Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dear Google, Please Help Me with This Poem

The other day in class, we were examining Stevie Smith’s poem, “Not Waving but Drowning.” The students presenting the poem asked the class, “Who do you turn to when in need?” Some named friends, others named their parents or family members, someone said, “God,” and then someone else said, “Google."

I had to chuckle at that, as did many of the students, but the more I thought about it, the more the comment struck me as extremely appropriate…maybe even profound.

Who do we turn to when in need? Well, I guess that depends on the form of need. In the poem, the speaker says, “Nobody heard him, the dead man,” suggesting that if only someone had known he was in trouble he might still be alive. But then the dead man himself speaks up, “I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning.” I was crying for help all along, he says, but no one was paying attention. The students found that they could easily apply this idea to their own experiences. They talked about the need to listen to others, to really pay attention to the warning signs of depression, desperation, or self-destruction.  As we continued to analyze the poem we had a very rewarding conversation about friendship and our responsibility to each other…especially in this age of social media where genuine communication is never a sure thing.

Afterward though, the Google comment continued to nag at me.

Where do our students turn for help when they need to understand something? Yes, some ask friends or family, some even pray, but most seek the World Wide Web for answers, and they turn to a search engine, most likely Google, for guidance. Only Google doesn’t give answers or guidance, it only gives information—lots and lots of information, instantaneously. More information than any one person could possibly read or view in a lifetime—but no help with what to do with it.

Whenever I am looking on the Internet for ideas to help me teach literature, I find the most incredible resources…and I am constantly reminded that we as teachers are not the gatekeepers of knowledge. There is nothing about English literature—or science, or math, or history, or music, or whatever—that only we know, that only we can impart to our students. The world is full of knowledge and ideas and information…and it’s all right there on the Internet for the taking. Yes, it can be hard to find sometimes among all the other misleading (and dangerous) cries for profit and attention, but it’s out there.

In fact, the way technology is progressing, it seems that teachers, as we know them, will no longer be necessary. With the right mix of learning apps, instructional videos, work sheets, and work models, it seems a custom learning plan can be created to fit just about any child’s needs. It seems…but it would be missing one very important thing: guidance. The one thing teachers have that cannot be replaced is their ability to provide guidance.

In the end, our job is not to give students our knowledge, but to guide students to acquire their own…to help them become independent learners, self-teachers. But there is the misconception that because today’s youth are technologically fluent—they were raised on the Internet and instinctively know their way around it—that they are intuitively capable of making sense, evaluating, and drawing conclusions from the vast amounts of information to be found there…they are not.

When I was in high school, research meant an entire day in the city library, trolling through the index cards, roaming the isles with your Dewy-Decimal map, and hauling book after book back to a table where you would then try to narrow the number down to a manageable stack you could realistically check out and carry home. If what you needed was in a reference book then you had to take your notes on the spot because those couldn’t be checked out. And sure you could always make copies…if the coin-operated machine was working and the ten-cents a pop didn’t leave you without money for the bus ride home.

No matter what you want to tell yourself, information-wise, those were not the good old days. And if acquiring that information wasn’t difficult enough, reading, comprehending, evaluating, and attempting to draw some conclusions from it was even more challenging. Can you imagine telling a 1980’s teen that for their American History research paper they had at their disposal the combined print, film, and audio contents of every library in every city and school in America, including the Library of Congress (and the rest of the world for that matter)…the idea would be unfathomable!  

Those, however, are exactly the informational resources available to our students today…and they need help making sense of it all. Whether it be the complex issues surrounding a historical occasion or a current event…the persuasive appeals of an advertisement or the cultural values reinforced in a particular film…or whether it be evaluating a complex piece of literature or a crisis in their own lives…students need our guidance to learn the tools and techniques to help make sense of it all. 

I’m so very proud of my students. Even though I try my best to provide that needed guidance, I know in their desperation they may at times turn to that vast unmonitored ocean of information, not for help with their own understanding, but for a quick fix…to “borrow” someone else’s ideas, someone else’s conclusions…to pretend (even with themselves) that they got there on their own, and that they could get there on their own again. I know my students could have easily “googled” an “academic support” site like where they might have found such ready insight as: “When you get past the swimming metaphor of the poem, you'll find that the kind of isolation it describes is eerily familiar. After all, the world of social media works the same way.” But they didn’t; they got there—and maybe even further—on their own.

On that day at least, when class ended and they all waved goodbye to me as they walked out the door…I knew they really were just waving and not drowning.


  1. Lost Time is Never Found Again
    Hey Mr.Hoy
    As time passes the generations change for good and bad. Technology has allowed us students to be very savvy and able to find the answer to about any question from Newton’s principles of calculus to the meaning behind Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is true that is detrimental to our approach on problems, it seems to me that whenever something too hard on the homework arises we run to google for the answers like if it was one of those cheesy fortune teller machines that supposedly holds all the answers. However you point out one important thing and it is not the first time you tell us this the fact that we have a BRAIN! I like how you mentioned that when you were a kid you did things different you actually used your analytical skills and challenged yourself to search for the answer in the most efficient way. That’s why you’re our role model, not only as a teacher, but you’re an individual who strives to do their best, and you expect no less from us. You want us to go out in the world and be elite thinkers where we can contribute something to the world. I want to tell you thanks for posting this Mr.Hoy and for making us better thinkers, and good luck on the book #Revenge Artist. - Albert Carrillo

  2. Growing up, adults were always talking about the hardships of their lives compared to how easy we had it, like, "We had to walk five miles to get to the snow!" Now I find myself doing it, "We had to actually carry our own books...with our own hands!" I hope that you'll be able to grumble to the next generation, "When I was a kid, we had to physically kids just zip around in your jet packs and complain about the price of jet fuel." They promised us jet packs, you know. I'm still waiting for that. Thanks for reading, Albert

  3. I love how you emphasized the importance of guidance. It is true that we can easily type any question we may have about literally anything into a search engine on the internet, but it just simply gives us an answer. Most times when I'm searching for an answer on the internet, I'm overwhelmed with all the information they gave me and I always end up asking myself, "Well, what does this all mean though?" The internet cannot respond to my confusions in the way a teacher can because it does not know my confusions personally. This is why the role of teachers is so important to a person's education. The internet cannot offer you the personal attention that a teacher can give you, and I truly believe that the importance of that personal attention is extremely overlooked when it comes to the mighty world of the internet. I value the personal attention a teacher can give me heaps more than the quick access I have to the internet nowadays. Personally, I need much more than an answer. But that is all the internet will give me. I need to know how they approached that answer, what to do with the information the answer provides, how to apply the information I just learned to what I already know, and that's the job of the teachers to accomplish. It's something that could never be replaced by, well, technology. As a student, I'd much rather bug my professor relentlessly for help or guidance in finding the answers to my questions than to resort to the internet. The feedback from a teacher compared to the feedback from the internet is incomparable really. To me, I see the internet as a bus/bus driver. It only takes you to where you told them to take you. Once it's taken you there you're basically on your own. Let's say that the sites the internet takes you to is like the surroundings of the destination you just arrived at (and let's say you've never been there before). You're stuck in the place wondering where to go or you're stuck looking through numerous sites wondering what to do with all the information you've just read about. I see teachers as the maps that help guide us through those periods of confusion and our journey through learning. They give us the instruction, guidance, and help that we need. It's true that we are so technologically advanced that we can find the answer if we need it, but as you mentioned in your post we are not advanced in the sense that we'll always know how to interpret the information we receive in the correct way. Even in just everyday life we need someone we can rely on to be a map for us, to keep us waving, and to keep us from drowning.

    P.S: I don't think our generation will be getting the jet packs you were promised, so if the future generations receive them & I'm still alive, I'll grumble for the both of us.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Stephanie! I love the bus analogy. Every once in a while the internet bus does drop me off in unfamiliar places...but other times I accidentally get off at the wrong stop and have to hurry back onto the bus as quickly as I can. Take care...and be careful riding that bus.