A movement is growing to teach children the benefits of screen-free reading. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press Photo)
CHICAGO — Education is cyclical, and nothing exemplifies the adage that “everything old is new again” better than the latest trend: screen-free reading.
Yes, for those of you over the age of 40, that means just reading.
Without dings, chimes or bells notifying you that someone responded to your Facebook post or retweeted you or is texting you about blah-blah-blah period. Wait … what was I reading?
Are you shocked at the revolutionary flavor of such an endeavor?
Though education trade publications, newsletters and listservs tend toward adoration of the education-technology industry, the first time I heard of the term “screen-free reading” was in an op-ed on the website of Education Week.
“I agree that students need to learn how to use the internet appropriately and to be critical readers of digital content,” wrote Amy Williams, who teaches high – performing middle and high school students in Dusseldorf, Germany. “But does that mean that they need to read and interact online in every class, every day?”
As she built her case that reading paper books helps students collaborate more, increases their focus and improves their learning, Williams, at multiple points, shielded herself against the inevitable backlash with some variation of: “I am not arguing for an abandonment of technology.”
She’s going to have an uphill battle convincing the average arm-chair education policy quarterback that Chromebooks and iPads in the hands of every student in America isn’t the magical cure to all that ails education.
But there is a class of people who have already figured this out: Highly educated, well-to-do parents.
For instance, Batsheva Neuer, a New York-based writer, is the latest in a long string of high-powered professionals, intellectuals and even Silicon Valley types who are raising their children in environments more like the analog ones they grew up in.
“We wanted to delay technologically induced social isolation and encourage our children to develop skills that would serve them well in the real world,” Neuer recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “In our minds, childhood should be about fostering social interactions, encouraging creativity and responding to real-world stimuli.”
To achieve this goal, Neuer and her husband “bought a 1987 Golden Book Encyclopedia set on eBay. We’ve also developed a habit of contacting ‘local experts.’ How does the sun move? That’s a good question for Uncle Ariel, who studied chemistry in college. How do you build a door? Ask Uncle David, the contractor. Who created the world? As the self-appointed Bible scholar, that’s my turf.”
Isn’t it unfathomable that we need public thinkers to remind us that our children can call a family member for advice instead of reflexively turning to Google?
Such reminders are direly needed — and if you don’t believe me, go to any family restaurant on a Saturday afternoon and note how many tables are filled with moms, dads and kids sitting together but completely ignoring each other for their smartphones.
Luckily, cultural pendulums swing, and those of us with a vested interest in non-zombie students and children can help make trends stick.
To this end, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a non-profit dedicated to “reclaiming childhood from corporate marketers,” is pushing its 21st annual Screen-Free Week (May 1-7).
The organization wants people to “move beyond questions of whether screen media is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and acknowledge a simple truth: far too many children — and adults — are spending far too much time with screens.”
And if the task seems too daunting, the organization has resources like “7 Parent-Tested Tips to Unplug and Play” and the “Family Guide to a Great Screen-Free Week” that feature jaw-dropping (because some of us grew up in homes without a TV anywhere near the dining room) suggestions like: “Enjoy screen-free meals” and “Reclaim the family meal as a time for talking together and/or sharing stories.”
It’s pathetic that a nonprofit organization has to raise money to tell parents to talk to their kids at meals. But it’s a message well worth passing along.
So for one week — or even just one day this week — stop to smell the roses. Shut off your screens for a while. Talk to someone (anyone!) in person and, most importantly, take the time to luxuriate in a plain old printed newspaper or book.
You’ll be contributing to a movement that has the potential to help children learn self-control, maintain sustained focus and improve their ability to read facial cues.