A few weeks ago in the classroom, I morphed into Jonathan Franzen. Not in the brilliant, National Book Award winning novelist kind of way, but in the grumpy, Twitter-is-the-missing-link-on-the-axis-of-evil kind of way.
I was surprised by this transformation, because I do not see Twitter as “unspeakably irritating” or “the ultimate irresponsible medium” as Frazen does. I use social media every day to communicate, store favorite articles to use in class and share informative articles with individual students who might enjoy them.
But when my students were conducting research for an in-depth paper a few weeks ago, my knee-**** inner Jonathan Franzen emerged. It wasn’t pretty, but it pointed to an important question that all educators and parents are called to answer—and if we want our kids to turn out right, I think we have to do it now.
I had been giddy with excitement when I first saw all that was available to students for their research. I’d had nothing like this growing up in the 80s−when my teacher’s monotone drills of “a-s-d-f” and “j-k-l-semi” eventually cemented themselves into finger muscle memory and when being a teacher meant accepting permanent blue fingers from manually operated mimeograph machines and their carbon copies.
The sheer number and size of the databases, the richness of information…I was near drunk with the possibilities and wanted students to be as obsessed about the topics as I was. No more index cards! No memorizing MLA citation conventions for every imaginable source! I bounced between computers as students mined through information and strove to create thesis statements through which their own voices could emerge.
Then came the multiple tabs I saw dotting screens across the room: between various databases, Facebook blue and Yahoo purple… Students were reading about their topics, but some were doing it in bite-sized pieces. They toggled from one platform to another before there was time to fully absorb a complex argument. Then, Teacher sang a sad lament about the impact of multi-tasking on cognition and the virtues of sustained concentration over distracted skimming. (The lyrics didn't flow very well.)
I became the social media police, pushing one technology over the other and minimizing distractions that were inescapable even in a quiet room filled only with the clickety-clack of keys.
So where is the balance between stillness and connectedness? - What writers are saying
Lately, everywhere I turn I see a new article about the negative impact of constant, plugged-in multi-tasking on attention and productivity, and most urge us to also remember the stillness we need to create and sustain meaningful work. From Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts to Pico Iyer's argument that the more connected we become, the more we long to disengage, and Nathan Jergensen's observations that Facebook is turning lived experience into projected narratives of fabricated lives, writers are asking questions about the role of silence in a social-media stream of noise. Clay Johnson's new book, The Information Diet, urges us to watch the information we ingest, carefully selecting only what will be good for us.
I appreciate the call for balance. We need it. But I reject the idea of an either-or: between technology-mediated interfaces vs. meaningful conversation, between learning social skills vs. needed computer and technology skills. We don’t have to raise either “real” people preferring human interaction and life-giving creativity, or disconnected, robotic slaves to devices and electronically mediated relationships.
There is a happy medium. But guess who has to find it?
I believe teachers will be the ones to figure this out. We have to be. And bouncing around the computer lab the other day, I realized why.
Mid-way through my anti-Facebook, anti-Twitter rant against mixing reading and tab toggling, I guiltily remembered my morning. I had eaten breakfast while reading the paper, making a travel arrangement, scrolling through emails and scheduling writing time for the day. Occasionally I checked Facebook and Twitter, and a stack of student papers to my left waited for my attention.
When I look at my own schedule and the ways I create, there is time I hold sacred which I rarely violate. In this regard I have learned what Franzen, Cain, Pico and others extol about preserving spaces for silence as a means to productivity and creativity. In this sense I practice what I preach. But I also overdo it at times, storing more articles on topics of interest than I’ll ever have time to read, or spending hours poring over a computer screen before realizing I should probably stand up. Or eat. Or seek a chiropractor.
We will not effectively teach students the right balance until we learn it ourselves. I never want to be the curmudgeonly teacher who grumbles about “kids these days,” whose brains and social skills have been squashed by a technology wave that is carrying them away from us. If we commit ourselves to making room for both in our own lives, we will better teach students to develop both the skills that need people and the skills that need technology to thrive.
My involuntary Franzen impersonation says I still have some work to do. But I think I know where to start.
Four Steps to Balance
Step One: Fiercely guard the silent spaces we need to concentrate and create—whatever that looks like for teachers, even if it means waking up even earlier than you already do, or staying up an hour later. It may be to exercise, read, write, think, or whatever. But it definitely includes logging off email and putting your phone at least in the other room (Verizon, you understand, right? See Step Two ).
Step Two: Come back—fully to a world that includes multiple technologies that can make learning burst from the seams of your classroom. In this place, it is not helpful to demonize technology. It is where you fully appreciate its benefits in our lives and learning, where you navigate it effectively to squeeze every ounce of learning you and your students can stand.
Step Three: Treat steps one and two like two boyfriends you never want to meet. Or two girlfriends. Or some more appropriate analogy but you get what I mean. You don’t need multiple personalities to accomplish this (Maybe a little, but stranger things have happened). Fully live in each step while you are there.
Step Four: Teachers, all of the answers about balancing technology in learning are in your lives−somewhere. Find them, and share with your students and the rest of us!
How can you be linked in, online and all over the world, and still...be still?
Kaitlin Murphy ( www.kaitlinmurphy.org) has worked in education for 16 years, primarily as a middle and high school teacher, but also as a college writing instructor, a teacher at an incarceration facility, a GED program for teen mothers, a town community school and currently at a community college in New Jersey. She worked at the DC Public Schools for three years as a writer and is a freelance writer, writing coach and communications consultant
Other blogs by this author:
Technology in the Classroom: Are you a skeptic, believer or somewhere in between?