Let’s Get Digital

By Nora Heston Tarte

As parents of 21st century kids, we’re constantly worried about screen time. From iPads and smart phones to video games and television shows, it seems like a never-ending parade of easy entertainment. But it’s possible that electronics don’t deserve the bad rap. Sure, spending hours in front of a TV screen, doing little more than clicking a button isn’t a healthy way to pass time—kids need exercise and interaction—but when combined with time spent outdoors, relationships with peers, and imaginative play, it can be one part of a healthy, balanced childhood.

“Kids need to be successful in the 21st Century,” says Maryanne Friend, program manager for Teachers College of San Joaquin. “By not offering technology use, we are limiting essential skills that kids will need to be college and career ready.”

Stephen Callahan, a science teacher at West High in Tracy and SJCOE STEM expert, echoes that idea. “Giving kids access to learning how to navigate and use technology gives them the skills they will need later in life. Technology, electronics included, is a part of STEM—a field with lots of good paying jobs.”

So, consider time spent with electronics as time spent learning necessary skills for the future, when the ability to use and manipulate technology will be imperative for the next generation.

Social media, coding, technological interfaces, and more are all part of the changing workplace. Students need to know not only how to use current media but how to learn new platforms as they come.

“In 21st century schools, students often carry more technology in their pockets than their teacher has in the entire classroom,” says Tammy Brecht Dunbar, M.Ed, a fifth-grade teacher at Manteca Unified. “Students are used to using technology every day; if it is not used in the classroom, then their schools seem backward or dysfunctional.”

Some parents criticize the growing number of Chromebooks and other digital tools that are becoming a mainstay in classrooms, but part of this introduction to technology belongs in schools. “Even though we are mostly digital immigrants, we should be modeling our positive uncertainty about learning and using technology so that our students are unafraid of what they’re going to see in five, ten, or even twenty years,” Dunbar explains. “Our students need to see that we are comfortable learning a new piece of software, manipulating digital tools, or Bing-ing an answer.”

“Proper use of technology in the classroom can be an effective way to engage students in learning. Using technology as a tool to reinforce content through integration of core subjects, brings the learning to life and [supports] a better understanding of the subject matter,” Friend says

The trick is finding balance. Dunbar puts it simply: BE a parent.

“Don’t hand off your parenting duties to electronic devices,” she says. “Be attentive. Be active. Be nosy. Regardless of age, kids need parents who care enough about them to interact with them and talk to them and really listen to what they have to say.”

This can be achieved through routines that bring the family together such as family dinners, story time, or family date nights. Anything that calls families to set aside scheduled time to spend together, be present, and not be consumed by electronics.

It’s also important that kids spend time in other activities. Whether that is playing a sport, reading, joining a club or group, or just doing normal kid things with their friends, peer interaction and traditional, non-electronic learning are part of the equation.

“When kids are allowed extensive use of technology, there becomes a dependency on devices and an obsession with social media sites. Kids that are allowed to spend countless hours using electronics can show signs of sleep deprivation and a lack of social interaction with friends and family,” Friend warns.

Don’t let electronics be isolating. Watch together or put the computer in a communal area where you can keep an eye on how your child spends time online. This helps create a safe environment for your child to explore technology, gives you a front row seat to the programs they are watching (so you can ensure they are age appropriate), and circles back to Dunbar’s advice: BE a parent.

“It’s all about communication,” says Friend. “Parents need to talk to their kids about potential problems that can arise when personal information is divulged through the Internet. Teaching kids about their ‘digital footprint’ (the information about a particular person that exists on the Internet as a result of their online activity) and the negative impact it can have on their future is essential.”

According to Friend, a key distinction between smart electronic use and overuse is to develop students that are users of technology and not just consumers of technology.

Common Core Standards added a technology component to classrooms as early as Kindergarten to ensure students are learning what they should about technology. Simple tools like keyboards and computer mice are mastered through a gradual succession of difficulty like any other subject in school.

“Students need to be able to use a keyboard, identify keys and master the use of a mouse to publish and produce writing with the help of an adult,” says Friend. “By third grade, students must be somewhat proficient in keyboarding.”

Parenting in the Digital Age
Stephen Callahan, like many parents, is new to parenting with electronics and regulating use at home.
“My daughter just received a tablet for Christmas,” he shares. “There are basic controls that I set up to begin, like limiting apps that she has access to. There are rules for behavior like not taking photos of people without their permission. Then there are changes that occur as we find new apps and she learns more.”
Because navigating the world of electronics is new to both Callahan and his daughter, rules and limits that surround her technology use constantly evolve, but communication and supervision remain among the most important concepts so that Callahan can ensure his daughter stays safe with technology and develops good judgment for the future.
“Parents have a unique dilemma with technology,” he says. “Most things that we teach to our children we know from our own childhood… When I was my daughter’s age my experience with computers consisted of Cookie Monster Munch on a RadioShack TSR-80 and Oregon Trail on an Apple computer with a black and green screen. It’s a learning experience for me.”
As he learns, so do his kids. “I think I tend to try to push for caution and safety for my kids. I want that to be on their mind as they grow up and gain more freedom and responsibility.”

5 Websites/Apps to Try
CommonSenseMedia.org, a resource for parents and kids on media usage

ABCya.com, a learning app for kids K-5

Code.org, interactive web apps that teach kids how to code

Curious World, an online app for reading, watching, and games geared toward kids ages 2-7

Cookie Monster’s Challenge, nine levels of mini-games teach self-control, focus, and how to follow directions for kids ages 3+

Teaching in the Digital Age
Tammy Brecht Dunbar experienced firsthand how technology could change learning for students.
“Carlos had a bright, engaging smile, loved to read, and was very well spoken. However, when it came to writing assignments, he froze,” she said. “Carlos just could not get words down on paper.”

Halfway through the year, Carlos struggled with a writing assignment about a book he enjoyed. So, Dunbar made him stay in at recess to work on it with her. That’s when she reached for her iPad.
“(I) asked him just to talk about his favorite part of the book,” she said. “He began to discuss what he most enjoyed about the book. When he was done talking, I tapped my screen a couple of times and then asked him to read what was on it. He started reading aloud, then said, ‘That’s what I just said!’”
With the help of technology, Dunbar was able to show Carlos her expectations for the assignment: to write like he talks. “That’s when I saw the look of understanding on his face; he was making the connection between what he had said and what was showing on the screen. My ‘aha moment’ was that there must be even more ways that technology could help students overcome obstacles and find success. The smile on his face made me determined to find them.”

 

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