Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Watching Kids Write, III


All through elementary school, all through junior high and high school, all through college and graduate school, I wrote every paper longhand.  Pen or pencil.  Then--if required--I typed the paper on a manual typewriter.  (In public school, I can remember only one assignment--a term paper--that required typed copy.)  Later on--when I started to care more--I would revise and retype, revise and retype, revise and ...

I wrote my (very forgettable) dissertation--a 400+-pg effort--longhand.  Typed and revised three times, then for the final copy hired a typist; I was sick of it--just as I am sick now as I think of some of the things I wrote in that dreadful thing.

All of this, of course, took myriad hours of effort--akin to assembly-line work.  It took me about ten minutes to type a single page; multiply that by 400 and you get the idea.

Our first "word-processor" was an IBM Selectric electric typewriter (we soon had to buy a second one: two writers in the house, both needing the same machine--not good for marital harmony.)

Joyce and I both graduated with our Ph.D.'s in 1977.  Neither of us ever typed papers "cold" on the typewriter--though my older brother, Richard, could do it--which is probably the first sign that he would be a journalist.  (I still remember him, up at the crack of dawn, cold-typing a paper due that very day.  Having the bedroom next door to him was a bit like sharing quarters with a guy who liked to practice with his pneumatic hammer--at 4:30 a.m.)

When Joyce and I returned to Ohio in the fall of 1979 to teach at WRA, we were still typing on the IBM's.  But within a couple of years--we bought our first computer: a Kaypro II, which required two 5.25-in floppy disks: One went in the top drive (it was the program disk), the other in the bottom (the data disk).  No file could be much bigger than a handful of pages; otherwise, the tiny machine memory just could not keep up with it. The text was green on a black background.  But Joyce wrote her first book on a Kaypro II (the one about Kate Chopin and The Awakening); I wrote a book, too, a very bad but very long novel about a schoolteacher.  It's still not published--but one day it may make it to Amazon/Kindle.

Soon we had to have two Kaypro II machines.  Then we progressed to an early Mac, some PCs; I do not dare calculate the dollars we've spent on computers.

When I returned to teach at Harmon School in 1982, computers were beginning to appear in the school.  Apple II's.  Some Macs.  But kids had little access to them.  But it wasn't long before Harmon got its first computer lab--set up in the Media Center--and the administration encouraged teachers to take kids there for classes.  Which I did.  Many times.

In those days, very few kids (I had 8th graders) could type at all, so it was hunt-and-peck time in the computer lab.  I was able to dazzle some of the kids with my typing speed (the one skill I can trace directly to Hiram High School and Typing I), but the dazzle soon diminished as they became more used to me--and as their own skills improved.

Getting kids to back up their work often (on their own little floppies) was a battle, and they frequently lost their work when the cranky machines crashed.  (Not all that surprising when you consider we were often matching flimsy machinery with kids who had not yet learned the word "delicate.")  As I worked with kids in those early labs, I was constantly having to solve technical problems--and some of them quickly grew savvy enough to create problems, problems which meant that they wouldn't have to work much during the period.  (Can you imagine?)

Later, the technology improved, the machines became more kid- and tamper-resistant, and I actually found myself doing more teaching and less tech-repair during the lab periods.

By the time I returned to WRA in 2001, computers were everywhere in the school, and going to the labs was a regular part of my class.  I noticed that although many of the kids were far more computer-literate than I, their competence did not always extend to word-processing, so I was able to show even the geekiest of them some tricks on Word.  But most of the time, I was able to float around, watching the screens, cutting off writing problems at the pass, teaching usage and punctuation and style to individual kids as I saw the need--it was wonderful.

But sometimes it wasn't wonderful.  Some would try to visit the Internet, check Facebook, etc.  Other kids would get stuck and not know what to do.  I remember one girl a few years ago was sitting there idly with about twenty minutes left in the period.  I chirped some scolding sounds at her; she chirped right back, "I'm just not feelin' it."

I laughed.  (I knew the feeling.)  And let her sit there and feel proud of herself.

In very recent years, I began noticing a sort of general restlessness among the kids during these writing periods.  I couldn't figure out what the problem was.  (There were times when I felt I'd flashed back to my days as an 8th grade teacher--and these were high school juniors.)

But then one day--JUST LAST YEAR--a young man asked a simple question: "Dr. Dyer, can we listen to our iPods while we write?"

My first reaction, "Hell no!"  (This I thought but did not speak.)  After all, the school had a rule: No iPods

Out came the iPods in a flash of white, earplugs danging on the cords like minnows.   And the kids wrote that period with a focus I'd not seen all year.

And--doofus that I am--I realized: Of course!  They always have that minnow in an ear!  They can't concentrate without it! The sound of DUH echoed about the campus ...

Who says you can't teach an old dog ... ?

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