How Robots in English Class Can Spark Empathy and Improve Writing

[In this Mindshift article students interact with the Sphero robots to develop stories. For the past two years I’ve worked with Birdbrain Technologies, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The Hummingbird, a robotics kit, developed at CMU’s CREATE Lab out of a project originally called “Robot Diaries.” In my early days of programming in the Logo language I had students create “Turtle Stories.” There’s definitely something engaging about robots that allows students to expand their literary skills while developing STEM skills at the same time. After I wrote this introduction, Seymour Papert, one of the creators of Logo died. Without the wisdom of Seymour Papert many educators like myself would never have discovered the power of computational thinking.]

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Mention robots to many English teachers and they’ll immediately point down the hall to the science classroom or to the makerspace, if they have one. At many schools, if there’s a robot at all, it’s located in a science or math classroom or is being built by an after-school robotics club. It’s not usually a fixture in English classrooms. But as teachers continue to work at finding new entry points to old material for their students, robots are proving to be a great interdisciplinary tool that builds collaboration and literacy skills.

“For someone like me who teaches literature by lots of dead white guys, teaching programming adds relevance to my class,” said Jessica Herring, a high school English teacher at Benton High School in Arkansas. Herring first experimented using Sphero, essentially a programmable ball, when her American literature class was studying the writing of early settlers. Herring pushed the desks back and drew a maze on the floor with tape representing the journey from Europe to the New World. Her students used class iPads and an introductory manually guided app to steer their Spheros through the maze.

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Tap, Click, Read: 3 Ways Digital Media Can Effectively Boost Literacy

[In this Edsurge article the authors make a very valid point – we need to a better job bringing digital media into early childhood learning. We need to prepare all students with the literacy skills that include digital media. We need to train parents. We need to use research and experts in the field to guide the development of high quality materials. Here in Pittsburgh PAEYC, an early childhood group, is working with the Fred Rogers Center and Carnegie Mellon University to do this. One of the projects, Message from Me, has had great success bringing the three elements together into a successful program.]

Lisa Guernsey, Michael Levine, Sarah Vaala
Oct 1, 2015

The world has gone digital, our days are awash in audiovisual experiences. And as we await the release of the annual “National Report Card” on children’s reading skills next month, many reading experts are already questioning how digital devices may impact our kids’ mastery of literacy skills.

Their concerns are valid: US reading scores have flatlined since 2004. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of fourth-graders are unable to reach the “proficient” level on reading tests.

Despite spending billions on reforms like smaller class sizes and intensive reading programs, and millions on new apps and platforms, test scores and market innovations are stuck in wet cement. Innovations in the burgeoning literacy apps marketplace have done little, at least so far, to stanch the decline.

Developers and educators must respond to an ongoing challenge that is America’s “quiet crisis,” and it is past time to modernize our approach.

In our new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, we document a rapidly changing literacy landscape for preschool and primary-grade kids. On one end, children in privileged environments enjoy mentors who help them navigate the media maze and learn how to become focused, careful readers with skills in filtering, creating and making sense of the barrage of information coming their way. But about half of all kids ages 0-8—some 15 million—are not getting that kind of support. As higher-income families begin to capitalize on learning opportunities that come with online access, America is at risk of slipping into an even starker world of haves and have-nots.

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