Monthly Archives: September 2010

Turn Down The Noise

I am reposting an article that was published on August 17, 2010 by Carla K. Johnson, a medical writer. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat in the halls at the community college where I work, and have heard students approach before I have ever seen them coming. So many of them wear their ear buds between classes, to get from point A to point B, I have often thought the constant noise has to be having some kind of impact on their hearing.

Turns out, it is.

Study: 1 in 5 US teenagers has slight hearing loss

CHICAGO — A stunning one in five teens has lost a little bit of hearing, and the problem has increased substantially in recent years, a new national study has found. Some experts are urging teenagers to turn down the volume on their digital music players, suggesting loud music through earbuds may be to blame – although hard evidence is lacking. They warn that slight hearing loss can cause problems in school and set the stage for hearing aids in later life.

“Our hope is we can encourage people to be careful,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Gary Curhan of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The researchers analyzed data on 12- to 19-year-olds from a nationwide health survey. They compared hearing loss in nearly 3,000 kids tested from 1988-94 to nearly 1,800 kids tested over 2005-06.

While the researchers didn’t single out iPods or any other device for blame, they found a significant increase in high-frequency hearing loss, which they said may indicate that noise caused the problems. And they cited a 2010 Australian study that linked use of personal listening devices with a 70 percent increased risk of hearing loss in children.

“I think the evidence is out there that prolonged exposure to loud noise is likely to be harmful to hearing, but that doesn’t mean kids can’t listen to MP3 players,” Curhan said.

Loud music isn’t new, of course. Each new generation of teenagers has found a new technology to blast music _ from the bulky headphones of the 1960s to the handheld Sony Walkmans of the 1980s. [But] today’s young people are listening longer, more than twice as long as previous generations, said Brian Fligor, an audiologist at Children’s Hospital Boston. The older technologies had limited battery life and limited music storage, he said.

[And] some young people turn their digital players up to levels that would exceed federal workplace exposure limits, said Fligor. In Fligor’s own study of about 200 New York college students, more than half listened to music at 85 decibels or louder. That’s about as loud as a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner.

Bottom line, if you can hear someone’s music playing while their earbuds are in, they are probably listening to their music at too loud of a decibel. And while they may hate you, you would be doing them a big favor in asking them to dial down the noise.

Do you let your kids use ear buds? Do you feel they use them at a reasonable listening level? Would you feel comfortable asking a stranger to turn down his/her music?

The Empty Blue Desk

photo from Google images

Fall Semester 2009. Last year. He sat in the back row. In the only blue desk in a room filled with brown desks. He wore a button up shirt every day. He was quiet. Kept to himself. Initially, he was studious and handed in each assignment. His grammar was impeccable, his writing strong. He had a wry sense of humor and wrote about a time when he had worked in a Styrofoam factory. How the white stuff stuck to him, went up his nose, in his mouth, made him sneeze and sputter. He learned quickly he didn’t want to ever work in a Styrofoam factory. We all laughed when he read his piece aloud. Not at him: at his material. He was funny.

I expected great things. In fact, I was so sure he was going to produce great things, he kind of fell off my radar.

About six weeks into the semester, we hit the argumentative research paper unit, and he started to fall apart. He didn’t hand in his intentions for his topic, thus he never had a topic approved. I worried because he didn’t seem to be moving forward. While other students worked on paraphrasing and interview questions for their “experts,” he sat still in his blue chair, looking stiff and uncomfortable.

Finally, I asked him to stay after class. I went to his desk. I asked him if he had started the research paper. No. Did he have a topic? No. Did he need help selecting one, I implored. It was not too late. No. Could I help him? No. Would he let me know if I could help him? No. That was the one that stopped me. Chilled me, actually. No? I tried to look into his face, his eyes for something, but he was looking down, angry at being detained, at the questioning.

“You won’t contact me if you need help?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

I tried to explain to him that up until the research paper, he had an A — the only A grade in the class! He shrugged, underwhelmed. I told him he could still save his grade, the semester, but without the research paper, it would be impossible to pass, especially since he had not met any of the deadlines during the process. I told him I was worried about him.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I understand what I’m doing.”

The next day I received an email from Records and Registration that read:

We regret to inform you that we have been notified of the death of one of your current students (name here, and student number). We have noted this in the student information system so that all parties reviewing the student’s record will be informed.

Please make the appropriate notation in your records.

I was stunned. The appropriate notation? Was there a code I was supposed to put in my book? “D” for deceased? “S” for suicide? I knew I had to have been among the last to speak with my student. I replayed our conversation in my head endlessly. “I understand what I am doing” suddenly sounded much more ominous. I had missed it. I had missed a strong student’s decline from excellence into despair. Something was going on with him, and I had missed it. Maybe the better notation was “IF”: I. Failed. Or IF I had only known.

Later, I learned that my former student’s chosen method was to wrap his car around a telephone pole. He had been driving very fast. Very intentionally. He understood what he was doing.

Meanwhile, I was devastated. None of my students noticed the sudden absence of their classmate because students come and go all the time at community college. People drop out for many reasons: job or family obligations, financial issues, poor grades, poor attendance.  I spent the remaining weeks of the semester staring at that lone blue desk amidst the sea of brown desks and felt desperate.

I have had former students die – through illnesses, accidents, even at their own hand — just not during the semesters I taught them. Last year’s experience was a first for me. I have long known that I cannot transform them all into English teachers (nor would I want to), but I guess I always thought out of all their teachers, I would be the one they might come to if they needed help. I would be the one they would choose.

Last year, I learned that was a ridiculous idea, and that I cannot save them all.

What My Fingernails Know

photo by rocket ship @ flickr.com

When every fingernail on both of my hands has broken, I know it for sure: summer is over. It happens to me every year over a two or three-day period. It’s a physical thing; parts of me grow brittle and fall off. Long before the leaves ever change to yellow or orange, my body knows: autumn is in the house.

There may be a rogue “warm day” where the temperatures skyrocket into the 70s. Children put on their shorts and short-sleeved t-shirts. Folks celebrate, go for bike rides and walks in the park. And while I, of course, appreciate the warmth, the glow, the sun in my eyes, I know it is all an elaborate ruse.

The corn has been harvested. My clematis has withered and turned brown. And because I am perpetually cold, I am the first to pull out “the winter bin,” which holds all the hats and scarves and gloves. And once this curly-haired girl puts her hat on, it stays on. Until April. My closest friends know this about me – that I wear hats for about half of the year – but I have to explain myself to each new batch of fall students.

I tell them that I am a summer girl, and while I love the change of seasons – apple picking, pumpkin carving, Halloween and snow-skiing – deep in my bones, I will forever long for those years in New Orleans, Louisiana, where summer was eternal and stretched well into November, sometimes beyond. I tell them that every boy I ever really loved I met in the summer, and it is hard for me to let go of the sun and heat of my youth; that each year, like some weird woman disguised as a tree, I actually feel myself growing a little older, that instead of rings around my trunk to reflect my age, I collect wrinkles around my eyes. Each September, I lose a little of my fashizzle, my sparkle, my shine. It comes back. (It always comes back. It just goes underground and hibernates with the raccoons and the bears for a few months.)

Some of them claim to understand.

(Some of them tell me there is medication I can take.)

Some of them tell me summer isn’t over yet, and that there are sure to be plenty of pretty, warm days ahead.

I don’t care what the calendar says.

My fingernails don’t lie.

It’s fall.

The Secret To Finding The Best Babysitters

photo by margolove @ flickr.com

The best babysitters are, of course, the ones who love interacting with your children and know how to take care of them in any circumstance. But now that my son is older, I have found that the best sitters – the ones who not only take care of his physical and emotional needs – are the ones who like to linger around after my child (and usually my husband) have gone to bed so we can discuss life. And books!

Hilary was our first real babysitter. A former student of mine, I plucked her from my classroom (while I was on maternity leave) and asked if she would be interested in regularly watching my newborn on Saturday nights. By the time my husband and I came home, Hil would have cleaned the entire house and be quietly studying for some upcoming, major test. She would tell me some cute thing my child did, and then she would tell me what she was reading: usually something out of a ridiculously heavy science book she was toting around. Always diligent, Hilary was incredibly detail oriented, so I was not surprised to learn that Hilary became a pharmacist — and is now a mother herself!

I met Marioli while strolling at Nazareth College, determined to find another good babysitter, you know, for when Hilary was not available. I had my l’il dude packed into his stroller and was tacking up those little tear-off sheets indicating that I was looking for a responsible babysitter, with expertise in watching young children, who was willing to make my son priority #1 while my husband and I were out for a few hours. While pinning up my ad, Marioli stopped to chat, got down on her hands and knees and cooed at my l’il person. She made him giggle, so – of course, I liked her right away. Standing up, her brown hair bouncing, she said she was interested in the position. Turns out, she had a whole crew of siblings; people she missed while in college. She knew how to take care of children because she had always taken care of brothers and sisters. She was astoundingly entertaining, extremely reliable, my son loved her — and she turned me on to The Poisonwood Bible and we talked late into the night about Shakespeare and Dante’s concept of Hell in The Inferno.

The need for swim lessons brought me to Jen, yet another Nazareth College student. (By then, it had become abundantly clear that with their strong education department, I needed only to hang around the education department for a few minutes, and I would find a solid babysitter.) Jen taught my son to swim. She brought him games to play, books to read, new things to challenge his mind. She played endless hours of LEGOs with him. (Lord, love her.) And then, at night, she would discuss the new teaching standards and show me the rubrics she had designed. She talked about her student teaching experience, the politics – the up and the down days. I screamed with joy when she landed a full-time job, even though I knew it would pull her away from our family. I was just so stinkin’ happy for her.

My beloved Billy went from former student to one of my son’s favorite babysitters. After Billy graduated from college, he worked crazy hours. He worked three or four jobs. Maybe five. Seriously. I don’t know how he did it, but he had to make money to put himself through graduate school, so he worked. A lot. Billy and I would stay up waaaay too late talking about classroom stuff. He recommended books like I Just Want My Pants Back (which sucked) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which rocked). More recently, Billy expressed frustration about how to get re-designated as “World’s Best Substitute Teacher” to Full-time Math Teacher in a classroom of his own. And, again, I screamed when I learned he just recently landed a long-term substitute position in the district he wanted. Okay, so it isn’t perfect, but it is a foot in the door. Foot. In. The. Door.

Now that my son is in middle school, we are needing fewer sitters. Luckily, Christina lives across the street. A voracious reader in 11th grade, her reading aptitude extends far beyond her years. In fact, everything about Christina is far beyond her years; she has an adult sensibility and has found an escape into the world of books. We have texted about whether or not Ordinary People possesses a “bildungsroman‘ motif. We’ve chatted about Wuthering Heights and Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Death of a Salesman. As you can imagine, I adore Christina. She is like dessert after the dessert.

So my advice to parents looking for good babysitters? Go to your favorite, local college: one that has a reputation for its outstanding education program — and put up a sign. Ask the requisite questions: (What would you do if my child was bleeding? Choking? Knocked unconscious? Being a major pain in the butt?), and then ask:

What book have you really enjoyed?

If the person before you can’t pull a title out of his or her . . . um, brain . . . pretty darn quick, let ‘em go. I don’t care how cute or nice she is, if she is the star of the field hockey team or the school musical. It’s all smoke and mirrors. But if you find a kid who says he has dozens of favorite authors, favorite books, how could he ever pick just one (and he starts tossing out a few titles), you have just stumbled onto a gold mine.

Hold on tight. You just might learn something.

What are your best tips on finding great babysitters? And what are you reading?

tweet me @rasjacobson

What Our Actions Teach Our Kids About The Earth

image by D. Sharon Pruitt @ flickr.com

Monroe Community College has a new greenhouse on campus and this past school year, more than 850 students enrolled in 11 courses — from botany to business management — with an agricultural component. Some of these classes made use of the greenhouse, where — with state-of-the-art heating and cooling systems — tomatoes potted in soil thrive near micro-greens cultivated hydroponically in nutrient-enriched water.

This summer MCC launched a week-long Agriculture Summer Camp for Kids. And this semester, MCC students — for the first time — are able to take an introduction to agriculture course. Much of the push for MCC’s closer ties to the agricultural community comes from Bob King, who is the founding director of the Agriculture and Life Sciences Institute at MCC, established in January 2007. “People are more and more concerned about sustainability and how to account for their carbon footprint. And what better way to do (that) than through agriculture?” King is quoted as saying.

I try to remain optimistic, but I find myself wondering if our efforts are merely an exercise in too little, too late? As thousands of gallons of oil oozed into the Gulf just off the coast of my beloved former home of Louisiana, I found myself thinking about how the more we try to fix things, the more we muck things up.

We teach our children they can be anything, that they can do anything. Do we teach them to sit quietly and listen to the earth? To appreciate a blade of grass? To understand how we are dependent on the oxygen produced by the plants and trees around us? Are we willing to spend the extra time to tend our own lawns rather than dump funky chemicals onto our properties to make our lawns look like golf-course greens?

My friend, Jennifer Hess, is working to make change in our local school district lunch program: To integrate healthier choices into the kids’ daily fare; after all, that is what the district health curriculum preaches. She has written an amazing blog on the topic of school nutrition. I am behind her 100%. How far are people willing to go to learn about the effects of hormones in meat and milk? About high fructose corn syrup and its relationship to the obesity epidemic? What do you do when you learn that supposedly vitamin packed soft-drinks turn out to be no healthier than sodas? And once you know, how willing are you to change your purchasing and eating habits?

“Out of The Closet” by Chrissy Teague

This piece was written by a former student from Monroe Community College, Crissy Teague. She is one smart, beautiful, tough cookie.

image from google.com

Everything I own in the world fits behind two locked closet doors. Last year I divorced, got fired and denied for unemployment. My nine-year old  and I moved back home with my mother. I felt lost. What could I control? I could take care of what little I owned. I locked away clothes, movies, CD’s, shoes, video games and hygiene products. No one would borrow or damage what was “mine.” It belonged to me. My thirteen year-old sister would no longer take my clothes without asking, not even the dirty ones — (I locked the hamper up too). Everything changed, but I would be  in control of my little world.

Then, my son threw two mega fits while we accompanied my mother to the mall. He first cried when I refused his request for a certain video game. Telling him to “put it on his Christmas list,” or “we can’t afford it because Mommy’s not working,” or “you hardly play the the your other Wii games” did not make the tears subside. Mega fit number two came when I gave him a caramel rice cake topped with peanut butter to snack on. His lack of gratitude, and double dose of tears in two hours resulted in up a “starving kids in Africa” speech.

Fuming, I sat arms crossed. How could my child be so ungrateful? Why is he so selfish/self-centered? After a few moments I realized, this behavior is learned: Narcissism as taught by me. I remembered my belongings under lock and key. I’ve been doing this all wrong. Not just training my child, but living. My new conviction: God did not breathe life into me so I could horde pleasures for myself then die, an empty existence.

guest blogger, Crissy Teague

The little I own in the closets now seems like too much. It’s time to come out of the closets. I will give to my local community. I will go through my movies/video games and donate to local orphanages. My son has extra toys, books to give to a daycare, or hospital children’s wing, or library. A dozen fancy dresses and shoes can go to the Fairy Godmother project. Instead of spending nights indoors watching movies, my son and I will volunteer. It is better to give than to receive. I’m going to give my son a rich legacy—a legacy of giving to others.

What are you holding onto that might benefit someone else? Needs have never been greater. What better time to give than now? You may feel like you don’t have much. I understand. I’m a jobless single mother coming out of two closets. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to give. I challenge you to do what you can. Our relatives, our friends, our neighbors need us. The quality of community is in our hands. Who knows the outcome? The life you change may be your own.

Father and Son: Gone Golfing

A golf ball directly before the hole

Image via Wikipedia

Note: This blog was written the Sunday before the school year started.

My husband and my son have been on the driving range for an hour.

I know this because I have been spying on them from my car.

About twenty minutes ago, it started to rain, and I thought they would stop. But they didn’t. They kept on whacking dem balls, oblivious.

I never thought this day would come.

When my son was 9 months old and just starting to walk, my husband decided May would be a lovely time to get serious about the game of golf and join a local club.

I remember being furious and feeling completely abandoned. I’d imagined the two of us taking turns watching our teetering toddler as he endlessly padded  down the tile floors. But then I became a golf widow, and I lost my husband.

I suppose, at the time, the golf course was a better lover. After all, she was beautiful, well-maintained, undulating, and brimming with splendor. All of that gorgeousness was in sharp opposition to the new-mommy me. When our son was 9 months old, sometimes I looked downright ragged; sometimes I was mean; some days, I didn’t  shower, and I was cranky when my husband came home. I offered no new vistas. At home, every day was the same thing: Diapers, feedings, naps. Or – heaven forbid – no naps.

My husband promised that it would get easier, the parenting gig. And it has. Our 11-year-old son is easy-going, funny, eager to try new things. He is kind, loyal, open-minded, intuitive and imaginative.

And I just watched him whack a golf ball farther than I have ever managed to hit one. The ball flew long and straight, right over the flag.

So he is starting to golf.

It’s kind of cool. Something he can do with his dad.

Maybe one day they’ll go on a guy trip to some fabulous location together and bring their clubs. Talk about guy stuff.

Watching them enjoy themselves as the rain pours on their heads, I realize, it’s time to stop being pissy about the golf thing.

Because they enjoy it.

Even in the rain.

I don’t have to be part of everything. As long as I can meet up with them for dinner, I’m good.

tweet me @rasjacobson

Office Heroine or Immature Coward?

Check out this video. It’s short, and it is a hoax . . . but it raises some interesting questions:

So a girl decides to quit her job with a flash-bang by emailing these photos to her entire (made-up) office. On the one hand, watching the little display feels wonderful. I mean, it’s positively cathartic! Who hasn’t had one of those bosses? The kind that make us wish that we could do something like that? I can imagine the air being sucked out of the room as “Spencer’s” entire life is broadcast (and now re-broadcast and re-broadcast). Maybe the girl should be praised? Perhaps she opened the way for some constructive conversation about how things are run in this office.

On the other hand, it’s an awful lot of drama. Don’t get me wrong, as a voyeur, this is a completely enjoyable guilty pleasure. But it’s easy to have chutzpah as you are walking out the door. And as I said to my friend who forwarded me the message, I’m thinking this girl might have gone about doing things a little differently. She might have tried talking to Spencer about how things feel in the office, about morale, about his breath. It seems awfully unprofessional and terribly immature.

This young lady obviously has burned a lot of bridges, so she isn’t going to get any kind of strong recommendation to help her on her next job (although she has probably decided she does not want to be a broker). But the way the world works these days, she just might get noticed and land a great book deal!

So would you hire Little Miss Thang because she is smart and sassy? Or do you think Little Miss Thang might be toxic to your work environment?

Pep Talk For New Teachers

As the new school year approaches, it occurs to me that there are a lot of new teachers heading out there.  This is my twentieth year in the classroom. It hardly feels possible, but if you were to check my Facebook page, it is peopled by former students from five different schools. Most of these folks now have children of their own!  I figured I’d share some things with new teachers that I’ve learned over the years. And I hope that parents will consider these things, too – especially if you hear your child has a new teacher. Before you start wringing your hands in despair, understand that new teachers bring enthusiasm to the classroom. They are eager to work, eager to get to the business of teaching. Help them; encourage them. They have to figure things out very quickly.

August. A new class arrives. Wide-eyed, unformed, brimming with enthusiasm, the youngest ones tinged with trepidation. They find their rooms, sit in desks which have held many before them, smile brightly, secretly thrilled, eager to ponder great books, study unfathomed formulas, devour complex theories, dream noble dreams. This is the ritual of August, right?

Sort of. I mean, maybe for the first week or two. But by the end of the first month, when that ho-hum routine is kicking in, and summer feels like past tense, students may become hauntingly silent, or worse, horribly restless. This is when a new teacher may begin to panic. Because  there are papers to be graded, charts to be updated, forms to be completed and returned to somebody’s office: It’s grueling and even more difficult when you are still trying to figure out whose office is where and which key opens what door.

When I was a teacher at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana, I was on a Committee that helped to create a new faculty handbook filled with enough information to get a new teacher started, but not so much as to overwhelm.

New Teachers, see if any of these things help:

photo by Eric James Sarmiento @ flickr.com

1. Don’t take things too personally. You have to know this up front. Your students are going to talk about. If you are lucky, they will say nice things like, “I like Mr. X’s hair,” or “Ms. Q. is kinda cool.” More likely, you will overhear them in the halls: “(Insert your name here) is unfair. Not flexible. Boring. Biased. Unqualified.” Let’s face it. Not every student is going to die for your class. Not every student is going to find the Quadratic equation fascinating. Not every student is going to care about conjugating verbs. They won’t all be interested in Mendelian genetics. Some of them won’t like your unit on Lord of the Flies, or insects, or rain forests. Listen to their comments, glean from them what you will, and then let them go. This is especially true for teachers of older students when you receive your first batch of student evaluations.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Usually teachers are the nicest bunch of folks you can ever meet. (Except when there are budget cuts. When there are budget cuts, hide your construction paper and bolt down your stapler.) But generally speaking, if you need support, a new teacher can ask just about any other faculty member to explain how to un-jam the copier or for directions to the nearest bathroom. No matter what your problems might be, if you are in need, there is someone who can help you. Teachers like to be helpful.

3. Don’t forget to forgive yourself. One of the greatest advantages to teaching is the forgiving nature of children. That same characteristic which makes your students forget the complex theory which you masterfully presented to them just yesterday allows them to completely forget your prior day’s blunder. Even older students will be tolerant of your errors if you are honest about them and don’t try to pretend they didn’t happen. You should apply this same forgiveness to yourself. Some of your lessons are going to suck. But some will be brilliant.

photo by Nick J. Webb @ flickr.com

4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. This is not in any  handbooks I’ve ever read on teaching, but it’s actually really important. If your new teaching experience is anything like mine was, in addition to your teaching responsibilities, you’ve probably already taken on extracurricular responsibilities. Whether you’ re working on a yearbook, organizing a dance or proctoring for SATs, helping to make costumes for the play or coaching a sport, no doubt you’ve got your new teacher hands full. And just as you are getting a grip, someone pops his head in and offers you another great “opportunity for growth.” Don’t be afraid to say no. It isn’t always easy, but you don’t have to take on additional responsibilities you don’t feel ready to handle. Because if you take on too many activities, you’ll get sick. This is because new teachers spend late nights planning, and grading, trying to stay one day ahead of their students. So while it sounds obvious, don’t forget to get enough sleep, eat right, and take lots of vitamins.

5. Don’t forget to laugh. If necessary, look for something funny! Just watching a group of kids at work or coming down the hallway is usually sufficient. There’s usually someone picking his nose, someone with an unzipped fly, someone with pants down around the knees, some girl wearing waaaay too much make-up — (and I’m pretty sure this applies from kindergarten all the way up to college level, folks!) And don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t appreciate the hilarity of the moment when you learn that you have chalk on your butt. It’s funny!

6. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. The most seasoned teachers will tell you that even fifteen or twenty years from now, you still won’t know everything – especially these days with the technology changing so quickly, the kids will, no doubt, be teaching you many things. Let them. If you don’t know something, don’t make something up. Tell the student you don’t know the answer to the question. Write. It. Down. Do some research, and get back to the student with the answer. That student will know that you care.

In May, when you feel more relaxed, more comfortable, more competent, you will walk from one end of the campus/quad/building to the other and each time experience something different — a burst of magnolias on the east side of the auditorium; on the terrace, a gathering of students, intense in their chatter; the sturdy dark wood of the dining room, inviting and scented with red sauce; in the middle school wing, you might see mouths devouring a snack. If it is a Thursday, maybe they might be eating donuts (*she said nostalgically*); outside, during recess, the littlest ones will swing and climb, jump and shout; and everywhere fluffy squirrels will scratch up the nearest trees. You will smile at a colleague while passing her and return a wave to a student who enjoys your class. You will remind someone to throw his plastic something-or-other in the garbage can. You will begin making plans for next year’s classes. You will feel calm. You will feel you belong. You will have survived your first year, the gauntlet.

I promise you, the following year will be a lot easier!

Seasoned teachers, how did I do? What did I forget?

A Bridge From Cyber Chaos to the World of Words

The Facebook Man. Facebook is celebrating its ...

Image via Wikipedia

I am forever trying to make sense of how to balance the world of books (which sit quietly, unobtrusively on tables) and the world of screens (which flash and bing and ping noisily for our attention). To me, they are like two different kinds of children.

Today, I was reading Madame Librarian’s Blog, and I saw that she had stumbled across something wonderful that struck a chord for her, and also struck that same place in me! She found a quote from an interview with Jonathan Franzen where he says:

I think novelists nowadays have a responsibility—whether or not my contemporaries are actually living up to it—to make books really, really compelling. To make you want to turn off your phone and walk away from your Internet connection and go spend some time in another place. I’m trying to fashion something that will actually pull you away, so I’m certainly conscious of the tension between the solitary world of reading and writing, and the noisy crowded world of electronic communications.

I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. You have the sense of “Oh yeah, I’m writing in my angry response to your post, and now I’m flaming back the person who flamed me back for my angry response.” All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else.

Franzen goes on to discuss how people who love books love to hold books, the whole experience of a book. I, personally, am a sloppy margin scribbler. I turn back corners and make notes. I underline and star things. No one wants to borrow a book after I have read it, and if I have ever borrowed someone else’s book, I usually have to buy them a new copy. Not because they wouldn’t take back the marked up copy, but because I simply can’t give back the book once it has become part of me.

This is probably partly why I have resisted getting a nook or a kindle, even though numerous people have told me I would love it. That I could still make my marginal notes; they would just be typed, and all my comments would appear in chronological order and be easily found. I understand all of this. It’s just, well . . . I just finished reading a book called The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future by Mark Bauerlein. And frankly, it caught my attention. The premise of the book is that parents and educators have been sold a bad bill of goods, promising that computers will help make learning easier and more enjoyable for students. They have also been promised that their children’s test scores and literacy will go up as a result of this new technology: that the whole world is at their fingertips.

The author points out, however, that this is not the way teens use the Internet technology that is available to them. Teens don’t independently look up information about history or art or follow politics or listen to any music except popular music.  Young users have learned to upload and download, surf and chat, post and design, play games and buy things online, but they haven’t learned to analyze a complex text, store facts in their heads, comprehend foreign policy, take lessons from history, or spell correctly. They require teachers, parents, religious leaders and employers to teach to pull them from their adolescent ethos towards a more mature ethic which will expose them to the idea of serious work, civic duty, financial independence, personal and family responsibility.

And as ironic as this is going to sound coming from an online blogger, I am trying to minimize my screen time. Yes, I will continue to blog, but I’m trying to live a little more unplugged because I truly believe (and now have well researched and documented support, thanks to Bauerlein) that all this screen time is leading us down the path to a place of incivility that breeds incompetence in school and the workplace. I see people losing their ability to connect to each other. And, as a teacher and a writer, I want to be that bridge, so I have to work on being that bridge.

Franzen’s interview came at the right time for me. As I continue to write on a manuscript that has been like birthing an elephant. And by that I only mean it is taking a really long time. One day, I would like to hold that book in my hands, and I would like to dream that somewhere, someday, someone might write all over it. Underline. Make stars. Question marks. Pen, “This sounds like me” in the margins.

I want to be a real (metaphoric) bridge, though. Starting Wednesday, September 8, 2010, I plan to help my undergraduate students figure out how to pull their own stories from out of themselves and put them on paper; show them that the conventions of Modern Standard English matter, that an outstanding vocabulary can help them get ahead.

I don’t think it is possible to be a cyber-bridge. You have to really be present to help people make their journey, especially when they are scared. And, believe me, when you ask 18-24 year olds to put away their technology — even for just 50 minutes — they are scared.

So I will gently take their hands and pull them away from their addictions and try — for 15 weeks — to get them to let me be their bridge.

I just hope they don’t walk all over me. Or that they, at least, tread lightly.