Still on the Fence, But Mostly Hoping for a Kid Who Can Write

If you had asked me a year ago if computers in the elementary school classroom are a good thing, I would have said “not really.”  I still think no, for the most part, but with some hesitation. 

My hesitation is a simple matter of mechanics.  I’d like the school to teach keyboarding.  I regret not giving my eldest more access to the computer because I’d like him to be able to type faster so that when he does have to use the computer at home or at school, he’s not hampered by his lack of typing dexterity. 

My eldest is in Grade 5, and he has very limited access to a computer at home.  The computers are up in our office, and simply out of the family spaces.  He has a DS that has been collecting dust since about two weeks after he got it as a gift.  He’s just not that into it.  The wii gets occasional use now that the novelty has worn off (once every two weeks, maybe), but that has also largely fallen out of favour.  TV is rationed (only on the weekends), and when the kids do get screen time, it’s the TV that they most want.  They usually ask to order a movie or watch a hockey game, so short attention spans are not something I worry about as a side-effect of watching TV.  The fact of the matter is, I just don’t know where we would fit an hour or more of screen time, TV or computer, into our day during the week. 

I have no qualms about limiting TV.  The kids watch enough of it that they are culturally literate, advertising savvy, and somewhat discerning about what they will watch.  (I’ve never managed to interest them in Sesame Street or The Muppets.  Maybe the movie will change that…?)   But I have wondered if I should loosen the reigns on the computer a bit.  Perhaps put a computer downstairs where they can use it more easily.  There is so much fun stuff out here (including us!), and it’s fun to explore.  Some of his friends carry their memory keys to and from school, so they can work on their projects in both places.  I worried when I heard that, because he’s got less time if he only works on things at school, and I’m making it harder for him. Given the choice between snuggling up and reading another chapter from our current book and giving them independent time on the computer, though, books win hands down.  For all of us.

The other day, my husband was driving a pack of boys home from hockey, and my son and a friend got positively giddy to find out that they were reading the same books (The Hunger Games trilogy).  They chatted for ages about them.  I think Ted said there was actual squealing.  I’ve worked really hard to get to that!  I do a lot of reading about kids’ books to find great new reads, and I encourage the kids to read with me and alone as much as I can.  There is real passion in this house for books.  It comes at the cost of screen time.

Although we have always read a lot, I never sat down with my eldest to teach him how to write.  Sadly, neither did any of his teachers, and I did not figure out until it was too late that handwriting is not part of the curriculum.  His writing is legible, but it could be much better.  It is this kind of thing that I most lament: the loss of the basic skills of writing and spelling and mental arithmetic.  When I ask why handwriting and spelling are not part of the curriculum, I am told that the kids will use computers to write in the real world, and the computer has spell check.  I’d rather go back to chalk and slate. 

It’s not just a matter of including computers in elementary education.  Including them means displacing other things.  Writing, spelling, and quick mental arithmetic, I think, are the necessary precursors to the higher order thinking now so lauded by educrats.  Also, they do not teach keyboarding at school, so if you want your kids to type quickly, you have to do that at home as well.

So, I spent the afternoons teaching his younger brother to shape his letters when he got to Kindergarten.  I can see why a teacher might be in a hurry to drop this from the curriculum.  It requires a lot of patience and hands-on guidance.  As luck would have it, his Grade 1 teacher this year is a stickler for good handwriting and makes it a big part of her curriculum. 

And this, of course, is the heart of the matter: the teacher.  As the article from the NYT points out,

it is difficult to separate the effects of the low-tech instructional methods from other factors. For example, parents of students at the Los Altos school say it attracts great teachers who go through extensive training in the Waldorf approach, creating a strong sense of mission that can be lacking in other schools.

No computer can make up for lack-lustre teaching.  A great teacher will inspire his or her students to great heights with or without technology.  It’s a great teacher that makes technology a great tool, not the other way around.  Computers in the classroom also cannot make up for deficiencies in the curriculum.  If we have to make a choice between computers and basic skills, I choose basic skills any day of the week. 

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