Monthly Archives: February 2015

Words, words, words

In a recent article in Education Gadfly, Robert Pondiscio wrote that “to grow up as the child of well-educated parents in an affluent American home is to hit the verbal lottery … when it comes to vocabulary, size matters.” I couldn’t agree more. A diverse and broad vocabulary is more than handy, more than a way to earn a high score on a standardized test. It’s powerful.

I’m teaching seniors this semester, some of whom love English class and others who may not take another English class after graduating high school, and I can accept that – seniors are basically adults without some of the privileges of adulthood. Still, I want to make their time with me and with books as enjoyable as I possibly can, whether I’m their last English teacher or one of many. One of the ways I try to do that is to give them the gift of more words. They don’t always see my emphasis on vocabulary quite the same way.

I thought about this recently while we discussed the character Syme in George Orwell’s 1984. Syme delights in his work on the 11th edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, cutting the English language down to size in order to diminish the power of any individual to speak, write, or formulate thoughts not approved by the Party. The class consensus was that Syme was essentially a criminal, one who commit acts of violence against words as well as people.

But when it came time for us to turn from the text to learning new words, there was less obvious agreement in the room. Frowsy, gambol, claptrap? These seemingly useless words struck few in the room as gifts or keys to autonomy or power.

But they are. And I am hopeful – and confident – that most of my students will see that, now or later.

In the Neighborhood

On a recent Friday night, my 12-year-old daughter and I wandered through some vintage SNL skits on YouTube before landing on Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood. While I laughed nostalgically at Eddie Murphy’s hilarious and at times outrageous lampoon of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, my daughter was unusually quiet.

I tried to explain to her the humor behind the parody, and the jarring differences between the crude, rude Mr. Robinson and the proper, kind Mr. Rogers, but my daughter’s blank gaze remained unchanged. It was the same expression I see fairly often in my own classroom, an expression that says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Ms. Flaxman,” if I make reference to something that I think they must know about, but they don’t. Like Dante. Or Milton. Or The Truman Show.

While I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by my daughter’s lack of knowledge about these cultural icons, I couldn’t let it stand. So off she and I ventured into the Internet’s seemingly infinite realm, Googling this and that.

When we finally settled on a clip from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on YouTube, it was as if we had stepped into a time machine and traveled to a foreign yet familiar world. It was impossible not to notice how slowly Mr. Rogers spoke; in fact the entire episode’s action moved at a painstaking pace by today’s standards. Yet it was completely mesmerizing to watch Mr. Rogers entering his house, greeting each of us, changing his shoes, walking into the kitchen, singing, showing us how three very large puzzle pieces fit into three very large holes in a puzzle.

I felt sentimental seeing the old neighborhood again. My daughter, on the other hand, seemed concerned, even a little sad. “He’s all alone,” she said. “And he’s so sweet. Who is he? Does he have a family?”

For a few minutes, my daughter was walking in a neighborhood not her own, in a neighborhood no longer real or often considered, but nevertheless a place she could recognize on some level as home. This could be considered technology’s magic.

Digital Citizens, Unite

I recently had the good fortune to hear Catherine Steiner-Adair speak about how technology affects family, education, and our culture as a whole. I had previously read her book, The Big Disconnect, which helped me wrap my mind around the concept of “digital citizenship” and why it is so important for educators and parents to model.

Digital citizenship is an ever-expanding set of best practices to guide our navigation of the digital world. It is inclusive of things like netiquette, giving credit where credit is due, and creating a positive digital footprint on social media sites and beyond.

While the phrase is no longer foreign to most, Steiner-Adair reminds us to continue the hard work of thinking – and acting – more intentionally when operating in the digital world. Being a consistently “good” digital citizen is not easy,  and we adults have some blind spots that aren’t helping.

For the most part, public dialogue has focused on the intersection of youth and technology as the place where digital missteps most often occur. But Steiner-Adair and a growing number of others urge us – adults, parents, educators – to look in the mirror first when a child does something he or she shouldn’t do while engaged with the digital world.

Were our expectations clear? Did we speak about and teach those expectations effectively? And, most challengingly, did we model the very behavior we expected to see our children emulate?

In her talk last week in Charlotte, Steiner-Adair said some things that were hard to hear. For example, research shows that we don’t just lose empathy for those we are engaging with online – we also lose empathy for those we love most, like members of our own families. When they interrupt us while we are in the midst of digital communication with someone who isn’t in the room, we can be short tempered, even rude to the very people we depend on. She said that she interviewed more than 1000 children about what it’s like to grow up in the digital age – and overwhelmingly, they said that it’s lonely.

How terrible but true that a tool with the power to bring us closer together leaves children – and adults, too – feeling alone . With more attention from the adults who make or enforce the rules of our roads, real or digital, perhaps it doesn’t have to be.


A Question of Time

I once took a class in negotiation that really challenged me.

I liked the reading (Difficult Conversations, Getting to Yes) but didn’t feel successful as a negotiator. I never felt I had enough time to do a really good job. Even in a classroom setting where the stakes weren’t real, I felt uncomfortable and rushed as I tried to complete, to my satisfaction, the assigned tasks within the time allotted.

The class itself was pretty brief — only two weeks long — and therefore designed to lay bare just a few essential lessons. And I did learn at least two significant things. The first was that the one variable we all must face in every negotiation, indeed in everything, is time. The second was that whatever time we do have in any given scenario dwindles just as we are considering the problem of not having enough of it.

There’s nothing too profound in either of those revelations – we all know that our time is limited, on scales big and small.

But I’ve been thinking about these basic truths in the context of our ever-increasing abilities to access and analyze data and to do our work in exponentially faster ways as a result of new technologies. For someone like me, who likes to be thoughtful and deliberative, having quicker access to the information doesn’t necessarily help me “get to yes”; in fact it can get in the way of my ever feeling I’ve completed what I set out to complete, as there is always more I could know or do.

For me, it’s almost never a question of needing more information — what I really want is just a little more time. Consequently, time is fast becoming the most valuable currency to me, and it is something I will rarely, if ever, feel I have enough of, or want to negotiate away.