First Person

Ask an Expert: Are we there yet?

Learn more about EdNews Parent expert Karen A. Sorensen.

Q. We are going on a big road trip to California this summer. I fear my two kids will drive us nuts in the car. Do you have tips on how technology could help us?

A. Summer vacation road trips are a wonderful family tradition. Families share tighter space, unique bonding experiences and more forced togetherness than they normally do. In addition to spontaneous punching matches, high-volume melt-downs and other predictable road-trip pleasures, the question, “Are we there yet?” is always one on which you can count … often a mere five minutes after leaving the house.

Children often have a hard time conceptualizing time, distance and location because they have a limited frame of reference to judge these concepts.

Let smartphones be your guide

A mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet, can help your child learn these concepts by creating an interactive and visual reference for time, distance and location.  Mobile devices can turn “Are we there yet?” into a positive experience by allowing your kids to plan and navigate your trip using your smartphone or tablet.

The first step is likely one you’ve already taken: the “pass-back” effect. The “pass-back” is where a parent or adult passes their own device to a child.  Parents use the “pass-back” effect 85 percent of the time during car travel, according to a 2010 report from the Sesame Workshops Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s article, “Learning: Is there an app for that?”

All you’ll need is a little advance planning to take this hand-off a step further.  That is, you’ll need to make sure your child has the resources and skills he or she needs to be a navigator before you hit the road.

Check out these travel apps

Following are some apps to get you started. All of these apps are available in the iTunes (for Apple devices) and Google Play (for Android devices) stores, unless otherwise indicated:

  • Mapquest4 Mobile – GPS navigation (Free)
  • Weather Channel – local weather forecasts (Free)
  • GrubHub – pickup and delivery restaurants in 300 cities (Free)
  • Diners, Drive-ins and Dives ($2.99)
  • – GPS gas station finder (Free)
  • Where’s My Car? – Can’t remember where you parked? Use this app (iTunes only, 99 cents)
  • Find My Car – Find lost (or stolen – hopefully not!) car (Android, Free)
  • Parker – Find perfect parking space (Free)
  • Layer  – Augmented reality app with links to content organized by category with historical sites, local attractions and more (ages 12+, Free)
  • iWrecked – Full-featured auto accident assistant (Free)

Prompt your kids with questions

Your next step is to look at this as a pilot and co-pilot experience with you and your child. Pre-plan your trip with your child so he or she knows key destination details.  Spend some time before taking off to download apps with your child, ensure he or she knows how to use them, and set up a digital trip notebook. It is important that your child knows how the technology works before starting to reduce frustration on the road.

You are now prepared for the first moment you hear “Are we there yet?” to turn the tables and start asking questions. Your response to this question should be, “I don’t know, but here is the phone/tablet. Why don’t you look it up?” From here, your questions might include:

  • Can you look up our current location and see where we are?
  • How many miles per hour are we going?
  • What is the weather going to be like in the next hour, two hours, etc.?
  • Where can we get the cheapest gas and how far away is it?

As your kids start to generate responses to these questions, have them put that data in their trip notebook. As your trip continues, you can reference earlier data points and encourage them to make various comparisons between weather, gas prices and more.

Let your kids give you directions

Even better, your kids can be your go-to navigators for restaurants, parking, local attractions and more. Apps like GrubHub and Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives enable your kids to help find places to eat along your route.  In town, they can use the Parker app to help you find the ideal parking spot.  The Layer app will enable them to find historical locations, restaurants and other attractions in a vast array of cities.

Many older cities have their own augmented reality (AR) apps, such as PhillyHistoryAR (Android, free), which provides a block-by-block look at what Philly looked like 100 years ago. Many museums and historical landmarks have created AR apps as well.

Well, you might be thinking, this is all very fun but is it really a good learning experience? The answer is, “yes.” In addition to building their understanding of the relationships between distances, time, and location, your kids are exercising core skills in non-fiction reading, geography, history, math, technology and science. These activities are building 21st century communications, critical thinking, curiosity and spatial reasoning skills.

With a little help from some mobile apps, you will turn your road trip into a real-world, project-based learning experience that is fun for you and the family. Have a safe and enjoyable trip!

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.