Thursday, June 26, 2014

STEAMing Ahead: How STEM has Evolved

by Alyssa Guarino, Junior Project Manager

With the push to expand focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in curricula, there have been worries that the arts will be left behind. The notion of adding the arts into STEM has been floated around, with many educators considering “STEAM” over STEM. In 2012, John Maeda, former president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), announced his initiative, which promotes integrating art and design into STEM education (thus creating STEAM) in order to spur innovation. Maeda points to a history of art and science collaboration, and, in an interview published by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA), says that he encourages those “who are leading economic growth, making change happen and becoming leaders of the twenty-first century, because they’re not held to the classical business school or technology school background.” As an example of the historical success of integrating arts into science, the STEAM site references Charles Négre, a nineteenth-century artist who used his training as a painter and interest in optics to pursue photography. Négre is quoted as saying, “Where science ends, art begins.” Maeda also points to the Renaissance movement as evidence that art and science naturally work well together, noting that in Leonardo da Vinci’s time, “they coexisted naturally.”

Da Vinci’s innovative works represent his desire to capture, reflect and improve upon the world around him, a notion that is not absent amongst this century’s young creatives. Leading tech giants such as Google and Apple continue to foster the idea that the arts are a necessary part of technological development. While the arts have often been a target of budget cuts, a three-year study released in 2008 by the Arts and Cognition Consortium of the Dana Foundation found that the arts correlate to improvements in math and reading scores along with increases in attention, cognition, working memory and reading fluency.

On a local level, many communities are trying to adopt STEAM. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, city and school officials have been working together to add the arts into their STEM model. While local institutions have teamed up with Cambridge Public Schools (CPS), the city is aiming to develop a centralized department to better coordinate STEAM programs and internship opportunities for students. Officials recognize that STEAM is an asset to the regional workforce and want to make sure that students keep this in mind throughout their time in CPS, especially by the time they are considering their options for college and the workforce. Cambridge is part of the state’s Metro North region, of which a large number of workers are employed through the STEM fields. Thus, STEAM can be seen as a venue to further the job field and offer students a richer learning experience.

In California, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), which offers schools with magnet programs, has had the opportunity to increase its focus on STEAM. In 2013, the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) awarded SDUSD a federal grant for use in four of its elementary schools. Since then, the SDUSD Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) department has developed STEAM curricula for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers. Lessons using these curricula combine traditional science lessons with dance, theater and visual art. Some examples include using dance to teach about electricity and electromagnets and creating abstract art to understand atoms and molecules. The main message here? Teaching the STEM subjects is important, but don’t forget to get creative.

Did You Know?

In February 2014, the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) hosted the Emerging Creatives Student Conference at Stanford University. Students from 25 different schools participated. This conference “focused on providing the inspiration and tools needed to help this group of emerging creatives develop, execute and sustain new interdisciplinary collaborative endeavors,” offering students the chance to collaborate in experiential “design thinking bootcamps.” Among the students’ creations was “the humorous and macabre MicroMort app,” a tool for predicting users’ likelihoods of dying during each of their daily activities.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

LinkedIn: Attempting to Get a Pulse

by Nick Persad, Spring 2014 Intern

I’ve never considered LinkedIn to be within the wide spectrum of social media. It has a visible sense of purpose and credibility that other forms of social media, like Facebook and Instagram, lack.

However, as a means for people to publicly interact, LinkedIn works using the same format as these other outlets by allowing users to follow/friend/connect with other users—unless their profile is private . . . which means they probably won’t accept your request unless they know you or happen to like your profile picture.

Unlike my Facebook and Instagram accounts, I don’t check or update my LinkedIn profile on a daily, sometimes even weekly, basis. This is likely true for most users of LinkedIn, because, unlike Facebook and Instagram, LinkedIn does not provide any entertainment value or specific need for daily checks unless average users—with the exception of those who work in marketing or are heavily invested in widening their career networks—are actively searching for a job.

According to a recent article from TechCrunch, “LinkedIn needs a hook that would make it more of a daily or at least a weekly destination for end users, rather than a place you go to update your résumé when looking for work.”

LinkedIn may have found that hook.

Starting with 25,000 English-speaking members, LinkedIn is allowing users to post content on their Pulse platform—which was formerly reserved for articles by high-profile entrepreneurs and business owners like Arianna Huffington and Richard Branson (dubbed “Influencers” by LinkedIn). Pulse, a refreshed version of LinkedIn Today, contains LinkedIn Channels. These “channels” are part of a subset of Pulse and contain topics from accounting to business travel to food and beverages. You can also select the Influencers you would like to follow.

Pulse posts now appear on the homepage of every LinkedIn profile. The goal of these posts is to allow LinkedIn members to demonstrate their skills, impart insider knowledge and share current employee trends. Eventually, LinkedIn plans to open this feature to give every LinkedIn member the opportunity to post content.

Viewership extends to everyone within your network as well as those outside of your network, so you can build your own following based on the type of content you post. This new feature capitalizes on the notion that every working professional has something important and relevant to say that can benefit future employees—as well as better those already working—by providing fresh and unique insight.

However, this doesn’t mean that everyone on LinkedIn will see your posts. “The content will be distributed to each individual’s network, appearing in the person’s news feed, and it could be featured in LinkedIn channels if the content meets certain standards of the algorithm,” writes John Hall for Influence & Co.

But what are the standards of the algorithm that make a post more likely to pop up in Pulse over another?

It’s actually pretty simple: LinkedIn uses the information presented in your profile to determine what posts would be of the most interest to you. If you work or are interested in education, LinkedIn will recognize that and use the algorithm to connect posts about education to your Pulse feed.

Overall, I think this venture of creating a more interactive service will be great for LinkedIn. Whether it will provide continuous, new knowledge to users is yet to be determined, but I think as it gains momentum, users will become more vocal about their likes and dislikes. As the TechCrunch article notes, “LinkedIn may be looking to deliver more personalized insights and increase user engagement, but the actual end result—given broad enough adoption of the pro[fessional] blogging feature—will likely be better hiring decisions as companies get to know the person behind the résumé.”

Did You Know?

While the popularity of LinkedIn is undeniable, there are countless other sites that are competing for the title of “World’s Largest Professional Network.” One of them is BranchOut, a site that allows Facebook users to search for connections using their pre-existing social network on Facebook.

BranchOut helps companies post job listings on their Facebook pages, thus allowing job seekers to apply for the job—once the job seeker is a BranchOut user. Additionally, the application offers a premium service called Recruiter Connect that allows recruiters and hiring managers to access Facebook’s databases for potential employees.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Speaking of Speaking: The Hype Behind Hyperpolyglots

by Tess Klingenstein, Spring 2014 Intern

I speak one language fluently, and that’s English. I can neither speak nor understand Hebrew, although I can read it. I recognize the occasional Latin vocabulary word, can hold a disjointed conversation in Spanish and know how to communicate the basics in American Sign Language, falling back on finger spelling if necessary. However, I often think how great it would be if I could master all of these languages. It’s only a fleeting thought, however, because I recognize that this is an unattainable goal for me. Interestingly, it is not unattainable for everyone.

Scattered around the world are people who have a passion and predisposition to acquire upwards of 30 different languages. These people are known as hyperpolyglots. Michael Erard, author of Babel No More, defines a hyperpolyglot as anyone who has fluency in eleven or more languages. Knowing five or six languages makes one simply a polyglot. Globally, there are many communities in which the inhabitants speak between five and six different languages or dialects. Those who grow up in such multilingual communities often develop some ability to communicate in each of the languages. This acquisition requires no special wiring of the brain, nor a special aptitude for independent learning, which is one reason that Erard sets the bar at eleven languages for hyperpolyglots.

When determining which traits characterize these expert language learners, Erard says that it’s difficult because, as paraphrased in a BBC News Magazine article, it “has to be about speaking and knowing rather than reading and writing,” and that it’s also important to keep in mind “how much a language weighs.” By that, he means that it’s more difficult for a person to know five very different languages than, say, five similar languages such as Romance languages. There are documented instances from the nineteenth century of people who knew up to 100 different languages. Today, the highest we see is 30. Has our ability to attain fluency in many languages gotten worse over the centuries? Erard thinks not; he merely believes that our idea of what constitutes fluency has gotten stricter.

So what do hyperpolyglots have in common besides facility with languages? Hyperpolyglots tend to be left-handed, suffer from autoimmune and learning disorders, and possess artistic or musical abilities. To explain why this might be the case, John Leland, a New York Times writer, speculates, “One theory is that a spike in testosterone levels in the womb can increase a brain’s asymmetry,” which would lead to the manifestation of these traits.

As always, researchers are interested in how much of a hyperpolyglot’s ability is innate and how much is learned. Erard says that, although a hyperpolyglot’s sense of curiosity and autodidactic nature play a large role, “It’s not will and motivation that determines your success. That’s part of it, but it’s also about what your brain is capable of doing and set up to do.”

But success in learning multiple languages doesn’t always translate into other kinds of success. Often, employers look for an applicant who can speak two or three languages, but rarely do they need someone to speak 15 or 25. It’s also a time-consuming hobby that can take energy away from other endeavors. Perhaps the hardest challenge that some hyperpolyglots face is social exclusion. Timothy Doner, 16, can speak nearly 15 languages; however, “People have asked him if he is autistic, or if he is training to be an assassin.’’ Those who don’t have such abilities can find the hyperpolyglot’s skill off-putting, confusing or intimidating.

Still, wouldn’t it be fun to travel to Singapore and speak fluent Tamil, or go down to your local Ethiopian restaurant and order in Amharic, or listen in on a conversation between two Frenchmen on the train and understand what they’re saying? I, for one, would be content just to master Spanish someday.

Did You Know?

There are now apps beyond Rosetta Stone that help language learners become fluent in a foreign language. The two most popular, Babbel and Busuu, use different methods to help users reach fluency.

Babbel’s simple, straightforward display asks you to match vocabulary in creative ways; it listens to your pronunciation and gives audio reading comprehension tasks. It also allows you to keep track of your progress by viewing your online profile. Busuu features similar tasks, but it also includes a writing component. The writing portions are sent out to fellow users to collectively correct. You are responsible for correcting fellow users’ writing portions as well. The first lesson in your target language is free.

However, Rosetta Stone is not a thing of the past. It, too, has developed apps to accompany its language-learning package. Although more expensive than Babbel, Rosetta Stone’s latest version also includes live sessions with a teacher.

Mobile apps for both Babbel and Busuu are available for Android and iOS platforms. Two of the five Rosetta Stone apps have been developed for multiple platforms; the other three are for iOS only.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

College & Career Readiness—Focusing on the Latter

by Colleen Joyce, Project Manager

Education was very important in my house when I was growing up. My mother went to college and was a first-grade teacher. My father went into the US Navy and then became a machinist, eventually owning his own machine shop. Nevertheless, even though one parent was a college graduate and one was not, there was never any question in our household that my sister and I were bound for higher education. It was understood that we were to go to school, get good grades and then attend and graduate from college. Neither of us questioned the track laid out for us, and neither of us deviated from it.

My high school had a vocational program, and I remember thinking it was cool that some of my classmates were building houses and fixing cars. But I preferred reading literature and studying history, so college seemed like the best fit for me. There was also a kind of unspoken stereotype that the “smart” kids went to college, and that college was the only way to get a good job.

But now there is a push to change that perception. There are, in fact, several paths to a successful and fulfilling career, and college isn’t the only gateway to getting there. Trade schools have become a hot issue lately, due in part to the many unfilled skilled labor positions. Manpower Group’s 2013 Talent Shortage Survey found that “skilled trades vacancies are the hardest to fill at a global level,” and that “technician vacancies are the most hard to fill in the Americas in 2013.” This scarcity has resulted in higher wages in these fields and a possible devaluing of the bachelor’s degree. A 2012 Georgetown University study found that men holding a certificate in computer and information services while working in the field made more than 54 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees. The results were even more striking among women: Women certificate holders working in the field earned more than 64 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees.

In addition to the higher earning potential, there is another important financial benefit to trade school: The cost is a bargain compared to that of a four-year college. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the average cost for a four-year education was nearly $87,000 in 2010–2011. In contrast, trade schools offer a quicker and more affordable way into the job market, which also helps to alleviate the burden of debt some students have accumulated by the time their education is complete.

All of these factors have helped to popularize trade school education; however, some teenagers still feel a stigma if they choose to forgo a college education for one in trade school. This stigma has its roots in the GI Bill that was passed in 1944. College enrollment jumped from 1.7 million to around 11 million in the 30 years that followed. Consequently, there was a shift in American consciousness: a belief that college was the best path for everyone, once it became accessible.

The mikeroweWORKS Foundation is endeavoring to change that attitude. Its commitment to those interested in trade and skilled labor is evident on its website: “The mikeroweWORKS Foundation is concerned with promoting hard work and supporting the skilled trades in a variety of areas.” Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, is working to reverse the idea that college is the surest path to a fulfilling career and financial independence. His foundation offers scholarships, job resources by state and tool stipends.

Traditional four-year colleges have many benefits. They provide an opportunity to study a variety of subjects while also focusing on a preferred area of study. Students can gain a strong knowledge of the theory behind their chosen field, usually in the form of lectures by educated professors. Trade schools, on the other hand, concentrate on teaching the skills of a particular field or trade. Rather than relying on lecture halls, career technical education (CTE) classes are customarily one part studying and one part practical training, with students learning to use the actual equipment that they will find in the workplace of their chosen field.

The reawakened interest in learning a trade is providing students with more choices. Students should feel free to choose the path that is right for them, with the confidence that they will be able to find employment once they’ve completed their education, regardless of which track they choose.

Did You Know?

In Switzerland, two-thirds of all students enter the vocational education and training (VET) program. VET combines classroom teaching and training within a company, with the aim of preparing students to immediately enter the job market upon completion of the program. VET programs are tailored in accordance with the needs of the Swiss job market. This model has been successful for the Swiss, whose young people in 2012 had an unemployment rate of just 3 percent. Both Britain and India have instituted similar programs to see if they can emulate the Swiss’s success, but there is debate as to whether such a system could be successful in the United States.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Libraries Get More Awesome with One Simple Box

by Olivia Billbrough, Spring 2014 Intern

“Books. People never really stop loving books,” said the Doctor in BBC’s hit show Doctor Who. In this episode, the Doctor and his companion travel hundreds of years into the future to the universe’s biggest library and find that, even in the future, we still love reading and sharing knowledge and ideas. And those people who love libraries and love reading also love sharing these books with others so that the awesome stories can continue to be read for hundreds years more. And what is the best twenty-first century way to share a great book with others? With an Awesome Box, of course.

A project by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab allows library patrons to share the most recent awesome book they’ve read. The Awesome Box is a literal box that libraries put out, and when a patron has deemed a book awesome, they place it into the Awesome Box instead of the typical area designated for returns. Then, librarians scan the book twice: once to check it back in, and once to scan it to the Awesome project website, where anyone interested can view the Recently Awesome books.

So far, several libraries now have an Awesome Box. Taking this one step farther, the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts has even turned their Awesome Box into a TARDIS. The spaceship TARDIS (which is short for “Time and Relative Dimension in Space”) from Doctor Who is shaped like a blue police box from the 1960s and is much bigger on the inside, allowing the Doctor and his companion to travel all over time and space. During their journeys, they learn about the wonders of the universe—much like the teachings offered by books.

Robin Brenner, librarian at the Brookline Public Library, worked with builders and used donated materials to create this unique Awesome Box. The Awesome Box is painted to look like the Doctor’s TARDIS and is complete with book-related phrases from the show. The box also has wheels so that the box can be moved around the library. While the Awesome Box may be a great way for kids to get into reading, Brenner says that it is for children and adults alike to share the books they love with others.

The Awesome Box is a great way to collectively keep track of the books that we love; hundreds of years from now, people reading books—in whatever form books might take—will know which ones from the twenty-first century were truly awesome.

Did You Know?

Though public libraries are often a feature of major cities and towns around the world, there was a time when there were far less libraries. Often, rural or poor areas didn’t have them; to help with this problem, mobile libraries, or bookmobiles, were created.

One of the earliest records of mobile libraries is from the UK in 1857. Called the Perambulating Library, this mobile library was created by George Moore and consisted of a cart filled with books that was pushed through eight villages. The Perambulating Library would lend books to those who had a “Member’s Card,” which represented a paid subscription.

Possibly the first bookmobile in the United States originated in Chester County, South Carolina, in 1903. The Chester Country Free Library, opened with donations by Dr. Delano S. Fitzgerald, offered the People’s Free Library as a mobile service. Dr. Fitzgerald came to the area to hunt during wintertime and wanted to give something in return for the hospitality of the county’s residents. In addition to opening the small permanent library, he hired a local farmer to make 22 stops on a monthly basis using wooden boxes in a mule-drawn cart.

Today, there are hundreds of bookmobiles across the United States as well as the world. One of the more unusual North American bookmobiles is the Mobilivre Bookmobile, which travels across the United States and Canada and features a vintage Airstream trailer that holds about 300 books. Another unique bookmobile, the Camel Mobile Library Service, caters to Kenya’s poor and travels across the country’s North East Province by camel.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Who Doesn’t Judge a Book By its Cover?

by Tess Klingenstein, Spring 2014 Intern

When I think of The Catcher in the Rye, I think of its iconic cover: the yellow font overlaying the merry-go-round horse, the way the red drapes itself over the white background and seems to continue off the page. Similarly, when I think of The Great Gatsby, a face sculpted out of a dark blue sky comes to mind, fireworks lighting up the bottom of the cover, a symbol of the raucous roaring twenties. I cannot think of either of these novels, along with a handful of other famous works, without also thinking of their covers.

But the importance of the book cover is drawn into question with the rise of the e-reader. Do we really judge a book by its cover? And if so, what does that mean for the future of book cover art?

Ashley Fetters, writer for The Atlantic, notes a new trend in the aesthetics of book covers. J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, Jonathon Safron Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot are just three novels among many that share a common aesthetic: Their dust jackets display a hand-scripted title plopped down on a relatively simple background. This is hardly the first and only trend in cover art; partially obscured women’s faces have been popular for a long time, as have children’s forms with the head and neck areas cropped out of the frame. Apparently, readers are drawn to images that offer just the right amount of clarity and ambiguity. But this new trend, this simplistic back-to-basics art, may be routed in the new way we are beginning to read.

Nowadays, book browsers tend to scroll through web pages instead of perusing physical copies in actual bookstores. This means that book covers must be legible even as thumbnails, having been reduced to much smaller images. This, Fetters argues, is the main reason for the new trend. Simple designs can more easily fit different formats.

Early ebooks used to begin by delving straight into chapter one, skipping the title and a cover page altogether. Even today, the majority of ebooks require you to backtrack in order to view the cover page. Still, that isn’t to say the book cover is going away anytime soon. Bill McCoy, the director of International Digital Publishing Forums suggests that being thrown right into the text leads readers to feel confused or unsettled. He compares the book cover to a DVD menu or video game introduction, saying, “You expect to get some choices and a menu of options,” and the omission of a cover page has a destabilizing effect (a complaint that many ebook users have about their Kindle or Nook for other reasons as well).

There’s been talk in the last year of doing even more with the book cover. Not being bound by the same formatting rules that apply to physical books, ebooks can therefore offer more multimedia opportunities. It’s very possible that, while I used to be drawn to a book because of its font size or bold color palette, I might now be interested in it because of the cover’s moving images or blinking designs.

Why haven’t we seen this trend in multimedia book covers blossom yet? Paul Buckley, vice president and executive creative director at Penguin, remarks that “Benefits have not yet caught up to the costs of this extra content,” and that publishing companies do not have the resources to explore this avenue. But nobody knows what the future will hold with respect to book covers, and I have a feeling technology will catch up and, rather than disappear, book covers will merely take on a different display. I think future generations will continue to associate famous works of literature with their respective book covers, however different those covers may be.

Did You Know?

Sales of ebooks have taken a dip in recent years. In 2010 sales were skyrocketing—up 252 percent from the year before. But between 2012 and 2013, we saw an increase in sales of only 5 percent. Why should this be the case?

Nicholas Carr offers a few suggestions. It may be that ebooks are good for certain types of literature and certain kinds of situations. For instance, they may be better suited for reading genre-fiction on vacation than literary or non-fiction at home. Similarly, it could be that the novelty of the new technology has worn off, and the public has lost interest. Or that those who were interested in having an e-reader have bought one already and there will be no second wave in sales (as those who are not interested in owning one are not likely to run out to the store anytime soon).

Whatever the reason, the numbers will have an interesting effect on print books—as well as ebook—projections.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Need to Read with Speed: A Dilemma Indeed

by Olivia Billbrough, Spring 2014 Intern

If you’ve ever tried to read one of George R. R. Martin’s books in his Song of Ice and Fire series, then you know it’s going to take some time, as the books are typically over a thousand pages long. Even reading newspaper articles or Facebook updates, let alone full-length novels, can be difficult to fit into a busy schedule. With so many people using e-readers on the go, it’s clear that there is a need for faster reading.

Going as far back as the 1950s, speed-reading techniques have been a popular way to attempt to read a lot of text in a short time frame. In 1958, schoolteacher Evelyn Wood discovered that if she swept her finger along the page as she read, her reading speed was greatly increased. In the years since, speed-reading has remained attractive to readers who lead a busy lifestyle, and these days, they seem to be everywhere.

A new speed-reading app called Spritz promises to change the way we read and how we think about reading. The app uses a form of rapid serial visual presentation [PDF download], or RSVP, which displays one word at a time, allowing your eye to stay in one place, thus increasing reading speed. Spritz developers boast that some people are reading at over 1,000 words per minute, allowing them to read even on small screens without having to zoom in or squint.

While Spritz is not the first digital speed-reader, it does offer something that traditional RSVP platforms don’t, and the developers says this makes Spritz unique and more likely to work with more people. Spritz utilizes a person’s natural “optimal recognition point,” or ORP, which is the place in a word that the eye looks for when reading. Spritz places every word in the same place, with the ORP highlighted in red, so that the eye has an easier time understanding the entire word at first glance. This allows for quicker reading and better comprehension.

In the Atlantic article “Is Speed Reading Possible?” writer Olga Khazan interviewed Keith Rayner, a psycholinguist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Rayner believes “all speed-reading claims are nonsensical,” and notes that after reading a few sentences using RSVP, “comprehension breaks down because words are coming at you faster than you can deal with them.”

The Spritz site doesn’t seem concerned with comprehension difficulties, but it does suggest that, while you could read a book in a day, you might not want to. “Keep in mind that just because you’ve got a Ferrari, driving it around town at 200 mph is probably a bad idea,” the Spritz developers say. “You’ll find that you’ve got your own personal speed that feels just right for almost every kind of content.” A similar idea was used for the Stride and Prejudice app, an endless runner that allows players to read the entirety of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and which I wrote about in a previous blog entry.

While the tools Spritz uses are not necessarily original, the introduction of new technology such as smartphones and smart watches, united with our newfound need for speed and the desire to consume as much information as possible in as short an amount of time as possible, makes this the perfect time for such an invention. It begs the question: What will books of the future look like? We already have the growing popularity of ebooks and e-readers; perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future, we will all be reading books on a watch, as stories appear on the screen one word at a time.

Did You Know?

One way to read, but not take up too much of your time, is to subscribe to the email book service DailyLit, offered by Plympton. DailyLit sends you excerpts from a text every day to read. You can choose to have short excerpts or long excerpts, as well as when you want to receive the little bits of story; you can then read them at your own leisure. In this way, whenever you find yourself with a couple of free minutes, you have something to read on your mobile device or laptop—so long as you have access to your email. Like speed-reading, getting little chunks of books a day is a way to try to make reading easier and more convenient.

Rooster, on the other hand, is a sister service that was also developed by Plympton. It comes in the form of an app (currently only compatible with the iPhone or other iOS 7 devices) that requires a paid subscription, and with that subscription, you are given 15-minute chunks of pre-chosen books. Rooster’s aim is to take the guesswork (and frustration) out of choosing content. While to some it may not be appealing to have what you’re reading chosen for you, it might be attractive to others who become exasperated by the task of sorting through a lot of content during which time they could be reading instead.
(DYK by Olivia Billbrough)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Beyond Baby Babble

by Annette Cinelli Trossello, Project Manager

When my son Gabriel was nearly a year old, I was taking a swim class with him at the YMCA. I was hopeful it would have two benefits: getting us out of the house for a few hours and making some new friends. While we accomplished the first, it turns out that wrestling a baby into a swimsuit, floating around singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and trying to dry and dress a slippery little monkey and myself is not conducive to meeting new people. On our very last day, another mother in the class said the same thing about how she had hoped to make new friends. I immediately chimed in that we could be friends, and we exchanged cell phone numbers.

We soon met up for Mother Goose story time at the local library, and that’s where my new friend mentioned that she and her daughter were taking a baby sign language class. They loved it and were planning to sign up for the next session, and so I decided we would, too.

The first class we went to was in the fall of 2012 when Gabe was 14 months old. There were about a dozen kids, ranging from four months to 24 months old, in the class. Andy (my husband), Gabe and I sat in a circle with the others and sang a welcome song as the teacher cheerfully introduced the signs that went along with it. One thing I particularly liked about this class was that we used American Sign Language (ASL), not modified signs designed for babies. This was important to me, since ASL is an internationally recognized language and should be treated with respect.

While it was understood that the children in the class might not have the fine motor skills to do a particular sign exactly right, it was stressed that parents should demonstrate the sign properly. One common example of this is the sign for “more,” which is done by tapping the fingers of both hands together with thumbs tucked behind and palms facing in. Often, children will clap two fists together or point with their index finger to the palm of their other hand. Parents shouldn’t try to fix this but should be sure to do the sign correctly, similar to how they would say “ice cream” even while their child begs for “ice cweam.”

The class met weekly, and each week had a different theme with signs, songs and stories related to it. The class also had a routine, which helped make it feel familiar to the children. We would sing and sign the welcome song; learn new signs, always accompanied with toys and songs; learn the sign for that week’s color; play with a giant colorful parachute while singing a color song; sing the ABCs and some counting songs while the parents practiced the signs for letters and numbers; have story time; and finish off with a bubble song and bubbles. The sign for “more” was often used during this last part!

Oftentimes during the class, it would seem like Gabriel wasn’t paying attention, but then a few days later, he would ask for milk or a banana while doing the sign. We also had fun playing a game where Andy and I would make the sign for an animal, and Gabe would tell us what the animal was. Later, when we realized Gabriel didn’t know his colors that well and said that everything was red, in addition to talking and reading books about colors, we also bought him a color-focused Baby Signing Time DVD. Before long, he had the colors down.

There have been lots of articles about the benefits of baby sign language, even as far back as a New York Times article from 2004. While I took the class mostly as something fun to do with my son, others in the article (and in my class!) teach sign language to their baby in order to help them communicate earlier and to cut down on the frustration that happens when a child can’t express him- or herself clearly.

Developmentally, children are able to gesture and sign before they can speak, and some feel that teaching them sign language is a way of broadening their communication beyond baby babble. We can see these gestures even with children who aren’t taught to sign. Most children will hold their arms up to be picked up before they are able to say “pick me up” or even just “up.” They also often wave “hi” and “bye” before they are able to speak those words.

As recently as 2013, there was an article in The Washington Post about the continuing popularity of signing with babies. This article discusses how some proponents of baby signing believe that sign language “promotes brain development and parent–infant bonding.” Eileen Ladino, a teacher who works with deaf and hard-of-hearing students, teaches parents and babies sign language on weekends. She discusses how she believes sign language can help preverbal babies and toddlers express themselves in ways beyond their basic needs. She then mentions two jokes her 13-month-old daughter made: signing “snakes” over a plate of spaghetti and signing “bath” after dunking a cookie in a cup of water.

In its "Infant and Toddler Health" section, the Mayo Clinic notes that further research is needed to determine if baby sign language promotes advanced language, literacy or cognition; however, the clinic also states that baby sign language is an effective communication tool, and that it can be a fun opportunity for bonding with your child. They also offer some tips on successful baby sign language, including setting realistic expectations (While you can certainly start signing with your baby from birth the same way you start talking to him or her, don’t expect your baby to sign back until about 8 months of age.) and keeping the signs simple (Choose a few signs that are important to your baby’s life, such as “milk,” “mother” and “father.”).

Whether you try it for fun or for other benefits, signing with your kids can be a great experience. It certainly left me and my family wanting “more!”