Well, that did it.

There is, of course, plenty of precedence for discontinuing a clinical trial in the middle (as I did when I blearily stumbled in last night from the Adirondacks and did one thing before falling into bed: deactivated my Twitter account.) It’s generally a result of “reviewing interim data.”

My interim data came about three hundred feet above Heart Lake on Sunday, where the Director of Education for the Adirondack Mountain Club, Ryan, had led me on my first snowshoe trek. I had the nearly surreal amazing luck to have his expertise all to myself, as he announced cheerfully in the dining room of the lodge that morning– “Just you and me today. Everyone else bailed.” Apparently this happens every eon or so.

And so we tromped around, crunching more than usual, Ryan told me– only an inch or two of powder over a frozen crust. We tracked: moles, squirrels, snowshoe hares, grouse, their three-toed hieroglyphics swept out by their own tails. He taught me about the heat of trees melting deep holes that then paper over with drift, called “spruce traps.” I fired off every stupid beginner hiker question I had. And munching on dried fruit and a ham sandwich over the lake, I realized:

Mount Jo, from the Adirondak Loj RoadAnything (Twitter)– that takes me away (my extra Yahoo account) unnecessarily (Facebook) from this (the golden aspen leaf against the snow)– is something I can do without.

Now, can our students live happy and fulfilling lives without learning to snowshoe? Yes. And no. An experiential, sensual awareness of nature, however it is nurtured, is something none of us can spare, and such educators as David Orr and Richard Louv are making that increasingly clear.

But this line of argument is a whole other post. For now, it suffices to consider how it casts light over the question of tech I should be using in the classroom. For every moment that I tether a child indoors to a hard drive and strip her senses down to two out of five– my own little tech spruce trap– what are we getting in return?

I had a five hour drive home from the mountains to tackle this with every ounce of cold-blooded logic I’ve got. So coming up: my thoughts on how technology may–or may not– answer the ultimate English teacher’s question: Does technology help our students become better readers and writers?

…and yeah, I’ll publish my Twitter data eventually. I’m actually hoping to make that my first stab at real information design, one of the powerful ways tech does help develop our kids’ literacy. But more on that next post.

6 thoughts on “Well, that did it.

  1. Excellent post about an excellent realization.

    Re your bolded question: More frequent and more focused use leads to improving skills, and technology can be used to minimize obstacles, to provide situations where students have more personal desire to read/write, and otherwise increase the amount of use and level of focus. It’s like helping students find a book they like at a challenging grade level. It’s not the only way, nor, as your post so wonderfully points out, are reading and writing the only things worth learning.

  2. I’ve been casting about for something from Thoreau. Gut instinct tells me he’s lurking somewhere beneath those spruce traps. This, for instance:

    “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed?”

    I don’t know about you (well, I could probably take a wild stab. . .), but to my English teacher’s mind, the brass ring is developing that poetic faculty. Or, as you put it, helping students become better readers and writers. Thoreau’s writing about self-sufficiency here, but there are grace notes of simplicity, mindful presence, and closeness to nature. There’s something RIGHT in your skepticism that pushes against a strictly pragmatic view of technology, and the old value-set of “progress” as a form of manifest destiny, virtuous and inevitable. Being cranky, contrarian human beings, we think it wholly reasonable to demand that if we’re sweatily striding into a glorious, utopian future, our efforts should be spiced with a touch of beauty. Is that so much to ask? I don’t think so. Keep following this line of argument. You’re on to something essential. There must be an intersection of technology and humanity, yes? When Thoreau talks about constructing dwellings with our own hands, I think we can give it a literal reading, or we can try to find a way to understand it in light of our wacky 21st century relationship with technology. Whatever answers you find to your question, they’ll be more solid as a result of your skeptical vetting.

    For my own part, I enjoy a delicious skeptical shiver when I think about Thoreau. On the one hand, I’m deeply attracted to the beauty of his writing and transcendently sensible ideas. On the other hand, I recognize that I’m a little blinded by the romantic glare coming off Walden Pond, and that simplicity and honesty are often neither simple nor entirely honest. Going to the woods to live deliberately included some quite deliberate authorial license. While he was living in the cabin, Thoreau’s mother still did his laundry.

  3. Hey Dina,

    First, I’m sitting here jealous of your Andirondack experience! I spent the first twenty summers of my life in the Andirondacks and know of which you speak.

    Second, your post reminded me of something I read in Boys Adrift this week. Apparently, in German there are two different words for “to know.” Kenntnis—which is to know by experience and Wissenshaft—which is knowledge learned from books…to know about something.

    Most European pedagogy puts equal value on both types of knowledge. Here in the US…for a variety of reasons (NCLB, digital technology, overworked parents), we’ve put a heavier knowledge in our schools and in our lives on Wissenshaft—-and that is (in many ways) failing our students.

    Even though I’m heavily involved in digital projects with my kids and believe that there is a certain inevitability about their need to be “literate” when it comes to using digital tools, I worry that even my integration efforts are taking kids away from knowledge by experience and overemphasizing “knowing about something.”

    Your post made that stand out to me even more….My kids could probably research the Andirondaks, learn all about snow shoeing, study (perhaps even draw or make models of) animal tracks and think they understand your experience.

    And that’s somewhat frightening.

    Thanks for the thoughts,

  4. @Dave: thanks for the compliments. I get where you’re coming from, but honestly I get a little squirrelly when folks justify using technology as a magical means of increasing student interest and focus. First of all there’s plenty of research that indicates that some prevalent uses of technology actually fragment focus. Secondly, while I have profound respect for student interest as a constructivist educator, it’s also not an automatic good in my book. (I’m interested in Twinkies. Are they good for me?)

    @Scott: I love the way you write. And yes, the Thoreauvian myth has plenty of holes, but Thoreau never actually purported to be anything other than a mile from Concord. I find it fascinating that the American literary tradition has pumped up Thoreau to be a quintessential Mountain Man, only to tear him down for arguments that weren’t his in the first place– don’t you? What does that say about our own desires and needs? 🙂
    Beyond that, I think his nearness to family and friends does more to point up the essential need for LOCAL community than anything else– another thing that technology has the danger of subsuming if we are not careful.

    @Bill: I’m honored that you continue to respond thoughtfully to things I’m not entirely sure are of use to people (Obama’s platform vs. Dina learning to snowshoe? Not so much?) Anyway I agree with you 100% about digital literacy. My current questions swirl around the idea of whether there is a difference between digital *skill* (the “how to”s of technology) and digital *literacy* (learning to approach digital CONTENT critically). While I’m not convinced of the pedagogical value of teaching kids how to upload photos, for example (don’t our “digital native” students know how to do this better than we do?), I think it is essential for them to know how and why content is the way it is on the Web. I’ll be messing around with this idea in my next post, I think.

  5. Wow…you guys have just read my thoughts about tech in my classrooms. I am almost embarrassed to admit that some of what I do with it is because the kids seeit as fun and it does switch them on to learning. Now its just a quantum leap for me & them to catch up with what you guys are discussing.

    I guess my kids are an insular pocket of kids with access to all kinds of tech but geographically removed (not in a major way as in isolated)from other kids who use it in an everyday sense. My kids play. Some of my kids get tech stuff thrown at them by parents who dont take time to spend with them. Others get it becuse others have it and parents are keeping up with the Joneses.

    Anyway, you have given me quite a bit of food for thought 🙂

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