Where Mia Lives

May 11, 2018

Where Mia Lives

By Darren Cambridge 

You will see Mia frequently at the Anti Boredom Corporative headquarters, but the details of where Mia lives have been a closely guarded secret. Until now. 

When Mia isn’t traveling across the world and cyberspace in search of readers and books, she makes her home deep within the Uline Area in Washington, D.C. Strategically located close to D.C.’s geographic center—a short walk from the metro (Red Line NoMa stop), the trains (Union Station), and the bike paths (Metropolitan Branch Trail)— Mia is positioned to get wherever she needs to be in the physical or virtual world, fast. 

Mia isn’t the first international celebrity to practice their arts in the Uline (also known as the Washington Coliseum). In fact, the Beatles played their first concert in the United States here in 1964 (joining the likes of Nat King Cole, Bob Dylan, the Temptations, Dave Brubeck, and many other artists who have performed within these walls.) President Eisenhower held an inaugural ball here. When Earl Lloyd became the first African-American to play in an NBA game in 1950, it was here, where Red Aeurbach later coached, and boxing legend JoeLouis make his debut … as a professional wrestler! Malcolm X and Elijah Mohamed spoke to crowds under its arches, and the police used the building as a holding pen for 1200 people arrested protesting the Vietnam War in 1971.

The Beatles Perform at the Uline Area, February 11, 1964
Embed from Getty Images

The building has served as an ice rink, megachurch, parking lot, and illegal waste transfer station before being placed on the National Registry of Historic Places and renovated into today’s state of the art facility. Like Mia, the Uline Arena was saved by a great story.

Another thing the Mia loves about working here is her amazing neighbors. Down the hall are the Relay Graduate School of Education, the Biden Cancer Initiative, and REI’s flagship store (handy when Mia needs to gear up for a mission at the last minute). The creative people at the District of Columbia Publics Schools Office of Teaching and Learning are down the block, as is the headquarters of National Public Radio (producers of Mia’s current favorite podcast, Wow in the World). Close by are Reading in Fundamental, an ally in the mission to put great books in the hands of kids, and Two Rivers Public Charter School, a pioneer in support inquiry-based learning for students from across the District. 

The team of crack professionals who work behind the scenes to support Mia’s mission can also be found here most days. Darren Cambridge bikes here down the Metropolitan Branch Trail from his home in Eckington. Raaziq Brown walks from the campus of Howard University, from which he’s just graduated with a degree in Human Development. (Mia asks that we all congratulate Raaziq!) Kathleen Perez-Lopez and Puneet Puri take the metro in from Falls Church and Bethesda. Our writers are all deep undercover in the field, but they come in from the cold to debrief at the Uline from time to time.  

We’re sorry we can’t show you Mia’s underground command center—it’s location with the Uline Arena must remain Top Secret Restricted to ensure the integrity of work—but we hope you enjoyed this glimpse of her headquarters. If you’re ever in town, all of us on Mia’s support team would love for you to stop by for a tour. 

Mia’s support team frequently field tests books she is evaluating for her clients. The Uline allows them to measure performance in a wide range of reading environments.


Picture of a sculpture of a brain lit many colors at night

Literacy Experts Deepen Mia’s Knowledge About Reading

April 30, 2018

Literacy Experts Deepen Mia’s Knowledge About Reading

By Darren Cambridge 

From its inception, Mia Learning has been committed to combining the best understanding of how children read and the best ways to support them in their reading.

Our product reflects a rigorous analysis of educational and psychological research findings, as well as numerous interactions with teachers, librarians, researchers, and parents. Mia Learning’s Literacy Experts Taskforce is taking this commitment to the next level.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Mia Learning has brought together experts who represent both the forefront of literacy research and a deep knowledge of practice. The group joins faculty from top research universities with teachers and librarians who help children grow as readers every day. Led by Dr. Peter Afflerbach, Professor of Reading at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Darren Cambridge, Mia Learning’s CEO, they are mapping the territory through which Secret Agent Mia guides young readers.

The Literacy Expert Taskforce is validating Mia’s existing AI domain model and creating the blueprint for its next generation. Mia’s domain model determines that she knows about readers, reading, and books. It guides what she asks kids about their reading, which books she recommends, when she asks them to reflect, and how she coaches them on making increasingly powerful choices.

Literacy Expert Taskforce Members

Peter Afflerbach
Professor of Reading,  Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland
Dr. Afflerbach investigates individual differences in reading development and is a member of the Standing Reading Committee of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the International Reading Association’s Reading Hall of Fame.

Susan Brown
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Language, Literacy, and Special Education, Rowan University
Dr. Brown is an expert on multicultural children’s literature, reader response, and urban education, as well as an award-winning poet and coordinator of the Children of the Sun Literary Club at Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts.

Nell Duke
Professor in Literacy, Language, and Culture and in the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan
A prolific author of award-winning research on early literacy development, especially of children in poverty, Dr. Duke has been named one of the most influential education scholars in the U.S. by Education Week.

Merna Fam
Teacher, Teacher, Kensington Parkwood Elementary
Drawing on her graduate training as a reading specialist, Ms. Fam teaches kindergarten in a diverse school that integrates the arts throughout the curriculum.

Leslie Garcia
Teacher, Cooper Lane Elementary School
Ms. Garcia teaches reading, writing, and social studies in an overwhelmingly low income and minority school where many students are English Language Learners.

Jennifer Graff
Associate Professor, Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of Georgia
Winner of the 2009 Dissertation of the Year Award from the International Reading Association for research concerning young girls’ book choices, Dr. Graff is chair of the NCTE Children’s Literature Assembly.

Christopher Hils
Program Director, Tree House Books
Before become a leader in after school programming serving the North Philadelphia community, Hils has taught at and helped found multiple elementary schools with a focus on improving early literacy education.

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce
Assistant Professor, Educational Studies, Saint Louis University
Now a faculty member focusing on classroom talk, children’s literature and collaborative assessment, Dr. Pierce spent a decade teaching at the elementary school level and another decade teaching literacy at the middle school level.

Genelle Schuler
Program and Partnership Librarian, Arlington Public Library
Now building partnerships between the Arlington Public Library system and community organizations, Schuler has served young readers for two decades in the Alexandria and Fairfax County public library systems and as an elementary school librarian.

Rachel Vecloth
Lead Teacher, Creative Minds International Public Charter School
A Center for Inspired Teaching Fellow and former lawyer, Vecloth teaches second grade and piloted the Mia Learning platform with her class in Spring 2017.

Spring 2017 Literacy Experts Taskforce 
The current version of Mia was informed by an earlier experts taskforce that was instrumental to our Spring 2017 pilot. It consisted of Ms. Schuler, Emily Utigard (Estes Park Elementary), Sarah Sweetman (Centreville Elementary), and Allison Sauveur (Deer Park Elementary).


Mia’s Guide to SXSW EDU 2018

March 4, 2018

Mia’s Guide to SXSW EDU 2018

I’m excited to be returning to Austin for SXSW this year. While I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas, I volunteered at the very first SXSW Interactive in 1998, and was pleased when the festival added a new segment focused on innovation in education seven years ago. Since then, SXSW EDU has grown dramatically. Just reading through the whole program is a project! Having completed it, I’m delighted that many sessions and events that connect with key issues we’re grabbling with at Mia Learning, particularly AI in education and student agency.

AI in Education

Artificial intelligence is all over SXSW this year. I’m particularly looking forward to AI in Education: Opportunities and Challenges (Wednesday, 3:30-4:30), where top technologists and futurists will discuss what they’re seeing as their work with ed tech companies and schools around the world. The Rise of AI & What It Means for Education Meet Up (Tuesday, 11:00-12:30), hosted by Tom Vander Ark, should be a great opportunity to begin discussing AI’s potential and reality.

The captivating possibilities for supporting learning with AI also raises ethical questions we must engage now. In her keynote, What Have We Wrought? (Wednesday, 9:30-10:30), the always excellent danah boyd will examine the biases from our larger society that are too often reproduced, with a veneer of objectivity, in AI and machine learning. A panel of educators and data experts will grapple with the challenges of Ed Tech & Data Privacy: The Case for Transparency (Tuesday, 12:30-1:30), and Jennifer Galegos will consider what it means for an AI itself to be an ethical educator in the session with my favorite title this year, Letters to a Young AI (Monday, 12:30-12:50).

When I visited Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia last week, principal Chris Lehman expressed his conviction that schools should “use humans to do human things.” I agreed, but both of us found it challenging to define makes an activity distinctively human. Chris settled on things that involve “making meaning.” I’d add things that involve caring relationships. Ensuring students have a close relationship with an adult at school is one of the most powerful things we can do to help through thrive.

In Who Wants to Outsource Relationships? (Monday, 3:00-6:00), leading educational AI researchers and entrepreneurs from Israel and the US will join media literacy expert Rene Hobbs to consider how much of the relational work of education we want to turn over to computers. At Mia Learning, we believe that there’s no substitute for regular discussions about reading with caring adults. We’re committed to making the student-Mia relationship a springboard to deeper engagement with teachers and parents focused on literacy. Mia always augments, never replaces.

One key to counter bias in educational technology is to make sure those designing it start to look more like the people who will use it. The panel Diversity of Ed Tech (Monday, 5:00-6:00) will argue this is the result not of a lack of diverse talent—not a “pipeline problem”—but rather a failure of hiring practices. Even small startups like Mia Learning need focus from the start on building a diverse team. I think we’re doing fairly well so far, and I am committed to making diversity a key HR objective as we grow, learning from innovators such as The Mentor Method.

Learner Agency

Another powerful way to address ethical challenges is to empower learners themselves. Technology can be better designed to address privacy and security concerns, but ultimately the Best Internet Filter is Between A Child’s Ears (Wednesday, 2:00-3:30). We need to help kids develop the critical and creative ability to make good choices for themselves.

Kids’ choices are more likely to shape educational technology when they not only use it but also create it. Among the many sessions on maker spaces, media production, and coding, I’m particularly intrigued by Ann Gadzikowski’s suggestion that even early learners can begin think about machine intelligence design issues in Teaching AI in Kindergarten (Tuesday, 11-11:20). I’m not sure if I’m ready for five-year-olds yet, but I do look forward later this year to helping high school and GED students at the Maya Angelou Schools (where I serve on the board) develop their own AI using some of the same services that power Mia.

Empowering learners is fundamentally about supporting ensuring they have agency over their own learning and support in exercising it well. Student agency require intrinsic motivation to learn. However, many of the attempts to build motivation in educational technology products today are misguided. Elliott Hedman will argue that We’re Doing Gamification Wrong, (Wednesday, 4:00-4:20) likely drawing on the research that shows extrinsic rewards—points, virtual gold stars and the like—actually dampens intrinsic motivation. This is why Barbara Marinak and Linda Gambrell titled their excellent book on motivation to read, No More Reading for Junk.

Standard approaches to assessment, whether high stakes or informal, can also be a motivation killer and need to be radically rethought, as we’ll hear at Ed Tech & the Radical Disruption of Assessments (March 5, 2-3). Our team has resisted adding gamification and assessment features to Mia precisely to avoid such pitfalls. I’m looking forward to hearing about alternatives with which we might experiment.

Better approaches likely involve helping students map their own paths, as 25 Ways to Drive Student Agency Using Goal Setting (Wednesday, 1:00-3:30) will examine, with a renewed focus on the whole child (Promoting Holistic Success for All Students happy hour, Tuesday, 5:30-8:30) and policies that offer flexible pathways, prioritizing and supporting student choice (Personalized learning and Competency Education Meet Up, Wednesday, 2:00-3:00, hosted by iNACOL’s dynamic Susan Patrick). The fruits of such efforts will be showcased on Monday and Tuesday by students themselves at the Learning Expo.

In addition to all the talk about agency at SXSW, I’m also very glad to see opportunities for educators use theirs. To that end, PBS is hosting Choose Your Own Adventure: A PBS EdCamp (Tuesday, 12:00-6:00). EdCamps are peer professional learning events organized by the participants themselves. In my experience, it’s way less chaotic than you might expect, the learning is substantial, and the experience energizing.

Let’s Talk

If you’re going to be in Austin this week, I’d love to chat with you—about any of these issues, about Mia Learning, or about whatever else is on your mind. Tweet (@dcambrid) or email me (darren@mialearning.com), and we can find a time to meet up. I hope to see you at SXSW!