Wednesday, September 22, 2004

(Third in a five-part series)

Several years ago, I was throwing away a stack of spiral notebooks filled with my daughter’s homework and class notes, when a line in her neat script jumped out at me:

‘’Abraham Lincoln was an atheist.’’

Hunh? Was not! I showed it to her. She shrugged. The teacher must have said it, because she wrote it down.

I quickly brought her Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, with Lincoln’s famous pre-Civil War ‘’house divided against itself’’ line from Mark 3:25, and other Lincoln quotes, such as ‘’I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement’’ in the Letter to Mrs. Bixby, and ‘’With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right’’ from his Address to an Indiana Regiment.

‘’OK, Mom. Geez,’’ she replied. (I get that a lot from my kids.)

It wasn’t that she had been taught so blatantly wrong on that one little point. It was that she MIGHT have been taught blatantly wrong on SKILLIONS of OTHER little points that I’ll never know about. And that made me get hives.

At least, in the olden days, parents could see the child’s textbooks and homework. There was a chance you could spot errors like that. But with all the computerization that’s going on, parents are out of the loop as never before. Ironically, so are educators. He who writes and buys the software calls the tune.

Loss of control over the curriculum is just one of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things about letting our public schools O.D. on computers in the classroom. Like the South in the Civil War, we are seceding . . . only this time, instead of the South from the North, it’s parents and teachers who are withdrawing from the responsibility of guiding the information that flows into our children’s minds and hearts, and turning that precious task over to who knows who online, and on disc.

I don’t think it’s all on purpose. I don’t think most educators have any idea what the ramifications of this are. But I do know a lot of them don’t like what’s happening, either. It’s degrading quality and school-home relations, bigtime.

When our older kids were in grade school, we parents were told that they had ‘’computer class’’ once a week. Our chests burst with pride. We were such savvy, with-it parents, providing so well for our kids!

Then one day I visited school during my child’s ‘’computer class.’’ One child was indeed sitting at a keyboard with a monitor. But everybody else just had a photocopy of a computer keyboard on their desks. All they were doing for ‘’computer class’’ was pretend-typing.

I’m not criticizing them for not having enough money to give every kid a computer. Far from it. But I am criticizing the obvious, deliberate misunderstanding that they created in the minds of us parents. They tried to slip us a PR Mickey. And that ain’t all.

When my older kids were in middle school, the staff was bragging about the fun and excitement of having a lot of CD-ROM’s for the kids to use. These info resources were said to be much more captivating and up-to-date for the computer generation than dusty, old books. In every subject area and certainly throughout the media center, there were CD-ROM’s from every source under the sun that the kids could turn to, for reference information and so forth.

Like most parents, at the time I was equating ‘’quality’’ with ‘’how much it costs.’’ So I was well-pleased. But then my self-satisfied smile bent into a frown: the kids were finding all kinds of suggestive, highly inappropriate, R-rated and X-rated material on these CD-ROM’s under innocent-sounding titles like ‘’health’’ and ‘’current events.’’ And the CD-ROM’s turned out to have come, not from traditional curriculum sources, but nonprofit organizations with innocent-sounding names that were actually special-interest groups with something to ‘’sell’’ behind parents’ backs.

I asked a teacher, ‘’Do you know what’s on some of these?’’ She got huffy. ‘’No! It would take me 80 to 100 hours to go through just one of them. I wouldn’t do it, anyway. We can’t POSSIBLY monitor EVERY word that’s these kids have access to,’’ she snarled. ‘’That would be CENSORSHIP.’’

Ohhh. So if the computer discs you’re offering our kids in school, at taxpayer expense, show a how-to activity in living color on oral sex, or mention in passing that, you know, Abe Lincoln was a commie and Batgirl was our 41st President, you wouldn’t want to know, and if you DID know, that would be CENSORSHIP?

Can you see why parents who look in to the perils of ed tech get hives?

It goes on. That district has had lots of computers available to the kids for a couple of decades now, with countless tax dollars spent on training, upkeep, new purchases and you name it. And yet I keep hearing from other parents about glaring omissions and shortcomings in their kids’ basic academic preparation -- the math facts, reading comprehension, spelling and other basics that we used to take for granted, but now appear to have been shunted aside, to a degree, by the frenzy over new media.

Find out how much your district is spending on technology compared to 20 years ago. Then find out what percentage of your seventh-graders do not read at grade level or better, compared to 20 years ago. The first number’s gone ‘way, ‘way up and the second number’s gone ‘way, ‘way down? I promise you, there’s a connection there. We need to address it sooner rather than later.

Kids who have grown up with the lights, camera and action of computer-based learning activities just have a tough, tough time sitting down and reading grown-up text in normal font sizes, as you find with a literary classic or a textbook chapter with some degree of analytic complexity. They just don’t like serious reading and they just don’t want to do it.

All they seem to be able to handle is a screenful of large-font text at a time, on a computer. Even then, after a few minutes, they feel the need to click away to something else.

If they turn in a beautifully computer-printed essay for their senior project, but the prose barely makes sense and there are misspelled words and poor sentence structure throughout, it’s not a genetic fault or a learning disability. It’s likely that their teachers have been too busy handling all the paperwork that comes with today’s ed tech requirements to have time to teach them how to write.

If they can’t remember to write their names on their papers and work from top to bottom, left to right, it’s not because they’re dyslexic: it’s because they’ve been spending so much time ‘’holistically’’ scanning a screen, moving their eyes around in loops and circles, instead of decoding text.

If they can’t write even a single line of cursive or printing that’s legible, it’s not that they’re dysgraphic -- it’s that they’ve spent their childhoods passively plugged in to electronics, instead of receiving all the great multisensory, mental construction, including fine-motor coordination and concentration. that comes from lots of practice with good penmanship.

If they can’t tell a forgery from the real thing, and are better understanding and interacting with stories online than real-life friends and family, it’s because they’ve been focusing on fake things -- things on TV and the computer -- all these years, instead of real life, including nature and other people.

The traditional academic tools of books, paper and pencil have just fallen by the wayside, or are about to. And we have the college remedial classes and increasingly academically inept workforces to prove it.

I recently asked a high-school honors kid how he used his computer for research.

He scratched his head. ‘’You know: for looking things up,’’ I said gently. ‘’Like, doing a string search on a search engine.’’

‘’Hunh?’’ I am positive he thought I meant doing yo-yo tricks on a choo-choo train.

I had to explain that it had to do with going to an Internet resource directory and typing in the first few letters of a word to see if that ‘’string’’ of letters showed up in a compilation of Internet files. Or if you know how to spell the first half of a word but not the last half, for example, that’s a way to get the correct spelling. You can use a dictionary just as easily.

‘’Oh,’’ he replied. ‘’Well, I’m not too great with the alphabet. I guess I never do that. I never use a dictionary, either. I just use ‘spell-check.’’’

What DID he do with his computer, then? He brightened up, and I’m sure you know what’s coming: downloading pictures of NBA stars . . . pirating music . . . playing poker . . . typing his papers, proudly, with ‘’spell-check.’’ And that’s it.

It kind of sheds new light on that $3.3 million worth of free laptop Apple iBooks that the Westside Community Schools in Omaha just gave all their high-school students, doesn’t it?

Look. I’m no Luddite. I’d never be one to say can all computers from all classrooms, and go back to chalk and slates. I think distance learning and web-based courses are cool. Email is terrific. I use the Internet for hours, daily, and love it. We parents want a K-12 curriculum that’s well-balanced with the best of the media and learning tools of the centuries, including the 21st. So I’m pro-computers in education. You bet I am.

But I’ve already BEEN well-educated. I do know my math facts, how to spell, and how to debunk a whopper, like ‘’Abe Lincoln was an atheist.’’ I’m afraid that today’s kids don’t.

I’m afraid that it’s because our schools are getting caught up in the materialistic hype and the PR of ed tech, and misusing it badly, missing its real value: using computers to make the process of education more efficient.

With all the dollars we’ve spent on computers for our public-school bureaucracies, we parents and taxpayers know far, far LESS about how our money is being spent than we used to. We should know far, far MORE about how educational resources are being allocated. But we don’t.

We should know far MORE about how the statistics for our local schools compared to others similarly situated across the country in all sorts of categories. But we don’t.

We should have computers that take care of trivial, rote work that bogs down the teaching process, and I know, I’ve been there; I’ve graded papers ‘til the wee hours, so semper fi on that one. Instead, we’re making teachers burn the candle on both ends -- fulfilling the endless new paperwork requirements that ed tech has brought with it and still trying to do the basics of good teaching, including drilling kids on the alphabet, correcting math homework and circling writing errors, that maybe the school’s computers ought to be doing for our teachers instead of being used by our kids to download bathroom humor and movie sound clips.

Heyyyy! Wait a minute! THERE’s a good idea:

Read my lips. I’ll be back.

Tune in tomorrow for another look at the hidden hazards of computers in the classroom. You’ll find out that Abe Lincoln might not have been an atheist -- but today’s educrats are using technology to find out which of our kids are.

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