I am the teacher of a technology class; I am an unacknowledged STEM teacher; I am an English Language Arts teacher.
This is a cute way to start an essay, but, seriously, the “Arts” part does a good job of camouflaging the core of ELA. And that core is learning how to use an innate thing, language, with a tool that was invented a long time ago, writing.
Socrates said, “You better not with all this writing things down!” We did it anyway: we invented the imprinting of words on whatever was malleable enough to preserve them, and we learned to decipher these markings fluently.
We could use our fists to punch in nails, but it’s so much easier and less painful with a hammer. We could choose to eat food without eating utensils but think about the burns we’d get cupping hot soup with our hands or the silliness we’d have to go through just to eat spaghetti. We could rely solely on oral traditions throughout the centuries, but we have a hard time relaying the simplest of messages through three people in a matter of a minute. Even writing, which is preserved far better than oral language, doesn’t convey all the truths imbued by the one doing the writing.
ELA is not thought of as a technology class because it is so ingrained in our culture, just like we hardly think of pillows or chairs as technology. Though it would be uncomfortable, we could live without pillows or chairs. But writing is too important to leave behind. It is as propulsive as the one of the OG technologies: fire. Like fire, writing carries grand responsibilities: you can create and destroy.
The perception of writing as an important tool has suffered the same effect of other historical invention arcs like, say, the washing machine. When we first adopted use of the washing machine, “there was much rejoicing.” But once we got used to not having to use a washing board, not having to fill tubs with water and soap, adjusting for temperature, dealing with our water-logged hands, we started forgetting that we saved any time at all. The feeling of that large favor we had done ourselves began to leech away. You may have felt a smaller effect in today’s product world of lauded hyper-efficiency-saving tools.
The list of other technologies whose absence confronts us with harsh and seemingly new realities—but which are quite old realities—is long: plumbing, air-conditioning vehicular transport, electricity, insulation, money, etc. For each of these technologies, there is a point of forgetting, of getting used to a life merged with the technology, of getting spoiled. In the case of washing machines, maybe we started dreading the work of dragging a heavy mass of clothes to another room or of folding said clothes after they dried. This is what we do with tools. We fantasize about how a tool will make our lives so much better, so much more efficient, and then we find something else to gripe about once we acclimate to life with that tool.
We’ve forgotten that written text is technology—a constantly improving technology at that. We’ve forgotten stories are as important as the devices we use to transmit them.
Reading and Our Biology
Just like we haven’t evolved to naturally produce fire with our breath or create sparks by snapping flinty thumbs and fingers, we haven’t evolved to read or write.
I know Maryanne Wolfe’s work is pretty much standard knowledge nowadays, but I think it’s worth mentioning again that she reminded us that learning to read is not natural to human beings. The human brain’s plasticity, or ability to accommodate different learnings and skills, allows us to do something as complex as reading. According to Wolf, “a reading [brain] incorporates input from two hemispheres, four lobes in each hemisphere (frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital), and all five layers of the brain (from the uppermost telencephalon and adjacent diencephalon below it; to the middle layers of the mesencephalon; to the lower levels of the metencephalon and myelencephalon).”[^Wolf, Maryanne. Reader, Come Home. Harper, 2018.] This complex re-ordering of the brain also increases our ability to think:
“Imaging studies confirm that the fluent reading brain activates newly expanded cortical regions across frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes of both hemispheres during comprehension processes such as inference, analysis, and critical evaluations.”[^Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid. Harper, 2007.]
Reading is so important to learn early in life that the reading proficiencies of students in third grade “can predict, while not perfectly, whether they will lead a life of self-determination or one that is too often decided for them—as measured by graduation rates and the opportunity to earn a livable wage.”
There is more to be said about reading and writing than just being able to recognize letter and number forms. It is wonderful, of course, to keep track of data like crop commerce, as early cuneiform did. And we often forget, until we have to update them, that job applications are so difficult to make enticing, yet simple and efficient to lure future employers. Perhaps because we are now so good at all things entertainment that we forget that story is the literal key behind mundane things like job applications. Stories are what our minds are primed to create and imbibe, both fiction and nonfiction. And the tool of writing has made stories—a tool layered upon our own pattern-recognition disposed brains, upon language, upon memory, upon emotion—an ever more ubiquitous part of our lives.
Story is even now what drives me to check the news headlines of what is happening in Ukraine. It is not my intention to blithely distill all the horror that is going on there as a simple story, but humans latch on to such epic events just like we are drawn to The Odyssey or, much more recently, the Star Wars sagas. These are tales of humans beyond the cusp of life’s normalcy. We are drawn to these tails because beyond normalcy lies the kinds of conflicts we rarely confront. And because we know from our normal lives that conflicts are an essence of life, we crave solutions and resolutions. The bigger the conflict, the more intrigued we are. Perhaps our conflict awe is the primordial state of learning.
This might not be prudent to bring up, but one theory for the reason we even came up with language in the first place was to manage possible conflicts between ourselves: we came up with language to evaluate each other’s cooperation, to gossip[^Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper, 2015.]. And at an even baser level, simpler than telling stories about each other, is the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves in our own head. We do this every day in our constant inner monologues.
I often tell my students that we are taking reading and writing classes because we are very much not robots. What kind of robot would ever need a reading and writing class? Grammar, sure. But that would be in-built, an automatic part of the system. Robots deal with practicalities, they do not need to be persuaded by emotion, or given contexts to help them see an action’s importance, or be convinced of the need for a type of future an action will bring about. Robots, and even something more human such as Vulcans, live in a realm of logic that does not need the hefty weight of story to propel or convince.
This Is Story
Even Silicon Valley, that technology creating über-culture, needs story. That’s why, for a while there, every new piece of hardware or app was supposed to “change the world.” That was the story that was told to get funded and to get users. Without story, we wouldn’t have such popular inventions as social media or the Google search bar. On the other hand, we would not have Silicon Valley’s greatest flops: Theranos and WeWork.
Finally, democracy itself requires story. Just like inventors go to VCs and hedge funds to get their funding, politicians do the same to their own VC-like organizations/people (got to get funded!) and then the greatest capital of all: votes. Some politicians tell stories that verge on positive. Some verge on the negative, knowing our penchant for conflict. Some do a bit of both. Regardless, it is the power of their stories that is sometimes more important than fact.
We are so drawn to a good story that we will create one for ourselves and believe it wholeheartedly and innocently. Each of us is capable of knitting together random events or facts to make fiction from real life, a pattern-recognition gone amuck. This phenomenon is called “apophenia,” and it happens when we see human faces in electrical outlets. It’s also the source of our conspiracy theories. Many deride conspiracy theorists as delusional, but we forget that the substance of a story—whether true or false—can be deeply injected in our basic human drives. It can woo us just as well as a good novel.
If you think about our story imbibing and telling abilities, the Russian war in Ukraine becomes even more complex, to see narratives converging inelegantly, the false and the true ones, winning hearts and minds all.
In a time where we are searching for the right descriptor for public schools yet again, it is good to reacquaint ourselves with the depth of a class’s—let alone a schools—purpose. ELA classes teaches practicalities, skills that will help students into the world of commerce and job-getting, of becoming autonomous individuals. Also, ELA classes produce citizens who are able to properly inform themselves to vote, to better society. ELA classes teach universal human skills: cultural examination, empathy practice, thought organization, review, and patience. There are so many skills that ELA classes necessarily address that it is really hard to feel good about a definition of the class. And the amount skills taught, they are evolving with our new modern applications and our new technologies.
The internet contains so many stories that we are constantly chasing wisps of things through portals and links, almost like those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. We can move through vast digital spaces, cluing us into what life is like living in a van in California. But we can also read a short tweet that we will fill with our own prophecies, creating assumptive plots that become real in our minds.
I like Ray Bradbury’s definition of stories in his famous novel, Fahrenheit 451: stories transcend any container. This makes stories imperfect yet perfect vessels for information. They allow for tons of missing detail, and yet they reach right to the heart of emotion and attention. Some stories ring so well that they are transferred on and on, centuries from their creation.
Bradbury’s book also mentions the OG tool, fire, that primordial tool that changed our species. The internet is the new fire, both with the capacity to save lives and connect, but to also radicalize and disconnect.
What is the internet made of? Written words. Even its base-layers. It is both language and math. A merging of two languages, with new and old consequences. And then some cat memes, of course.
Nowadays, it’s easy to feel imposter syndrome as an ELA teacher in the age of so many skills and new technologies, where algorithms feel like the most important language.
But every time I see a tiny dispute on the internet or a large dispute in the political sphere. Or, most importantly, an error that I myself have made, because I’m human and susceptible to all of our fallacies. That is why it is worth teaching this technology class, this ELA.
Stories are not washing machines or smartphones, they are much too complex for that.