Yearly, we teachers hear the “Digital Natives” in our classrooms need something more and different. New technologies, programs, and applications will improve our instruction, we’re told, and each fall the push begins to integrate new methods into our classes. The old ways have passed away, and the message is clear: keep up or risk irrelevance and invisibility. Resisting progress is announcing your mental arthritis, your denial of newer realities.
I do the best I can but have an ugly confession: I love the throw-backs, the students who don’t need the enticement and excitement of innovative technology or techniques, who rely instead on their own inquisitiveness and the computers they carry within them. They appreciate learning whether it’s technologically advanced or not. Everything new is old again, and vice versa.
A teacher’s biggest challenge is convincing students to care—in my case, to value books increasingly regarded as passé, dull, or irrelevant; to embrace reading accurately, thoughtfully, and discerningly; to accept the useful torture of writing; to enjoy rumination that questions (even undermines) original answers. You have to want hard work to do it well, and, while easier paths lead to quicker results, they often sidestep the labor that improves you.
Some students flog themselves through school because they see it as a means to status or professional success, but most need intrinsic motives, curiosity, a feeling labor rewards itself. Technology is supposed to motivate and sometimes does, but the students who want to learn hear real people speaking from every and any source. Those who don’t wish to listen regard all words, electronic or ink, as noise interrupting what they’d rather be doing. My job is to assert authors’ voices are valuable. Insisting may not be enough, but elaborate, stimulating, and entertaining technology often does little better and distracts students as much as it entices them.
They grow rare, these students who accept low-tech education, who look past apparatus to the stuff of learning. My eyes sting with tears when I meet a student who expects struggle and wants it, who loves the frustrating play of writing, who smiles encountering the delicate expression of deep truth, who occupies a character’s mind with his or her own, who hears ancient ideas echoing in the present, who leaps like a spark between unlikely poles, who tunnels like a blind mole immune to diversion, who finds splendor in faintly etched messages, who laughs, or cries, or angers, or warms, or cools, or gasps when encountering another mind. Of course, all these traits exist in technophiles too, but does technology assure sound scholarship, does it guarantee interest?
When I started teaching, I poked the ground with a straw and oil bubbled out. Perhaps that had more to do with youthful enthusiasm, but every effort produced more than enough response to sustain me. I don’t begrudge the effort of preparing lessons or dreaming up new and different ways to engage students. I like my students. But lately the ground appears to yield less. The proportion of effort to return has changed. For my students, life outside school is so much more exciting than anything I can serve up. Students race ahead. Keeping up seems more and more taxing, the gained learning less and less fulfilling. Style trumps substance.
Perhaps I’ve become the teacher who has passed the age of being cool and, now older than his students’ parents, is part of the place, another desk or chair. I’d rather not be. Who wants to be the person colleagues regard deferentially, the one whose antique experience inspires the sort of love generally reserved for decaying uncles? Who wants to be the genial holdover whose eccentricities must be borne? I want to be hip.
But I’m tired and wonder how the latest novelty will help.