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The Kindred Philosophies of Mia Learning and Public Libraries

October 5, 2018

The Kindred Philosophies of Mia Learning and Public Libraries

by Diana Black

Previously, we wrote about the many reasons why Mia is indebted and also complementary to librarians and libraries – for instance, how much of the metadata she uses is first created by them and how she points kids in their direction for guidance, mentorship, and to find their home away from home. Yet to discuss, however, are some subtler ways in which the philosophies of public libraries and Mia Learning align. Although unlike public libraries, our services are not free, we believe our work is consonant with theirs in several respects. Members of our staff have professional backgrounds in public libraries, so we feel confident that we know a thing or two about what libraries stand and strive for.

Last year, the American Library Association (ALA) revised its strategic initiatives to include a new direction prioritizing “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” Each of those three is also key to Mia Learning. As Reading Specialist Leigh Ellis Beauchamp attested in a guest blog post back in August, Mia has unique potential to meet the challenge of making reading more equitable, accessible, and inclusive for disadvantaged and marginalized children. Mia can provide the invaluable support that is so often difficult to access in underserved communities. Mia also recommends books that help broaden kids’ interests — including by exposing them to books written from different identity perspectives and by “own voice” authors (for a definition of this term, see our interview with Rowan Walker). With her guidance, they do not just stick slavishly to their stated preferences: she shows them how they can connect existing tastes, hobbies, and perspectives to new and exciting possibilities.

In a further effort to give kids who use our software the opportunity to empathize with others both similar to and different from themselves, we designed Mia’s appearance and cast the live action actors who portray her protégés to create a diverse group to which we hope all kids can connect. It’s more than just window dressing: We’ve worked hard to make sure the characters are authentic and their stories nuanced. We believe visibility and representation are a small but vital step toward a more equitable society, and want to give every child the chance to find joy in their reading in community with others. In addition, we look forward to expanding our partnership with Book Trust, a wonderful non-profit that gives kids in low-income schools the opportunity to choose books for their personal libraries each month. With their help, we want to offer Mia subscriptions free to students they serve.

Another key value that public libraries share with Mia is using technology alongside traditional print books to maximize the value. As long as we can remember, every couple of months yields another newspaper or magazine opinion piece announced the imminent “death of libraries,” saying that Americans don’t read anymore, claiming libraries are “irrelevant” or “obsolete.” Yet libraries have proven time and time again that they are not one trick ponies. In fact, they are only increasing in relevance and utility when it comes to technology – whether providing computers where job seekers can apply for work, showing patrons how to use devices, hosting maker spaces, or offering subscriptions to digital media services like OverDrive and Hoopla. Mia Learning, too, considers print books at the heart of its endeavors, but it is no accident that Mia helps kids find those titles through an Web application. Just as they can log on to their library accounts no matter the hour, kids can talk to Mia any time. Mia can help kids access ebooks and audiobooks, but she specializes in getting physical copies of books into kids’ hands and onto their bookshelves. Essentially, she is complementing the access to print offered by local libraries with motivating, efficient, and highly personalized opportunities for book ownership.

Finally, libraries exist in part to help us understand ourselves and others better, to broaden our minds and widen the scope of our knowledge and, hopefully, compassion. As author Libba Bray writes, “The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.” Holdings of every type and genre, from innumerable authors and artists, help make libraries the treasure troves they are, but they are also hotbeds of democracy and discussions. They are social spaces inclusive of the entire local community they serve, a contact zone and place to meet, mingle, and learn.

Like many a great librarian before her, Mia is dedicated to her mission: helping kids to find their newest favorite book: a book that allows them to imagine new possibilities and make new connections, a book that keeps them coming back for more.



How Deep is the OCEAN?: What to Read Aloud to Your Independent Reader

June 20, 2018

How Deep is the O.C.E.A.N.?: What to Read Aloud to Your Independent Reader

Part of what makes books so magical is their capacity to satisfy so many of our most fundamental human needs.

By Diana Black

Previously, we covered why and how you should be reading aloud to your school-aged children. Today, let’s talk about what to read to them. Remember, Mia is all about helping to empower kids through their reading choices, and this includes what they read with you as well.

One of your first questions might be, “They get to choose what to read on their own, but do I choose what I read to them?” With very few exceptions, we highly recommend that you collaborate with your child when it comes to choosing readaloud books. While they may need some convincing to give a particular book a chance, chiefly you want them to associate reading with pleasure. Therefore, their opinion should at least be solicited and factored in, if not always deferred to. Doing so conveys respect for their personhood and their agency as a reader.

Obviously and most importantly, you want to choose books your child will enjoy, but there’s more to it than that. When selecting books specifically for reading aloud, it helps to remember the handy acronym, OCEAN (with all due apologies to personality psychologists). To the best of your ability, perhaps with help from Mia, a friend in the know, or a stellar librarian, gauge the book on the following five questions before floating it as a possibility with your child:

Will it…

O: open my child’s mind to new ideas, people, places, eras, etc.?

C: challenge them in some way or make them consider something more deeply?

E: …help them to develop empathy for others and expand their notions of what’s possible? 

A: ask more of them than books they might read on their own?

N: …help to fulfill a need for them?

If you think the answer is yes on at least one dimension, then it’s probably a good choice. Let’s dive in (with all due apologies to pun-haters – you monsters!!):

As suggested in our earlier post, take advantage of the fact that your child can comprehend more when listening than when reading on their own. What you read out loud can be more advanced and sophisticated in terms of vocabulary, plot, themes, and more. If your child can read most picture books independently, reading aloud might be the perfect way to introduce them to chapter books.

One of the key purposes of reading aloud to children of this age is broadening their minds, exposing them to new things and opening their worlds. This means prioritizing books that are diverse on multiple levels. A readaloud can also be more demanding of a child in terms of perspective-taking. Challenge them to empathize with characters who are fundamentally different from them in some way. Is the setting utterly foreign to them? Does the book take place in another era?  Do the characters live in totally different socioeconomic circumstances from your family? Is the main character of a different gender than your child? Are they of a different race or ethnicity? (To understand how books can be valuable means of facilitating interracial understanding and self-esteem, we recommend checking out the work of We Need Diverse Books.) Has your child ever put themselves in the shoes of someone of different ability than themselves? Read diverse books to your child that prompt them to perspective-take, think critically, and increase their capacity for compassion.

Diversity doesn’t only apply to settings, authors, or characters – you can also use reading alound as an opportunity to expose your child to books from diverse genres. Discovering a genre they’re passionate about can ignite a lifelong love of reading. Do kids need to know the actual word “genre”? Maybe not, but understanding the names of book types like “mystery,” “horror,” “fantasy,” and “realistic fiction” comes in handy. It’s far more difficult to define or even articulate literary tastes without such vocabulary, limiting kids’ ability to make informed book choices. Remember, part of Mia’s core mission is to expand kids’ toolkits for understanding their tastes. So read books from multiple genres, taking the time to identify them with labels like “poetry,” “adventure story,” or “biography.” Your child will begin to appreciate the dazzling array of options available to them and, rather than being overwhelmed, can start to hone in on starting points for future selections.

Finally, ask yourself if the book you’re considering for a readaloud could serve to address some unmet need for your child. Will it help them process or recover from an emotionally trying time? Can it help them to feel validated? To find their courage? To navigate a complicated social situation? To see the humor in their circumstances or simply feel less alone? Remember, readalouds are the perfect time to introduce weightier themes and subject matter, capitalizing on the opportunity to talk about and unpack them with your child. That’s the kind of substantive conversation they’ll remember for years to come.

Intellectual needs are also compelling reasons to choose a readaloud: Maybe your child is hungry for more knowledge about a subject, but not quite ready to read more demanding fare independently. Part of what makes books so magical is their capacity to satisfy so many of our most fundamental human needs.

Many parents prize sharing books with our children that we loved when we were kids, and this is undoubtedly a compelling reason to consider a book for reading aloud. Your childhood favorite can be meaningful to both you and your child and give a satisfying sense of continuity. However, if your child rejects a book you’re nostalgic about, try not to take it personally. Maybe you just have different tastes.

Does your child has difficulty sustaining attention during readalouds? Please, don’t give up! Consider a graphic novel or a picture book as a potential “way in” to readalouds, or give your child more say in book selection – you may find they’re more receptive after just a few thoughtful adjustments on your part. When you engage them in discussion, you may also discover that a child who insists on walking around the room or playing with legos is actually deeply engaged with what you are reading. 

Be on the lookout for Mia-recommended books for reading aloud which pass the “O.C.E.A.N.” test swimmingly–yes, another pun, which we hope isn’t salty humor–over the coming weeks. Please let us know on Facebook or Twitter what you and your children’s favorites are and send Mia your questions. She’s here to make sure you don’t feel like you’re in over your head. 

Good luck, and happy readalouds!