Technology

In defense of a notebook

Cojr0x6VYAEfzyX

This is my writer’s notebook. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I was trawling eduTwitter recently and came upon someone’s tweet where they were talking about writer’s notebooks and how introducing students to “digital notebooks” might “breathe life” into the old process.  I have to admit that I was a little confused when I read it because I didn’t realize that the idea of a writer’s notebook needed life breathed into it.  Then again, I have been keeping spiral-bound writer’s notebooks for more than 20 years, so maybe my habits as a writer are not a good guide.  After all, I haven’t had enough legitimately published to actually be considered a writer, and a very powerful and experienced Connected Educator Thought Leader did once write, “The unspoken truth about teaching writing in schools is that few people doing so are published writers themselves,” so I am pretty irrelevant.

But let’s just assume for a moment that the ideas I have about writing are actually worth considering.  I mean, they aren’t–I checked my blog stats recently and seven people read my last post, so I am the furthest thing from a Thought Leader–but indulge me for a moment, if you will.  I see what the person I paraphrased in my opening sentences was saying:  this generation of students feels more comfortable with a screen instead of a piece of paper, so digital notebooks are the way to go.  I don’t see how digitizing a writer’s notebook will be a solution to any perceived problem in students’ writing; if anything, that is a very #edtech solution or strategy, like giving Malibu Stacy a new hat.

The issue with writer’s notebooks in English class is not the method by which they are kept; it’s the logistics involved in keeping them at all.  I started keeping a writer’s notebook in my creative writing class as a high school senior and what that helped me realize was the value of habitual writing.  Yes, the notebooks were checked for journal grades at the end of the quarter, but I wound up writing way beyond that because Mrs. Taber had more or less instilled within me that this was a place for a free flow of ideas that wasn’t being questioned, judged, or assessed.  Full disclosure, though: I was an honors student and you didn’t need to convince or bribe me in order to get me to do my work.

Which, by the way, is where the first problem lies.  When we seek to make habitual writers out of our students through notebooks, we have to acknowledge where we start and that may be with the following:

  • students who don’t even own a notebook or bring it to class
  • students who bring their notebooks to class but do absolutely nothing when it comes time to write
  • students who immediately ask, “Do we have to hand this in?” and don’t do anything when you say, “No.”
  • students who will do the assignment but will half-ass it because it’s not for an immediate grade.
  • students who take that time to socialize, text, play games, or go to the bathroom.

 

This, of course, sounds like I am blaming students for all of my faults and that I am hurting children by my very presence, but I list those to illustrate why teachers seem dismissive when it comes to student writing or how they may end up defaulting to a canned assignment instead of a more creative, free-writing environment.  It’s born of frustration, and often of frustration that is amplified because it’s multiplied 100 times.

And let’s be honest, notebook checks can be very time consuming and may or may not be helpful.  If I assign points and grades to “what’s in the notebook,” I am continuing the ritual of Pavlovian grading.  If I don’t grade on quality, I am giving students the impression that this is busy work and not worth their time.

But how does one get better at writing if they’re not … writing?  And how do I, as a 10th grade English teacher, approach undoing what might be years of bad habits and expectations when it comes to writing, like length requirements, sentences per paragraph, and all of the other nitpicks that teacher drove into their heads in the name of “good writing” and “proper English”?  And is a digital notebook really the solution to this?

I happen to work in a building where technology is a crap shoot.  It may not always be available and when it is there may not be enough to go around or something might go belly-up to prevent its proper use.  Add to that user/student issues–they can’t remember their account passwords or never learned how to actually work a particular application because everyone assumed they were digital natives or something.  And while we’re working to improve this, there are still people in my own district who are not aware of the problems.  No joke–I had a conversation with a teacher from another school who was genuinely surprised that we weren’t a 1:1 school.  So a digital notebook that you’d use every day?  Not really.

As I said up top, I don’t see how keeping a notebook digitally “breathes life” into anything.  In fact, I think it would kill it.  The average blog post takes me a ridiculous amount of time to write when I am writing online because I am constantly distr–

I’m sorry, there was a Twitter notification.  Where was I five minutes ago?

I encourage paper notebooks because of the silence and the solitude.  It may be hard for a teenager to slow themselves down and focus on one task that doesn’t have a lot of noise for a few minutes, but that can prove beneficial, and the permanence of the ink on the page as a draft allows for more ownership than something typed.  The notebook is where everything is rough, where things nobody was meant to see dwell, and where the seeds for better, more complete works are planted.  It’s a device that doesn’t need anything for it to work and if we’re going to push this idea of comfort and choice and freedom, we shouldn’t push technology that can actually in an ironic way be constraining because it’s tied to a particular application or infrastructure that may not always be there.  I know this isn’t an innovative thought and therefore it’s invalid, but in the last twenty years, I have flipped through old notebooks more than I have accessed old files on a hard drive.  In some cases, I’ve laughed at how badly I was writing when I was 18 or 19; in other cases, I’ve revisited poetry or essays that I drafted and forgot about a decade ago.

There was never a need to “breathe life” into a writer’s notebook with something new and shiny in the way a pill will solve a problem that a change in diet would actually solve.  Yes, we should embrace the way technology and how our students interact with the world has changed as a result.  But that doesn’t mean pandering, and it certainly doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But hey, I’m not a published writer myself, so what do I know?

Going paperless isn’t that easy

“I buy gadget therefore I am” by MIKI Yoshihito. Used under cc license.

I was making a metric ton of copies yesterday because my class is reading an issue of a comic book as well as an essay and I only personally have one copy of each. As the copier was chugging along rhythmically, I started to wonder if there was a better way to do this. After all, an average short story/essay unit often requires reams of papers because I am not a fan of simply assigning things from the 10th grade English textbook. I want things that are interesting, more contemporary, more diverse, or fit whatever themes we are exploring, so sometimes that involves finding a piece and making up to 60 copies for student use.

Apparently, Lisa Nielsen has the answer. I should go paperless. My attachment to paper is making me irrelevant and i should, in her words, “Get over it.” she’d probably also say that my attachment to things like assigning work and having content knowledge and expertise are also making me irrelevant, but that’s another issue altogether.

Anyway, I’m not going to argue that there is an obvious economic benefit for phasing out paper within a school–I certainly encourage my students to submit papers and projects online if they’re able to–and while I personally have not run a cost-benefit analysis on converting to a paperless school, I’m pretty sure there are long-term benefits.

Unfortunately, she makes her case in such a petulant manner that I cannot even be sure that she understands what going paperless actually means and why it has become such a hard things to do. Is it, as she says, because people are just too attached to the feel of paper? Not necessarily. Going paperless actually requires a logistical and cultural shift that in order to work, probably needs to take place more organically and therefore slower than she’s probably willing to accept.

Let’s start with the downside to the benefits of technology such as the $300 Chromebooks that she mentions. Yes, they are a great tool, but her argument assumes that such devices are treated well once in students’ hands. Aside from the initial investment of taking a school and making it 1:1, which is cost prohibitive for districts that don’t have that money available or constantly need to seek out grant money for technology initiatives, therefore making it difficult to sustain them, the durability of student technology can be a major issue. I don’t have statistics at hand, but I wonder how many Chromebooks and laptops don’t last very long because of cracked screens, damaged keyboards, and malware. Furthermore, Nielsen claims that the life cycle of such devices would be about three years. is this cost effective or cost prohibitive?

I’m not sure. Buying new sets of Chromebooks every three years might actually be less expensive than reams of paper and textbooks. But schools, especially those under constant budget constraints, will extend the lives of both technology and textbooks as long as possible. The English textbook that I barely use was published in 2000. To my knowledge, we’re not adopting a new one (though to be candid, we’d rather spend that money on other things) and school laptops are becoming the equivalent of the beat-up Honda Civic I drove for 13 years–sure, it worked but it was falling apart and becoming a burden. So, logistics can get in the way of “getting over it” when it comes to paper.

Who’s also to say that we will have access to the materials we want to use if we go paperless as well? I have a fair amount of literature at home and also have access to a book room, school library, and public library. Being able to grab a book, make copies of a story or essay, and pass it out, while a bit tedious, is actually easier than locating an online copy. I also wonder who will then control the content. I have had students tell me, “We should read ____” and either I track down the story or book or they give me a copy and we use it. The ease of having a paper copy here is also low-cost or free. If all reading was paperless, it would more than likely require an authorized app on a tablet or laptop and that would seriously limit the availability of content and put us at the mercy of the content provider (for a good example of this, go “Streaming Only” on Netflix and see how your options are severely limited as opposed to renting the DVDs). It also might wind up costing students more. Again, it may not, but it’s a logistical issue that I’m not sure she considers when applying what she clearly knows is good for the individual to a bureaucracy.

Finally, there is the cultural shift I mentioned earlier. We obviously use paper because this is how the way things have always been done and I admit I loathe that rationale. But as I have seen with other “this is the way we’ve always done it” scenarios, making that change is incredibly complicated and requires something that many in a community are not willing to have happen: short-term losses for long-term gains. It also requires that we go “Excuseless.” Having my students submit student work electronically has eliminated the “My printer ran out of ink” excuse that was rampant in years past. Now it’s, “My Internet was down,” or “I emailed it to you … didn’t you get it,” or “Well, I didn’t see/hear the announcement.” I constantly check my district’s online announcements and Twitter feed for news of what’s going on at my school and my son’s school and hold myself accountable if I miss something. So can I hold my students accountable for missing something or not following my class Twitter feed or not looking at my website or not knowing how to properly use their smart phone’s calendar app? When a parent comes to be at the beginning of the year and says, “Well, we were never informed about the summer reading assignment,” can I stop giving them leeway because it’s been on the guidance department, English department, and my websites since the beginning of May?

We have become so used to print and paper in our school culture that the majority of parents expect that continue and will bristle at a change to a completely paperless system. Districts often do not have the backbone to combat such shortsightedness in the community and the culture of accountability for teachers dictates that the technological ineptitude and lack of responsibility on the part of students and parents is the teachers’ fault. Our quest to provide “every opportunity” and fear of numbers going down has resulted in this stagnation, especially in districts whose funding streams dictate that we do not allow for any attrition lest we are forced to face a penalty of restricted funding or loss of accreditation.

So we should go paperless. But we need to do it intelligently and realistically with the knowledge that such things take time and may result in loss and stress before the benefits are fully realized.

That requires a lot more than simply getting over it.

Why we need to talk and keep talking about #GamerGate

I figured if I was going to post a picture of video games, I’d kick it old school. Photo by Kari Sullivan. Used under cc license.

I originally thought about starting this post off with an apology. The #GamerGate controversy has been going on for a while at this point and I had yet to post about it. Furthermore, when I saw a few other bloggers writing posts about it, I had a passing thought of, “Well, then it’s covered” and went back to grading papers, planning lessons, or whatever it is that I was doing. Then I read John Spencer’s recent post as well as the comments on the post and realized that was the wrong approach, too.

Both John and Audrey Watters approached the issue succinctly and eloquently and I encourage anyone reading this post to read those two posts first. But put simply, the issues at hand are those of the threats made against Anita Sarkeesian, who has been not just criticized for her series of videos, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” but received rape and death threats as well as cancelled a speaking engagement at a university because extra security couldn’t be provided when someone threatened a mass shooting due to Utah’s concealed-carry laws.

Audrey and John both call out the educational technology community for their silence and rightfully so, pointing out how it’s an issue that goes beyond the niche of gamers, especially at a time when “Gamification” is still an edu-buzzword and online learning platforms are being marketed to children as young as preschool.

Audrey’s post does not have comments (at least not ones I could find), but John’s does and they are typical of the type of anonymous trolling this issue has been receiving. A quick sample (Note: they’re all anonymous, so I’m not sure if they are one person or many people):

Maybe the edutech circles aren’t talking about it because they know its not a big deal outside of the militant feminist circles.

The writer wants to take away “neutral spaces” on the internet so they can be policed by an authority. fascism? I’d love to see the objective research done on that. Basically you want to push an agenda without recourse.

Advocating censorship in the guise of concern, the girls I knew never needed to be babied.

You admit that you’re not a gamer so why are you writing about something you don’t even understand?

Some of these completely miss the point of John’s post and others are trying to deflect from the issue. He was questioning why Important Connected Educators and Education Social Media Icons were not addressing this when it clearly is an issue that hits home with a number of students; furthermore, not saying anything about it shows that they are living in an #edtech bubble wherein being online is a happy place where ideas are free to flow without consequence or repercussion.

All is well. Move along. Nothing to see here.

And like I said at the top of this post, I was silent on this until I read John’s post and thought about a few things:

1. Anita Sarkeesian has been dealing with this for two years and has not backed down. When she was seeking funding for her series of videos via Kickstarter, the Kickstarter campaign was similarly trolled and similar threats were made. I actually wrote about it back then in a post called “When the Authentic Audience is a Hostile Audience.” And I’m not saying that to promote my own stuff, but to point out that the whole controversy surrounding Sarkeesian and #GamerGate is not brand new, nor was it ever brand new.

2. While I’m not a gamer myself, I’m a geek. A comic and pop culture geek, to be exact. A month and a half ago, I attended the Baltimore Comic-Con and while the convention was awesome and a great atmosphere, the organizers of the con felt the need to clearly post a policy that read “Cosplay Is Not Consent.” This is in response to stories out of quite a number of comic conventions where women who have dressed up in superhero costumes have found themselves sexually harassed (or worse).

3. On Saturday, while I was getting ready for dinner, the local news here in Charlottesville tweeted that a press conference would be held at 5:30 to discuss a body found on a farm south of town and how that related to missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. While an announcement has been made that the Graham investigation is now a death investigation, a suspect is in custody (and has been indicted on a separate sexual assault and attempted murder in Fairfax County), as of this writing the police have not announced the results of lab tests that are currently being run on the body.

So wait, if #GamerGate has to do with video games, why am I bringing up cosplay and Hannah Graham? They’re not connected, are they?

Or are they?

Table any discussion you’d like to have about ethics in video game journalism or the specific video games and tropes that Sarkeesian is talking about in her video series. Both are topics that are worth the discussion and whether or not Sarkeesian is right about what she’s saying in terms of women and entertainment can be debated; in fact, I’m sure she’d welcome a civil debate.

But let’s make one thing clear: rape threats are not civil debate. Threats of violence are not civil debate. Death threats are not civil debate. Sarkeesian is not being “too sensitive” and neither are any of the other bloggers or tweeters who have shared their disgust with the way she’s been treated and threatened.

Of course, I’m not the first person to say this, so why did I finally write this post? Because when I watched John’s post go down in the flames of trolls, I realized that it doesn’t matter if I’m being timely or relevant here; it matters that I’m opening my mouth.

I am a man who is currently raising a boy. I want that boy to grow up to be a strong man who treats his fellow human beings with respect. I do not want him to see an inequality between men and women because I do not believe in inequality between men and women–don’t get me wrong, it certainly exists in our society, but I refuse to contribute to or perpetuate it. I want him to know that violence against anyone is wrong and that rape is a horrible, disgusting, vile act and that to be the better man means not to be the louder man but to be the smarter man, to speak with intelligence and understanding, act with respect and empathy, and give help to those who need it.

And that is the conversation we need to be having in the Connected Educator circles. How do you teach young boys and men not to grow up to make rape threats against a woman because she has said something they don’t like? How do you teach them that just because she has a different anatomical makeup it doesn’t mean she is weaker or somehow lesser? How do you teach them that because she’s wearing a certain outfit, it doesn’t mean that she “wants it?”

When are we going to have that #edchat? When are Innovative Educators everywhere going to talk about that? When are the Education Social Media Icons going to stand up, look around and say, “This is wrong and we need to talk about it?”

I am writing this to add my voice to the myriad others who have said the same thing. And when this post goes down in flames, I will continue to say what I’m saying and I will try and pass the baton to someone else who will write the same thing.

And I want them to do the same.

And I want the next person to do the same.

And the next.

And the next.

This is not a news cycle. This will not end. If it’s not #GamerGate, it’s a football team in Ohio. If it’s not cosplay, it’s a coed in Charlottesville. And it’s bullshit.

This is supposed to be a community and clearly there is a segment of the community that feels that it is not being heard, that it is being ignored, or maybe even worse. Be a true community. Make the next #edchat about this topic and this topic alone. No putting it up for a vote against the usual topics of professional development or formative assessment or teacher dress code (and no, I don’t want to suggest a topic or moderate myself–you should be doing it without me writing about it, that’s my point). You want to truly be an Innovative Educator? Go online and interrupt the bumper sticker sayings that people retweet at an expotential rate with a serious discussion of how to talk to our fellow teachers and our students about what goes on. You want to be an Educational Social Media Icon? Make that the topic of your next widely read, Bammy-nominated blog post. You want to stand for Student Voice? Spend an hour chatting about how you are helping your fellow students overcome bigotry, misogyny, harrassment, threats, and violence.

Take this issue head on. Take it and don’t stop. Shout down the trolls. Encourage, help, and support those who feel victimized, whether it be online or in the hallways at school to stand up for themselves. If you don’t, you’re as out of touch with students as you claim teachers are.

L’Absinthe du 21e Siècle

L’Absinthe by Edward Degas, which is permanently housed in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. Image via Wikipedia.

I spent the weekend in Chicago with my wife celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. While we were out to dinner one night at a very nice restaurant, I noticed that the young woman seated at the table next to us was texting. Maybe it was because we’d spent the previous day at the Art Institute of Chicago, but I immediately thought about how she looked like a modern day version of Edward Degas’ L’Absinthe.

Dressed in nice clothes, she texted away, unaware of the world around her while those off to her right looked elsewhere and chatted. On our way out of the restaurant, I noticed that her table’s food had come and that she was eating and engaged in conversation, but that prior moment of disengagement was pretty telling. It could have come out of sheer boredom and I guess I should be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I have to say that there are times when I do honestly worry about our culture’s increasing need to be “on” something all the time.

It’s not like I’m immune to this. As much as I tried to avoid it this weekend, I still spent some time in my hotel’s lobby mooching the free wifi and checking my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I didn’t post much–writing posts via Kindle can be a pain–but I did sense the pressure to have fun and show it off that a weekend like this can bring, as if my weekend or vacation wouldn’t be good enough because I took pictures for myself and didn’t share them with an authentic audience.

And I realize this makes me sound old and behind the times and that I should stop worrying about screen time and embrace changing technology and how the students I see on a regular basis live their lives and interact with the world.

But I so wanted the girl in that restaurant to take advantage of that lull in her evening by avoiding her phone, looking up, and taking in the atmosphere of what was a nice restaurant, and it made me wonder where we draw the line between embracing the technology that connects all of us and enabling a bad habit. Eventually, as the generation I’m teaching grows up, the cream will rise as it always does. And while I have no proof for this, I wonder if when the cream of this generation rises, if it will be those who know that documenting and interacting during every given moment wasn’t all it was cracked up to be (and yes, I realize that my being a yearbook adviser makes that statement a tad ironic). That aside from being born with certain advantages to begin with, the knew and were also taught about moderation, about observation, about contemplation, about examination, and about … well, living deliberately, I guess.

The case for and against English textbooks

mcdougallittel

Based on the plans that I was writing out yesterday for the next quarter (yes, I know that this doesn’t make me an Innovative Educator™, but I tend to plan the elements of my course in advance), I realized that I can come in to work on Monday and tell my advanced class that they can bring in their textbooks and sign them back in.

Sounds kind of a mundane set of instructions, right? But let’s keep in mind that it’s the end of January.

We are barely into the second semester of the school year and the “bring in your textbooks and sign them back in” announcement is what you often hear in May. But as I have been sketching out plans for the third and fourth quarters, I’ve noticed that I’m simply not going to need the English textbook for the remainder of the year. So why have it at home?

English textbooks have always perplexed me. While I know I shouldn’t make the mistake of comparing my current students’ experience with my own, I can’t help but think back and remember what I actually did in my own high school English classes. Now, I’d had “reading books” when I was in elementary school–in fact, I wrote a whole post about them on my other blog back in 2011–and they had vocabulary and grammar worksheets that went along with them, and I remember actually having an “English” text in junior high, but I don’t remember using it for more than grammar exercises. When I got to high school, though, there wasn’t a set of textbooks that I remember filling out forms for every year, unless you counted the Sadlier-Oxford vocabulary books we used from ninth to eleventh grade. No, English when I was in high school was simply novels and plays, starting with Great Expectations with Mr. Valenti freshman year and ending with Ordinary People senior year (which may or may not be true. I remember that Great Expectations was the very first book I read in high school, but my mind’s cloudy on the last one). My teachers would hand out the book along with the Sayville High School “book loan card” that we filled out and were kept on file, and we’d be told that we had to read part of the book or the entire book by a certain date.

That’s kind of how I work things with my advanced sophomores. I give out a copy of whatever we’re reading as well as a schedule of when we’re discussing what (as much as I can, anyway) and reiterate my expectation that they come to class prepared each day. Most of the material, however, isn’t from our textbook and instead comes via individual copies of novels or plays, or things I have found in various anthologies or from websites that I have photocopied. The textbook does come into play for a random poem or story here and there, and all of my sophomores read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which can be found there, but beyond that I have to ask: why is the book there? Okay, I know why it’s there or at least how it got there. Years before I started teaching at my current high school, there was a textbook adoption process and whomever was in charge at the time chose the McDougal Littel text, with all of its ancillary exercise books and test prep materials.In another district I once taught in, the winning company was Pearson-Prentice Hall. And while those ancillary exercise books have been great for stuff like sub work, I can’t say that it would make a difference in my work.

So do we even need textbooks in English class?

Obviously not. As I flip through a textbook designed to “teach world literature” based on a curriculum that has been revised and revised again since the textbook was purchased, I see works of poetry, essays, short stories, folk tales, plays, and excerpts from novels that are incredibly unappealing. Moreover, they’re all incredibly old. Not that old is necessarily bad, but there’s something about English textbooks that make you wonder if the editors have read anything written after 1972. Plus, there’s so much illustration and activity added to the book as a way to “enhance” the literature (sample question: “What does this photograph of a city street make you think about what the character is experiencing at the beginning of the story?”) that it can be pretty distracting.

I sometimes wonder if my students actually read what’s written on the page instead of skimming it or paying more attention to pictures and other information in the margins. Not that I don’t want them to branch out beyond what they currently read (if they read at all)–after all, I consider imparting literature onto my students as part of my job–but the whole packaging of it seems out of date, if not just the wrong approach. We’re in a new age where technology has not only made information readily accessible but has also made literature more readily accessible. In the past couple of years alone, I have downloaded novels by Mary Shelley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Leo Tolstoy for free, have found a wealth of poetry via sites like Poetry Out Loud, and have read amazing shorter works from newspapers and magazines that I would have had not had free access to when I was in high school. So we should just go ahead and finish the transition to the digital age and get rid of textbooks–after all, they can read Thoreau on their tablets or cell phones when I assign him.

But.

Free access isn’t always good access. What “great” literature (older works) that isn’t free is often what’s in the public domain and doesn’t sell particularly well all the time. The copyright on a lot of works that are staples in English classrooms is constantly being renewed. Furthermore, the purchasing systems at many public schools is still woefully behind the times. Amazon and several other popular websites where we can get reading material from very often require purchasing via credit card, and to my knowledge, my school does not have a credit card number that we can simply plug in when I want to download 25 copies of The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Great Gatsby to an iPad cart. Most of our purchasing is done via checks, which is why our department still uses catalogs for literature and often those catalogs, while they do have their fair share of novels to choose from, also feature the very workbooks that we apparently have been led to believe are obsolete.

I suppose I could just tell my students to go get their own copies of a novel we have been reading, but that has only ever worked for summer reading assignments on advanced and AP classes. Since a public education is free to the students (they don’t pay tuition and don’t normally have to pay for books, etc.), they obviously feel entitled to free materials (some, as I have found, feel entitled to free writing implements), so asking them to pay for those materials as we go is obviously the kind of overstepping of boundaries that gets their taxpayer (read: my employer, according to them) parents all up in arms and wondering where their hard-earned dollars are going. So what do I do? Well, it involves a single copy of some essay and short story anthologies and a lot of time in front of a photocopier, which adds up to a nice little copyright violation. We need something. Maybe not a textbook in the traditional sense because for literature they are bulky and can be useless. But how about taking money allocated for English textbooks and spending it on individual works and anthologies or department subscriptions to a magazine or two that we can then use or share. At least that way if we’re being forced to be budget-conscious with reading, we can do it in a way that’s smart.

Can You Unplug?

Photo by las-initially. Used under creative commons license.

Last Friday night, while I was sitting in my in-laws’ living room, one of the worst storms the greater Central and Northern Virginia areas have seen in quite some time came tearing through. I think it lasted all of 15 minutes, but it wound up being one of those “storms of the century” because of all the widespread damage it wound up causing.

Honestly, it was a pretty scary storm when you think about it because unlike tropical storms and hurricanes–which have plenty of warning–this was a “What the hell was that?!” type of storm. The result for us, locally, was that we were without power for nearly 48 hours, without cable for 72, and without internet access until after midnight the following Saturday (my wife’s iPad made a noise, she went to check it out and when she came back to bed and I asked her if she was okay, she said, “The Internet’s back up”).

I thought of writing an entry that chronicled my struggles through a non-tech world, but there were two problems with it: I’m on summer break, so me sitting around my living room complaining how freaking hot it is doesn’t make for good blogging; and I’m not very good at mimicking that old-time Civil War journal voice (“We crossed the border into Missourah this morning”). Plus, is it possible to write a post about having the power go out and the Internet go down without it coming out as a complete cliche?

Yes, I can honestly say how much I realized that I was pretty connected to and in some ways dependent upon technology, in a way that I didn’t realize when I was a young teenager and spent summers at a lake in New Hampshire with only a radio and maybe the daily newspaper (as well as stacks of Mad Magazines) as my sole sources of information. Then again, when I was a young teenager, there really wasn’t much of an Internet to speak of (not to the extent we have now), we were still in the era of the Zack Morris cell phone, and as much as I did try to follow current events, I never felt any panic if I missed a few days of campaign backbiting. I also don’t remember sleeping in an ocean of my own sweat every night.

But I did want to write something, and as I was sweating to death in the middle of Sunday night, the sound of my bare skin peeling off the leather sofa only mildly entertaining and therefore not able to distract me enough from my misery, I thought of a project that I used to have my Journalism I students do at the beginning of the year (sadly, since switching schools a few years ago, I no longer teach journalism, although I have been working elements of that curriculum into my regular English classes) called “Can You Unplug?”

The premise of the project is simple: in order to study our current media, we need to realize how much of it we truly consume, as well as how much we depend upon it. So, my students are asked to keep a two-day journal. The first day, they are to go about their normal business, but they are to take note of what they did. For instance, how often they texted or used their phones, were plugged into their iPods, surfed the internet, watched TV, listened to the radio, read books/newspapers. The second day, they are to do their best to go completely without anything electronic or digital (print media was allowable) and then journal the experience. The final entry in the journal is to be a piece reflecting on both, which tied into a class discussion on the topic (and I fully admit here that I swiped this from a college class project that was profiled in the Washington Post magazine years ago, so it’s not even my idea).

When I used this in my Intro to Journalism classes, which were predominantly populated by freshmen, I remember it seeming like a no-brainer of an assignment, and to make it easy on my students, I gave the short project a long-term deadline so that they had plenty of time to complete the journal (and obviously, the two days didn’t necessarily have to be consecutive, so there was some flexibility there). Plus, it was a classic “compare/contrast/reflect” task. Except … well, I learned a couple of things about what seem like no-brainers. First, I didn’t expect what wound up being very loud resistance from a couple of students. I was describing the project’s “unplugged” day to one class and I remember at least one or two kids yelling (yes, yelling) “I’M NOT DOIN’ THAT!” before I even had the chance to finish what I was talking about. Second, it took more effort than I thought it would to assure my students that no, they would not fail the assignment if they couldn’t make it a full 24 hours without all of their gadgetry because the journal was the important part.

Both of these, of course, stem from the usual problem that comes with anything as extensive as a project to high school students: they cannot see the forest for the trees, probably because they’ve been so conditioned by having every tree in the forest come with a rubric (seriously, it drives my advanced students nuts when, though I give extensive feedback, I put an overall grade on an assignment and don’t have a spreadsheet-like itemized breakdown). But I’m getting off of my point here, so I’ll move on because what came out of the experience in our class discussions and the journals of those who were mature enough to not yell at me when I assigned it, was that most of my students either didn’t have any idea how much they were attached to the gadgets in their lives; or they didn’t realize how noisy the world is.

That’s my favorite part, because I don’t think that many of us really pay attention to the barrage of noise that we’re greeted with upon entering a supermarket, or Target. We’ve kind of been conditioned to tune it out because we’re there to pick up granola bars or motor oil or maybe even both. I’ve considered bringing this one back, either in its original form or expanded to include something that uses research or technology for a final product (a student documentary, perhaps … or something similar) so that there is a creative investment beyond the observation and reflection. I’m not entirely sure what it will be, but if I do, I will definitely bring up this storm and my time spent sweating my ass off, completely unplugged from the world.