Every summer in my small city, the streets of downtown are overrun by flocks of elementary school kids wielding notebooks and pencils. They wear neon yellow backpacks with “Summer Writing Camp” emblazoned on the front. The flocks, generally corralled by a teacher and TA, hole-up in coffee shops, museums, and public parks, dispersing amongst the patrons with eager observational stealth. They listen in on strangers’ conversations, taking notes on people’s speaking patterns, storytelling rhythms, and mannerisms. They eavesdrop, in other words.
All the kids in these flocks are aspiring writers. Somewhere along the line they fell in love with stories. Some will tell you it’s because they love to read, others because they love to imagine, others because they simply nerd out over the art of stringing words together. Twenty years ago, I was one of those kids; squarely in the reading camp.
By listening to random conversations in coffee shops, our burgeoning writer brains learned to bridge the gap between reading dialogue in our favorite books and writing it. Not only was it an exercise in independence and observation, but it was our first lesson in the craft of writing. Once we’d developed an ear for it, many of us went on to fall in love with the ins and outs of the form: small delights like paragraph structure and grammar conventions. For those who might have budding writers in their lives, this guide is a great resource for introducing them to the small but invaluable treasures of the written word.
Today, Common Core education is changing the way kids learn. There is no longer time for meandering and musing in coffee shops. There are tests to complete and assessments to conquer. Common Core is a set of US standards established for K-12 students in Math and English. It’s essentially a way to guarantee that when a student graduates from a grade, he or she will have mastery of certain base-level skills. It’s a good thing, really. But standardization carries with it the risk of hindering classroom creativity. Lessons are more likely to be squeezed into timetables built with the sole intention of meeting national requirements, perhaps leaving some of the magic of learning in its wake. Think about that, kids learning how to read in a classroom where there’s no room for creativity. How is that going to play out?
Teachers have mixed feelings about Common Core. According to the University of Cincinnati, 63% of public educators say that the Common Core curriculum does not leave enough time for creative learning; at the same time, the majority still feel positive about having a nationwide standard. All in all it leaves us in a funny place. A fly-by-the-seat of your pants sort of place. We just have to give it a go and see what happens.
As a result of all this, educators find themselves leaning upon technology to foster creativity in the classroom — assigning students to create YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, and use their social media accounts as a platform for meaningful discussion. This creative use of technology is a sure way to get students’ neurons firing. It engages them outside of the classroom and, in theory at least, imbues rushed classroom lessons with value beyond just the assignment. The hope is that by utilizing social technologies, educators can impart skills that will “futureproof” their students against the pitfalls that have hindered previous generations. That is to say, students of the present era won’t graduate from high school only to find themselves unprepared to handle the technical, social, and decision-making skills required in the job market. They will already be masters.
But we’re not totally sure what side-effects technology will have on the developing brains of these young students. Is it possible to lean too heavily on technologies? It has been noted in publication after publication that the internet is changing the way grown adults read. We are losing our innate ability for “deep reading,” the kind of reading that inspires introspection and retention. Instead, because of the sheer amount of information to sift through, we skim. And that’s why we have an internet full of bullet points, headings galore, and easily-consumable listacles. (If there’s a more cringe-inducing word than “listacle,” I’ve yet to learn it.) Writers simplify things to the point of insanity, in the hopes that a greater number of people will see their work. Or comment. Or something.
The whole thing brings us to the decades-old question: Will an over-reliance on technology make us dumber?
I’m certainly not going throw out an answer to that question; there’s far too much grey area for a simple yes or no. But I will offer this: as a child I never would have fallen in love with storytelling had I been taught about it on a screen alone. For me, a screen means lack of engagement with the learning process. Without the experience of discovering my own very personal relationship to plot, pacing, and character
development — sneakily taking notes in a cafe and dreaming up a story about the man in the corner with four empty coffee mugs stacked neatly atop his table — I never would have caught the literary spark.
Perhaps the only real way our intellect risks slipping into oblivion is if we collectively stop internalizing our educations. We’re sunk if learning becomes a rote task, a means to an end. Of course the danger, as it appears now in early 2017, is that it’s just so much easier to zone out on a screen than it is when you’re engaging with people face to face. But maybe the next generation of writers won’t have that problem. Maybe their brains will know better. Or better yet, maybe we can give them the tools to avoid our generation’s failures. For starters, we can hand them a book.