In the POP Seat: A Common Sense Approach to Media with Kelly Mendoza, Ph.D.
Photo courtesy of Kelly Mendoza
When it comes to developing a healthy relationship with media and technology, Kelly Mendoza believes in starting young. The VP of education programs at nonprofit Common Sense Education takes a “whole-community approach,” which is central to her work serving and empowering educators, parents, and caregivers. I connected with Kelly to discuss the organization’s current educational priorities—and how the pandemic sharpened its focus.
Name: Kelly Mendoza, Ph.D.
Role & organization: VP, Education Programs, Common Sense Education
What does a day in your work life at Common Sense Education look like?
Common Sense has many different priorities, and all of them relate to supporting children’s digital well-being. So, a typical day for me involves a lot of conversations and collaborative work on education projects across the organization. I collaborate and advise on new content we are creating for students and teachers, such as lesson plans on digital citizenship and media literacy, videos, articles, or top picks for learning tools. I meet with partners to work together on projects, which could involve co-creation of resources for teachers, professional development, or educator engagement. I might meet with scholars or experts to learn from and distill their research into our work. I develop strategy for our education programs, so I aim to stay close to the needs of educators and make sure we keep our finger on the pulse of issues where we can offer support. I’m lucky to work with such passionate and talented colleagues who all care deeply about these issues.
What are the organization’s educational priorities, and what programs have you put in place to address them? Is there one that is close to your heart?
We aim to support K–12 schools in their work to build a positive, empowered culture for teaching and learning in a connected world. Schools use our K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum to set a positive foundation for effective digital learning. We also offer learning ratings and advice for teachers to help them select high-quality tools for learning in order to effectively support pedagogy. We have identified best-in-class media resources and tools as Common Sense Selections for Learning, of which BrainPOP Jr. is a selection! We also have a robust professional development offering with engaging (and fun!) live trainings and webinars each month, as well as asynchronous on-demand training.
Based on the needs that educators have shared with us, we are leaning into social and emotional learning, news and media literacy, and civic engagement, among other areas. At the start of this school year, we launched the SEL in Digital Life Resource Center, a series of quick activities to teach SEL skills as kids navigate a digital world. In 2022, we are expanding our news and media literacy lessons and videos for secondary students, including intersections with civic engagement. Currently, we are co-producing several new videos with KQED’s popular “Above the Noise” series. We address issues such as conspiracy theories and cancel culture, which will be included in new free lessons for teachers—coming soon.
Has there been an “aha!” moment during the pandemic that led you to rethink a previous direction, or explore a new direction?
We have had many “aha!” moments over the past couple of years! For me, the biggest learning was our research on the digital divide. When schools shut down, many people incorrectly assumed that families were set up for successful virtual learning. According to our 2020 report, approximately 15 to 16 million K–12 public school students, or 30% of all K–12 students attending public school, live in households without an internet connection or an adequate device for virtual learning. That is why I’m so proud of our policy work to close the digital divide. A high-speed internet connection is as basic as electricity and running water in terms of providing equal opportunities for all kids. Through our ratings and advice for parents and caregivers, school programs, research, and advocacy initiatives, we focus on serving all families with media, tech, and digital learning—with an emphasis on lower-income and BIPOC families.
During the pandemic, BrainPOP, Common Sense Education, and other organizations collaborated to support districts, teachers, parents, and caregivers through virtual learning. What did you learn about what they need most? Will these lessons inform any new initiatives?
When schools shut down and learning went virtual, Wide Open School was born out of the overnight need for virtual learning resources for parents and educators. Many fantastic learning content providers, including BrainPOP, collaborated with us on this project. Though it was a temporary platform to address virtual learning needs during the pandemic, we learned several things. First, parents and teachers need support to find the best edtech tools for their virtual or hybrid classrooms. Second, educators and parents want support with social and emotional learning, reading, and math. Third, parents need help extending learning at home and offline, so our virtual field trips were extremely popular. Since then, we have highlighted our SEL in Digital Life Resource Center, offline activities for more hands-on learning, this huge list of quality math worksheets, and this awesome list of virtual field trip resources.
At BrainPOP, we are mindful of the parent-teacher-student triangle—the essential partnership between educators and parents or caregivers—who are all working toward the goal of educating and empowering kids. What role does Common Sense Education play in that framework?
We have the same philosophy. We call it a “whole-community approach.” Everything we do focuses on guiding kids in a world of media and technology. When it comes to this issue, schools and families need to work together. In fact, parents look to schools for guidance on media and tech tools. Since many schools give students take-home devices, parents are dealing with that, so schools need to really support families. One example of how we help schools do this is through our Digital Citizenship Curriculum, which teaches kids essential life skills related to media and technology. We also provide family resources to accompany lessons. For example, if an elementary student is learning about creating a healthy balance with media, or online privacy, we provide family-friendly conversation starters, easy activities, and practical tips to extend learning at home.
What advice would you give families of young children about building lifelong healthy media habits?
It’s important to start early with habits of mind and behaviors around media and tech. We have a fun acronym to help families with young children remember to balance media and technology at home. It’s called MEALS:
- Model: Through their actions, grown-ups indirectly teach children how technology should be used. Parents and caregivers can model healthy tech use by putting down phones during family time, or turning the television off when no one is watching.
- Engage: Have conversations with kids about the content they access. Make time to co-view and co-play with kids, and use media to make connections to real life. Ask questions about what they’re seeing and doing.
- Adjust: Not all screens are created equal. It’s not only about screen time, it’s also about screen quality. Just as you choose what type of food to eat, it’s important to adjust the movies, apps, and games children use based on content, context, and kids’ specific needs.
- Limit: Set limits early, and apply them consistently. As kids get older, invite them to help create the family’s rules for media use. Kids are more likely to follow rules they help create.
- Support: Talk with other caretakers, family members, and educators about their expectations and experiences with family media and technology use.
You can read more about MEALS, and access tips for balancing media and tech use at home, in our workshop for school communities.
Is there a quote you live by?
“Give love.” To me, this means focusing on giving to others without any expectation of what you may receive in return. You just give. Love refers not only to relationships with family, friends, and colleagues, but also to breathing love and care into my work—the things I do and create with others. When I was 25, I had the most vivid and impactful dream. In it, a wise woman came to me, and I asked her, “What is the meaning of life?” She said, “Give love,” and those words shone brightly like the rays of the sun. Since then, this is my life mantra.
Ilana Kurizki is VP, communications and social impact at BrainPOP.