Thursday, January 18, 2007

NOTE: This contribution was submitted by GC, a colleague of mine where I teach. It's a great review of the trials and tribulations that we teachers of English face at the secondary level. A huge thanks to GC for this wonderful contribution. Enjoy.

“Generation Next” and the Fate of the Current English Class


Do you ever think that the work we do as English teachers is becoming more and more irrelevant to the lives of our students? I’ve always known that part of the work we do as educators is finding ways to link the content of our courses to the experiences of those we teach. I also understood that even with my best attempts, I often fell short, and students got the increasing sense that school in general was some inconvenient interruption in the middle of what they perceived as the real stuff of their lives: time with friends, sports, music, work, etc. But lately it’s occurred to me that what we are asking of students now is more distant from their real lives than ever before. In the past few years, English class has become even more irrelevant, more superfluous, and more disconnected from what matters to them, or at least what they think matters, than in any time previous, mostly due to the increasing role of technology in their lives.

Just in the last five years, maybe even the last two years, technology has moved into our students’ lives in ways that may be altering the very way they think. Whether or not that development is advancement or not remains to be seen, but in the meantime the simple competition for students’ time is fiercer than ever. The first major intrusion into their time was video games. As a mother of three teenage girls, video games were never hugely popular in our house (although the hours they filled playing in the world of the Sims were pretty daunting). Still, I was amazed to learn about students who filled most of their free time playing video games. When Halo II came out, I saw just how devoted some of my students were to this activity; quite a handful played this game hour after hour for days on end, even avoiding sleep. Play Station III, which came out this past fall, had more than a few of my students skipping school and waiting on line, starting at midnight the day before, so they could purchase this new unit. I remember thinking to myself then, when do they do their reading? What about their schoolwork?

Also several years ago, we had the onset of Instant Messenger. Instant Messenger allows students to continue to engage in social conversations with classmates long after they’ve left the school building. Soon, having a screen name became a means of joining a kind of cyber-party. Everybody was talking and God forbid they be talking about you, so the best defense is a good offense, right? Get on line and STAY on line! Be a player~ who wants to be left out? So maintaining these conversations became a whole new way to develop and maintain friendships. I can even write an essay and talk to my friends at the same time! What’s more, the conversations I’m having with my friends are a lot more interesting than writing that compare / contrast essay. It’s not easy to maintain my line of thought when I’m composing with all these interruptions, but whatever.

It’s hard to believe that Facebook and then Myspace are relatively recent developments in the menu offerings provided by the Internet. Maintaining “your space” on these sites could take hours of your day, and then there’s checking out everybody else’s contributions. Profiles, surveys, blogs, comments, messages – there’s so much to click on! And it’s all about them (that is at least until Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace for a reported gadoozzle dollars). But these sites remain the place to be for Generation Next to communicate, create, network, gossip, listen to music, etc. etc. etc. (And you want me to take my English book and find a quiet corner, cozy up, and read? And miss this party?)
Even more recent distractions include YouTube and of course Google. Just think about how the teaching of the research paper has changed in the last five years. And leave us not forget cell phones -just one more piece of this pie- which allow interruptions to follow you wherever you go. Constantly in touch – ready at a moment’s notice – write a text and send it along. Take a picture – you can use it on your Facebook!

Take all of this in and then think about what you do in the classroom.

What will happen when schools become irrelevant to more and more students? Perhaps you have a core group, you say, that love to read. True devotees. And this core group will…remain stagnant? Can we imagine this group growing? What would be your best educated guess as to direction of the trend? Here is one pressing question that rises first to the surface of these ramblings: Is it critically important for students to read works from the past? Because if we believe that it is, then we have to figure out a way to ensure that students are sold on the notion that literature matters to them, literature from the past as well as the present.

But keep in mind: most students ARE reading now: they are reading videos. They are reading instant messages. They are reading comments left of their My Space or Face Book (or both) pages. And they are writing here too. They are very much concerned with the language of the present, with the stories of today (ask a teenager to tell you about “Jackass II” for a sample of the kinds of stories that interest them). So it’s not that they are separate from the written or visual world – it’s just…well, have you looked at that world lately?

Maybe, I imagine, asking students to pull away from their present world has always been a challenge for educators. My concern is that now – at this point in time – the task of getting students to unplug from their world is fraught with enormous challenges, challenges that need to be met by tapping teachers’ most creative and imaginative resources.

Do we want reading to be a computer activity? More and more, I think the answer is yes. But then again, what will that mean for us as a society of independent thinkers? Do we need to make reading and writing social activities? Primarily, yes, and yes. But what about the life of the soul? The development of the solitary mind? What would Thoreau say? Surely, there will be losses along the way. Certain beloved works from the past may not be translated into this new age as well as others. But others may find continued – even renewed life. And there will also be new works – and new means to access these works. Let students lead the way in this area, perhaps. I have learned so much from watching my own children, who are now members of “Generation Next.” Most significantly, I have learned that things are changing, without a doubt. Are we accelerating exponentially? Is it possible we are on the verge of an enormous human shift? These are just a few of the questions that have surfaced for me in the past few months. But this I do believe: teachers need to pay attention to the current changes in society as brought forth by technology. If we fail to adapt to the reality of today, we are doomed to become relics, frozen dioramas like those Holden Caulfield would admire in the halls of the Museum of Natural History: frozen in time, unchanging, and totally disconnected from the current flow of change and evolution.


IC said...

Wow! Sing it, sister! That was an incredibly poignant piece. Thanks for putting some of our thoughts as educators onto paper. Very well done.

But wait...who's Holden Caulfield?

sptmck said...

You raise many interesting points in this entry. The major one being: a "good" teacher can't ignore the present and the trajectory of the future, with our students as potential guides. But I would also include: we can't ignore the past either. As Mary Tyrone, a mask for the great Eugene O'Neill, says, "the past is the present, it's the future, too." Which brings me to the greatest challenge for all teachers: how do we establish this balance, for lack of a better term? How do WE embrace the present, look to the future, but compel our students to look to the past to learn from and to make their time in both the present and in the brave new worlds of the future better experiences? It's a delicate balance, and sometimes it seems like an impossible one. Perhaps we need to practice Yoga to get the strecthes we need.

But if we should tip the balance one way or the other--fixate solely on the past, the present, or the future, then we limit ourselves and our capacity to slouch towards a better day. Oh, how does one tri-locate?

No answers, just thoughts. In the spirit of slouching, though, I will practice my cat & dog tilts and my standing tree pose; trees sway.

sptmck said...

P.S. Once again: thanks a million for the post :-)