Saturday, November 24, 2012

Technology, Balance, and Literature: Some Thoughts from the Homeschooling Frontline

One of our more central homeschooling activities is reading aloud. Over the past year or so, my daughter and I have enjoyed my reading to her Grace Lin's novels, the Ramona Quimby books, and (currently) the Little House books.  While reading Lin's books, we ate Taiwanese food and discussed the differences and similarities between Taiwan and China, and (since my daughter is 7), Japan and China and other Asian countries. We wrote to Grace Lin and entered a giveaway of hers, and received a hand-written post card and bookmark from her. It sits proudly on the refrigerator. The Ramona books inspired us to make slow cooker beef stew of all random things. We examined how the books had been written over a period of thirty-five years, and discussed how certain things hadn't changed between my mother's childhood, mine, and my daughter's. Other things have changed, like phones. In Ramona, they have one phone in the hallway, attached to the wall. No cell phones, no computers. No email. In one of the earlier books, I believe there was even a party line, which I explained. Many  adults today don't even know what that is (we had one when I was my daughter's age!).

Now we are reading the Little House books, which are based on real events and took place in the 1870's. Not only no phones - no cars, electricity, running water, or flush toilets. Trains are new; in By the Shores of Silver Lake they take a train to the end of the line, in the Dakota Territory. On the train Laura sees a water faucet, unlike anything she's ever seen.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and we studied some about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims. The pilgrims came to the New World in 1620, over two hundred fifty years before Laura rides this train. I was struck by how not much had changed in that two hundred years. Two hundred years after Laura lived, we meet Ramona, who lives in a pretty different world. And only one generation later, we have this blog, cell phones, smartphones, and little girls the ages of Laura and Ramona (and some of the kids on the Mayflower) who are today totally computer literate. For whom everything happens right now - pictures taken are seen and deleted or sent out to everything immediately. Spelling is learned so one can search for the right thing on Google. And I've chosen not to send my kids to school, which Laura saw as a privilege and which met sporadically, which Pacy's parents endured in Taiwan, and which Ramona and Pacy took for granted.

In my house these computer literate kids now how to do certain chores, but they fight doing so tooth and nail. Laura wouldn't dream of complaining that she had to carry in firewood or hand stitch a dress. Ramona sets the table each night, and helps her sister with the dishes. But no way would Ramona be married at 17. Both are tough, independent characters. But the advent of technology has changed what this means. And today I am raising my kids to know how to bake bread and raise chickens, but because of technology and the way our country now runs, they don't have to know these things to survive. (At least not yet - if we don't change to renewable fuels everywhere now, that may change.)

Have technology and affluence (by which I mean 90% of Americans, not the 1%) created kids who don't have to grow up? What does growing up even mean in our culture today? And what do I want my kids to know and understand about the world? How can I balance computer use with being outdoors, knitting, baking bread, and making art?

I think that today, to grow up is to know your true self and to have some idea (ever evolving though it may be) of how that self, that purpose or calling, fits into the world. I think that was true for Laura, too, and for Ramona. But Laura was basically handed that role: pioneer girl and farmer's wife. Only later does her daughter Rose encourage her to write. Ramona never questions what she will be when she "grows up"; she's just told to Grow Up by her irritated sister, and she quips that she's trying to! What that means is sort of nebulous, though her father's struggles with employment and being an artist sort of frame the idea of growing up. Grace Lin's Pacy spends an entire book trying to figure out what her true calling is, and it turns out to be a writer and illustrator. This book was written most recently, and reflects this idea that finding one's true self is the work of today's children (and, I would argue, adults). But in finding ourselves, do we lose the ability to care for ourselves? That was a fear of Ramona's time (for while she is timeless, she is also largely a product of the 70's and 80's). The goal was to get a job first, then if you're lucky you will be able to be an artist.

How will technology dictate or influence the definition of growing up for my children? I embrace technology, and my kids' use of it. But I want to balance that with spirituality and the ability to do things in the real world, like build something or raise animals for food. So I homeschool, read, study history, and learn how to do things myself. Right now I'm learning to knit. And every day I try to balance my daughter's use of the computer with real-time engagement, which for her is not easy.

In the crunchier homeschooling community there can be some judgment about computer use. I also have homeschool and not homeschooled friends for whom the computer - gaming, iPads, etc. - is a central part of existence. Neither approach works for our family. Finding balance, though, is a daily struggle. It seems that one way to frame this balance is to read together and to explore, as a family, where that reading brings us.