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Screen Time and Literacy Learning

Recently I’ve been doing lots of reading about literacy, specifically about literacy and screen time. Because reading and writing are among the most complex things we ask our brains to do, and because we demand that our brains engage in reading and writing throughout our lives, I figure understanding how screens might be impacting our kids’ abilities to carry out reading, writing, speaking, and listening tasks in our classrooms and beyond is pretty important work.

Now let me preface this blog post by saying that research on the effects of screen time on literacy is absolutely in its infancy. And, depending upon the resource, the findings can, of course, be biased. Let me further state that I’m not a Luddite or a technophobe or anti-technology (when used in moderation).  But I am a little worried that screen time might be impacting kids’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening growth and achievement.  

Speaking and listening are what we call primary discourses; that is, kids naturally learn to speak and listen simply because they live within a family structure and a community where language is used.  To be fair, some students come to school with tens of thousands of words; others come with lots fewer. But either way, the innate skills of speaking and listening take a natural course, and they are what children learn first.

Reading and writing, however, as secondary discourses, must be taught explicitly. Reading and writing are only about 5,000 years old, and they require the development and integration of fundamental cognitive abilities, dedicated to specific brain areas and networks. Essentially, when children learn to read, they are altering their brains in some way.1 Cool, right? Likewise, when students are exposed to screens, they are also altering their brains in some way.  When I use the word screens, I refer broadly to smartphones, tablets, computers, and television.

In addition to various medical journals that will support this assertion, I have a great little anecdotal tale to offer. Back when I was a teacher, I had a student, with whom I had kept in touch; he was a really smart guy—the kind of fellow who had a perfect 2,400 on the SAT and went to Yale undergrad. After Yale he went on to medical school. While meeting for coffee one Saturday morning, he told me that when he had been at Yale, studying was easy, but now in medical school, his studies were frequently impeded by his brain interrupting his thinking and reminding him, with some regular frequency, to check his phone. The phone didn’t need to ding. He’d pick it up and look at it anyway—just to see. What he worried about was that his brain had been retrained to think about that phone. He had no control over his brain’s behavior. It just happened.

I worry about effects like that—not just that, but stuff like that. The retraining and restructuring our kids’ brains. I worry that when our children are attached to screens, they lose valuable time with both adults and peers when reciprocal verbal stimulation could be taking place. What happens when our kids can’t articulate what they want to? What happens when our kids are not effective listeners? Are there resultant conflicts or misunderstandings in school? Without ample vocabulary, is reading development protracted? Are children less likely to engage in creative play? And, finally, is readiness for schooling—beginning in kindergarten—lessened?

What about reading? According to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, strategic readers solve and attack words, work to maintain fluency, think about author’s purpose and genre, stop occasionally to summarize what they’ve read, anticipate what’s going to happen next, infer, analyze, and critique, and self-correct when the text isn’t making sense.2 And, according to a 2017 study, passive media now occupy a lot of the time that children once spent reading, and therefore impede engaging in the practices Fountas and Pinnell assert as critical for reading proficiency.

Now, if there is a place where screens have come in handy, it’s in writing. According to a meta-analysis, the brain, when writing, holds about seven +/- three words at a time. That means some of our student writers are holding ten words while others are holding four. But the point is that the faster we push those words out, the faster they’re replaced. Writing production then, a fancy phrase for composition, is speeded up by being able to type on a computer or tablet. That said, on the flip side, learning can be impeded if one is using the computer to “take notes.” Because some students can type super-fast, they can essentially type out every word spoken, which means the student is typing indiscriminately and they’re not thinking about what’s important and discerning the meaning of the speaker; rather, the student is acting as a transcriptionist, of sorts. Not effective for learning new information. I point this out because what we can see here is that the task should determine the tool. Makes sense.

Anyway, I’m not telling anyone to take away your kids’ screens. Let’s be real. That’s not going to happen. But I would encourage families to think about the purpose of their technology use and the time attached screens. As a nice self-assessment, ask yourselves how frequently your kiddos are reading for pleasure, engaging in creative play, talking with adults and peers, writing for a purpose, and messing around with words. 

As I said at the start of this entry, the long-term effects of screen time and its impact on the brain are still largely unknown. But early research encourages a cautious approach. 



1 Horowitz-Kraus, T. and Hutton, J.S. (2018). “Brain connectivity in children in increased by the time they spend reading books and decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media.” Acta Paediatricia:Wiley and Sons Vol(107) pp. 685-693

2 Fountas, I.C., and Pinnell, G.S. (2018). “Every child, every classroom every day: From vision to action in literacy learning.” The Reading Teacher. Vol(72) pp. 7-19



Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2019. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Available at:

Strohman, L. (2017) Empowering Kids to rise above technology addiction. TedX. Available at:

“Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” – Malcolm X

Hopkinton again and again reveals itself to be a community where education is prized. Now that we are in budget season, I am hoping to help our families understand the needs of our schools. The information I will share will be data driven. 

In this blog entry, I want to talk a bit about student enrollment and its impacts on our physical plants--that is, our school buildings.

Consider this: In the past three years, we have enrolled a net increase of over 500 students across all grade levels. The school population has risen from about 3,500 students to 4,000 students.  Three years ago, when school opened in 2016, we had just about 500 students in the Hopkins School, a school with 24 regular education classrooms. Think about it: WE HAVE ADDED AN ENTIRE SCHOOL’S WORTH OF STUDENTS, AND YET WE HAVE NOT ADDED A SINGLE CLASSROOM.  Using that math, we are short about 24 classrooms right now.

Ask yourself: what company could handle that kind of growth without adding new office square footage? Would they just use smaller cubicles? Would they remove the break room so they could use it for an office? Would they require people to carpool because the parking lot is too small to handle more cars? Would they begin construction on another wing? Another off-site physical plant? 

Over the past three years, we have also needed to transition our use of spaces (in some cases this has meant full-sized classrooms, teachers’ professional learning rooms, or even storage areas)  to meet students’ special education needs, social emotional needs, and English learner needs. Next year, for example, the Elmwood School will have approximately 100 students who qualify for English learner services; this figure is based on the number of students enrolled in our schools today. EL students will occupy two classroom spaces at Elmwood.  AND YET, WE HAVE NOT ADDED A SINGLE CLASSROOM.

When the School Department presents its capital budget this year, we will be looking for additional classroom space at Elmwood, Hopkins, and the High School. Two of these “fixes” could be temporary; the High School request will be permanent construction. 

I understand that people wonder why? Currently, our class sizes exceed recommended class sizes. Some of our classrooms in grades 1, 3, 4, and 5 have as many as 24 students right now. Without additional classrooms, we are going to be facing inordinately large class sizes next year in 2020-2021--the kinds of class sizes that will compromise the quality of education in Hopkinton. Very simply put, we need classroom space to accommodate the numbers of students we have in front of us now as well as those who will join us anew next year, a number we expect to be similar to this year, which at present count is 260 NEW STUDENTS THIS YEAR.

Please also know that the School District is working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to consider ways of addressing our rapidly expanding student population LONG TERM. The temporary classrooms we are currently proposing will get us over the hump, until we determine a plan for new construction, a plan that will be brought to the community for approval.

I encourage you to follow our budget messaging at school committee meetings, on HCAM, and in other publications. Further, any parent can call or email me at the Central Office to learn more. According to FY18 data, Hopkinton spends less per pupil than Natick, Medfield, Marlborough, Wellesley, Newton, Southborough, Northborough, Sudbury, Framingham, Needham, Dedham, Wayland, Dover-Sherborn, Keefe Tech, Blackstone Valley…

Our needs are based on today and supported by ongoing projections of similarly high enrollments, but even without additional enrollment growth, we need classroom space to serve the students who are already here.

Finally, just to offer you a visual, below you can see a couple of pictures taken at the High School on Thursday morning, October 10th, at 7:35AM. These pictures illustrate students assigned to a study hall during that period, students for whom there is no classroom space. They are housed in the library, hallway areas, and the cafeteria. This highlights that the high school is at almost 100% capacity, all day long. 



about 75 students in all


Each year, on the first day back to school in August, the administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, technicians, and any and all other staff gather to celebrate the beginning of a new year. At our opening school assembly this year, which took place first thing on Monday morning, August 26th, I addressed the entire Hopkinton Public Schools community. One of the metaphors I included in my presentation was that of the “backpack.” Essentially, as our kids make the journey from Pre-K or K to 12, all kinds of stuff is added to their metaphorical “backpacks.”  Sometimes educators add the stuff. Sometimes parents. And often the kids themselves are filling those “backpacks.”

Imagine the kindergarten girl who, donning a teeny, purple-sparkly backpack, enters Marathon. Some wonderful things will happen to her and because of her. By the time she wears a more sophisticated backpack and attends the Middle School, she’ll have experienced friendships, earned positive feedback from her teachers, gained confidence as a learner, played sports, made artwork, and more.


Until she’s betrayed by a friend. Until she needs to make multiple revisions to a single piece of writing. Until she earns a failing grade on a math test. Until she doesn’t make the team. Even while these are the kinds of experiences that could (and maybe should?) strengthen kids, another result might be that the child’s confidence becomes shaken. Thus, we, as educators, must think about how we’re preparing kids for the inevitable. 

For these events--failed math tests and betrayals--alongside so many other distressing events, are likely going to befall all our kiddos. (Um, never mind likely; let’s go with something closer to definitely.) And, most often, we as educators can’t “see” the baggage in the kids’ “backpacks” until the student herself (or himself or theirself) empties it out in front of us.

On opening day, I encouraged our teachers to be mindful of the “backpack.”  What’s in it? Are we giving our kids the skills to cope with or even grow from the things that hurt or rattle our confidence? Are kids filling their “backpacks” with strengths, too? Is a kid’s individuality alive and well in her “backpack”?  

These invisible “backpacks” are very real. 

So, you might be wondering why I’m sharing this with you now.  Well, just the other day, I learned that one of our first grade teachers, Stephanie Stanton, has carried the backpack metaphor into her classroom, which is in perfect keeping with our district goals around social emotional learning. I was thrilled to see the note she sent me, and I think you will be, too.

Mrs. Stanton wrote the following:

“Your backpack analogy resonated with and inspired me. I spent time thinking about how I could translate this into a lesson accessible to my first graders and came up with our own growth mindset backpacks.

In  our classroom, we talked about how we all have invisible backpacks that we carry around with us. They hold the hurtful and happy things that happen to us that we can't control, and the things we say or feel about ourselves, which we can control. We discussed how we have the power to choose to add positive things to our backpacks and how we can pull them out when we need them. 

After we practiced retraining our brains to think positively and came up with a list of things we could add to our backpacks for when things get tough, students wrote their own positive message that they will carry around in their backpacks on a cut out backpack and decorated them. Here is how they came out! I'm proud of their work and so are they - they already used some of these growth mindset mantras while working in the classroom.”

Below you can see one sample of a child’s work. I am grateful to the teacher, and happy for these young learners.

“If the brain is a muscle, then learning to play an instrument and read music is the ultimate exercise.” At least that’s what was put forth in two new studies from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. According to the article written by Emily Gersema, “‘[The] findings suggest that musical training is a powerful intervention that could help children mature emotionally and intellectually’”--among other benefits.

Each morning, students arrive at our schools, some emerging from buses, some from families’ cars, many toting instrument cases--everything from flutes to French horns to bass trombones (in the latter case toting might become lugging). It’s exciting to know that these students will have an opportunity in the day to play those instruments, especially in band or orchestra settings where they become part of something larger than themselves. Whether our students intend to major in music, to grow their talents to personal satisfaction, to simply participate in chorus, band, orchestra, or to pursue extracurricular ensemble groups from a cappella to jazz, we know through research that the simple act of studying music increases cognitive development that, in turn, supports all learning.

When I came to Hopkinton, just a little over three years ago, Mr. Hay shared that his goal in assuming the position of Hopkinton Public Schools Music Director was to grow our programs, and he’s done just that.

Today we have over 1100 students participating in either band, orchestra or chorus in grades 5-12. The Middle School orchestra program has doubled in size, and this year over 200 Hopkins students will be starting instruments. At the High School, the band and the chorus have seen enrollment increase to record numbers and the orchestra continues to grow at a steady rate.  

A good problem to have, that is until the sixth grade musicians try to hold a performance. Our 6th grade ensembles and families didn't fit into the auditorium last year for their performances. So, the Music Department had to get creative by developing a "working rehearsal" performance for the parents in three different locations and by holding a concert in the Hopkinton High School Athletic Center. While these venues were able to hold our participants and families, the acoustics in the Athletic Center were a challenge, as it’s nearly impossible for musicians to hear and respond to each other, a key part of the communication that occurs during ensemble performance. Nevertheless, it worked.  At least for now.

The numbers come with other challenges as well--one of which is ensuring that every student has access to an instrument. Mr. Hay shared that over the last five years, the Hopkinton Public Schools have increased their instrument inventory through a donation program, through gifts from the Hopkinton Music Association, and with the assistance of David French Music. 

Here is what the schools have received through just through the donation program:

1 Piccolo

4 Flutes

4 Clarinets

3 Alto Saxophones

2 Trumpets

5 Trombones

12 Bell/Percussion kits

1 Tuba

4 Violins

1 Viola

Mr. Hay was happy to report that every single one of those instruments is in the hands of students and being used on a daily basis. What people may not realize is that musical instruments are expensive--very expensive. For example: a new baritone saxophone is well over $5000 and tubas can cost as much as $7000.

I’m sharing this blog today to illustrate for families that while it may feel that programming could be compromised due to rapid enrollment or space limitations, it has not. And it hasn’t because we have teachers and volunteers in Hopkinton who think creatively and who access resources that come to us from the generosity of this community. 

So as you endure those early screeches on violin or frequent squeaks on saxophone, know that your young musician’s brain is being altered in great ways. Play on. Play on.

Thank you to our music educators and families. Proud to be here in Hopkinton. Every day.

Learning, Truths, and the Brain, Oh My. 

For this entry, you might think I’d be talking about the opening of the school year or traffic patterns, but no. With three days in the books and Labor Day Weekend behind us, I’m in full learning mode. I hope families are too. Hence, this blog post.

Every Tuesday, subscribed public educators across Massachusetts and beyond receive what’s known as The Marshall Memo. Its author, Kim Marshall, is a long time Massachusetts teacher and administrator, whose career began some 50 years ago. I read his memo every week. 

Because I have long been drawn to brain research and how it applies to learning, I loved this particular article, and I think you might find it fascinating, too. Seriously, for how long have we talked about the brain in ways that Matt Huston now alleges are “myths”? For example, we called ourselves “visual learners.” Unfounded, he tells us. We adhered to the adage “Practice makes perfect.” Overly simplistic. We quietly shared, “Depression runs in our family.” least according to this article.

I hope Matt Huston’s  “Ten Myths About the Mind,” which appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of  Psychology Today, capture your interest. Here they are as outlined in The Marshall Memo. Enjoy.   

If you would like access to the full article, here is the citation: “Ten Myths About the Mind” by Matt Huston in Psychology Today, September/October 2019 (Vol. 52, #5, pp. 52-61, 88)

• Myth #1: Ten thousand hours of deliberate practice will produce mastery. “One hour of practice is not necessarily going to result in the same amount of gain for two different athletes or musicians,” says Huston. Just as important as the quantity of practice are other factors, including the age when a person starts, the type of practice, coaching, working memory capacity, intelligence, and motivation.

• Myth #2: The brain’s right hemisphere is intuitive, the left analytical. “The right and left hemispheres do specialize in different mental functions,” says Huston. “But the notion that individuals rely more heavily on one or the other glosses over the complexity of the left-right relationship.” Brain imaging shows a complex interaction between the two sides with language, perception, and other capabilities. In addition, there’s variation among individuals. 

• Myth #3: People have visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning styles. “The idea that educators should match their instruction to students’ individual learning styles… has been around for decades,” says Huston. “But scientific reviews have found scant justification for this practice… Unsubstantiated ideas about what differentiates students could distract from what boosts all of them.”

• Myth #4: There are multiple intelligences. Huston says that Howard Gardner’s theory of eight distinct intelligences – linguistic, mathematical, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, musical, naturalistic – has not been proven experimentally, and its usefulness to educators is unclear. There’s no getting away from the importance of general intelligence (sometimes called g) as an important factor (along with conscientiousness and other personal factors) in life outcomes, says Huston.

• Myth #5: Male and female brains are basically the same. Although there is more overlap than difference, says Huston, some differences are significant, probably stemming from evolutionary pressures:

-  Women tend to engage in more altruistic behavior and rate higher on certain measures of empathy than men.

-  Men on average do better at spatially rotating an object, while women are better at remembering the location of objects.

-  Males are much more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

-  Rates of mood disorders and Alzheimer’s disease are higher among women.

-  Exposed to traumatic events, boys are more likely to exhibit externalizing, disruptive behaviors while girls have internalizing symptoms, including self-blame. 

-  There’s evidence that medications have different effects on males and females. 

• Myth #6: Birth order shapes personality. The idea that one’s position in the family pecking order determines how assertive, agreeable, imaginative, conscientious, experimental, conformist, conventional, and risk-taking one is has been disproven by recent studies. There is some evidence that firstborns have a slight I.Q. advantage (1.5 points in a German study), but this finding has not been widely replicated.

• Myth #7: People’s attachment style is set early in life. It used to be thought that adults’ ease forming close relationships, versus being anxious or avoidant, is shaped by how they related to parents and caregivers in infancy and early childhood. But insecurity as an infant can be overcome by warm and loving parenting, attentive and supportive teachers, and positive experiences as an adult – and vice-versa. 

• Myth #8: There’s a depression gene. “Scientists have failed to turn up reliable evidence that any single, common genetic variant matters much when it comes to mental illness,” reports Huston. “…The connection between one’s genetic profile and vulnerability is highly complex.” 

• Myth #9: Grieving people move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who first posited the five sequential stages, later said that not everyone goes through the same order. “In reality,” says Huston, “grief is not so regimented… Grieving people take many different paths; some clearly recover from loss more easily than do others.” About ten percent take much longer, and they may need treatment. 

• Myth #10: Compulsive, problematic sexual activity is an addiction. Psychologists have specific criteria for what constitutes addictive behavior, and this kind of sexual activity doesn’t qualify. People caught in affairs and other self-destructive and hurtful actions may be trying to deflect blame by labeling their bad behavior as a mental disorder. 

            Huston concludes with five psychological findings that have stood the test of time and replication:

-  Adults’ personalities as measured by the Big Five “OCEAN” traits – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – mostly stay the same.

-  We are swayed by what we believe others think. For example, if prejudiced comments seem acceptable to the group, it’s more likely a person will make them.

-  We seek to confirm existing beliefs and overestimate how predictable an event is. Confirmation bias and hindsight bias (having observed an event, we think we knew it all along) are very common. 

-  Choices are affected by how options are framed. For example, saying that meat is 90 percent fat-free is more enticing than saying it contains 10 percent fat.

-  We may recall seeing something we didn’t actually see. “Memory is far from perfect,” says Huston, “and there is evidence that people can be induced to recall invented details of past experiences.”

Pretty interesting. Right?