I watched in dismay as the headlines flashed across my computer screen. “1 MILLION WITHOUT POWER,” read the headline on CNN. A few people died, many panicked, and general mayhem was the order of the day in the cities back east. But here in the Copper Basin we usually treat a power outage a little like a surprise visit from a distant cousin – a bit of a nuisance, but something that will pass soon enough.
Tuesday night it happened here, and interestingly enough, I predicted it. We left school around 6 p.m., and when we arrived home the wind was blasting through the trees. Somehow I could sense the breaking point of a typical spruce had been breached, and I imagined it falling on a powerline, bringing discord to the people of the grid – gridus sapiens. I predicted the power would go out, and about an hour later it did.
For some reason such an event stirs my reptilian brain – the same region of the lobe where Rambo gets his inspiration – and his monosyllabic grunts. I fly into action, and I must say I enjoy it. When the lights go out, the guantlet is thrown down. My thoughts are energized: ‘Can I survive the elements? Do I have what it takes to persevere?’ Visions of Jeremiah Johnson skinning “grizz” flash through my mind as I stoke the fire, flip on the gas light valves, and find the flashlights – usually buried somewhere in the kids’ rooms. I plan for the longterm. I expect the power outage to last for days -- even weeks -- and I imagine the lonely strolls to the outhouse, melting snow for water, and chewing my boots in the morning – well, maybe, almost.
Once order is re-established, nostalgia creeps into the picture. I reminisce about how it was in the “old” days when we lived without electricity, running water, and DSL. I remember how we used to heat water on the woodstove, and pour it into a metal tub to give the kids baths. I remember those invigorating runs to the outhouse at 40 below, and the rifle blast sound of splitting wood. At the risk of sounding like a prelapsarian, I find that a strange calm permeates me when the electronics go dead.
And I must say I rather enjoyed being free from the distractions. I picked up a book, planted myself on the couch, and read in absolute bliss. I soon discovered that I could wrap my mind around a single thought. What a concept!
I recently read an article in theNew York Times about a Waldorf school in California that seems so different from the technology rich school environment I enjoy. The school bans technology in the lower elementary grades. Before you start thinking that these people are some fundamentalist sect of Luddhites, it’s important to know that these are the children of Silicon Valley workers who work at such places as Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Miramax -- companies that make cutting edge technology. The rationale for this school’s policy seems based on common sense. They state that technology is not a necessary ingredient to engage students, and it can sometimes wind up being a great distraction. Creativity flows from using the resources at hand in unusual ways. The school uses pens, paper, knitting needles, mud, yarn, quesadillas, cake – and yes, books -- to teach just about everything an elementary student would need to know.
Students are not missing out on technology because, as one person said, “At Google, and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”
So as the wind shook my house, the thought of a school that doesn’t rely on technology rocked my world. Technology can help increase engagement, but it can never really substitute for deep human connections that come from a caring environment. We should all learn to be creative with the resources at hand, and I must admit some of my best teaching techniques – the ones that engage students the most – are rather low tech: musical vocabulary chairs, last man standing, an engaging book. Sometimes we look at computers as surrogate teachers, when in reality, they are nothing more than cold pieces of silica.
I remember how meaningful it was to really get to know my students during last summer’s raft trip down the Copper River. None of us had cell phones; only a few had digital cameras. The students were forced to be creative at night, to entertain themselves without their digital pacifiers. So we played capture the flag; we invented Frisbee bowling, and we held a talent show in Cordova. The friendships and connections the students made on that trip beat anything they ever experienced over Facebook or Twitter.
As I sat there on the couch quietly imagining a classroom without technology, a world without cellphones, iPads, iTouches, interactive whiteboards, digital cameras, video cameras, tablets, a moment of clarity entered my thoughts.
Ahh, the bliss. Ahh, the peace…. And, just then the lights came on.