thINK thursday: Putting Pencil to Paper

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What do poet Nikky Finney, novelist Michael Ondaatje, and hip hop artist Homeboy Sandman have in common?

They all write by putting pencil to paper.

Nikky Finney writes her poetry with her favorite kind of pencil: Blackfeet Indian Pencils.

Michael Ondaatje shares on NPR his writing process, which involves writing his novels by hand.

And, as Homeboy Sandman shared with my English class, he writes his lyrics on paper and has discovered that “writing is my state of rest.”

We live in a world of screens. We communicate via email. We post photographs on Facebook and Instagram. We tweet. We write essays on laptops. Schools have 1:1 iPad and laptop programs. But this does not mean we need to be — or should be completely — screened in.

According to a New York Times article, handwriting is important to learning. As Maria Konnikova writes, “Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.” And, as this Wall Street Journal article notes, some doctors suggest that writing by hand can help adults learn better and even help maintain brain function as we age. These articles and many others on this subject also point to another important idea: We have a lot to learn and discover about the impact of new technologies on brain development, attention, and overall learning.

All this is not to say we should ban writing by keyboard in service of the pencil. Some of my students say and have demonstrated that they are more creative and think more deeply when using their iPads, while many tell me they are more creative and think more deeply when they write by hand on paper. It is important, I think, for students to discover how they work and create best. In my high school classes, though, I am working constantly to balance the “thinking through writing” students do on their iPads with the “thinking through writing” they do through handwriting. And now that there are apps — like Notability — that allow students to write by hand on their iPads, we no longer necessarily have to think of handwriting as a screen-less activity, although I do require students to write specifically on paper when I ask them to handwrite (By the way, Notability is great, too, because it allows users to create audio recordings and to draw). We know that students benefit greatly from having opportunities to use their brains in a variety of ways, from learning to communicate their learning through a variety of media, and from developing their skills as users of multiple technologies — including iPads and pencils.

For younger children, though, this issue is different. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests creating screen-free zones at home for children to decrease their amount of screen use overall, and strongly asserts that children under age 2 should avoid entertainment involving screens — including television, phones, iPads, and computers. While Inktopia Kids is an on-line resource for younger writers, we are designed to encourage Inksters — and their grown-ups — to use our prompts as inspiration to write in those journals they have at home and school — and then upload their creations and imaginings to our site to share with others. An easy way to upload handwritten work is to take a snapshot and then upload that to the site — archive it, as we call it in my classes.

So, go ahead, pick up that pencil, make a mark, and see where it takes you — and your brain.

And share with us: How are you handling your child’s media use at home?

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