Why Mia, Why Now: My Story
By Darren Cambridge, CEO, Mia Learning
Why Mia, Why Now?: This is the first of two posts answering that vital question. In the second, we’ll share some of what we’ve learned from research and collaborating with teachers, parents, and artificial intelligence experts around the country to inform our work. (For a taste of what we’re learning as recounted by Mia herself, check out her fieldnotes.) First, though, I want to share my own story.
I have two sons. The first will soon be nine, and the second just turned six. When I say that my most important job is being their father, I want you to know that I work damn hard to make sure that statement is more than a cliché. Never a morning person, I’m now at my desk at 6 AM so that I can leave in time to pick them up from school and help them with homework before dinner. In what would certainly have been a surprise to my younger self, I’ve become a Cub Scout leader and Sunday school teacher. I have filled our house to bursting with STEM kits, soccer cleats, paintbrushes, Pokémon cards, and library books. I’ve read the collected works of J.K. Rowling out loud. Twice.
So why found an educational technology startup now? As I’m sure you know, launching a business can be completely life-consuming. You have to get up every morning and will it into existence. I prioritize spending time with my sons, but despite the best of intentions, my role at Mia Learning sometimes means I have to miss school events or spend most of the weekend at the office. I struggle to stay present with my family with the challenges of growing a business always at the back of my mind.
As part of an assignment during my first year in graduate school, I conducted an interview with my mother about how I learned as a child. One phrase from my notes sticks with me over 20 years later: “You took the path to knowledge through print.” From a young age, I saw reading not just as an academic skill, but as the skeleton key to many doors I wanted to unlock as I grew as a learner and person. Through reading, I began to understand myself in relationship not just to the people in my everyday life, but to a much more diverse cast of others, real and imagined, throughout the world.
Through reading, I could jump headfirst (or just dip my toe) into a new world of human activity. Some of those interests stuck with me—my lifelong love of photography began as much in the pages of a book as behind a lens—and others faded as I moved into a different stage of my life (model rocketry) or, thankfully, were short-lived (beach combing with metal detectors). In my #mysecretcodebook video, I share the story of one book I read as a fourth grader that set me on the path towards creating Mia. Today, one of my strengths is the ability to read my way quickly into unfamiliar professional worlds; to use books and articles and websites to create a map of new landscapes of practice.
Through reading, I learned that I was lucky to have the advantages given to me by the circumstances of my birth and that I had a corresponding responsibility to try to make the world a fair and welcoming for people with different life stories. I learned that what I could pursue and achieve in my life was expansive, learned how people doing the things I imagined doing myself in future talked and what they knew, and figured out what work I would need to do to join them.
I want the same for my kids, and I want it for all kids. My kids are growing up with at least as many advantages as I had in my own childhood, but also with unique challenges to overcome. Many other children face much more formidable obstacles in their path to making reading a powerful tool and source of pleasure in their lives.
My older son, Oliver, is a thoughtful and energetic nine-year-old who does Sudoku faster than I can follow and began to demand that I read him chapter books at three. I marvel at his narrative imagination and reasoning as we discuss the sophisticated novels (such as Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness) and nonfiction books (Learning to Program with Minecraft) we read together.
However, his reading-specific learning disability, combined with ADHD, make other aspects of reading a challenge for him. Despite encouraging gains over the last three years that have brought his skill up to grade level, the complexity of words he can comfortably decode and what he can understand are years apart. Trying to find books that truly address his interests, honor the sophistication of his existing knowledge, and that he can read independently regularly frustrates him, his teachers, and my wife and me.
We’ve had lots of help moving past the frustration. My sons’ school excels at including learners with developmental differences, and I have had the advantage of Ph.D. training in the teaching of writing and a career in education working with organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English, the U.S. Department of Education, and George Mason University that’s connected me to literacy teachers, coaches, and researchers around the world. With help of such teachers and librarians, combined with extensive online research, we’ve found books that are a fit, but it’s taken time and resources that are in short supply.
That’s why we’re making sure Mia gets to know each child as a multidimensional reader—understanding not just reading proficiency but what they’re passionate about, why they want to (or might want to) read, and the specific characteristics of books that work for them. Using this understanding, combined with detailed information about almost every book in print and what she’s learned from expert researchers, teachers, and librarians, Mia provides personalized recommendations of books that are just right for each child. Oliver is Mia’s biggest fan, and it’s not hard to see why.
When we find a book that we think Oliver or his brother Max (a rising first grader who would love to read Baby Monkey Private Eye to you), we buy it. Many families don’t have the same opportunity. Children’s book ownership is highly inequitable in the United States. The ratio of children to developmentally appropriate books for sale—let alone actually purchased—in low income neighborhoods is over 300:1. In Anacostia, here in Washington, DC, it is 830:1, with not a single book available for sale in the neighborhood appropriate to preschoolers.
DC has a great public library system—a resource that’s much more difficult for rural communities to sustain—but nonetheless, kids often face long waits for the books they really want to check out. With funding from the city, the library gives each child under five in DC whose family signs up a free book each month. That’s amazing! Unfortunately, though, all kids of the same age receive the same books. There’s no personalization and no opportunity for kids to make their own choices.
That’s why Mia Learning is also committed to doing everything we can to give all kids the opportunity to choose and own books. We support and collaborate with Book Trust, a national non-profit that shares this mission. We are using grant funding to give books to kids whose teachers and families are piloting Mia, and we’ll be using proceeds from subscription sales to provide free books and software to kids in underserved communities.
I believe we need Mia now for Oliver and for Max; for children in Anacostia, across the country, and in your neighborhood. If you see her potential to help your kids as well, I look forward to connecting with you over the coming months as our team works to maximize her contributions to all kids’ growth as readers and independent learners.