MyOn: A Review

Bottom Line: The children’s e-book site MyOn is enjoyable, in the way a bowl of sugary cereal is. There are reasons to be cautious about it.

   MyOn promises to spread literacy by offering any kid with an internet connection access to more than 20,000 books. But how does it stack up?

   Every review I’ve read on the program has said nothing but praise. Therefore, I have to be the person that breaks up the parade.

   I get that it’s difficult to critique MyOn because it’s a program kids love. They have smiles on their faces when the teachers give them their 20 minutes with it a day. It is a total lifesaver during standardized testing because it keeps the early finishers perfectly placated. For the lowest kids who can’t read on their own, MyOn reads any book out loud to them. So when looking for online learning programs to put on trial, MyOn has managed to slip by.

   So where are the problems? Why do I get frustrated with a program that allows kids to read for free? The issues are: MyOn is mistakenly placed on the same level or higher to print books, is devoid of classic children’s books, is saturated with low-quality books, contributes to the fragmentation of our culture, and is sometimes used as a replacement for libraries.

   Because the elementary students using MyOn have never seen a time before the program’s existence, the usually see it as equal or even better to reading physical books or books published by major publishers like Scholastic. (One notable exception is my student I’m a 1-1 aide for who finds MyOn books “boring”.) Students often prefer MyOn because it makes it easy for them to load up their queue with as many books as they want. For instance, if a student’s favorite subject is say, cars, they can spend the whole period looking up cars books, adding them to their list and scrolling back and forth through their covers (For any gamers out there, it’s like the famed people who spend more time adding to their Steam collection than playing the games they bought.).

A small sampling of the searching rabbit hole that kids find themselves in with MyOn. They can spend the whole time adding books onto their collections as if they were collectables.

Most of the books on MyOn are straightforward, with zany fonts and fun facts about the chosen topic. You aren’t going to find any world-renowned authors or proven non-fiction brands like National Geographic or TIME.

   I once had a student pout when I pulled him out of MyOn time and into guided reading. I usually wouldn’t care to entertain him, but I’ve had the program on my mind. I asked him why he preferred reading books on MyOn. He stated with confidence that MyOn books are more educational. I asked, “How so?” He replied, “There are more history books. Like I just read all of the books on UFOs and I learned that though people sometimes don’t believe they’re real, they’re real.” I wish there was a way for students like him to distinguish these TMZ-like barely history books and more substantial ones.

   When I say “substantial” books, I mean exposure to literary classics. As a woman of color, I know that often what is called a classic is based off of male Eurocentric standards. But this does not mean that all books have the same merit. There is such a thing as classics, and in my definition I include works written by women and people of color. American culture is enriched when students from disparate parts of the nation all have a common understanding of the classics, like A Wrinkle in Time, The Snow Queen, Winnie the Pooh and Their Eyes Were Watching God. These are stories with valuable messages and deep philosophical undertones that every child deserves to know about. With MyOn, it is too easy to skip over these works and get trapped only reading Where’s Waldo type hidden objects books or that 6th Bigfoot fact or fiction book.

   My last concern with MyOn stems from some teachers and students believing it is a replacement to physical libraries, rather than a supplement. When faced with the problem of kids not reading enough at home, my teacher started giving out home reading logs. Because she was afraid that some kids wouldn’t have books at home, she said they could use MyOn or Get Epic! (A MyOn competitor). Not once did she recommend they get a library card.

   Worse of all, USA Today reports that for the Emma Jewel Charter Academy school district, “a traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ library was not financially feasible.” MyOn was deemed a good enough replacement for all of these kids. Even with the traditional concerns about too much screen time, this is an unacceptable solution.

   Every child deserves exposure to the larger variety of books that MyOn does not offer. Being low-income should not mean not having access to the wonders of a library and to the brain-stretching powers of reading print books.

   Luckily, my school has not gone that far; the above was more of a cautionary story. However, we can do better to promote a balanced literary diet that can have both the quick, sugary MyOn fix and the heartiness of cozying up to a book that inside contains a tale as old as time.



What happens when you let students and teachers be free?

Lately, there has been a switch from English classes focused on critical readings, mini-lessons and writing workshops to standardized composition courses.

My latest visit with my former English teacher left me with a palatable sense that he feels his freedom is gone and he’s now trapped. The times when he would scour first his home library and then the photocopy machine are now over.

He used to spend hours pouring over what we should read, what we would gleam from the most. The winners would end up being in a far range, stretching from Zora Neale Hurston to the Federalist Papers and the more modern Malcom Gladwell. All of them have been replaced with a binder that lays by itself in the corner of the classroom: the 2017-2018 CSU developed English composition curriculum. The binder (besides the required books if there are any) contains the master copy of the year’s worth of material he is required to teach, along with the writing assignments.

As was promised to him, he is now free from having to lesson plan, free from the scramble over what to teach. But to my former teacher, that freedom comes at the price of imprisoning and atrophying his mind.

Back in my neck of the woods, pressure has been underway to move in the same direction. From what I’ve overheard in the hallway, the Wonders literacy program constantly approaches the school’s administrators to convince them to adopt their system. As for now, the answer back has been “No!” (as long as the test scores stay good). The teachers, and particularly this one I work with, believe in a more open-ended approach. The teacher spends about 10 minutes talking on say, how to add more action to a story, and then lets students work on writing while choosing three a day to conference with.

I am here to show you what happens when students are allowed to express themselves freely. The student I support struggles in writing precisely because she can’t take to directions often. Last year’s struggle was when the prompt required her to write about a person she cared about. The assignment became a nightmare in the flesh, starting with her feeling overjoyed at being able to honor her mother, guilty from not remembering things about her, and anxious over trying to write about her in the most perfect way. This manifested itself in lots of tears, screaming and grabs at my body. In private I pleaded with her teacher to let her choose a different topic. She agreed, which meant she could write about an object she cared about: strawberries. This turned out well, and her success in this assignment allowed her to feel confident enough when it came to tougher prompts. When she was frustrated, I would point out that she did so well in the strawberries assignment so she could do well again.

This year, the teacher is even more free-form with the first writing assignment. For this narrative writing, the teacher was happy with her as long as her pen was moving. After multiple fantastical short stories, she picked one to make into a final draft. Below is her final product. She did not get any guidance from me sans capitalization and indentation. It comes not from a product of a scripted curriculum, but rather teacher-crafted lessons that taught her to write with feeling- to dig deeper and deeper within herself until she found the heart of her story.

Note: The name of the dog has been changed to further preserve anonymity.

Pearl is What!? O:

Vroommm! “How was your first day at school?”, my mom asked.

“Fine”, I said. When we got home, we went to the back door, we saw Pearl, my dog, being pulled by her leash!

“Oh no!”, my mom said. “Pearl is dead!”

“Pearl is what!?” I shrieked. “The door was opened!”, mom said, groaning. I was so angry I went into the house.

After a ton of talk and tears, I got some plastic bags so mom could carefully pick up Pearl´s stiff body. She got a shovel and started digging a hole in the front lawn. I played my tablet to snap out of it but I couldn´t!

I remember her tiny, just born. “Can we keep her?”, I asked.

“You can keep her when she´s a bit older.”, said mom. The sound of the crunching bag brought me back.

As mom patched up the hole, I put flowers and one of Pearl´s chew toys on the grave.

“She will be remembered forever”, I weeped [sic]. “It´s okay. Everything will be okay”, mom said. “you still have me.”.

I softly said, “I guess you´re right.”

❤ In memory of Pearl forever

[picture of dog and of author´s likeness, which she titled “Tiny Me”]

What is the foundation of your job?

It’s important to have existential crises sometimes. When authors come and use a sledgehammer on society’s institutions, it makes me wonder: What is the foundation for my work? What can be stripped from it and still be recognizable?

In The Trial, Franz Kafka presents us with a simple premise: What if someone got arrested without committing a crime? It goes further, picturing a bureaucracy of courts, officials and lawyers, busy droning away at their jobs. Doing what exactly? No one knows which law they are working to defend their client against. In addition, they, “were not moved simply by humanitarianism” and “lack contact with the common people” (117). Furthermore, their minds are “far from wishing to introduce or carry out any sort of improvement in the court system” (119).

So to recap, these lawyers work without an accusation, evidence, personality, humanitarianism or advocacy to make the system better. Kafka shows us that in this world, the only thing that keeps the lawyers useful are the personal contacts they have with the high officials, which they can bribe to let their clients breathe easier.

These literary thought experiments are useful because they make us question the essential components of our own professions. Stripped down from any context, my job might just sound like me giving out directions, awarding reward tokens, and deescalating triggering situations. With this information, I might realize I could infuse more purpose in my day to day with more instruction and life lessons. Or, I might see this as a blessing. Because my job isn’t always rigorous, it gives my brain extra time to think.

That’s obviously good for the future of this blog and for my work life, as it’s still in the construction phase.