A Weapon of Distraction and Numbness – Fighting Computers in Classrooms

As featured in the Huffington Post, adapted from the original version on The Roar.

I had never seen anything like it. I’d only left class for a few minutes, but as I was about to turn the corner, something caught my eye. I stared, stalled in my tracks, into the classroom window in front of me. Through the half-drawn shades, I could just make out the History teacher and a few of my friends in the class. It wasn’t the people in the room that had given me pause, though; it was the luminous patches of glowing light that lined the desks, almost uniformly.

Computers are killing classrooms.

Without question, online data sharing programs are efficient and both environmentally and financially sustainable. Communication servers like FirstClass keep school communities connected. The notion of “one laptop per student” ushers high schoolers into the same era of globalization that has caused such drastic shifts in self-sovereignty throughout much of the rest of the world.

But there’s a caveat to those advances: Technology is neutral, but its uses and users are not. My independent high school — by its very nature — is frenzied, adrenalized, and consistently active. We may be advancing technologically, but our engagement and education are in retreat. It’s time for teachers and students to begin thinking beyond the laptop’s use as a tool, and realize its quickly solidifying potential as a weapon of distraction and numbness.

Cut back to the classroom: The students may, indeed, be looking at a pertinent document on a school webpage, but the problem lies therein — they are looking, not reading; skimming, not absorbing; hearing, not listening, and certainly not engaging.

A teacher approached me after class a few weeks ago. “Did everyone seem a little bit distant today?” he asked. Yes, we had been distant. Earlier in the year, my classmates and I had been quick to respond to a point that seemed off-color, or to wrestle with the material presented. Now, we’re transfixed. Those glowing arcs of MacBooks in my school’s classrooms are causing a steep and rushed decline in engagement, counterargument, expression, and even interest.

In another one of my discussion-based classes, the teacher often begins with a provocative question as a jumping-off point for active debate. But when I look around the room, almost every student who isn’t responding verbally is faced-down, eyes — and attentions — mesmerized by Tetris, QuickMeme.com, and the beckon-call of the Facebook news feed. I, too, find the screen an enticing prospect, and (often unknowingly) dive deep within a sea of articles and Internet phenomena that my AP Government teacher would be quick to label “non-germane.”

My evidence is purely anecdotal; I have limited knowledge of statistics or empirical data to support my assertion. But my experiences as a student in classes that range from the standard to AP levels testify to the notion that the digital approach — categorical in its nature, far-reaching in its effects — is hindering my education and undermining the dynamic and participatory environment that student and faculty leaders work so hard to build.

It’s not that we students have a malicious intent. We spend Saturday nights thinking up ways to further distract our ever-distracted psyches. Few of us have a strong-willed desire not to learn. The problem? The modern classroom — an environment that requires us to be present — is simply no longer conducive to being present.

The iPhone has taken my school by storm. The BlackBerry still permeates campus. We use them during class — a shock to neither students nor faculty. In fact, most schools like mine have their fair share of teachers whose phones make all sorts of noises mid-lesson. But the glow of the laptop and the buzz of our phones are denigrating the very basis upon which we learn; they are pulling us closer to the virtual world of profile pictures and pushing us further from the pragmatic and illuminating realms of derivatives, Federalism, Punnett squares, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The following is my proposal to begin alleviating the consequences of the transfixing glow. Some will call it radical, I call it practical: Students should stop using their laptops to take notes and revert to the pen and paper. Each student should put his or her shut-off phone on his or her desk before class. Teachers should do the same. Google Docs, Schoology, Evernote, FirstClass, and other digital means of data sharing should be used for reading and submitting; when the primary function of the technology has been accomplished, we should shut our laptop covers and discuss.

I haven’t yet been able to follow the above rules — but I try to. If I did, I would be both a better student and a more engaged member of my school community. Students don’t need to be convinced that we’re distracted, we just need help becoming less so. These rules shouldn’t be imposed from above, but, rather, should be a community-wide exercise in self-control.

I believe firmly that a transcendentalist strategy or an attitude that lures us to return to antiquity would be better left to Thoreau and his kin. But laptops are moving us further from enlightenment. One biblical prophet’s vision foretold that, in the messianic age, the lion would lay down with the lamb. I’m no prophet, but in my vision, during class, the smartphone would stay out of the hand.

Gingrich vs. the Media – The Battle He Can’t Win

It’s difficult to look back upon Sarah Palin’s unsuccessful vice presidential bid without calling to mind her relentless attacks on the “lame-stream media.” It seemed that every stump speech brought a new chapter of her vendetta against the press, with the attacks growing more exaggerated as November neared. In turn, the media cut her little slack, she plummeted in the polls, and the Republican ticket tanked.

You’d think that the fresh batch of GOP candidates would learn from such missteps. But over the course of the past few days, Newt Gingrich and his campaign have proven otherwise. First Gingrich’s spokesman, Rick Tyler, issued a statement—responding to what he called an anti-Gingrich media “onslaught”—saying that “the literati sent out their minions to do their bidding.” He went on to accuse journalists of firing flimsy attacks “without taking aim” and distorting the campaign’s message.

Alas, there was more. During an event in Iowa, Gingrich himself took up the mantle in the war on media. “It’s going to take a while for the news media to realize that you’re covering something that happens once or twice in a century,” he said of his candidacy. He called his campaign—and the ideas that it presents—something that will “take a while (to) sink in.”

The minds of the media, it seems, are too dull for the bright light of Gingrich’s genius.

Never mind that he made these statements while the cameras of a dozen major news outlets were pointed at him and rolling.

Candidates – Gingrich and his kin – grapple during every election cycle with the challenge of sending their voters a consistent and enticing message. Much is in their control: the clothes they wear, the statements they make, the places they go. But on the election battlefield, there is one external force that is neither obedient nor governable.

The media is simply a canvas, upon which and off of which is projected a candidate’s message. It can be influenced and it can be shifted – but, for the most part, it lives up to its name: it is a vehicle of whatever message is being voiced.

But for two reasons, the war on media is injurious for any candidate.

Firstly, constant media attacks are the most palpable and contemporary iterations of “biting the hand that feeds you.” When that slew of controllable campaign factors is either ignored or abused, the media is no longer a plain, suggestible canvas. Just like Palin, when Gingrich uses the media as a target, or turns it into a legislative scapegoat, problems plague his campaign. As Palin has relied more and more upon comments like these, coverage of her in that “lame-stream media” has transformed from sound reportage to a form of satirical mockery. Newt Gingrich is on that path.

Secondly – and more importantly – he’s attacking being educated, informed and inquisitive. To portray writers and reporters in a negative – even hostile – light is to undervalue and trivialize the importance of education and awareness. And to hastily slap scathing terms like “minions” onto the diligent and hardworking members of the mainstream media is to malign the work that makes this country’s voting populace a more informed and erudite group.

The media is what has kept us free. It is the force of transparency that allows us to maintain a functioning democracy. To attack the media is to attack a central pillar upon which our rights as citizens stand.

Every blow that Newt Gingrich deals to the media will become a blow to his campaign. Each insulting epithet he attaches a writer or reporter will become a permanent name-tag on his lapel. Every “lame-stream media”-esque reference will be seen as an attack on the Bill of Rights. Sound familiar, Newt? Ring any bells, Tea Party?

Sarah Palin harangued the media for months, then admitted that she couldn’t name a newspaper she reads. Newt Gingrich is walking a fine line.

For the sake of his campaign and for the benefit of the country, I implore Mr. Gingrich (and any opponents he may face) to eagerly engage in substantive debate and elude the fatal attraction to ceaseless attacks on the media. All campaigns – especially those for the most lofty office in the land – should be driven by ideas and ideals, not assaults on those who seek to inform decisions.

When It’s Worth It – Speaking When You Can Be Heard

On Monday night, my SAT class stopped being just a weekly bubble-in fest.

The class is made up of just two students: David, another high school Junior who goes to an ultra-religious Yeshiva type school in West Los Angeles, and me. Just before we were about to start a lesson in Geometry, we took a ten-minute break. During the break, I turned to our substitute teacher, Rebecca, and asked her about her background. She grew up in a Jewish home, she told me, but her family was never really motivated to get involved in the holidays or their synagogue. She’d kept some form of “kosher” up until college – then she’d pretty much given it up. “I still feed my dog challah, though,” she quipped, seeming a little embarrassed about her depleted Jewish identity.

I reassured her that her fluctuating levels of “Jewishness” were all acceptable and that – as a rabbi’s son who struggles with finding purpose and meaning in Jewish text – I’m of the opinion that everyone can and should look at the Torah’s laws through differing lenses. It’s healthy.

And then David stepped in. Fiddling with the tassels of his blue winter scarf, he shook his head and in a conclusive tone – as though there wasn’t an SAT tutor in the world who could prove him wrong – said, “Look, the way I see it, either be Jewish all the way or don’t be Jewish at all.”

My mind backpedaled. Wait a second, I thought. Most of the foods that I eat (and consider “kosher”) aren’t branded with an “O U” (Orthodox Union) insignia, or even a “K” (for “kosher”). I’ll text and call my friends on Saturday (Shabbat). I haven’t put on t’fillin (phylacteries) since my trip to Israel last summer. Occasionally I’ll sleep in on Saturday mornings and – whoops – miss services at my synagogue.

But I spent the first fifteen years of my life as a relatively observant Jew. Each day, I would wear a kippah (yarmulke) and recite the morning prayers. I spent this past summer in Israel fostering a meaningful connection to the land and its people — my people. I’m conversant in Hebrew. I don’t eat meat out. I say the words of the shema prayer before I fall asleep every night. I’m a knowledgeable Jew. I still maintain an eternally deep connection to my roots and my community, but I’ve recently become less observant in the conventional sense. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve overlooked some of traditional Judaism’s more logistical practices. Why? Because if adolescence doesn’t spark some form of rebellion, what’s the point of being a teenager?

Was this kid telling me that I shouldn’t even bother being Jewish if I my religious life isn’t a precise replica of his?

“God gave us the Torah. It’s not that it’s wrong what you’re doing,” David lamented. “I’m just more Jewish than you are. I observe Judaism correctly.”

Zoom out. You’ll probably need some biographical background here. I love to debate and I love to argue. Admittedly, I could be a more patient listener sometimes. But coming to hurried conclusions and generating one-liners (that often hardly pass for rebuttals) has become almost second nature in my on-edge psyche. (So I could feel the steam shooting out of my ears like in those old Looney Tunes shorts.) Zoom back in.

I tried to keep my cool.

“I’m Jewish, David. I believe in the same God that you believe in.”

I was really trying.

“If you believed in my God you would observe his laws the way he gave them; you’d observe them the way I do.”

But then I lost it.

“Religion isn’t rational!” My calm, cool, and collected tone was quickly slipping away, making room for one of hostility. “Judaism is about interpretation. What do you think the Mishnah was for? Interpretation! Why do you think we have commentators? Interpretation! It’s the reason we have denominations! You think I’m less Jewish because I don’t observe all aspects of the Torah blindly?!”

The same bitter dialogue continued until the ten-minute break was over — and made for a rather uncomfortable Geometry lecture. But at the end of class, as I was packing my books and zipping up my backpack, David looked over at me.

“Look, Ami,” he said softly, “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t.” I assured him that it would take more than a petty, informal religious debate to offend me.

“But if you wanted to be Jewish — really Jewish…”

I cut him off.

“I don’t live Biblically. I don’t live my life in the same way you do and I don’t follow all of the commandments because we live in a modernized world. God said to stone your rebellious son, do we do that, David?”

The conventional wisdom is true — it’s important to stand up for what you believe in. It’s important to pontificate when a point needs to be made and to listen when a point needs to be heard. It’s constructive to have to defend yourself and justify your actions and existential choices. But in that moment, looking at David, I realized something invaluable: sometimes the debate just isn’t worth it.

From my perspective, ten plus years of an ultra-religious upbringing had left David with a closed mind. From his perspective, ten plus years of my (“liberal,” as he called it) upbringing had left me with a closed mind. Of course, I wasn’t arguing against orthodoxy — David didn’t represent the beliefs of all orthodox Jews. I was arguing against David. But I wasn’t going to convince him, nor was he going to convince me. Had there been an impressionable audience present, I might have continued the argument. I might have done all I could to bestow my beliefs upon those who were listening. I might have raised my voice, even yelled.

But no one was listening, and as I walked out of my class into the crisp January night, it became clear to me that there would only be one tangible result of our impromptu (and largely inconsequential) debate: a lower score in the math section of the SAT.

Written for the Roar.


Everyone’s been so caught up with Arizona’s new immigration law that we’ve been ignoring another total injustice: Arizona’s new teaching law. The Department of Education in Arizona has announced that it will begin to cut funding from schools that employ English teachers who have “heavily accented or ungrammatical” accents.

We are–to borrow a phrase from JFK–a nation of immigrants. We all came to this country from somewhere. This streak of narrow-minded, “gotcha” politics is counterproductive, and undermines the values on which this country was founded.

To say that someone cannot be a successful teacher because of the way they speak is similar to saying that a person cannot be a successful teacher because of the way they look. The only avenue anyone should be taking to judge teachers is examining the way that they teach.