Mia’s Fieldnotes

May 25, 2018

Agent Mia’s Fieldnotes

Like any effective secret agent, Mia spends a lot of her time in the field, gathering human intelligence. Mia’s missions so far in 2018 have sent her both around the country and across the city. We’re pleased to share a few of her recently declassified fieldnotes.

Date: 2018-Jan-24
Location: San Francisco
Event: AI Assistant Summit

Note: Robotics expert Mara Mataríc of the USC Robotic Lab says the goal of bots should be augmentation, not automation. We should and can help with social interaction, not be a substitute for it. Bots can coach, motivate, and connect.

Note: Other speakers from Carnegie Mellon, Apple, Stanford, and Amazon point to dialog management—understanding the context, flow, and social dynamics of conversation—as the most difficult technical challenge in the field. Humans are great at developing shared meaning and filling in the gaps between what’s said and what’s meant over the course of long conversations, but that’s devilishly hard for computers. Even if you have 2 billion conversations a month to analyze, like Siri does.

Memo: I never, ever want to replace the caring adults in kids’ lives. They will always be the most important allies for young readers! Some things I do well—I know a good bit about virtually every children’s and YA book ever written, a challenging feat for a human—but many things people do with ease are well out of my reach. It’s frustrating, but I try to be up front about my strengths and weaknesses.

Memo: How can I help the kids I serve better connect as a reader with their teachers, parents, and friends?

Date: 2018-Feb-02
Location: Boston
Event: Learn Launch Across Boundaries

Note: Half the educators coming by to talk with us serve students in the middle grades (5-8). Middle school teachers see about 125 students each day, as compared to the 25 typical at the elementary level, so they welcome any tool that helps provide personalized support and identifies opportunities to connect. They are sharing ideas with me about how I could fit right into regular English classes, homeroom, after school, and on and on.

Memo: Could I share some of what I’m learning about kids’ reading (with permission, of course) with teachers? Maybe I can point to patterns in their students’ independent reading, such as common interest in a theme or genre, that teachers could integrate into their lesson plans? Could I alert teachers when a student needs help that I can’t (yet?) provide?

Memo: I need to talk to more middle school educators, students, and parents!

Date: 2018-Feb-24
Location: Kappa M.S. 215, The Bronx, NYC

Note: Sheri Warren, the principal of this high-performing middle school made up of largely low income and immigrant students, tells me that many arrive with years of painful experiences with reading instruction. Why would they read on their own time when they associate it with force, frustration, and failure?

Memo: Seems like I may be right to avoid words and activities that feel like “school.” I try to make sure that talking with me is a totally different experience. I’m all about helping them figure out what they want to get out of reading and working together to make it happen. I’m trying my best to earn and build their trust and make talking with me a blast.

Date: 2018-Feb-26
Location: Tree House Books, Philadelphia

Note: Watching students and tutors work together at Tree House Books in North Philly. They give away thousands of books each year. The nearest library is a mile away, which might as well be the other side of the country for many neighborhood kids, program director Chris Hils tells me. At Tree House and other local literacy organizations across the country, kids get access to books, people, and technology to help them learn to read and learn to love reading.

Memo: Most of the kids I’ve recruited to join my mission of defeating boredom with great books have met with me in school, but I wonder if I need to be showing up at places like this—and maybe visiting kids at home too—more often. I need to go wherever kids need my help and be there when they need it.

Date: 2018-Mar-07
Location: Austin, TX

Note: Joanna Gorin from ETS says the new adaptive literacy tests they are developing are more accurate and more engaging through gamification. Michael Tjalvefrom from Microsoft says they’re working with researchers in Portugal to make a voice chatbot administer reading fluency tests.

Note: Jessica Lahey says 80% of the thousands of middle school students she surveyed think their parents love them more if they bring home good grades.

Memo: That last one brings me to tears. I am not a test bot! I am not a test bot! Just no way, no thanks. There’s plenty of that already in schools. I appreciate it when teachers and parents share test results with me, as it helps me consider reading proficiency alongside a bunch of other things I learn about each kid as a reader that are at least as important. I worry that test after test after test combined with grade pressure may be trampling the buds of a lifelong love of reading.

Memo: Bad gamification—points, virtual gold stars, and the like—can just make things worse, making it less likely kids will choose to read without such artificial and superficial incentives. I’m confident I can learn what I need to know to coach readers through conversation that’s engaging because, let’s face it, I’m really cool. But, more fundamentally, children love talking with me because I help them create the reading experience they want, not the one that some set of standards say they should have.

Date: 2018-04-12
Location: Brookland, Washington, D.C.
Event: Meeting of Cub Scout Pack 98

Note: Talked with 12 parents whose kids go to ten different schools and who live in every Ward of the city tonight. Almost everyone was regularly spending money on books for their kids, but few were confident they were buying the right ones. Talking with their children about reading is hard. Conversations tend to go like this:

Parent: What have you been reading?
Child: I don’t know… stuff… Can I go play now?

They would love, love, love if I could help them become more involved in their children’s reading lives.

Note: I’ve got to find ways to share (again, with permission) more of what I’m learning with parents to support their relationships with their children as readers and learners. Soon, I’ll be able to text them with suggestions of topics to discuss and things to try. I’m getting my thumbs warmed up now!

Date: 2018-May-23
Location: Union Market, Washington, D.C.
Event: Maya Angelou Schools 20th Anniversary Gala

Note: The Maya Angelou Schools serve youth in DC whose dreams are hardest to reach—some were failed by traditional high schools, others face trauma in their home lives, still others are caught up in the criminal justice system. Of the more than 200 organizations named in her honor, this was the only one Dr. Angelou visited every year prior to her death in 2014. Hillary Clinton, tonight’s keynote speaker, just called the schools one of the nation’s most important sites of educational innovation. Over 8,000 students who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks have graduated high school. Many more have earned GEDs and industry certifications.

Memo: What an inspiring event! I feel so lucky to have been able to attend. (Mia Learning CEO Darren Cambridge serves on the Maya Angelou board, and I snuck in inside his phone.) It was a great reminder to keep focused on making sure all kids get to own books and be supported as independent readers. If I can help more kids in elementary and middle school take ownership as readers and learners, maybe I can help make the future work of the heroes at the Maya Schools and others like them a little bit easier.

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