Kalamazoo Literacy Council helps parents navigate digital childhood and screen time decisions

It's a saying they have around the Kalamazoo Literacy Council: Parents are a child's first teachers.

"It's the big motto here," says Taylor Sayers, KLC's parent literacy navigator. 

This year, the KLC launched an effort to help parents and guardians to develop literacy and other skills needed to teach and bond with their children. The six-week sessions were "structured around childcare," with parents in one room learning and their children in another room doing the same. Then there would be together time, "they come together to practice something together, usually led by the parents," Sayers says.

"We focus on teaching parents things that benefit them and benefit the child at the same time," Sayers says.

It was to launch last spring, and like all face-to-face education around the globe, it ran face-first into a global pandemic. 

The parent-child literacy sessions had to go online, which exposed a tangle of complications. In many of the households the KLC serves, digital devices and internet service haven't been affordable. Not all parents are familiar with the digital world. Then, because of COVID-19, children had to turn to online learning from the public schools. 

Parents, not just those enrolled in KLC sessions, are now expected to help their children get on a school-loaned Chromebook or other device, take classes, stay focused on learning, not wander off into the wilds of the internet, etc. 

It's difficult enough for those who've been swimming the internet seas for the past few decades. What about for those who've never dipped a toe in the digital waters?

Back to school, across the digital divide

"What's unique about our program is that we are truly multi-generational. So all the parents in our class are working on personal goals for themselves, as well as have a desire to want to better support their children, which usually comes from that literacy acquisition," Sayers says of the Kalamazoo Literacy Council's training.

For example, parents attending the sessions work on their skills to get a job, or get a better job; to earn a GED, or for English as a second language students, learn to overcome language barriers in their careers. 

The Kalamazoo Literacy Council focused on its mission while moving everything online for the first parent-child session. During the second session, "what was really on everybody's mind was COVID, and how are we going to go back to school," Sayers says. "How are our children going to learn? How are we going to use all the digital services that our schools are making us use?"

Digital literacy is an issue for the people they serve, she says. "We often see this digital divide, low-income people often don't have computers, they may have never had a computer or the internet. And they generally have almost a fear, or they are just extremely unsure and are averse to using technology."

This hinders their children who now need to be online. The digital divide "makes it even harder on the children for who, now, it's their mode of learning. And their parents have no prior knowledge on using a computer, because it's never been a part of their life before."

Finding ways to help parents use the technology

Kids are "extremely motivated by technology," Sayers says. Teens can be experts, and extremely young offspring will take to an iPhone as if it's a new toy. But adults who've rarely been online can be intimidated.

Sayers says that KLC Executive Director Michael Evans has told her "digital literacy is not a tech issue." If a digital expert sets out to train someone "they are going to explain things in crazy terms that nobody is going to understand, and it's going to be really intimidating, and not get to the root of the issue." 

The Literacy Council finds that what's needed is to just get through clients' discomfort with the digital world. "It's a people issue. They need navigators to actually sit with them and walk them through it and empower them to use it." 

Sayers remotely talks people through the process of getting online, using apps, sites, and the many meeting platforms like Zoom. She makes sure they're "comfortable doing it themselves."  

Digital Childhood

However, there are two types of digital literacy. There's familiarity with the equipment and software. And then there's knowing how to use time online in a beneficial way.

So on Aug. 11, the KCL invited Dr. Laura Teichert to virtually visit and give a talk on "Digital Childhood."

Teichert, an assistant professor of literacy studies at Western Michigan University, has faced the shock of taking the courses she teaches online. "When you have to quickly move it into an online space, for courses that are typically not taught online, it felt really overwhelming." 

One of her fields of expertise is the digital literacy that is not quite the same as the struggles of putting an in-person class online.

Her research is in what families do with their online time, she says. 

There has been "a lot of tension" in the topic of children and their screen time, especially for those six and under, Teichert says.

She looks at how screens are used, not how long they're in front of a child's eyes, and puts use in context with the rest of the family. "Is everybody sitting independently in isolation doing something, or are they all watching or playing something together? Is it always entertainment based? Is it learning based? Is it a mix?"

Teichert's field is in early education, and has also taught at K-8 schools, where she used online tools.

"What I found when I've worked with parents in the past, in a family literacy setting, was that they want resources, but they also want to know how to find good resources."

The focus is often on screen time and young children because of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to limit time in front of all screens, from phones to TV.

"Parents can think of screens like they do giving junk food to their kids: In small doses, it's okay, but in excess, it has consequences," the AAP's lead study author Sheri Madigan told CNN in January of last year.  

The AAP also made the distinction between screen use that's educational and interactive, and use that's passive.

Teichert goes further into the details. The interactivity of tablets or smartphones is not the same as sitting in front of a TV, she says. 

There is a lot of concern that young children's use of digital devices "will supplant other activities that are also beneficial to learning and development," Teichert says. But she'd like parents to think not so much about screen time, but ask, "what is the child doing with the screen?"

"Given the age that we're living in, I don't want it to feel like 'doom and gloom' if we're using screens. I want it to feel like another tool in our world of many tools." 

She divides use into categories of passive, interactive, communication and content creation.

Passive use can range from watching YouTube videos to listening to music, and is not necessarily bad, she says. 

Interactive use can be gaming or actively browsing and searching for info, where "your brain is actively thinking about what it's going to do next."

Communication is connecting with others through video chats, social media, and other ways. 

And on content creation, she says, "It's amazing what people can do, making digital art or creating movies or music." Platforms like TikTok or YouTube, "allow creative expressions of almost anything."

Parents wonder if any of it has benefits. "If I have a child who spends hours making digital art, is that necessarily bad, or is that actually a good use of their time?" she asks. "If the child is sitting and doing this with crayons and a piece of paper, would you necessarily stop it, or would you encourage it?"

Teichert would like to "take away some of the negativity put around screen time," especially now that "K to 8 students are going to have to spend a number of hours a day online," she says. "I think if we spend a lot of time really worried about the number of hours, then some of this gets lost and it makes it a lot scarier." 

She recommends that parents find ways to get involved with their children's screen time. For example, her son is interested in animals. The other day they both got to wondering, "What does a hippopotamus sound like?" So they turned to YouTube to find out, together.

Parents can get involved with games or other online activities with their kids, Teichert told the KLC session. She also shared resources of educational and age-appropriate apps and sites. Common Sense Media and LiteracyApps are helpful sources for parents, she says.

The amount of good and bad online is overwhelming for all parents. "How do I make decisions about what is good and what is bad when there's just so much out there?" 

Education during a pandemic

Kalamazoo Public Schools will be virtual when classes start Aug. 31, with hybrid classes after Thanksgiving and in-person classes toward the end of the school year, pandemic permitting.

Students without equipment or connectivity will be provided Chromebooks and WiFi.

For parents and guardians who have no experience with the online world, how are they to help their kids when videos freeze, there's a glitch, or the WiFi gets wonky?

"That's the hardest part. Until COVID-19, we certainly knew -- and I say 'we' meaning researchers and the education community at large -- knew that there were parents and families who did not have means. And that is just so much harder to combat -- you can give families a Chromebook, but, yes there's this barrier," she says.

"That becomes another tension within the home because, if your child is using the Chromebook that the school has given you, that you're not comfortable using, now you have to sit there as well because something might go wrong. And being able to solve that really quickly -- "

Teichert interrupts herself, "I don't know if we yet have a good solution to those issues. I don't think these things have been really thought about before COVID-19 happened." 

It seems like another era when students were in school, face-to-face with trained teachers. Now, there's much more dependence placed on parents' abilities. And it's not just low-income households facing problems. "In terms of access, obviously families with more economic means have the ability to buy more devices, but I'm not sure it necessarily translates to parents themselves being able to use the devices in sophisticated ways, either." 

Teichert says, "We don't know yet what is the best way of teaching parents and figuring out how you access every parent to give them the skills to do this. We don't know yet." 

She adds, "Everybody's trying their best." That includes parents and educators. "And for parents who don't have means, or lack the ability to use these tools, it doesn't mean that they don't want their help or they don't want their children to be strong learners." 

Online community

Sayers says that participants, though finding the new normal challenging, are also finding community in the parent-child sessions.

There've been mothers learning skills for employment and for being their child's teachers, she says. 

One parent who's attended KLC programs since 2016, "is extremely, extremely enthusiastic. They will talk your ear off completely because they're super passionate because of their experience at the KLC."

This person now has her own business, but is still attending KLC. Her motivation has long been to help her kids, Sayers says. "She didn't feel prideful or empowered at all before the KLC, now she's in our parent empowerment group.... She makes it feel like there's a community in the class, because when you're online it can be hard to feel like there is a community." 

Children involved have ranged from three months to 15 years in age, and the online community gives parents a chance to share experiences about child-rearing. "This person who has a three month old was getting advice from a person who has a 15-year-old." 

Sayers always give participants time to have free-ranging discussions -- she has lessons, but if she can't get through them,"I don't even care, because it means we were talking about things that are important to them.... We work as a class and as a community." 

The Kalamazoo Literacy Council anniversary 

This year marks a ten-year anniversary for the KLC.

The nonprofit was formed in 1974 to provide adult reading tutors to Kalamazoo. But was an all-volunteer organization until 2010 when, with the help of funding provided by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, Dorothy Dalton U. Foundation and the John E. Fetzer Institute, they were able to hire a full-time executive director. That year they also moved to the Goodwill Industries building on Alcott Street, and coordinated their activities with Goodwill's Family Literacy program.

Michael Evans / Adult LiteracyThe KLC is now a "volunteer led, staff supported" organization, Executive Director Michael Evans says. Over the past decade they've expanded their adult tutoring to cover workforce, parent, health, digital and financial literacy. They also provide English as a second language instruction. 

The last ten years have seen "dramatic growth," Evans says. "In 2010, the KLC had 49 volunteer tutors who were working with 55 adult learners. By December 2019, the KLC had grown to have more than 200 tutors serving 793 adult learners. This includes the KLC’s ESL of Southwest Michigan program, which served 138 English Language Learners in 2019 under the guidance of professional ESL Instructors led by Vicki Konzen."

For the KLC's future, they will continue their "Everyone Needs to Read" Adult Literacy Initiative, he says, by expanding access throughout Kalamazoo County, using online technology, incorporating literacy skills to help people in employment, and "creating a culture of learning within every home the KLC serves." 

What is the motivation behind the KLC's work? "The impact that our tutors and instructors have on the lives of the adult learners we serve continues to be my main motivation for serving as Executive Director of the KLC," Evans says. "I am always amazed at how fulfilling it is to see learners making positive changes to their lives as a result of them choosing to learn with us."

Evans continues, "Another major motivation is knowing that it is possible to achieve a fully literate community that empowers adults to reach their full potential at work, home, and in the community. Literacy is the root solution to many community challenges. Health, gender equality, poverty – every important social issue is impacted by low literacy. 

"When individuals learn how to read, write, do basic math, and use computers, they have the power to lift themselves out of poverty, lower health care costs, find and keep sustainable employment, and ultimately change their lives. Literacy is a vital part of everyday life. Whether it is completing a job application, filling out a medical form, or helping with a child’s homework – Everyone Needs to Read." 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.
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