technology

Opening Minds with Skype in the Classroom

Written on July 9, 2014 at 8:00 am , by

Sometimes I’m stunned by the myopic viewpoints my daughter encounters in school, and so is she. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to help both my kids see past their own small world to understand global issues. We travel as much as we can. We watch programming from other cultures. We read. And we explore the Internet with an eye to the larger, diverse world.

My daughter has described in-class worldviews that are so insular—limited by teachers’ less-expansive experiences—that I’m frustrated. Although I know there are simple technical tools that can transcend those limitations, most teachers look at me with annoyance if I suggest them. I realize that teachers have concerns and time constraints I know nothing about. But I recently sat in on a demonstration at a Skype in the classroom event in New York where teachers from remote, rural and deeply impoverished areas were—for free and using equipment they already have—exposing their students to cultures from all over the globe. Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

These teachers—from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kenya—don’t have any special grants or more time or equipment than anyone else. In fact, they probably have less than most. They just said yes. Then they clicked, chose an expert or classroom to connect with, installed Skype (free) and set up a laptop in their classrooms. That opened up the world for their students, changed the way they teach, and inspired the kids in their classrooms and, often, in classrooms on the other side of the world. Some did group projects with students in other countries, some played 20 questions with kids from a completely different culture, and some connected with thought leaders who let the students ask them questions. All the speakers are invited by Microsoft (and vetted), the connections are teacher-to-teacher so it’s safe for everyone, and there is no cost. Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

If the answer is “We don’t have the resources,” I’d like to point out that Jairus Makambi, director of the The Cheery Children Education Centre in the heart of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, has almost nothing. Kibera is home to about 1.5 million people; it’s one of the largest, poorest slums in the world. But Makambi’s students have had the opportunity to Skype with 70 schools from 30 different countries using only a laptop and a dicey Internet connection. It has opened the eyes of those children to a world beyond the abject poverty they live in and allowed teachers around the globe to help Makambi teach subjects he has neither the materials nor the knowledge to take on. “This experience is phenomenal,” says Makambi. “It is promoting global integration and appreciation of cultures that transcends the trivialities of race while inculcating in our students the spirit of global citizenry that is essential in this rapidly globalizing world.”

Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

A More Efficient Way to Study for the AP Tests

Written on May 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm , by

We are in the thick of AP testing in my house. The student—Cole—who is facing these exams is not known for his aggressive study habits. One thing I have discovered is that studying for these tests is slippery. This may be why over half the students who take them don’t get a passing grade. And these tests are expensive. Therefore, I did my part: I nagged. I shut off all the distractions I could control. As the day grew nearer, I asked—with increasing desperation—if he was ready. Most of my efforts were met with an unnerving calm and the insistence, “I got it!” So when McGraw-Hill offered me a demo of its AP test prep program SCOREboard ($20 per test), I was in.

First SCOREboard offers a practice test that assesses where your knowledge stands right now. Then it prepares a customized study plan based on what you don’t know. Next it drills you, watching which answers you get right or wrong and asking how confident you are in your answers to determine whether you are guessing. Then you test again (up to four times). It keeps adapting the questions it asks so that you study only what you don’t know. Because, if you’re anything like my teen, you aren’t going to spend enough time on this and you don’t want to waste any of it. SCOREboard sets you up with a study plan that tells you—based on what you don’t know and how quickly you’re learning–how much time to spend studying before test day.

I came upon SCOREboard a bit late in the year for Cole to use it for any more than last-minute cramming. Still, it did give me another tactic to use while I was nagging. Armed with a code to try a practice test, I knocked on his door. “Are you playing video games or studying for your AP science test?” I asked. (I could see he was playing video games.) “I’m doing both,” he tried. “I’m playing video games while I study. But I’ve got it. Calm down.”

“Take this assessment test,” I responded, sending him the link from my phone. “If you do well on it. I’ll calm down and leave you alone with your video game.” That worked. He took the test, sure he’d ace it and get me to leave him alone. But when I came back to check on how it had gone, he was studying. “How’d you do?” I asked, fully aware that the only thing that would make him study was a very poor assessment. “Yeah. I’m studying,” he growled, clearly chastened by a dose of reality.

Cole took his AP test yesterday and believes he did well. Hopefully, that last-minute, targeted cramming helped. (It certainly did more good than the video game.) But we won’t know till July.

If you have a high school student, you might want to bookmark this site now so that you can get a jump on things early when the tests come around again.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

These Kids Aren’t Spoiled: They’re Changing the World

Written on April 16, 2014 at 2:21 pm , by

I think it’s debatable whether todays’ kids are spoiled, overprotected, distracted, game-addicted or less polite than previous generations. That has not been my personal experience with the kids I know. And since the big, splashy, star-studded stage event We Day is currently touring the world, launching a year of social activism for youth called We Act, I happen to have some statistics at hand that I like—and that seem more in keeping with my experience—about today’s kids:

Through their involvement in We Act, over 2 million youngsters have gotten behind local and global causes, volunteered their time, raised money, attended camps to learn how to lead other youth to change the world, and used social media—another often-denigrated modern development—to raise awareness for causes they care about.

These kids have:

• raised $37 million for more than 1,000 local and global causes
• volunteered 9.6 million hours for local and global causes
• collected 4 million pounds of food for local food banks
• logged 7.5 million hours of silence to stand up for children in developing communities who are silenced by poverty and exploitation

It starts with the We Day event, which gets kids pumped up with the message that everyone—no matter how young—can make a difference simply by believing in a cause and doing something about it. Then the site provides schools and families with the resources they need to actually get involved in whatever social change they want to make happen. So maybe, instead of lamenting our kids’ failures (and our own parental mistakes that led there), why not watch the video (above) with them and see what happens?

If kids still doubt they can effect change, point out that We Day and We Act are part of Free the Children, which was founded in 1995 by Craig and Marc Kielburger when Craig was 12 years old. Craig rallied a handful of classmates to rescue children from child labor, and discovered that he could make a difference even though he was himself just a kid. Since then, Craig has become a social entrepreneur, a New York Times bestselling author and a syndicated columnist, and founded a youth organization that has taught 2.3 million young people that they can change the world for the better.

I’m sure there are some spoiled, overprotected kids out there. But they can change. And I can’t get behind this idea that today’s youth aren’t doing anything worthy. They seem like an impressive bunch to me.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

Gamer Moms

Written on April 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm , by

When I met some friends for dinner at a popular restaurant recently, waiting for a table was a given. We all happily used the time to start catching up—except for Annette, who whipped out her smartphone. Hoping to lure her into our group chatter, I teased her a little about being all work and no play. “Oh, this is play,” she said. “My mother lives by herself in Texas, so we do our best to connect every day through Words with Friends.”

Turns out, as gamers, these two are in good company. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 74% of moms play video games, usually on smartphones and mobile devices. Even more surprising: Women over age 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population than boys age 17 or younger. (Hello, Candy Crush Saga!)

Like Annette, I enjoy playing games on my smartphone and tablet. Developers at Zynga (the California-based social game company that racked up 10 million users in six weeks when it debuted FarmVille on Facebook in 2009) say women tend to gravitate to games that suit their personality. Artistic, visually driven types tend to enjoy FarmVille 2: Country Escape (Google Play, iTunes, free for April), in which players create beautiful environments as they complete short quests. Personally, I like logic, trivia, narrative and word games that test my knowledge rather than my reflexes.

For me, a few minutes playing Mah Jong solitaire is a terrific way to recharge my weary brain. So is playing QuizUp (iTunes, free) with a stranger whose total recall of literary character names never ceases to impress me, or clashing vocabulary swords with my game-addicted teen in Wordament. And when all is said and done, let’s just say I’m not averse to passing time by tossing birds at pigs (Angry Birds; all mobile devices) or growing plants to kill the invading horde of zombies (Plants vs. Zombies; Google Play and iTunes, 99 cents).

After all, as the old saying goes, fun is where you find it. And my smartphone is always within reach.

Why My Family Takes a Tech-Free Vacation

Written on July 13, 2012 at 3:10 pm , by

Last year I persuaded my family to hike to the top of the Smoky Mountains and stay at LeConte Lodge. (That’s a photo my daughter Ava took from the top last year—over the clouds—pictured.) There are no roads going up to the lodge. The only way to the top is by foot. And this is no stroll. Depending on the trail you choose, it’s anywhere from a steep six hours to an almost-as-steep eight hours. All the food for the lodge is carried up by llamas. So we only have to carry our essentials and make it to the lodge, where food and shelter await us. My crew agreed, somewhat reluctantly, especially when they learned about the lack of technology—no power and our cell phones would likely get no service—at the lodge.

We used a lot of technology to get there, though. And last year I explained how we survive a long road trip with two bickering teens in my column. But when we arrive to our destination, we lock it all in the trunk and go completely off the grid.

When we got there last year, my teenage boy trotted to the top, taking the six-hour hike in about three. The rest of us staggered along after him, dragging ourselves into camp hours later. And there we found him changed. No longer bored or sullen, he was happy, helpful, chatting with strangers, and standing up straighter. He had checked us in and thoughtfully turned the heat on in our cabin. (There was still snow on the ground in March.) He even walked partway back down the trail when he got word we’d been sited to carry my pack the last mile for me.

While sprinting up that mountain, Cole had discovered something about himself: He is young, strong, likes a challenge, and is willing to rise to it. Finally all that male energy felt necessary.

The rest of us felt it, too, of course. But for him this was an important moment.

This year, when I asked my two teens if they wanted to go again, both of their hands shot up without hesitation. And when we all sat down to discuss which trail to take, Cole lobbied for the hardest one. “We choose to do this not because it is easy,” he said, paraphrasing JFK’s famous speech about the decision to go to the moon, when my husband suggested a trail that might be easier. “We do it because it is hard.”

There was no reluctance to leave the technology behind either this year. In fact, both kids told me that the complete vacation from all technology—texting, Facebook, video games, electricity—is part of what’s great about this trip.

So we are going again. This is a long road trip for us. So, rather ironically since this trip is about going off the grid for us, I plan to share here the technology we will use to find the best deal on accommodations along the way, capture and share memories, and some in-car tech for keeping two bickering teens from driving us insane on a long car trip.

So stay tuned!

Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle, and is the author of “How to Be a Geek Goddess.” You can find her at GeekGirlfriends.com, as well as here on Momster.com.