Show Me Respect, Or Else!

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

A few weeks ago, two students showed up for English class a few minutes late–not the first time–and shuffled into their seats, smirking and tossing their backpacks to the floor. While I began to explain the lesson, a hand shot up from the back of the classroom.  “Mr. B, can I go to the bathroom?” He’d been in the room for two, maybe three minutes, and now he had audacity to request leaving.

quote-Albert-Camus-nothing-is-more-despicable-than-respect-based-88893

I glanced back with a scowl, feeling my heart thump a little louder than normal. Are you kidding me? I thought.  The same student just displayed a disregard for the start of class by being tardy. Given that we’d been discussing the idea of respect in the context of the book The Other Wes Moore, I fired back. “You’ll have to wait.  You realize how disrespectful it is to ask me after coming to class late?”

“How is it disrespectful?”  he responded without sarcasm. I took a breath, realizing that he perhaps had no clue why his action was disrespectful to me and our classroom time and space.  It was a teachable moment, and I regret missing the opportunity to have a productive conversation.

Many students have skewed notions of respect, largely fueled by pop culture, fear, and violence. Ask students what respect means, and you’ll likely get a thousand different answers.

Some will tell you it’s about fear and power. Think about the bully who trolls the hallways, puffing out his chest, bumping students with his shoulder, demanding respect. Respect based on fear, violence, and intimidation.

Some will tell you it’s all about making sure you acknowledge their presence, their being, regardless of their behavior. I think about times when I’ve asked challenging students to move seats to minimize their off-task behavior, and they openly state they don’t like being disrespected like that. What?!

Others, mostly our refugee students, will provide a definition of respect based on family status or age. One Cuban girl told me she has to respect all the elders in her family.

Yet few will actually give you a textbook definition of respect: admiring and recognizing people for positive qualities, abilities, or achievements. Or acknowledging the traditions or routines in an environment, not wanting to interfere or harm.

The following passage from the book, a story about two men with the same names and drastically different fates, seemed to have an impact on many students.  In the scene, one of the Wes Moores, now a cadet at a military academy, witnesses a fellow student command attention and deference based on qualities he’d never witnessed before back in his Bronx neighborhood:

“In spite of myself, I was impressed. I had never seen anything like that before. I had never seen a man, a peer, demand that much respect from his people. I had seen Shea demand respect in the neighborhood, but this was different. This was real respect, the kind you can’t beat or scare out of people. That’s when I started to understand that I was in a different environment. Not simply because I was in the middle of Pennsylvania instead of the Bronx or Baltimore. It was a different psychological environment, where my normal expectations were inverted, where leadership was honored and class clowns were ostracized.”

Wes Moore, like many students I deal with, need to be deliberately taught different modes of perceiving themselves and the world.  There is perhaps too much emphasis on academics in school, given the social-emotional deficits students bring to the table.  Is it more important to learn the periodic table or learn and practice real tolerance and respect?  How do you think you learned respect?  If you are a teacher or have/work with young people, what are you observations regarding respect?

Would You–Or Do You–Monitor Your Child’s Digital Activity?

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

In 1994, when I was 13 years old, I did what I suspect many 13 year-old boys might do.  I snuck into my younger sister’s room, found her colorfully-bound private journal, read it, dusted off my fingerprints, and smirked, knowing I now possessed information to get under her skin.  It seemed like the best way to torment my sister, who didn’t deserve the heckling that ensued after I teased her about a boy she clearly liked.  She’d devoted several pages to him in her journal.

Fast forward to 2013.  I’m not sure how many students keep a traditional journal, but many students use social media and the internet to broadcast their thoughts by the day, hour, and even minute.  Many students either don’t think their parents know what’s going on, or they think their parents are oblivious to belligerent online activity.  Many parents are.

Given this fact, to what extent should parents monitor, curtail, or even spy on their child’s cell phone or internet use?

I’m not a parent, but as a teacher, I’m completely aware of the innocent and nefarious ways kids and teenagers use their digital devices.  I’ve heard students talking about Snapchat, where they can take a picture of themselves then send it to a friend or acquaintance, with the file being supposedly self-destructing after 10 seconds.  You can imagine the type of photos some reckless and hormone-riddled teens send to each other.  Some students bully each other to the point of tragedy, described here by blogger Caitlin Kelly over at BroadsideThen there’s Twitter and Instagram, tools many teenagers use to supply the world with endless streams of narcissistic drivel, trash-talk, and “selfies.

On the other hand, students engage in positive online communities relating to their interests.  I’m thinking about my students who are self-described “nerds,” using social media to connect with other anime or gaming aficionados.  “

Here’s some hypothetical scenarios to consider:

  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 15 year-old boy and suspect drug-use, bullying, or other reckless behavior.  Your son has left for the afternoon to hang out with some friends at the bowling alley, and, surprisingly, he left his phone on the kitchen counter. Would you search through your his cell phone records or Twitter feed without he or she knowing it?  What would you do if you found incriminating evidence?
  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 13 year-old girl, and you’ve been in a year-long battle with her over how she dresses.  Despite your best efforts to keep her from dressing in what you deem as racy attire, you suspect her exhibitionist streak is manifesting itself online.  While she heads to living room to complete some algebra homework, you notice her laptop is open and the screen seems to show a picture that can’t be your daughter in a skimpy bathing suit.  Except that it is, and you sneak into her room and scroll down to find other photos more fit for a 21-year old aspiring model.  What do you do?
  • Your child has just received his driver’s license.  You require him to check in whenever he gets to his stated destination, but you’re suspicious that he isn’t always where he says he is.  You’re also aware of small GPS tracking devices that can be affixed to cars.  Do you install a device, to keep secret tabs on where your teen is headed, given his new freedom?

A couple years removed from college, I helped a former sociology professor with field research for her book.  I interviewed parents about their own surveillance.  After conducting and recording 8-10 extensive interviews, it became apparent that those parent-child dynamics based more on trust, versus spying and surveillance, seemed to spawn healthier relationships.  At the time, the ubiquity of cell phones was on the verge of manifesting itself, but the prevalence of digital tools in our lives wasn’t as intense as it is 8 or so years later.  There are certainly new challenges and considerations for parents, regarding the choices about access and surveillance.

As parents and would-be parents, I’m wondering how you might respond to the scenarios above.  Or do you–would you–not allow a teen to have his or her laptop?  How about cell phones–at what age should a child have a phone?  What restrictions or monitoring do you–or would you–employ?  

Should High School Students Have Jobs?

No Stone Unturned

Here’s a typical scenario that I’ve witnessed over and over again during the last several years as a high school teacher:

JP is an average student, receiving mostly B’s and C’s in school.  He wants to save up for a used car–perhaps a Honda Civic Coupe–and be able to pay for his iPhone bill. He doesn’t get an allowance from his parents or guardians, and he has very few connections to business owners, but he’s confident he can get a fast food job, since they’re always hiring. He gets a job at local fast food chain, signing up for 20 hours a week to start.

The problem is, JP decides to quit basketball, and stops coming to tutoring after school because he “has work.” In JP’s eyes, making money TRUMPS all extracurricular possibilities and improving his academic work. JP isn’t expected to help pay any bills at home, besides his phone bill, so he’s prioritized like many high school students do. Can’t live without the phone.

Each student who chooses to work has a unique set of circumstances. After ten+ years teaching, however, I believe very few high school students should choose to work during the school year. Would I recommend a student get a job instead of playing video games for hours on end after school? Probably. Would I tell a student he or she shouldn’t work to help keep the lights on at home? Nope.

firstjob_Large

I would, however, tell 9 out of 10 students to bypass that fast-food application and instead, join a team. Go to cooking club. Environmental club. Pep band. Whatever! Do opportunities to grow intellectually and emotionally through wholesome, non-work related activities trump any benefit the average student would receive working a minimum-wage job? I think so.

I’ve seen too many students come to school with baggy eyes, nodding off during first period because of a long work shift the previous afternoon or night. I’ve seen too many students fail to show up for tutoring after school–despite dropping grades–because of work. I’ve seen students quit cheerleading, football, and basketball in order to work.

On the other hand, I’ve seen what can happen if a student proactively decides to quit working in order to pursue new passions.  One student, who blossomed in my digital media class, struggled mightily at first to muster up the time and energy to do documentary work, toiling for long hours at White Castle. She helped pay the bills at home. But she eventually mustered up the courage to quit her job, realizing that giving herself more time for her newfound passion of photography and digital media work would pay more dividends than sweating grease.

She and another student started their own business within a year, but she doesn’t consider it work.

Admittedly, there are advantages to getting a part-time job. Gaining “real-world” experience and dealing with people, time management, and financial responsibility are possible byproducts from working. For some students who aren’t “good” at school, work gives them a sense of purpose.  And some students have to help pay the bills.

And I’ll also admit I never had to work, but I also never had my own car, nor did I have a cell phone. I worked various jobs during the summers: hauling furniture for a moving company, packaging rugs for shipment, and stacking pallets of beer during a graveyard shift.

Almost to a T, the most successful students from my high school class, if they had the choice, opted to participate in sports, music, and other extracurricular activities. Passionately. And it seemed to pay off regarding grades and, eventually, college and other post-secondary possibilities.

As a new school year creeps up, I’m crossing my fingers that our school will be able to connect with more disengaged students, whether it be with athletics, clubs, or other activities. In a roundabout way, I’m arguing for more opportunities and engagement in school, as high numbers of job-seeking teenagers might correlate to a high number of students fed up and bored with school.

Did you, or would you, encourage your child to get a part-time job during the school year?  Why or why not?  What am I missing in this argument? Why did or didn’t you work in high school?

Students, chime in too. What are you gaining or sacrificing while working?  Can you fit in work, school, and still get enough sleep?  Has your school work suffered because of work?  Why do you work?

When Should Students Become Responsible For Their Own Success?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I don’t blame Steffon for his distrust issues; after all, he’s bounced around from foster parent to foster parent.  I don’t blame Sara for her constant angst and depression; after all, she’s just come out of the closet and receives no support from her parents, who now remind her daily that she’s going to hell.  I don’t blame DeAnthony for his shockingly sparse vocabulary; born to a single mom with five other siblings, nobody read to him before he attended school.  And I don’t blame Angela for her emotional outbursts–she witnessed her mother get murdered in their trailer several years ago.

These are all real students I’ve had over the years–names have been changed, of course–and at this point, I can only pray that my attempts at guidance have helped add enough academic and life skills to their arsenal to become happy, productive, citizens.

Maslows-Hierarchy-of-Needs

Advising students who carry massive social, academic, and emotional burdens into our classrooms is, at times, an overwhelming task.  But as a high school teacher, I’ve got students who will be entering the adult world soon.  They need to take responsibility for their own actions.  Somehow, they must put their pasts behind them–a difficult task when such struggles are constantly creeping into their rear-view mirrors–and develop perseverance and grit to find success.

At what point should we educators, and society at large, blame young people for failing to overcome hardships and soul-crushing situations at home?  At what point should we expect, if ever, developing adolescents to confront their harsh realities and make a decision to take steps to overcome behavioral or academic issues?

I’ve been there, when I could care less that Rayvon is pissed off about his deadbeat father.  He had no right to continue disrupting class, seeking attention in all the worst ways.  I’ve been there when I’ve gone out of my way to stay after school for tutoring, providing a safe and productive place for students who’d otherwise be up to no good, only to sit at an empty table watching the second hand cycle around and around until packing up my bag and trudging to the faculty parking lot.  It’s frustrating, but I won’t stop trying.

It’s often individual educators–and not the system–who attempt to build academic and social bridges for our most needy students.  Yet there are other teachers who proclaim that it’s the students job to learn, regardless of background, ignoring situations like those mentioned in my introduction.

Americans love rags to riches stories, and there are enough tales of young people rising up from abusive homes, dilapidated housing projects, and abject poverty to become doctors, lawyers, congressmen, and professional athletes.   The exceptions are hardly, the rule, however–all you have to do is examine statistics about cycles of poverty and educational attainment.  Nonetheless, the rags to riches narrative holds a vice grip on our consciousness and our educational systems.  If he or she can succeed, why can’t you?

Yesterday marked the end of my ninth year teaching public school in and around Louisville, Kentucky.   It has been a tremendous journey thus far, and every year I’m constantly reminded of one concept from my teacher education courses: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Progress towards personal and academic growth is derailed when basic needs aren’t met.  When so many students come to school hungry, angry, stressed out, and overwhelmed, it’s no wonder that little learning takes place.

It’s not fair that some students carry massive burdens as they trudge from class to class, while other students breeze through private schools and tennis lessons, with the only uncertainty being which college or university they will attend.  And right now, many of our schools are not set up to create conditions where most students have a reasonable shot at similar outcomes as their more advantaged peers.  It will take a herculean effort.

Do politicians, and Americans in general, have the political will to reimagine school as places where students’ various backgrounds are addressed through alternative curriculums, more social worker access, and other interventions?  What is your take?  When should students become responsible?  Nature vs. nurture–am I emphasizing nurture–or the lack of it– too much when it comes to student development?

Don’t Overuse ‘Good Job!”

No Stone Unturned

If you finish your homework, I’ll give you a candy bar.  But if you don’t finish your homework, you’ll get timeout.

If you be quiet, you’ll get five extra minutes of kickball.  But if you don’t zip it, you’ll lose those five minutes of recess.

 

Last post, I wrote about the ineffectiveness of traditional punishment in the form of in-school or out-of-school suspension.  On the other hand, we should all question how effective rewards–whether they be candy bars, money, or verbal praise–are for sustainable success and motivation, and I’ve revisited one of my most influential thinkers: Alfie Kohn.  Mr. Kohn’s article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” provides compelling research about why providing students excessive praise could be detrimental to student academics and behavior. 

Kohn reminds us that this point isn’t to avoid making kids feel good about themselves, in case anybody thinks his notion is cold-hearted or off-base: “Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves.  Praise, however, is a different story entirely.”

My own anecdotal experience as a teacher strongly supports several of Mr. Kohn’s conclusions about the effects of too much empty verbal praise:

Praise Junkies–“Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us,”  Kohn writes.  True.  I remember Steve, a student in 7th grade, who constantly wanted to hear if he was doing a “good job,” whether it be on a grammar worksheet, personal writing piece, or bellringer activity.  At the time, I gave in and usually acknowledged his neediness.  I didn’t give meaningful feedback about what he was doing, and the cycle continued until the end of the year.  Research supports the practice of giving specific feedback, rather than praise or criticism.

Losing interest–“In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping,” Kohn writes.  In my experience, true.  I’ve had students–at the high school level–become conditioned in this manner, and they expect something in return if they volunteer to pass back papers or help a classmate out on makeup work.  We’re not helping students if they must wait for approval or expect praise to do the right thing.  I tell classes at the beginning of the year something along this lines:  your reward for doing the right–or good–thing should be enough in and of itself.

Reducing Achievement–“Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming,” Kohn writes.  Again, true.  I’ve found that my most creative, successful students aren’t craving grades or my praise–they are internally driven.  In my digital storytelling class, for example, telling a student “good job” is worthless due to the nuances and challenges in creating an original short documentary or audio slideshow.

I’ll admit that I’ve had to bribe some very difficult classes and, after trying all the tricks up my sleeve, it was the only way I could get them to stay quiet or complete an assignment.  It pained me to manipulate the classes in that manner, but I had to stay sane and keep the students somewhat productive.  Unfortunately, the students who could benefit most from a little internal fire are most likely to respond to dangling carrots, adding yet another obstacle to teaching at-risk kids.

School environments where students aren’t constantly seeking praise allow for creativity, curiosity, and failure.  If we fail to foster these outcomes and dispositions, then our kids will stay mired in classrooms and mindsets where academic success and motivation largely rests on adult verbal response to menial and outdated tasks.

I’m curious about your experiences in the adult workplace and as parents.  What motivates you to give great effort in your workplace, besides earning a paycheck?  What type of feedback from your bosses gives you satisfaction?  If you work with young people, or are a parent yourself, am I being idealistic about how to motivate children at home?  Have you found yourself in a cycle of carrots and sticks that fails–or succeeds–in changing behavior for the better?

 

The Great Discipline Conundrum

No Stone Unturned

Retiring after 38 years in education, my coworker and friend recently described his school days attending Catholic Grade School in Southwest Louisville, an area then–and still–a working class and comparatively impoverished part of town.  If his bangs reached too far, they’d get clipped off on the spot.  If his tie wasn’t tight, shirt buttoned to the top–even in sweltering 3rd floor classrooms–then immediate detention.  That day.  No negotiating the penalty of rewriting the school handbook, no matter how long it took.  Paddling was common.

kid-dunce-hat

Image from watchmojo.com

For many “old-school” teachers who attended school in an age of greater conformity and fear-based discipline, the culture of our schools is in dire straits because there is no discipline.  No respect.  No consequences for students who don’t toe the line.

I can only imagine what he feels seeing students cuss out teachers then returning to class the next day considering, back in the day, similar insubordination at his school would result in expulsion.

While teaching at various Kentucky public schools for nine years, I’ve rarely seen disciplinary action that deters or prevents repeat behavior.  And if schools aren’t going to punish students in order to alter or deter behaviors, then what the heck are we doing wasting time on in school suspension, detention, and other completely ineffective actions?

The status quo is to remove disruptive students from class or school.  Many principals and other building leaders understand they must honor teachers whose classrooms can’t function in an orderly or safe manner if Johnny or Susie Troublemaker is in the room.  The problem is, Johnny and Susie return after a day or two, repeat their behaviors, maybe end up getting sent to an alternative school for a few months.  Then they’ll likely return to school, where behavior remains unchanged, or transfer to another school where the cycle of disruption begins again.

School leaders are under pressure to lower suspension numbers, too few schools employ restorative discipline, and far too few students receive proper guidance from their parent(s) or guardians about how to behave, act, and communicate appropriately.  To further complicate the issue, there is a debate about whether or not the “discipline gap” in schools is  the result of unequal punishments to different groups of students.

In Jefferson County Schools, where I teach, overall suspension numbers are down, but African American students have accounted  for 66% of total high school suspensions this year, despite comprising roughly 36% of the student body; these statistics align with a national trend.  According to this Huffington Post article, a study by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA states that 24% of black students and only 7.1% of white students were suspended from school during 2009-2010.

Based on personal observation, I dispute racism as the main cause for this gap–you only need to look at the two-parent household gap to start identifying one factor main for such a stark contrast in disciplinary infractions.

So what is my approach to discipline?  Working at a variety of schools, I’ve found that if I focus most of my energy on building relationships with students, crafting engaging lessons, and  practicing class procedures, then I’ve usually avoided major class disruptions.  I take great pride in trying to connect with students across races and socioeconomic groups.

I don’t buy the argument that it’s the students job to sit there, be quiet, and learn.  Sure, there is always a student who is going to pop off no matter what I do.  I’ve had students who are bipolar, been rape victims, and are hungry when they enter the classroom, among other conditions I can’t control.   All I know if if I sit back and pass out work packets and expect students to comply, I’m putting myself in a tenuous position.

I’ve realized that I’ve got to take a preventative approach to discipline through sound instruction, knowing that if I allow certain behaviors to escalate or reach the administration, it’s unlikely that behavior will be changed based on the consequence.  It’s clear that discipline strategies such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions aren’t working, and it’s time for a paradigm shift.  We can’t control who comes through our classroom doors, or how many guardians each student has, but we can shift how we deal with transgressions.

What are your thoughts?  If you teach, do you find school-level discipline to be effective?  What are some of your memories of effective or ineffective discipline you experiences or witnessed as a student?  Should parents be held more accountable for disruptive students?

Reflections: Is Grammar Worth Teaching?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I teach English and I write professionally, but I don’t remember how I learned grammar.  I’ve always been a reader, and my father is an excellent editor who helped me with many high school and college papers.  But as far as former classroom instruction goes, I have zero recollection of effective teachers and teaching methods relating to grammar.  I’m probably not alone with this sentiment. 

Several times a year, our department bemoans the state of student grammar, but we have a hard time coming to consensus about how to teach it.  How often?  What methods, texts, or strategies should we use?  Is it possible to become grammatically proficient without having a strong foundation in reading?  Are high school students who don’t, or haven’t, widely read traditional texts–beyond Tweets and Facebook feeds–relegated to a post-secondary and professional life rife with common grammar mistakes in their memos, e-mails and reports?

Wordle fromlearningaboutmethodology.blogspot.com

Over the course of my almost nine years in the classroom, the strongest student writers in my classes have always been voracious readers.  Their parents didn’t drill them with subject-verb agreement worksheets as soon as they could talk, nor did they receive extra tutoring in complex sentence construction after completing preschool finger painting bonanzas.  They read as youngsters, and continue to read.  I’ve never met a student who has a strong writing voice, shows command of the language in various ways, and aces grammar quizzes while shunning reading for pleasure.

While these observations, and my subsequent efforts to teach non-readers grammar have been frustrating, I’m not about to jettison grammar instruction from my lesson plans–I’m still testing out various methods and resources.

Walt Gardner’s recent piece in Education Week rekindled the ongoing grammar debate, as Gardner reflects on a pedagogical shift in the 1970’s, when English teachers were influenced to deemphasize grammar:

English Department meetings stressed the importance of considering a student’s essay based overwhelmingly on its content. The not so subtle message was to get with the program. So I did. The result was that students were shortchanged. I’m not talking now about circling every grammatical error to the detriment of understanding the thesis. That’s counterproductive. Instead, I’m talking about gross errors in usage and sentence structure that detract from that goal.

This pedagogical shift is still relevant today; I just finished grading some student essays about women serving combat roles, and the required scoring rubric first places emphasis on audience and purpose, idea development, organization, and finally grammar and mechanics.  Gardner’s correct–I simply don’t come across any student writing that is able to effectively develop a thesis, back up claims with evidence, and display sound organization without command of basic and more advanced grammar rules.  Understanding grammar enables us to be creative writers and thinkers, leading to more effective communication.

Gardner’s text inspired plenty of reaction–here are some highlights from the comments section that address the following issues:

How does grammar instruction reinforce power structures?  Is grammar instruction be a friend or foe of creative expression and thinking?

We de-emphasize the importance of the grammar mistakes that the culture of power tend to make but emphasize the mistakes that are the most common in low-income, low-status cultures…But we need to be careful not to do what we did in the past, which is put all of the privileged students with educated parents into one group (called “the smart kids”) and teach them the rules for a language in which they are already very fluent, and put all of the other kids in English classes where they are taught the abstract rules of a language that nobody they know speaks and then “corrected” every time they speak in the version of English that is spoken in their community.

–One of the obstacles is that some minority students don’t hear standard English at home or in their neighborhood. As a result, their ears become accustomed to grammar that is different from what is taught in school.

–I’ve examined the research on this issue. Conclusion: FORM in writing comes largely from reading (consciously learned rules can help you a little bit in the editing stage of the composing process). Writing itself can help you solve problems and make you smarter.

–We learned that there are certain indispensable rules. I never regarded them as obstacles to creativity. On the contrary, I viewed them as allies.

–It’s interesting that learning grammar is disparaged by the same constructivists who favor critical thinking skills over content. Grammar is nothing but critical thinking — you learn what the parts of speech are, you test various ways of putting them together that are in alignment with overall principles, you aim to help the students develop the ability to communicate as powerfully as possible.

 

Lastly, it seems as if many students don’t understand the need to know grammar beyond those who care to earn a higher grade on an academic task.  After all, the texts they create and consume–mostly digital–aren’t necessarily adhering to traditional language guidelines.  Students need to be shown various models of professional and workplace writing that still demand good grammar, and they need to explore–or be shown–the consequences of poorly written inquiries, resumes, e-mails, and grant requests, among other real world forms.

Do you remember how you learned grammar?  Should schools emphasize grammar, or do our new forms of communication diminish the need to be proficient?  For teachers out there, what do you do to teach grammar–do you have any tips?  Do you have any examples to disprove my claim that you can write well without being a reader?

 

Lamenting Screen Time and the Decline of Creative Play

No Stone Unturned

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

–Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

pinecones

What will today’s children, especially those immersed in screen technology, consumption, and materialism, remember from their childhood?  Will it be fall afternoons spent inside, with sticky fingers swiping and tapping at an iPad screen?  Will it be the hours spent playing the latest “educational” app?  Hopefully not, but it’s troubling that so many young people are encouraged to engage with the digital world more than the tangible grass, dirt, and sun outside their front doors.

“Children need opportunities to find joy and meaning in what can’t be bought, like friendship, creativity, love and the natural world,” Susan Linn writes in the New York Times.  I wonder how well children are developing meaning in the world beyond what is consumed and accessible through screens.  I’m grateful I didn’t grow up in an age in which my parents debated whether or not toddlers need iPads (hell no) or were tempted by the glut of screen distractions as a cheap babysitter.   I’m grateful that I was afforded the opportunities to build forts, sandcastles, and explore my neighborhood and city by foot or bike.  I’m grateful I didn’t have a laptop or cell phone at my side or in my pocket until my twenties.

This blog’s epigraph served the same role for an memoir project I wrote nearly ten years ago as an undergrad at Middlebury College in Vermont.  The memories I hold from childhood are rich with doing things, bloodying my palms, sweating, playing, and interacting with every breathing little person on Auburn Street and Ridge Road.  I do not take these experiences for granted, because here’s what childhood development expert Nancy Carlsson-Page of Cambridge University has to say about children and screen time in a Washington Post blog piece:

  • Researchers who have tracked children’s creativity for 50 years are seeing a significant decrease in creativity among children for the first time, especially younger children from kindergarten through sixth grade. This decline in creativity is thought to be due at least in part to the decline of play.

  • What children see or interact with on the screen is only a representation of things in the real world. The screen symbols aren’t able to provide as full an experience for kids as the interactions they can have with real world people and things. And while playing games with apps and computers could be considered more active than TV viewing, it is still limited to what happens between the child and a device — it doesn’t involve the whole child’s body, brain, and senses.

  • Finally, as we try to make wise choices in using technology, we can ask ourselves: When and why do I choose to use screens with children? We can remember that our kids grow socially and emotionally by interacting with us and through direct experiences with others, and make sure we aren’t bypassing important everyday social and emotional “lessons” by how we use screens.

Carlsson-Page’s words remind us that we should be more vigilant when it comes to providing digital tools to young people.

Here’s an excerpt from my memoir piece titled “Mostly Good Players,” a testament to a childhood free of digital distractions.

Very few traces remain of the original BarnYoung diamond at 33 Auburn Street in Concord, New Hampshire.  The rotting, wobbly, wooden fence that served as the outfield boundary has been replaced by sturdy unfinished oak.  Squirrels no longer need to hesitate while scuttling across the divider.  The mysterious red-berried vine that graced the old fence in straightaway center is long gone.  The driveway, or imaginary mound, has been repaved.  The mini-frost heaves that functioned as pitching rubbers are a distant memory.  After the original neighbors moved away, the new residents cut down the hemlock trees, whose limbs used to protrude across the fence and catch towering Wiffle ball shots.  Depositing the home runs gracefully—the ball dropping rhythmically from prickly bough to bough until rolling to a stop in the outfield—the trees often saved trips to the neighbor’s yard to retrieve home runs.  Anyway, who liked rounding the fence, scrambling under the bushes where some animals had done their business, and trespassing in the neighbor’s back yard to collect balls?

From idolizing Jose Canseco and Wade Boggs, to devouring ketchup and relish topped hot dogs for a buck at Grappone Park, to collecting countless packs of baseball cards with money my dad paid us for picking up pinecones—a cent a pop—that dropped from the two shipmast spruce in our yard, baseball had a massive influence on my youth, as it does with many.  But out of all the traditions, idols, games, and collecting, home run derby took the cake for me as the number one way to kill a hot summer afternoon.  Ben Young—who shared the naming of the field with me—and I spent countless hours as opponents, umpires, and groundskeepers.  Grass didn’t stand a chance to sprout in the batter’s box, a patch of dirt about one foot by three feet worn smooth by bald-soled Nike sneakers and bare feet.

The field had unusually convenient dimensions.  The left field foul pole was an imaginary line drawn from home plate past one of the towering blue spruce, just about where third base would be, to the peak of the Chapin’s two-car garage.  One of the dark brown-shingled walls was in play.  If you crushed a low line drive to left, it would likely careen harmlessly off the Brown Monster—a distant relative of Fenway Park’s Green Monster—and bury itself in our dense rectangular garden.  There was a striking resemblance between the garden’s actions and St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Ozzie Smith:  You hit it in their direction, the ball would most likely be gobbled up, one out.  Of course, only the garden employed overgrown zucchini, bean, and cherry tomato limbs, rather than nimble feet and a quick flash of the leather, to make the play.

A short tan fence extended from the edge of the Brown Monster towards left center field, where it met the rotting gray fence at a ninety-degree angle.  This was the deepest point in the ballpark—about ninety feet from home plate—and a blast over this corner was considered mammoth.  The ivy in center was, to us, closely linked to the famed growth that covers the ancient brick outfield walls at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.  Another building served as a foul pole for right field—our old barn.  And we had lighting for evening battles: a floodlight was positioned perfectly on a second floor corner of the beige structure, providing just enough brightness to illuminate low home runs, but not moon shots that landed harmlessly in the neighbor’s yard.             

The adjacent properties seemed to vacuum up our Wiffle balls.  Sometimes a ball would sail over the fence, land in a driveway and roll down into the street, never to be found again.  Other times, we swore, the crotchety old neighbors snatched our home runs before we could retrieve them from well-maintained windowboxes or from beneath a shiny white Chrysler New Yorker.

Do you limit or encourage screen time for your kids?  What are your favorite memories of childhood?  Are you worried about digital tools eroding creativity?  

To the Presidential Candidates: Q & A’s We Should Hear

No Stone Unturned

I cringe when I watch the Presidential debates.  My heart rate elevates slightly.   I keep waiting for questions and answers that nobody wants to hear, questions and answers that we should hear, but they never come.  Below, I imagine some questions and answers that, unfortunately, we’ll never see or hear:

While the 20th Century provided seemingly limitless opportunities for economic growth, resource extraction, and technological development, it seems we need to shift the paradigm–I care about the future, and I wonder how you can justify pushing for a reckless economic growth model?

“Thanks for the question.  I get it, and I don’t justify it.  It’s absurd that we both talk about how to grow the economy in a no-holds barred free market sense, because it simply isn’t sustainable.  Look at world population trends.   Look at emerging economies in Asia, a rising middle-class in China.  Look at increased meat consumption across the world and it’s environmental impact.  We all need to shift gears, and understand that in the 21st Century, progress shouldn’t mean more cars, more gadgets, and more consumption.  I think about 100 years down the road, and any sane politician or citizen should admit to you that there simply isn’t enough land, water, and fossil fuels to continue on our current course.  We need to continue to embrace a global economy, but we also need to shift back to more regional and local economic models–especially in the area of food and energy production–in order to create more jobs and a healthy dependence on our neighbors and immediate locales.”

With Frankenstorm bearing down on the East Coast, what do you say to those who deny that Climate Change is a real threat?

“Thank you for finally bringing up Climate Change in a debate!  First of all, it’s absurd to continue to play Russian Roulette with our collective future by denying the impact humans have on the environment.  We can either continue to deny and pay the consequences, or we can take major action to try and mitigate the ongoing threat that man-influenced weather events will continue to have on our lives.”

Some people say our schools and teachers are failing.  What say you?

“Thank you for providing an opportunity to respond to this crucial topic.  Schools and teachers are not failing.  Society, and most strikingly, parents, are failing our youth.  Think about the number of single-parent homes.  I’ve talked to many school teachers who exclaim how often parents blame schools and teachers for their students’ troubles, rather than working through issues at home.

Think about the constant media barrage that our young people ingest every day.  Popular culture is not helping.   Where is school and knowledge being emphasized?

What are your feelings about Super PACS?  Should uber-wealthy partisan groups have such influence on the airways?

“By the time I answer your question, millions of Americans will be bombarded by negative campaign ads by Super PACs from both parties.  Thanks to the Supreme Court decision in the 2010 case  SpeechNow.org v. FEC,  corporations and individuals no longer are limited by $5,000 dollar contributions to PACs, which gave more power to folks like Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, to give over 50 million dollars! to conservative Super PACS in 2012.  That’s an incredible amount of money.  Imagine if that money was given to charity or invested in local enterprise.  I don’t like the influence of big money in this election.  Quite frankly, it seems antithetical to democracy to allow so much money to pour into elections, and we need major campaign finance reform.”

It’s deeply troubling to continue to see violence around the world seemingly spawned by hatred of American Values.  What do you say to those who find American/Western values to be so problematic and incendiary?

“Tough question.  Let me make it clear that I understand that Freedom in some places, due to historic and religious traditions dating back thousands of years, is not a universal value.  I will not impose American values on places, and there’s no doubt we will continue to see difficult and lengthy transitions to democratic institutions in the Middle East and around the world.  It may never work.  That said,  I’m not about moral relativism.  There are certain cultures and attitudes that are better for humanity and the stability of our modern world.  To kill people because of a cheap YouTube video is beyond pathetic, as is the judgement the film’s producer made in exercising his first amendment rights to a reckless degree.”

What questions and answers do you wish you would hear from the candidates?