Cocooned in the safety of a library carrel, students can travel the world via Google Earth and see live video feed of the Doll's Festival in Japan. The haiku master Basho had to travel on foot for the same event, sleeping on hard floors in flea-infested straw. Today, students can peruse images of the English countrysides, full of the oxlips, nodding violets, and sweet musk-roses that inspired Shakespeare, without dampening their sneakers in dew or suffering the consequences of allergies. They can listen to the voices of strangers telling their life stories on podcasts and add their own stories to the voicethread of the world.
There can be no doubt that it is the job of educators to allow students ample time to explore these tools, to learn how to navigate the digital landscape, and to apply and sharpen the skills necessary to do so, to use the digital landscape to inspire and to use their skills to alter the landscape itself.
The other landscape, Shakespeare's and Basho's, is still accessible, however. Any teacher who waived the opportunity to expose students to that other world, which is paradoxically broader and yet narrower than the virtual one, would deprive her students of an opportunity to become a grounded writer. Google Earth will always be at least a few seconds behind the real earth.
Denise Helms, a friend and colleague, teaches math to middle school and high school students. What makes her an exemplary teacher is the fact that she teaches more than math. She teaches her students to step outside of virtual images and textbook diagrams and contemplate math in the real world. Armed with digital cameras, her students leave her classroom and go out into the world in search of math. They return having documented their quest for parabolas and fractals in baseball stadiums and on shaded playgrounds. Inside scrapbooks are photos of themselves with items that illustrate mathematical principles learned in her class--a water fountain whose jet is an arc, a lantana whose flower, composed of dozens of tinier blossoms, is a fractal. Accompanying these images are student reflections. Thus, engaging with a digital tool, applying critical thinking, and spending time in the real world, the students develop a much deeper understanding of the subject matter.
In my own English classes, I take advantage of cool fall and spring days to teach my students the craft of nature-writing, using Shakespeare and Basho as our models. After reading samples of their nature writing, I lead students out into the world to spend some time in silent observation, an approach described by the National Writing Project as writing marathons. I encourage students to note the sights and sounds, the textures and sensations, in their daybooks and to take photos with their cameras or cell phones. When they return to class, we use a neighboring science teacher's field guides to identify the names of unknown trees and flowers that we've discovered. Names are such an important part of descriptive writing, best learned through curiosity and exploration. Learning a thing's name enhances its value. Students who learn the name Queen Anne's lace, notice the flower when it blooms in summer. They write more vividly about the world when they've had time in it.
After our sojourn outdoors, students return to their cocoons to create Photostory haiku, but the time in fresh air has breathed authenticity into the poems, and I am satisfied knowing that we've achieved a balance between living in a digital world and living in the real world.