My Entry Into The Great American Think Off: Does Technology Trap Us or Free Us?

A few years ago, a student at my school was the victim of a devastating house fire. Upon learning that the student, an avid reader, lost her bookshelf of favorite titles, teachers combed their personal libraries and local bookstores in hopes of surprising the teen with a replenished bookshelf. The cause of the fire was old, faulty wiring—the only blame to be laid was at the foot of the landlord. As terrible as the fire was, the fire did not knowingly choose to devastate the family’s home. It was a tool of civilization that slipped its harness. In the proper times, when used judiciously, fire is the tool of civilized people.

The same can be said of technology. Does technology trap us or free us? That question presumes that technology is able to independently initiate action, knowingly determine how, when and why people will use it. Despite gains in cognitive robotics and the growing ability of our “smart” devices to anticipate our needs and wants, at this point, people are still the sentient force guiding the creation and evolution of the array of technologies we have surrounding us on a daily basis. Technology doesn’t either trap us or free us; human wisdom is the operating system determining when we are chained and when we soar. The shortage of wisdom to guide our use of technology is the heart of the issue.

Evidence abounds that we use technology in ways that hurts us on a societal level and on a personal level. Technology has changed the realities of childhood, for instance, in ways that my parents’ generation would never have tolerated when they were raising my generation. The idea that children would be “safer” in the house with electronic “games” than playing freeze tag until twilight throughout the neighborhood? Preposterous. Children as young as kindergarten spending multiple days taking computer-administered tests to assess their “progress?” The PTA would have been in an uproar. The incessant screen time that my children and students view as normal averts their major bugaboo, boredom, and leaves them in a consuming haze—the limits to watching that were common in my childhood are nearly unenforceable and unimaginable now. Even the idea that teens and preteens “need” a phone in case of emergency—were there emergencies that previous generations never learned about because the ubiquitous cell phone hadn’t been invented? People—parents and children, friends and lovers—expect constant, instant communication because the tool for it exists, not because the bulk of us face daily crises.

The degree of intrusion and surveillance that we accept knowingly is staggering, and the fact that we not only accept most of it unquestioningly, but we feel reassured that we are “safer” because “they” can watch. In return for the promise—or illusion—of security, we sacrifice privacy and autonomy. As parents allow corporations to follow their children’s browsing, watching and traveling to create more targeted advertising, we all agree that it’s basically harmless, and.. well..it’s not as if we could stop it anyway at this point. It’s easy to shrug, then immerse ourselves in Netflix or YouTube to see the latest viral video.

But technology is a tool, and there are innumerable benefits and advances that are possible because of our ability to design better technologies. Medical “miracles” happen because technology works. My friend has a grandson with SMA, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and technology gives that baby both a higher quality of life and reason to hope that progress towards a cure is coming. Because of technology, also, information and support is only a mouse click away. For every scary story of sexual predators or bullying teens, there’s a counter story of lives changed for the better because of the wonder of instant, credible information and support that is available because of technology. And, as last fall’s Ice Bucket Challenge proved, the internet can be used to raise awareness and funds that last long past the fad.

When the first cavewoman got the great idea to harness fire for cooking as she was trying to decide what to do with a dead Mammoth, it was progress. There were probably cavemen screeching warnings about the danger then, too. But wisdom and knowledge won out, and generally, we appreciate fire as an indispensable tool. Unless we develop wisdom soon, we will allow technology to trap us—but let’s focus the blame where it belongs. Technology is a tool, and if it becomes our jailer, it’s because we let it.

Practical Math

Note: I wrote this in 2012. It’s still all true, maybe even more true–except for the number of tech-related devices I carry at a time. My phone now replaces most of those!

I like technology. In my purse right now, I have a Livescribe pen, a digital camera, a couple USB cords and a recorder that I can talk into and download what I say into my computer, where it appears as typed words—often word soup, but even that fascinates me. Technology makes sense to me the same way that shopping for shoes makes sense to some women I know. I’m certainly not going to be the person who claims texting hurts communication, or that twitter is killing society–a sizable portion of my life in online, and I’m a firm proponent of tech in education.

However, the fact we can technologically do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way to accomplish the task. Just because we have the toys doesn’t mean we should play with them. To be bluntly specific, because of technology, we are turning students into accountants.

Every high school I know of requires teachers to keep their gradebooks online, and those gradebooks can be accessed by parents and students from any computer with internet access. That sounds like a terrific idea, giving the parents and students detailed information so the home can partner with the school to improve the student’s understanding and achievement I like being able to tell students to look online to make sure I credited all the assignments they have emailed me or to understand why their grade changed dramatically in the past week. Having continual access to a student’s grades is the type of idea that makes a great sound bite and gets unilateral support—who can oppose parents and students having the data to understand the progress the student is making?

Welcome to the dark side of the online gradebook.  One issue is that students live in an “instant gratification” society, and the ability to see their grades in real time feeds that jones. This week, I’ve had students hand me a paper, then say while they are still holding onto it, “So what’s my grade now?” If I haven’t put it in by the end of the class, there’s so much sighing and eye-rolling that I feel as if I’m surrounded by a flock of Scarlet O’Haras.

There’s another trend that shows students are becoming accountants After accessing their grade, some students will decide that they’ve “learned” enough, and not even attempt an assignment that doesn’t impact their grade in a concrete way. They’ll calculate points and percentages, then determine if the homework assignment will make a noticeable difference—it may seem as if every little bit helps, but in practice, that’s not true. Students who struggle with the state math tests often have a Einsteinian grasp of “gradebook math,” even with weighted grades or categorized assignments.

The flip side of that is students who don’t have the score they (or their parents) want, so they audit their points with the fervor of an I.R.S auditor who is bucking for a promotion. Every piece of paper they’ve written their name on needs to be accounted for, and they often try to dicker for missing points or the ability to turn in very late work—they almost always have a ten point paper from seven weeks earlier that would pull them up a percentage point, getting them that much closer to athletic eligibility or the next higher grade.

What do grades mean? Does having the technology to micro-manage grades lead to the student “learning” more? Maybe instead of having more trainings to make sure teachers and parents can use the technology correctly, we need discussions about how to use it wisely.

My Reading Life: Little Black Sambo

My earliest memories involve books. I remember both of my parents reading to me, Mom reading kids’ books to me, Dad reading…..well, whatever he was reading when I climbed on his lap, I think. Probably everyone my age knows the books Captain Kangaroo read on his show–Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel jumps out at me, and I have gauzy visions of Mom reading that to me, too. Reading was part of the warp and weft of my childhood.

But there’s one story that I probably shouldn’t talk about Mom reading me, a story that is reviled in children’s lit; in a college children’s lit class I took, the prof actually lowered her voice as she mentioned the volume, and admitted she had never seen it. Little Black Sambo was the story of a child who tricked some tigers into chasing each other around a tree until the tigers all melted into butter, with illustrations that were later considered overwrought and racially demeaning.  Poet Langston Hughes called the book “a typical ‘pickaninny’ storybook which was hurtful to black children,” and slowly,  publishers and the public, in a growing awareness of racism, quit buying and reading the story.There’s more to that part of Sambo’s saga, but that’s not what makes this part of my reading life.

A couple years ago, in one of my Senior English classes, I was trying to explain “trickster” figures. Along with Bugs Bunny, I mentioned Sambo–totally forgetting that my students have been raised in a politically correct, racially sensitive era. The class was almost entirely African-American, like many of my classes are, and I had to make a split-second decision when I saw they didn’t understand the allusion: shrug it off and go on, or stop, explain and discuss. Which option was more likely to result in phone calls? Which stood a better chance of getting my name in the paper…..in a context I really wanted to avoid? Stopping to talk about Little Black Sambo sounded like a bad idea, but…of course that’s exactly what I did.

There’s a part I didn’t anticipate when I tried to briefly (and politically correctly) describe Sambo’s story: cell phones. Students who couldn’t do research for their senior research papers unless I stood behind their shoulder all the sudden had their cell phones in their hands, the version of the book from my childhood on the tiny screens. In a matter of seconds, three students had found the book, and another couple were scanning the wikipedia entry about the book.As “racial” material, the virtual book couldn’t get past the school internet filters, but like good rebels, we had access anyway.

We had a two day conversation about what racism is and how attitudes have changed over the years. Many of the kids were baffled by why the book was considered racist; they even pointed out that Sambo is Indian, according to the story, not African, yet curiously, the pictures were reminiscent of an Aunt Jemima bottle. Questions about censorship, especially commercial v. governmental, were raised, too. My lesson plan was shot for those days–but the degree of research, engagement, and deep discussion that came out of it was incredible. And, because I had to wrap it up and carry on, there was a writing prompt giving the kids a chance to assimilate and process our discussion.

In the process of discussing with my students, I learned something else. Well, I knew it, but it was vividly reinforced. Few of my students were read to as children. For many, the first memory of someone reading to them was HeadStart. There were exceptions, of course, but fewer than I hoped. I can’t imagine not having Sambo and Mike Mulligan and all the animals from Over in the Meadow, and the Little Lost Dolly and Laughing Allegra, and Make Way for Ducklings, and….all of them, bouncing around in the dark recesses of my mind. My reading life started before I could read. Woven through my life are the stories and people that I’ve only encountered on the page (since I got my Kindle, on the screen, too). Maybe it’s not a wonder that my students so often label things “boring;” their imaginations aren’t peopled with ideas and places outside of their experience, anxious to be brought to life as only an imaginative reader can.

Talking about what I’ve read is a cornerstone of most of my relationships. My older kids are more likely to call me if they have read a good book than if they have the flu. The students who I’ve stayed close to after graduation are all readers, and frequently email or text to share something they’ve read. I’ve discovered–or rediscovered–great writers because of they assume I want to know what they’re reading.

So my students, who don’t read for fun, who very often come from homes where reading is “work” or “boring,” where no one ever read to them for fun–or argued that that book is always better than the movie– they miss a world of interaction and connection not just with ideas, but with other people.

Little Black Sambo reminded me of all that.

iRemember

“My most significant relationship is with my phone.” Yes,that sentence did slide out of my mouth Thursday, hours before I learned Steve Jobs died. And since my twitter feed exploded with tweets about his death, instead of analyzing how pathetic my relationship with my phone is, I’m considering my relationship with technology in general.

The first personal computer I used was an early Mac. As a grad student, I was the editor of a journal called “Perspectives,” which featured reviews of new children’s and YA books with whole-language approaches for teachers. I got the gig because of my writing and literature skills, but the first time I used the Mac, I figured out how to copy and paste–a skill that the professor who sponsored the journal had been unable to master in the three weeks he had owned the computer. That was my first hint that I “get” technology.

So even though I own almost no Apple products, Jobs was important in my daily life. MacWrite–the early word processor on the Mac I used–changed my writing process entirely; the “prewriting/drafting/editing” paradigm that I had to teach my students was obsolete by the time I started teaching…at least for people who had the ability to use a word processor. Writing was, and is, a more fluid, organic process, and the “steps” make no sense when you’re doing them all simultaneously.

As I remember it, when Windows was finally invented, I was thrilled because it meant my school could afford “fake Mac” type computers (since Macs were well beyond our means). Jobs’ and Apple’s invention of the iPod spurred a whole industry to catch up by creating mp3 players, then the iPhone again pushed innovators to try to re-imagine what phones could do. And the iPad, as ridiculed as it was when it was announced–well, the whole tablet industry uses the iPad as the product to beat.

Jobs was not essentially a technician. Many people invent or design amazing things…that no one uses. Before the iPod, few people were wandering around thinking that what they really needed was a way to stuff their entire CD collection in their pocket. Before the iPhone, no one was sad that they didn’t have a phone that could surf the net or answer email from. My students don’t understand that; they’ve had access since they were born. The world they know is radically different than the world that their 30 year old teachers came into, and a whole sci-fi novel away from what I was born into. Steve Jobs’ vision–and marketing team–were a major part of our society’s transformation.

I own a Windows-based PC, and my Android phone is rarely more than an arm’s reach away. For reading ebooks, I have a Kindle, not an iPad, and my personal mp3 player is from Creative Labs, not Apple. But my tech usage is a key part of my identity, so I wonder who the next Steve Jobs will be–because there will be another innovator. Everything that can be invented hasn’t been, yet. Somewhere, in a garage right now, there is a kid tinkering with code, surrounded by soldering tools and random technological parts, thinking, “ok, this time it has to work.”

And that’s how Steve Jobs will live on.