By Sarah Vander Schaaff
When Peggy Kaye was first starting out in teaching, a parent asked if there was something she could use for the classroom. “Yes,” she said, “a tape recorder.”
The parent got her one, and Kaye recorded herself reading books her students could later listen to on their own.
Today, Kaye is Director of Joyful Learning for the Learn with Homer App, and it’s children who have the ability to record their voices in the product designed for beginning readers. She’s come a long way, it seems, from the days of analog cassettes.
But Learn with Homer is all about blending the creative and imaginative traditions of the past with the capabilities of the present moment. As the Brooklyn based Homer team says on its website:
“When we were trying to think of a name for our company, we kept returning to The Odyssey and The Iliad—great epic poems that have been handed down over centuries celebrating language, character, and triumphs and tribulations. We landed on Homer, a nod to the world’s first-known poet, reimagined for twenty-first century kids.”
Their Homer is not an ancient Greek, however, but a pigeon. According to his bio, his parents were famous homing pigeons that traveled the world, delivering messages. Homer’s favorite flavor ice cream is strawberry and while he is easily distracted by daydreams or poetry, he’s a reliable friend and leader. He also possesses 21st Century GRIT.
“Above all, he cares and he tries. He is full of determination, even when the odds are against him.”
Homer is welcome in my house anytime. In fact, he’s a regular.
And that’s because the app is beautifully organized on every level of experience, from the educational content and format to the heart and soul of the illustrations and music. Homer’s land has a simplicity and peacefulness about it.
And my kids dig it.
The app is relatively new to the market, released this past August and created by Stephanie Dua. The founder and CEO, Dua grew up on a farm in California but eventually made her mark as a senior advisor to David Coleman on the Common Core Standards effort and as CEO of the Fund for Public Schools. She’s also a mother to three young girls, and, according to her colleague, wanted to create an app worth spending time with.
To that end, Learn with Homer has assembled a creative team that moves well beyond pigeons. They have a theatre director, a storytelling mentor, experienced educators, illustrators, designers and a musician who loves to make paper puppets. This creativity is evident in Homer, which is one of the reasons the aesthetic experience of the app is strikingly joyful.
But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the app is supposed to develop readers.
Being fun and entertaining is connected to that goal—it’s what keeps kids coming back. Repetition and re-enforcement come in other specific ways.
“We didn’t want to have a single strand,” said Kaye, who’s authored several books (Games for Writing, Games for Math…) and still works with children directly as a private tutor. Instead, she said, the team sought ways to intertwine factual information with literature.
A child navigates through a land, depicted on a colorful map, to sections called Learn to Read, Story Time, Discovering the World, and Homer’s Clubhouse.
“We began by saying what are the essential and critical questions we want to address with each of these lessons,” Kaye said. That foundation or skeleton, as she referred to it, is not overtly apparent to a child. But as the child moves from place to place within the app, the big ideas are re-enforced:
“…so when you read about the peacock, then you read the fable…”
The Discovering the World section within Learn with Homer is one of my children’s favorite features. It’s something even my eight year old enjoys. According to Kaye, the team wanted this area to have information that even parents (or savvy third-graders) might not have known.
After the sessions on discovery, kids are asked a question and can record their answers. Later, a parent can listen to these, or check out their child’s artwork, progression though the units, or download worksheets and see recommendations for supplemental reading.
You also have the ability to email selections of your child’s work to others. Which is why today my husband got to hear my five-year-old’s answer to the question following the passages on textiles: why do people wear clothes?
Her response: because they don’t want to be naked!
If that’s not classic, I don’t know what is.
Mindprint CEO Nancy Weinstein and her team of educators are building a database of reviews for Mindprint Learning that will help parents and teachers identify products that support specific cognitive strengths and weaknesses. While many of these will pertain to children with a second-grade reading level and beyond, this Educated Mom occasionally remembers the younger sibling needs great apps and games, too. To that end, it’s always good to discovery something you wish had been around when the first one was learning to read…
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