ToonDoo is a free web-based comic creator that can be used to make strips, books, and characters. Users could either comic-ify a book or create a new story based on their book. ToonDoo Spaces, a subscription service, allows teachers to create a school-safe online space and to manager accounts.
Blabberize, a web-based service, and Face Talk, an app, both allow students to animate speaking mouths over still images, which is a fun way to have students create their own book talks. Students record their own voices.
To see all of my students’ stop motion movies, click here.
Last time, I said I’d talk about memory, but I just went back and checked the post to be sure. Our memories are dark, murky backwaters where events shift, timelines change, and we’re never really on stable ground. The more I read about how untrustworthy our memories are, the more I feel like I’m sliding into a more tedious, daily-life version of the movie Memento (did I do the dishes? Did I send that email? Not exactly murder and mayhem, thankfully.)
It’s not a bad place to approach technological and training issues from. I have spoken to people weeks and months after a training session only to have them swear that I did not tell them about a particular button or functionality. I know that I did. It’s on my outline. It’s on my notes. I always cover it. But maybe I missed it that time. Maybe I’m substituting memories from another training session when I cast back to the one in question. Thinking of memory as spongey and tricky helps me address the matter at hand - here’s what that button does – rather than get caught up in what did or did not happen at a long-ago training session.
The longer we live with a technology, the more our memories of it can have an impact on how we use it. When we first start using a new tool, we simply accept what’s there, but as we use it longer (and especially as various companies start to copy or carry over interfaces), our memories of what lives where and how things work start both helping and hindering us. If you have a smartphone, think of your first weeks and months with it. You likely frequently wondered if there was a setting/button/option for the thing you wanted, but once you’ve lived with your phone for a while, your use becomes automatic and occasionally, when you can’t quite find something, you’re sure the button used to be someplace else.
Everyone who works with tech has had the experience of solving a really frustrating problem and then committing that solution to memory; making you look like a genius the next time the issue comes up. We’ve all had the opposite experience as well: being convinced of a setting or option that simply doesn’t exist or exists someplace completely different than the place we’re looking. When you’re casting about, trying to find a checkbox or radio button that you’re sure is there somewhere, it can feel like you’re losing credibility as the resident techie, but I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.
I sense a shift in how we handle that slippery sense of “there was a button that did this…” Anyone who has been through a few ILS migrations jokes about not being quite sure which system had a particular feature, and I think the expectation that tech types have everything about a program memorized is changing. If “being good at technology” doesn’t mean having every last radio button and check box committed to memory, so much the better. The task of the techie becomes convincing those we help with their tech to use their memories to their advantage.
Recent news stories about sibling memory and how siblings will tell radically different versions of the same story, sometimes even appropriating each other’s versions touch on the importance of individual narratives when it comes to memory. Our memories, to some extent, define who we are, grounding us in the world. The narrative our colleagues and patrons tell themselves about their relationship with technology is important.
Perhaps you’ve witnessed someone, normally perfectly confident and competent, lapse into fear and self-doubt when faced with a new piece of software or an unfamiliar interface. “I’m bad at technology,” she tells you. (And I’ll note as an aside here that women tend to blame themselves when technology doesn’t work for them, while men tend to blame a glitch or the machinery.) Maybe you hear, “Every time I try to use the computer, I have a problem.” You might be thinking, “Really? EVERY time?” and you’re right to be skeptical. Not every time, but the bad memories have obliterated the good.
There is the opportunity for library techies to boost the confidence of their less-techie colleagues. Providing happy memories of ease with technology is a good place to start, but perhaps we can do one better? Keeping an informal success log for our least confident users or suggesting that they keep their own tally of wins and reminding them of their technological competence might help overwrite their “I’m bad with computers” narrative. Maybe it’s not enough to be happily available to help. Perhaps a longer-term outlook requires us to remind those seeking our help of past achievements and skills.
Techies, is that asking too much? Is it the proverbial teaching people to fish or is it providing technology therapy?
We are very excited about our upcoming episode The Present and Future of E-Books, which is going to take place next Thursday, April 18th at 2pm Eastern. I had a chance to talk briefly with our moderator Sue Polanka and panelist Jamie LaRue about what they plan on discussing.
Please be sure to tune in next Thursday! You can pre-register at http://goo.gl/WjrDP. Pre-registration is not required. If you can't attend live, the event will be recorded and available at www.americanlibrarieslive.org shortly after it concludes.
Can students learn online skills from a teacher? More and more, I’m thinking the answer is no. Countless times, I see high school students watch a YouTube video to better understand a concept that was already covered in class. It’s how kids learn. When they work independently, they apply and therefore retain the skills.
Yet we can’t turn students loose on social media without some discussion of responsibility. Character education is as important as Internet research. We have a charge to cover copyright, fair use, effective communication, and privacy. But how? Without real-world consequences, how will students understand that they really can’t use someone else’s image without asking? Do we teach our students these topics for the sake of plausibility? We teach them as is our duty, in other words, but they can choose whether or not to listen?
More and more students are locking down their Instagram and Twitter accounts or choosing extreme Facebook privacy. Students don’t want teachers and parents in their space. They are finding creative ways to live a public life with some modicum of control. We, as their teachers, cannot force that control.
At the National Association of Independent School’s 2013 annual conference, I was lucky enough to hear danah boyd speak. She discussed students’ desire for control with specific attention to the American experience of making friends in college. The day after the speech, she wrote about this topic in a March 1st post on her website. Essentially, boyd believes that because incoming college students can use social networks to connect with their future classmates before school even starts, “they begin a self-segregation process that results in increased ‘homophily’ on campuses.” Homophily, boyd explains, is the socological phenomenon of birds of a feather flocking together. She asserts that college is ideally a time to “connect incoming students with students of different backgrounds.” Therefore, this pre-frosh use of Facebook undermines the educational experience.
I can’t stop thinking about this speech. It touches upon concerns I’ve had for a while about the way we teach digital citizenship in schools. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with a fellow educator about the frustrations of introducing digital ethics to students. One day, she lamented, students were handing in well-crafted papers on the pitfalls of social media; a week later, they were being disciplined for online bullying. So how do we authentically teach our students to use technology responsibly and ethically? And how can we avoid instilling a sense of fear in our students through that focus on responsibility and ethics?
Many commenters on boyd’s article disagree with her. “The first semester of college is a really rough shock for many students and being able to retain something of a social safety net can really help them adjust to the change,” writes one. “I would prefer to have a safe place to escape from the world and then emerge to talk to my diverse neighbors when I’m relaxed and rested than be forced to deal with regular conflict in what’s supposed to be my safe space.” So this is the heart of the matter: Are students creating a safe space for themselves online? Or are they simply isolating themselves from the greater world around them?
I have never been comfortable with the scare tactics that I sometimes see in courseware for Internet education. I nevertheless find myself resorting to them at times to get students to understand the seriousness of the topic. Partly because I’m short of time. These lessons often get mashed into two or three days out of a students’ academic year. That’s not enough. These lessons need to be woven right into the curriculum. Any time students are asked to do online research or create a digital product, their teacher reminds them of their expectations: use fair-use images only. Credit all media, not just text. Represent our school well. Take a moment to analyze the source of your information.
As librarians, we have a responsibility to educate faculty about digital ethics at the school level. If a teacher is not comfortable teaching their students how to filter fair-use images in Google, then we need to model that—for the teacher as well as his or her students. We must be a voice for responsible use of online resources that goes beyond “don’t swear” and “treat each other well.” The ethical issues that surround online research and tools are thorny and complex. They deserve as much class time as possible.
Technology opens up the world. This is a good thing. We need to find a way to flip the way we teach students how to live online. An idea that resonates with me is that we should facilitate student-driven projects that touch upon the concepts of digital citizenship. In a recent column for Edutopia, Andrew Miller writes about targeting ISTE standard # 5 for students, which calls on students to “understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.” (source) He suggests using this standard’s learning targets to create a rubric for assessment of the project. And he emphasizes authenticity. “Students can create awareness, solve a problem, design a program and more. This authentic purpose will help you focus the inquiry and create a driving question that is purpose-driven and in student-friendly language.” Let the students take the lead. They know far better than we do what issues are facing their peers and themselves.
Some ideas for projects like this:
- Have students create materials to educate their younger peers on specific issues related to digital life. Encourage them to discuss their own personal experiences, not rely on hypothetical situations. These materials might be videos, webinars, online tutorials, or digital presentations.
- One of the most fascinating aspects of danah boyd’s talk was her focus on ethnography. Consider undertaking a project like this at your school. Students can identify areas they’d like to research and then undertake a study of particular trends. Using infographics, interviews, raw data, or polls, students could then analyze their findings and put forth theories on how technology affects their community.
- Similarly, a documentary-style project would be fascinating, either as a film or a written journalism project. Given enough time, students could create a snapshot of their school and the issues that are important to them. By following a small group of diverse peers, students could illustrate how technology affects this generation.
More than anything, I think it’s important for us to remember that our students need to take responsibility for their own behavior online. And responsibility is not the kind of skill that can be forced. It has to be learned through experience. As educators, let’s do our best to provide those experiences, and to let our students share their own knowledge with us. Digital citizenship is a messy subject, and schools should be a safe place to explore it.