My 30th birthday, four months hence, is looming over me lately as everything seems to remind me of how I’m getting older.  For example, most of Research Triangle’s incoming freshmen were born in 1997 and 1998.  Let that marinate in your brain for a minute.  These high school freshmen were born while was a high school freshman.

I suppose a lot of teachers experience a moment that serves as a sort of revelation that the kids you’re teaching are simply from a different generation.  I had such a moment in my second or third year at Robinson, when our school’s computer server suffered a complete meltdown near the end of the school year.  My AP U.S. History kids had already taken their exam, which meant that we had moved on to the final project – research and a presentation on a American history-related topic of the students’ choosing.  “Okay guys,” I told the kids on one of the days I had reserved the media center for them to do research, “the computers are down, so no online research.  You’re gonna have to use the books and the card catalog.”

My students’ reaction upon finding out they couldn’t use computers.

You would’ve thought I had whipped out a machete and lopped off both their arms.  I literally had to walk my students through how to use the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System and the like, all while having to hold myself back from screaming, “Are you people serious?  My high school had TWO computers that had DIAL-UP internet, and that was less than ten years ago!”

Obviously, I’m a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom; I am going to be teaching at a STEM-focused charter school, after all.  But I’ve become increasingly concerned over the past few years that the reliance on gadgets and gizmos has led to a complete breakdown in skills that many people, myself included, would consider to be very basic ones.  Here are three particular things that I think are in grave danger of becoming lost arts if current trends continue:

1) Historiography.  This one is clearly very near and dear to me.  Technology can be a wonderful thing for historical research, as digitized resources from all over the world can be accessed anywhere by virtually anyone.  I do have concerns, though, over what types of sources will be available for future historians.  Newspapers are cutting back on publication or going under, and more and more “written” communication is done via text or email.  One of the best biographies I’ve ever read is David McCullough’s John Adams.  McCullough relied heavily on correspondence between John and Abigail Adams to reconstruct large portions of his life.  Well, people don’t write letters anymore, so where are historians years down the road going to be when trying to delve into their subjects’ lives?  It’s gotten so bad that the U.S. Postal Service has actually launched a marketing campaign encouraging people to write letters.

2) Writing ability.  I’m perfectly guilty of using BRB, G2G, WTF, etc. in informal written communication with friends and family, but a lot of students nowadays don’t seem to grasp the difference between formal writing and texting.  My first year of teaching, I remember completely blowing a gasket when one of my students in my Honors U.S. History classes put “LOL” in one of her essays on a unit test, and the hell of it was that she was actually a decent student.  So if students are doing stuff like that, you can only imagine how bad the usage of grammar and punctuation has become with many students.

3) Penmanship.  Most states don’t teach cursive in elementary school anymore and are teaching typing instead.  Typing is important, but so is handwriting.  In just the five years I’ve been scoring essays at the AP U.S. History Reading, there has been a noticeable depreciation in students’ penmanship across the board.  Using those essays as a sample, I can surmise that only a handful of kids use cursive anymore, and the ones who use it aren’t very good at it.  I’m not one of those stodgy old teachers who’s going to require all my students to use cursive all the time – I care more about being able to read whatever was written – but some kind of handwriting instruction is badly needed.

I know that the definition of “basic life skills” is ever-evolving; there were probably people 100 years ago who were sitting on their porches doing the same thing I’m doing here… “I tell ya, Gertrude, these kids just don’t know how to churn butter anymore!”  But I refuse to believe that being able to write and effectively communicate ideas are things that will go by the wayside, and I’ll do all I can to implement engaging technology-based instruction while making sure that students know how to write by hand and use non-digital research methods.

I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this.  If the mood strikes, you can even write me a letter about it.