Blog Post

No Substitute: Mia Works Alongside Librarians, Parents, and Teachers

July 18, 2018

No Substitute: Mia Works Alongside Librarians, Parents, and Teachers

As useful and knowledgeable as Mia is, she will never attempt to replace the real people in your child’s reading life.

By Diana Black

“Why would I want this app when I have a great librarian to select books?”
“I don’t need Mia – I’d rather just talk with my teacher.”
“There’s no reason to use a bot when mom and dad can help me choose fantastic books.”

There’s no doubt: librarians, teachers, and parents are the people at the center of a child’s reading life. Sometime children don’t have strong relationships with adults in these roles, but for those who do, where does Mia Learning fit? Is Mia competing to replace these human beings, to mechanize a service that really ought to have a warm, personal touch? 

The short answer is: not at all.

At Mia Learning, we use artificial intelligence to support the efforts of parents, teachers, and librarians, not as a substitute. First of all, Mia makes no bones about her own limitations: as our co-founder, Darren Cambridge, has noted, we never intend for her to represent herself as human. It is no secret to kids using our software that Mia is a robot, and Mia often encourages kids to consult with the real, live people surrounding them about their reading. Although her own experience of it is fiction, Mia embraces the social side of reading motivation: Books are conduits for human connection. She might suggest that kids recommend their favorite reads to friends, for example, or that they read a book aloud to, or with, a parent.

Rather than seek to replace, Mia picks up where adults leave off. Certified Reading Specialist and seventh grade English teacher Leigh Ellis Beauchamp wishes she could give each of her 125 students personalized reading recommendations and reflect with them on what they’re reading, but there simply isn’t enough time in the school day: “I would love, love to have a tool like Mia in my classroom,” she says. “It would be so helpful to have a better sense of my kids’ interests and what they really like to read.” Very few of the hundreds of teachers with whom Mia Learning has consulted over the last two years report having sufficient time during the school day in which to conduct organic, long-form conversations about book selection or independent reading experiences. “I would love to believe that I am somehow able to answer every question they have, provide frequent on-target book recommendations, consistently suss out their reading issues, and provide meaningful feedback on a daily basis, but, sadly, I’d be kidding myself,” Beauchamp says. It’s easy to see where Mia could fit in to classrooms like hers.

Mia guides each child as they learn to choose books well in ways teachers wish they could if they had more time to work with children individually. “I really want my students to know what’s out there, that there’s a book for every single one of them,” says fifth grade teacher Chris Mendoza, “but so many just get overwhelmed by the choices and never seem to find the right book. They don’t know how to make a good [book] choice; that’s a skill that doesn’t typically find space in a school curriculum.” Mia takes the information overload that confronts so many kids and narrows down a daunting slew of books to a manageable number while teaching the skill of making a great choice.

Youth Services Librarian Danica Thompson, who works with elementary and middle school-aged children, agrees: “Of course I do my best to recommend books I think these kids will love,” she says, “but I don’t have the superhuman memory Mia does to be able to call up the right book from thousands of titles at a moment’s notice.” Mia can retain and shift through certain types of knowledge about books that would be difficult or impossible for literacy professionals, even the most experienced and well-read. However, Mia could not exist without librarians’ professional judgments: The metadata she draws from was created by dozens of them, who carefully cataloged the characteristics of each book in her database.

Just as teachers and librarians see the usefulness of a service like Mia to supplement their efforts, many parents envision the ways Mia can help support their goal of their children becoming more passionate readers.

“My son would just prefer to talk through certain things with someone other than an adult,” explains Elaine Day-Burruss of Harrisonburg, Virginia, a mother of three elementary and middle schoolers. “With me and with his teachers asking him questions, he’s sort of afraid to be honest because he thinks they’re looking for some particular answer. … He’s very anxious to please, to be ‘right.’ So I think a robot he didn’t have to worry about getting approval from, who had no dog in the fight so to speak, would be really helpful to him.”

Parents of children from Mia’s earliest testing sessions would doubtless confirm that this is exactly what they found: Kids report feeling comfortable talking to Mia frankly about their book preferences and experiences, including their failures and frustrations. While your child develops a feeling of trust and rapport, rather than isolating them from the real world in a digital bubble, Mia steers them right back into it. She gives them the option to share their reading with the important adults in their lives – what they thought of each book, new interests they are developing, or ways they could use real person help to get what they want to get out of reading. Mia emphasizes ways to build relationships with others using books, always reminding kids that reading should fulfill their purpose, which might range from acquiring knowledge, to strengthening friendships, to imagining a better world.

Finally, unlike your run-of-the-mill app, Mia Learning is unique in our commitment to implementing the latest research in education, psychology, and computer science. We write and design our program in consultation with some of the nation’s top experts on literacy education and youth services.

In short: Librarians, parents, and teachers needn’t fear. Mia isn’t trying to put you out of a job. She respects that in so many ways, she could never hope to compete with you. Frankly, if she does her job right, she’s going to put herself out of a job by empowering kids to the point where they don’t need her anymore. In fact, that’s her dearest wish.


Reading Aloud to Independent Readers: Why

June 1, 2018

Reading Aloud to Independent Readers

Even for children who can read on their own, being read to has distinct benefits

By Diana Black

At Mia Learning, we strive to empower kids in their choices about reading, helping them select books and decide how to read them based on what they want to get out of reading. With Mia as their guide, elementary and middle schoolers can gain in confidence and engagement as solo readers. So why would we advocate for reading to those readers? Wouldn’t that undermine our most cherished goals?

Nope. This is a “yes, and” situation rather than an either/or one: “YES, we want to make kids stronger, more skillful readers, AND reading to them will help.” Part of what sets Mia apart is that she acknowledges that people read for all kinds of purposes, many of which are best accomplished interactively.

In conversations with your child, Mia will often ask about the context of their reading. She inquires whether they read the book in question by themselves or with someone else. If your child reports that one of her recommendations was too difficult for them to read alone, Mia might suggest that it’s worth another try as a read-aloud. In this, the first of three posts, we’ll endeavor to explain why reading to your kids is a vital part of supporting them as independent readers (and—spoiler alert—helping them become better-adjusted people in general).



Part 1: The Why

Maybe you started at the very beginning, when she was just a mewling newborn. You placed her carefully on your lap, guiding her tiny hands to the fuzzy lion’s mane.  You slowly counted out how many spots were on the ladybug’s back. You read her Goodnight Moon every night, hoping dimly that she was getting something out of all this. Or perhaps you began when he was a toddler, answering every one of his seemingly endless questions and succumbing to the umpteenth demand of “Again!” But now that they are older and can read on their own, those days are sadly past…aren’t they?

Good news: they don’t have to be, and what’s more, the research suggests that they really shouldn’t be. That’s because even for independent readers, being read to helps them grow in ways solitary reading on its own cannot. Especially as your child’s social world and interior life gain in complexity, you don’t want to miss out.

The innumerable benefits of reading aloud to children are well-documented—at least, when it comes to very young children.  Many excellent books and articles on the subject, like Mem Fox’s classic Reading Magic (2001), explain in detail how reading to preschoolers supports neural and vocabulary development, promotes physical and emotional closeness with parents, increases children’s empathy, and more.

But experts like Jim Trelease, author of the venerable Read-Aloud Handbook (in its seventh printing as of 2013), also know that reading to our children doesn’t have an expiration date. For one thing, hearing books read aloud appears to keep older children interested in reading outside of school individually. In a 2017 interview, Trelease pointed out that a child’s reading level may differ significantly from what he calls their “listening level” and explained why elementary and middle schoolers should still be read to even once they can read themselves:

A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until eighth grade. You can and should be reading seventh grade books to fifth grade kids. They’ll get excited about the plot and this will be a motivation to keep reading…[W]hen you get to chapter books…there is really complicated, serious stuff going on that kids are ready to hear and understand, even if they can’t read at that level yet.

In other words, the amount of sophistication a child can comprehend aurally (when you read out loud to them) is typically much higher than what they can understand when reading on their own. So, you can select more difficult books – think twistier, turnier plots, trickier vocabulary, and heavier, more discussable subject matter. But that’s for another blog post (coming soon). Also coming soon: the HOW of reading aloud to older kids. Stay tuned…



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.