I recently attended an educational conference where I learned two things. One, tiny women can totally rock floral patterned tights, and technology is going to ruin us. I already knew the technology problem. I keep trying to jump on that beeping, clicking, buzzing digital bandwagon when all I get are bruised shins, but the floral tights were new to me. The tiny woman wearing them was Donna Morrissey… Donna Fucking Morrissey, people. Only one of the most famous Canadian authors on the planet, only an icon and role model for every Atlantic Canadian woman writer who has ever aspired to hold a pen, only five feet tall and tiny like summer. Summer that swears like a sailor. Donna (I’m gonna call her Donna, I don’t think she’ll mind), delivered the opening speech for the conference on the topic of developing story. How does the writer pull the story from their head to the page? She spoke of the elusive muse, the embers of memory from childhood, the serendipitous nature of inspiration. She wove anecdotes of her childhood seamlessly into practical advice about the process of writing and she made us laugh while she did it. In floral print tights. She said “fuck” several times, and we loved her for it because she’s Donna Fucking Morrissey and that woman can throw a flying fuck at a rolling donut any time she wants and turn it into a beautiful metaphor. At the very end of her talk she had to show a video clip of some material she’s been working on with the Department of Ed… the technology failed. It wouldn’t turn on, wasn’t logged in, and after five minutes of flurry, there was no sound. Donna was gracious and unflustered and she filled the moment with good humor and we all went about our day with a reason to smile. Our attention was riveted on her and her words for a full hour before the technology breakdown threw a brief wrench into the plans.
In the next sessions I attended, delivered by thoughtful, conscientious teachers volunteering their time to deliver information to their peers, the technology failed every time. In our education system right now there is a huge push toward technology use, especially for kids requiring adaptations. Ipads are all the rage, and any student deficiency in processing, or transcribing, or reading, or even breathing is addressed with the bandaid solution: There’s an app for that. Don’t get me wrong, and please don’t fire me, but I fear we’re leaping onto a lurching wagon while the horses stampede toward the cliff.
I’ve been doing a bit of vocabulary development with my grade 11 English class, as we read some Poe, some Atwood… they love it. I’m totally lying, they want to lynch me, they call me nasty names and weep when they come into the classroom but I insist that its good for them to know the meaning of words like emanate and prevalent and blasphemy. They curse the gods and my point is made. But, they want word banks. They want a block of the chosen words at the bottom of the page so they can get away with not-really-knowing-the-word-but-only-kinda.
Them: You could at least give us a word bank, ya know?
Me: That’s cheating. That just proves you don’t really know the information.
Them: No, that just gives us more chances to get it right. You’re mean.
Me: Sometimes you just need to know. You have to have a body of knowledge in your back pocket that is yours.
Them: No we don’t. We need a word bank.
Me: (getting mean) Do you think life comes with a word bank?
Them: YES! (they haul out their phones, ipads, ipods) We can google it. Google knows everything!
I don’t give them a word bank, but in my mind I’m swearing even more than Donna. This is their solution to everything, and adults are just as bad. At one of my sessions, where the expected ipad techno something-or-other wasn’t working, people were taking out their phones and taking photos of the presenter’s slides. The presenter, bless his cotton socks, congratulated them and cheered on this marvel of hand-held digital acuity, suggesting that this is exactly what students can do as well. Oh. I see. Instead of writing it down? Instead of having that moment of engagement between the text and the brain where a word passes, at least momentarily, through the student as they write down the information… just take a picture? Then, I guess, they can put it on facebook. Learning accomplished.
A delightful young teacher tried to deliver his session without the powerpoint he had prepared, because something glitchy had happened. He did what all good teachers do when what is planned can’t happen. He rallied, he improvised, he delivered his information even though he kept referring nervously to the blank screen behind him. “I was going to show you… I would have been able to… I had this all on the screen but…” A presenter can get away with that in front of a room of polite, sympathetic adults. Not so much, in front of thirty sixteen year olds who really don’t care about iambic pentameter to begin with… yet we are told that ipads will save us. At least until the wifi crashes, or the batteries die. Then, you’re pretty much on your own.
I realize I sound like a dinosaur when I suggest there is value in writing notes off the board. I’m not suggesting that method to be good teaching, and I don’t make my students do it, but I fear we are losing some of the real benefits of our “old-fashioned” ways of teaching. Ways of teaching that got most of us where we are today, with a backpack of vocabulary, skills and an ability to problem-solve which I fear we are not developing in our new generation of learners. We are facing ever-higher rates of anxiety in our students, greater numbers of learning disabilities, higher instances of spectrum autism, more students with lower skills, and less money to support their needs. Is there an app for that?
Donna Morrissey spoke of the embers of childhood memories supplying the inspiration for her stories. I once read a quote that suggested that everything you’re going to write about happened to you before you turned fifteen. Neil Gaiman tells us “to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things.”* What are our children going to write about? How are they going to face a challenging personal world? What are their memories and skills going to be, when their primary resource is an app, a google, a snap-chat?
We grew up without apps. We old tyrannosaurus adults who currently hold the reins of the runaway horses, eagerly tossing our children into the careening wagon, ipads intended to cushion their fall. I am, obviously, not totally against technology. Here I sit, merrily blogging, happily uploading my novels to amazon, cheerily chatting with readers who contact me to tell me how wrong I am… technology has a place and is a terrific resource, it’s just not all it’s cracked up to be. It fails. I fear it is failing our children.
I don’t want my students to leave my classroom with their only skill being mastery of a search engine.
I spent an hour with Donna Morrissey, completely engaged, fascinated, entertained. I learned more in that hour of digital-free instruction than I did in the rest of the sessions, which were intended to convince me of the value of digital instruction. Teachers today need Superman capes to leap the tall buildings of pedagogy. I think I may need to buy a pair of floral print tights to go with it, although I doubt I could rock them like Donna does. It might make my kids pay more attention to me, though. At least after they google who Superman is.