Screenagers

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Last night I attended a public screening of Screenagers, a documentary about how screens affect kids, at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes school.

Notes

Here are the points made by the documentary that I remember:

  • Humans are prone to noticing and reacting to pings from their environment QED: They are easily distractible
  • Teenagers are particularly susceptible to this and developmentally immature in being able to manage it
  • Multitasking is an illusion, and part of the illusion is one of heightened competence in the face of deteriorating performance
  • Juggling screens while doing other stuff exhausts your brain’s processing and may possibly stunt its capabilities and growth
  • Self-control is not a fixed trait and can be learned over time
  • First-person shooter video games may not directly cause violent behavior but do decrease empathy and increase aggression somewhat
  • Social media encourages constant peer pressure and competition around external qualities (especially, for girls, around physical attractiveness)
  • The constant availability of screens and social media makes it too easy to avoid uncomfortable or uncertain social situations and, therefore, stunts social and emotional development
  • We get constant dopamine hits when we receive new information, no matter the quality or type of novelty
  • Screen addiction can be as real and ruinous as other addictions; it’s important to intervene when time on the screen gets out of control

Suggestions made by the documentary:

  • Draw up a contract about screen usage, boundaries, and responsibilities (and include your child’s input)
  • Don’t be afraid to set limits, especially if you make clear the reasoning and logic behind them
  • Encourage and provide interests, commitments, and enrichments that provide sustained engagement away from screens
  • Kids often welcome getting support in helping them manage their technology use
  • Parents need to be as honest about how they also might need to curb their technology use
  • Have a regular family dialogue about issues around living in such a technological age (“Tech Talk Tuesday”)
  • Check out the web site for the movie, which has resources for parents, including an email list of suggested tech topics to discuss around the dinner table

Thoughts

I always find it important to remind myself that documentaries like Screenagers are more like essays than pure journalism. They have a specific point of view if not an outright thesis that they’re trying to persuade you of. Usually that persuasion is not done with rigorous logic and copious empirical evidence but anecdotes, associations, and curated talking points.

The basic framework of the documentary is that of an upper-middle-class mom seeking solutions on how to address her anxieties about kids and screen time. Those anxieties get aired and validated and then solutions get proposed. It would be a very different documentary if it was from the point-of-view of a parent who wanted to capitalize on the unique powers and possibilities technology/media now affords us to connect and empower her child. (Exhibit A: Life, Animated)

This is not to say this documentary can’t have its proper place in thinking through issues of screen time. I kept thinking throughout my viewing of it that I’d love to have it at my fingertips in short clips that can then be used to provoke discussion and dialogue.

In fact, I’m in general agreement with its explicit suggestions for parents, especially having regular conversations about technology management as a family. If parents are afraid of their kids disengaging because of screens, they need to step up their own engagement with their kids.

To lend substance to these discussions, I would recommend two recent books that are relevant: A Parent’s Guide to Video Games: The essential guide to understanding how video games impact your child’s physical, social, and psychological well-being by Rachel Kowert and Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter.

Rachel Kowert appeared recently on The Psychology of Games podcast to talk about her book, and Adam Alter likewise was interviewed on Fresh Air.

The Homeschool Sisters did a podcast with Mary Wilson on strategies to manage screen time. And Spawned (Cool Mom Picks) did a recent episode on tips to manage social media.

If you’re a Christian, you might want to also pick up 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke. Even if you’re not, you should enjoy the trailer for the book below.

Catechism: In His Hands

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Q29. How are we made to take part in the redemption Christ bought?

We take part in the redemption Christ bought when the Holy Spirit effectively applies it to us.

This question implicates once again our total depravity and God’s total mercy. We were truly enemies to God. Insurrectionists, like Bar-abbas, hellbent on our own narrow zeal, stubborn to our self-interest, unable to see hope, light, or reason.

As in all things, we can accomplish nothing without divine grace. That includes the salvation of our children, our loved ones, and ourselves. By his grace, we can — and should — work to evangelize, study, relate, educate, pray, and love to best position ourselves and each other to the working of the Holy Spirit — but it’s ultimately not in our control.

That is freeing. We are not judged on outcomes but on our faithfulness. It may turn out that our children seem like disappointments by other metrics. Life may throw us a couple of curve balls. That’s okay. In fact, it’s to be expected. Our plans, if we ever make them, are just a way to orient ourselves at the moment. We discover the actual plans as we stumble behind the Holy Spirit.

The truth of this also suggests that we are not to judge others on outcomes, but to always see and hope for the possibility of redemption. Set a culture of excellence, of beauty, of honesty, and righteousness, but free your children of your expectations. They can no more follow down that path than you can on your own. We all need guidance and grace a little beyond our reach.

Lesson Share: What is Poetry?

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April is National Poetry Month!
April is National Poetry Month

I volunteered to tackle the topic of poetry in our homeschool co-op for this month. I started with the concept, “What is poetry?” To give full credit, I was inspired by this article in The Atlantic by Mark Yakich: What is a Poem?

Setup

We started with a brainstorm on the topic, “What is poetry?”

You might get a torrent of preconceptions, or — as I did — you might have to pull a few teeth.

How does poetry differ from other things? Like stories? Or essays? Or letters?
What’s common in poems?
How do you know something is a poem?

I wrote their answers and ideas on a white board. Some ideas contradicted other ideas (poetry is “wrong” versus poetry is “right”), some ideas seemed a little (or way) off-base. That’s okay. The main goal here is to get a sense of what their sense already is of poetry. What do they think poetry is? Something special, comical, difficult, mysterious?

Gallery Walk

Then we did a gallery walk of poems I prepared.

A gallery walk is a way to present a variety of artifacts all relevant to a particular topic. You place these artifacts throughout a space and invite students to peruse them and comment upon them, writing down their responses or noting connections between them.

For the poetry gallery walk, I typed up a number of poems specifically chosen to showcase the variety of poetry (and poets) and perhaps challenge some of the more common preconceptions about poems.

  • Classical
  • Free verse
  • Humorous (limerick)
  • Long / Short
  • Rap
  • Prose poetry
  • Blank verse
  • Concrete

For good measure, I also included a page of quotations about poetry.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1I1K6mRPWW0w2cJrd0n74W8KH3tHWmthkWkzAsJzl5_8/edit?usp=sharing

I printed each poem out and taped them to a large poster-size sheet of paper. I then just laid them out helter-skelter on the hardwood floor.

Each student got a pen, and everyone was invited to go around and browse through the poems and write down their responses. They could be honest (“Huh?”) but had to be respectful of others’ comments. They could write general comments on the side or write on the poem itself, perhaps to make specific points.

The younger kids had to have the accompanying adults read the poems to them and help them transcribe their thoughts.

Discussion

After I felt the focus and work power down, I gathered everyone together to discuss their findings.

Are we any closer to an answer?
What did you notice about the poems?
Did they have anything in common? In what ways were they different?
Which ones stood out for you?

I noted that I a number of the comments expressed confusion or puzzlement, and the kids picked out a few poems that they were drawn to (or repelled by).

I took a few (Ron Padgett’s prose poem, Aram Saroyan’s “lighght”) as an example. We read through them and noted how strange they were.

I focused on that idea of strangeness and talked a little about how the Greek etymology of “poem” suggest it is a “thing made.” In other words, whereas other forms of language has a purpose, usually a communicative purpose, poems are just there.

I then told a fable about an old retired man who woke up to find an abstract sculpture on his yard. At first he was confused and repulsed by it, but as he looked at it day after day, it kept inspiring new memories, new reflections in him, until it eventually became a part of his home, and him.

Poems are like that. They resist easy understandings. They slip away from categories of thought. They’re strange sigils. They’re gateways out of mental ruts. That’s what makes them wonderful.

Wrap-Up

I then handed out a number of picture-book anthologies of poetry, and asked the kids to pick one poem they’d like to memorize and recite over the next few weeks.

I think it’s important for kids to sit with a poem for a while, really get to see it every day on their lawn, so to speak.

Here are the books I used:

Other Ideas

The Academy of American Poets has a number of suggestions, lesson plans, and resources to help you celebrate National Poetry Month. One that struck me was the Dear Poet Project, where students watch a video of a selected poet read their selected poem and then write a letter in response directly to that poet (for 5th to 12th graders).

Older kids might also be interested in Asphodel, a project by the poet Quan Barry in which she writes (or invites others to write) one poem a week in response to current events. The NPR show To the Best of Our Knowledge is featuring these poems and interviewing the poets about them for the next few weeks.

And if you have the kind of kids who really really loves poems — and loves writing them — you could challenge them to take part in NaPoWriMo: Write a poem a day for an entire month.

Catechism: Easter shadows

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Q27. How was Christ humiliated?

Christ was humiliated: by being born as a man and born into a poor family; by being made subject to the law and suffering the miseries of this life, the anger of God, and the curse of death on the cross; and by being buried and remaining under the power of death for a time.

Last night the conversation veered to the song, “This Land is Your Land” by Woodie Guthrie. I mentioned that most people only know the first one or few verses of the song, and they either don’t know or willingly ignore the last few, which probably seem too political, too radical to them:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Something is lost, though, without those verses. The reverence and gratitude of the beginning of the song seem tinny without them, without the undercurrent of anger and grief.

Our current bedtime reading is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Re-reading it to the kids, I was struck by how the movie adaptations really suffer from glossing over, or perhaps being unable to capture, the misery that begins the book. The movies focus on the zaniness of Wonka and his magic factory, the psychedelic delight of seeing unimaginable wonders — and then seeing them out of the reach of the unworthy, grasping members of the tour. We forget that the protagonist is actually Charlie Bucket — not Willy Wonka — and that little Charlie finds the Golden Ticket once driven to desperation by his hunger and poverty:

And every day, Charlie Bucket grew thinner and thinner. His face became frighteningly white and pinched. The skin was drawn so tightly over the cheeks that you could see the shapes of the bones underneath. It seemed doubtful whether he could go on much longer like this without becoming dangerously ill.

At Children’s Chapel, we’ve effectively concluded our curriculum on the elements of the Sunday worship service. We’ve devoted the entire month of March to the benediction, and we’re now going to discuss Easter in this month of April. How appropriate that we start this first week of April reflecting on how Christ suffered and was humbled.

This past Sunday, Pastor Paul preached on Christ as the king who suffered, who on his trial inverted the definition of greatness.

We have a natural impulse to shield our children from suffering. We might feel that is part of our parental duties to preserve their innocence, to give them a picture of life as beautiful and sweet.

I agree that we should shelter them from the harshest evils and depredations of this world, to guard what they are exposed to according to the sensitivity of their hearts. But we must remember that our children are not innocent — they are born into sin, and they live in a reality fractured by that sin. What may seem sweet is cloying and artificial if oblivious to the bitter, and what is beautiful is flat and soulless without its shadows.

Even with Easter we tend to want to paint it with pastels, to see Jesus like Sister Maria Rainer in the Sound of Music, a gentle, loving teacher on rolling verdant hills. We like to think of his sacrifice romantically, in the abstract, and think of his resurrection as a kind of triumphant comeback tour. He’s become a jolly myth, on the mount not with Elijah and Moses, but with Santa and the Easter bunny.

Don’t do this to your kids. Don’t let Easter be another holiday for them. And don’t make their life only about themselves. Let them taste a little suffering. You don’t have to mistreat them to do so. Let them think upon the suffering of this world, the suffering of others. A good place to start might be the monthly prayer calendar from Compassion International; every day they can reflect on people all around the globe who live vastly different lives than they do and needing grace and mercy just as much.

If your children are old enough, you can bring them alongside you to see and serve in areas of brokenness. Soup kitchens, nursery homes, community centers in neighborhoods one always drives past. Even if they are too young or unwilling to come, your commitment to restoring the kingdom of God will deepen your own mission for your family.

Christ humbled himself as a man, but even then he took us to the humbler parts of our humanity. He consorted with adulterers and embezzlers, he made disciples of cynics and rubes. He forgave the mangled and forgotten. He made us follow him into animal stables where indigent babies were being born all the way to the dark penal cell of a man who only wanted to watch the world burn — and showed us that is who we really are. And He would still die for that.