Chocolate-Covered Broccoli and Children’s Play

This fall, American children are being treated to something never before seen: Saturday mornings without a single cartoon not bearing the e/i rating. In 1998, the FCC ruled that basic stations had to serve at least three hours of educational content a week, and so stations decided the easiest way to do that was to dedicate a programming block already targeting children to that cause. The e/i rating is given to children’s programming that meets certain criteria, both education and marketing related. (I used to have a really good resource on e/i, but the site appears to have been taken down. Sorry.) They’ve commonly been isolated to PBS, although other stations have woven them into their line-ups.

At first, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney all offer Saturday morning blocks. But while nearly every home in America has a television, just under half of those homes has some sort of cable service. That means kids in just over half of these homes don’t have access to cartoons that aren’t trying to shove some sort of learning down their throat. I know what  you’re thinking: Isn’t that a good thing? How can we make the cable companies come around and stop making our children stupid? And that’s not a healthy way to think.

We can’t process a lot of information coming at us constantly. This is part of the research-based thinking in how daily class schedules are designed in schools. The brain needs time to process what it’s just been exposed to. This is actually one of the keys to learning. If the brain doesn’t get that time, the material bounces off like a skipped stone on the water. This isn’t just true at school, but everywhere in life. We’re nearly always in situations that expose us to new information, to new skills. Without down time, our brains just can’t handle it and burn out. Kids are the same way; and for just over half the kids in this country, they’re now limited in how they can choose to spend that necessary down time. (I’ll just let you think on the ramifications of that.)

It’s almost like we’ve been led to believe that if we aren’t laying out very obvious teaching moments 24/7, kids can’t possibly learn. But just because a kid isn’t being told by a big fuzzy creature that two and two together equals four (as happened in Magi Nation, a cartoon from a few years ago aimed at tweens), it doesn’t mean the child isn’t gaining something useful from watching a cartoon that has no deliberately educational elements. Children’s play has long been inspired by the characters and worlds they meet through cartoons. They become inspired to draw, to write, to incorporate their favorite cartoons into their imaginative play. And sometimes, the skills inspired by watching cartoons as a child become a career path. That’s not insignificant.

This isn’t to say all cartoons bearing the e/i label are painful mini-lessons. A handful of cartoons, such as the much beloved PBS cartoon Arthur and the perpetually re-launched Winx Club (although it’s only the mid-2000’s series that achieved this distinction), focus more on character building skills that have formed the basis for so many social-emotional curricula…without taking the preschool show tack (where it is needed because this may be the first time those very young children actually hear any of this. Preschool shows really are their own class.) of being very literal about what is going on.

It took well over a decade from the initial ruling to reach this point, but I think we’re going to see a pushback. Whether it comes in the form of relaxing restrictions on what all children can be exposed to or higher quality educational cartoons remains to be seen. It should prove interesting, though.

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The Resilient Child is Not the Enemy

An article posted at the beginning of the year revealed that children who rise above challenges in their youth become successful adults at the cost of their future health, and even went  so far as to suggest that maybe children shouldn’t be allowed to endure the stress of overcoming whatever obstacles they are presented with.

When I first read the article, I was livid. It sounded like the writers were encouraging adults to discourage children from daring to set and reach for goals. In fact, the exact note I left for myself in Instapaper was, Yes, let’s find a way to panic those breaking free into rejoining the drones. Because that was what I took away from that reading.

But re-reading the article after several months hasn’t improved my opinion of the writers’ position. Where does anyone get off saying that a child shouldn’t be encouraged to reach for their potential, to learn early how to set goals, hot to identify and handle setbacks? Because that’s really what this article is saying. That embuing children and their plastic, adaptable minds with skills that will enable them to become successful adults isn’t a good idea.

We’ve had this problem for a couple of generations now (my own included) where people seem to have developed what has often been called a sense of entitlement. They seem to not be able to cope with…anything, really. And part of that is because we weren’t really expected to handle things as kids. My generation saw both parents go to work, and as a result were a bit more indulgent with us to try to make up for not spending as much time with us. It was never our fault we did anything; we were just acting out because we missed our parents. Or because one of our parents was no longer living with us, because we were the first generation to have more kids living in broken homes than in nuclear family units. That coddling hasn’t done us any favors, especially those who have struggled to figure out how to function beyond it.

It’s time that we remember children are capable of taking on challenges, of setting their own challenges and successfully managing them, that being given opportunities to take chances and learn how to handle setbacks in a safe zone will take them farther than telling them why their failures are someone else’s fault. We don’t have to throw them to the wolves; we just have to enable them to be able to fail, learn from that failure, and pick themselves up and try again. That’s the key: We have to give them a safe space to fail while they’re learning that resilience. Learning they can fail will go a long way toward minimizing the stress addressed in that article.

Sorry for the soapbox. It probably won’t be the only rant this week.

Learning from Studying Tropes

If you’ve been writing for any period of time, you know that tropes are Bad. If you’re new to writing, you may have been told your work relies too much on tropes and you need to be more original. The problem with tropes is that they’re proven story mechanics, and as a result, they get used. A lot. Sometimes too much. As a result, writers are often encouraged to edit them completely out of a story. But occasionally, we’re encouraged to find a way to use them purposefully…and the purpose can’t be, “I couldn’t think of another way to do this.” Just so we’re all clear on that.

Finding a different way to use a trope is actually where I was headed last fall when I was working on my (still in progress) short story “Empowered”. I was, for the first time in my life, watching a lot of superhero movies in addition to my normal action movies, and I was trying to figure out why there are so few stories centered around girls (I know. I’m not the only one wondering this.) and why I’m so reluctant to watch those that do.

I thought about it, and I journaled about it, and what I finally realized was that what I most hated about these stories could be boiled down to a handful of questions. As I started to explore the questions and my feelings about them, I realized I was railing against the tropes so often utilized in these stories. Using my own questions and what I was learning about these tropes, I started shaping a story to both look at and challenge my own perception of those tropes. It’s such a deep experience that I’m still working on the story a year later, taking long breaks in between rounds to just process.

That’s the thing with tropes. They’re routine, expected. But they have the ability to get us thinking about what makes them so routine and expected, and in that find a way to make them into something interesting. We can use them to explore our own reactions to the trope, to explore how the trope came to be, maybe even to look at the historical contexts where the trope really seemed to gain ground (as many of these tropes date back to the days of oral tradition).

They also have the ability to help us get unstuck in our writing: Am I leaning on a trope? How am I using it? How could I change it or move away from it? Surfing TV Tropes (do not click unless you have the next few days free) is a great way to find a spark that you can then twist and weave into your story. (The real challenge is not twisting it into something else that already exists.) You can take two or more tropes and mash them together, looking for unusual ways to put them together. You can pick a trope (be sure to study it carefully) and write its opposite, or write in the space between the trope and its opposite trope. It doesn’t matter why you hit up tropes; they can be powerful prompts that gets you thinking.

If you’re between projects or just completely stuck and need to walk away, trope surfing can make for an excellent writing practice. Write the trope. Write a satire of the trope. Write an essay on how the trope appears through books, movies, and television shows you enjoy watching, on how other writers have utilized the trope. It’s a valuable learning experience.

Self-Assigned Mastery Levels in Communities of Practice

I think about things like this when they come up in the creative communities I hang out in. Some of the creatives at hitRECord were discussing it this morning, and I got to thinking about how I would handle it if it were up to me to create and implement such a tool.

deviantArt has deviants classify themselves as amateur, student, or professional. Some sites use some form of newbie, intermediate, expert, advanced ranking system. I like the game-like system I’ve seen for newbie through experienced. But how does any site decide what should be included in the rank, and why does it matter?

Sure, hitRECord could offer a scale of Amateur – Student – Professional, but the moment anyone’s work makes it into an episode, that by definition makes them a professional. And I wouldn’t use “amateur”, anyway…mainly because of the negative connotations that word has acquired in many fields. I would like opt for Casual – Hobbyist – Student – Professional, which is closer while not necessarily shutting down any one level. Granted, definitions would need to be explicit to help people figure out where they fit in if they’re debating between Casual and Hobbyist. And how does one decide whether or not they fall under the Student category? Would they have to be enrolled in a formal training program or working with a mentor or coach? Where would this leave the self-directed learner?

They could also offer the experience scale: Newbie – Intermediate – Advanced – Expert. But again, the definitions would have to be explicit so someone could accurately figure out where they fit in. And there’s a bit of a problem with the visual and performing arts in what would qualify as what in terms of the experience needed to be at a certain level. Someone can develop their writing skills to a high level without ever publishing. A singer or dancer can develop their skills to a high level without stepping onto a stage. But we tend to give more credit to the less experienced writer, singer, or dancer who has put themselves out there. So how would that play out in mastery system?

Things to think about…

The Lost Half-Generation

So…a couple of years ago, I checked out Singapore Math in an attempt to understand why everyone thought it was the bee’s knees. After flipping through workbook after workbook of worksheets of practice problems, I complained about it on Twitter. A Singapore Math teacher explained to me that the program covers fewer topics in a year, but studies them “to depth”. I couldn’t figure out what she meant.

After the last month of wanting to shred (by hand, with no upper body strength to speak of) every single Connected Mathematics book I come in contact with, I’ve learned what “to depth” means. And it’s only reinforced my intense dislike of integrated math programs.

To learn math, or any subject, “to depth” means to understand the nuts and bolts of the concept/process well enough to be able to look at an applied usage and understand what to do. In math, this translates to understanding both how and why something works, which is something I strive for in Dead Bunny.

This is also where integrated math curricula like Connected Mathematics fail because they cover skills on a very surface level (which allows people with a limited understanding of math, begging the question how they ever got certified in math education to begin with, to be allowed to teach math classes). I’m going to pretend, for the sake of my own sanity, that what went through the minds of the people behind Connected Mathematics when they were creating their program is that math builds on itself, so we should expose kids to everything under the sun and hope that the equally poorly designed Core Math program will fill in the blanks we’re creating.

That’s not what happened…on several levels…but I like to tell myself that’s where that synaptic misfire landed…

The minds behind Saxon Math probably suffered a similar synaptic misfire.

And this has been the curriculum we’ve been in the grips of for the past ten years. (Saxon’s actually been around longer than that, but so few public schools adopt it that really all Saxon’s doing is giving private schools a bad name.)

Experience Leads to Understanding

I’ve lived in cities of just about every size, and it’s been an experience. The large city can’t see much past the edge of each neighborhood. The small town is convinced it’s the biggest deal around. Put someone who grew up in one setting into the other setting, and Hollywood tells us that’s a sitcom. The same is true between different cultures, regardless of the organizing nucleus of those cultures. Changing from what you know to what you don’t can be terrifying.

But the relocated person has an opportunity, if they’re smart enough to grab it. They have a chance to learn how the world looks from the other group’s point of view. In our microcosm-filled world, it’s hard to get that kind of opportunity, and it’s so necessary to understand other people better, to move between groups more smoothly, to communicate between groups with respect. At the same time, it’s important to learn how to get that perspective, because it’s easier to create experiences appropriate to diverse groups and to facilitate collaboration and an exchange of ideas between them.

We always hear about needing the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes to give yourself a different perspective on disagreements and problems, but without the practical experience of seeing those different perspectives firsthand for yourself, you really can’t demonstrate that understanding.

Learning About Yourself Through Gaming

I started playing Glitch yesterday after seeing it recommended on one of the geek sites. It’s billed as a kid-friendly MMORPG, but the innuendos in the game content are just flying! I seem to have gotten the hang of it pretty quickly, even if I’m not really getting into the grinding. I knew that would be a potential problem when I got to WoW because I’ve always hated doing it in Zelda games, and it does seem to be something I’m willing to ignore. (Oddly enough, I don’t mind grinding in The Sims Social, but grinding there involves writing and playing musical instruments while cooking. And they’re all tied to the idea that you’re this fierce multitasking freelancer.)

Anyway, you “learn” skills as you move through Glitch’s (rather expansive) gameworld.  Really, you’re just telling your guide/companion what to learn for you. It’s a bit depressing, but there is a study time associated with everything. I’m interested in what I’m choosing to learn. At first, I just learned everything because I only had the four skills open to me. Now, though, I’m pursuing alchemy (and the prereqs alone are going to take days to get through because you have to learn how to acquire your own minerals and herbs. At least it makes sense!), and I’m looking forward to getting into meditative arts. And then, in the very wee hours of this morning, I realized what I’m doing. I’m going a ranger/priest route! I guess I’m just drawn.

Although…alchemy (and tinkering, because I must explore my deconstructive/constructive nature) are really more an expression of my science side, and I have no intention to go through the cooking skills (that make up nearly half of the learning tree). It’s just funny to watch what I gravitate toward, and realize it’s what I’ve historically gravitated toward in gaming and does reflect to some extent what I gravitate toward in my own life.

The Ability to Choose Our Future

This question was recently posted to one of my LinkedIn groups:

Are students ready to choose a career pathway?

I am not aware of what happens in every country but I think in general all students are prompted to choose a career pathway when they are around sixteen. In the ideal educational system, at this age they would have achieved maturity enough to make this choice. However, this is my personal opinion based in expereince and observation, this is not a reality. How can we empower our young students to take this decision?

and I responded:

I find this question interesting from a historical standpoint. It’s only in recent decades that children were allowed to entertain notions of doing something other than the family business. Before that, even five year olds knew what they would be when they grew up, simply because it was what their family did, and they started training in that work as soon as they were physically capable of it.

Same for those children who were sent off to apprentice (many of whom were raised more by their master while learning their craft than by their own parents). Same for those children boarded and schooled by the factories that led to our current form of education.

For modern children who have a say over the direction their life will take, play becomes even more important. Children need a chance to explore who they are, to find their interests, and to have those interests nurtured. They deserve to drop those interests at a moment’s notice and explore completely different interests. It’s the only way they can even start thinking about what they want to do with the choices of careers that lay in front of them.

I think for us, the most important role we can play in this development is to observe, to encourage, and to help children in their explorations. It’s also important to remind them, especially teenagers trying to pick a college major and the right school to go along with it that it’s all right to change that major once they get to college, to change careers after they are done with school, or even later in life, and that’s a concept even we adults struggle with because it’s so culturally new (relatively speaking).

 

I knew when I saw the question, I wanted to respond to it. What I didn’t expect is how I would respond. It’s true that historically a child hasn’t had to think about their future. It was planned out for them at birth (or as a baby). Their career was set by the family’s career or an apprenticeship arrangement. Their marriage was arranged (because the concept of “marrying for love” didn’t flourish until the Victorian era). You had very little say unless you wanted to anger your family and/or society.

Sadly, I’m the only one who has taken this from a historical standpoint, who acknowledged that we are in a developmental infancy, and therefore was the only one who could discuss the more important role of play in surviving this infancy. Everyone else was too busy nurturing children’s self-worth.

Not only do I find myself surprised by my own thinking and relating of context and theories, but I think I’ve found where my relationships with the teaching profession die a miserable and lonely death.

Gaming as Civics

I may also have this noted somewhere, but Brandon Sanderson’s FB post on playing Hide-and-Seek with his son (who hid his head in the couch cushions and left the rest of himself visible) got me to thinking about it.

There’s some thinking that encouraging game design in young children, who admittedly come by the practice naturally, is to develop a number of skills in those young children. But I’m thinking about how younglings come to build their game rules through what they understand of Big People Rules. Is it reflective of their limited understanding of how Big People work? Is it just them trying to see how they can influence their world through rules?

Is it a bad idea to capitalize on that natural curiosity and exploration to help understand why rules exist and why they need to be fair (a hard concept for younglings when they are creating their own games and rules)?

More to think about.

Schools Aren’t Completely Useless

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article on what schools don’t teach that made me want to sit down and write out some sort of response. Unfortunately, between trying to calm down seniors facing their last shot at the SAT and helping students work on their assessment project for the grading period, I really didn’t have the energy.

Ironic, right? I didn’t have the energy to respond to an article that claims schools don’t teach any sort of project management skills because I was helping kids manage school projects. And in every case, this was a project the students had been working on all grading period as part of a more authentic assessment program. They had been working toward project milestones all along the way. One of the older students had components she had to work on at home, and we discussed how to break down each component into a doable step.

And these were just the junior high students.

My seniors, when they aren’t panicking about surviving their last shot at the SAT, are mostly working on their senior projects. Where they have to draw up proposals (which some schools actually require during the junior year so ambitious students can get started on their work over the summer). Where they are given the school’s deadlines, and are expected to set their own milestones to help them reach the school’s milestones. Where they are expected to have a product, ready and deliverable, by a specific date. They are completely responsible for its management and execution, from idea to presentation and delivery.

And they’re being groomed from the age of 12 to be able to do this with some competence.

I’ll be the first to admit that some of these students go off to college where their carefully learned and cultivated project management skills go right out the window, but it’s interesting to see how many of them fall back on that raining later in their college education because it made life a little bit less stressful for them.

While not everything that happens in a school directly prepares students for surviving their future, class projects done well can model project management for the student and can leave an imprint on the student that will come back to serve them as they continue on in their adult lives.