Digital native high in the hills of Sicilia

Clutching a photo of my great-grandparents, I walked into the gelateria in Tripi. Using my fledgling skills in speaking Italian (reading is so very much easier), I asked for directions to the cemetery, where I understood my grandparents are buried.  The young woman behind the counter introduced me to another customer, who had retired from working in the cemetery. He hopped in the car with my father and I and took us right to the spot.

My great-grandparents

My great-grandparents

After a heartwarming conversation, during which the man shared his recollections of family members and of the town, we returned to the gelateria, for more good conversation and refreshing drinks of granita. There were some funny moments of communication due to my mispronunciation and grabs for vocabulary, but we always plowed through with work-arounds and patience, especially due to the good nature of my new acquaintances. Oddly though, somewhere through the afternoon, the young lady let me know she had studied English! She, despite listening to my attempts to speak her language, was a little shy about using her English. Once we got going, tough, we had a delightful mix of words from both languages that let us get our points across.

What happens sometimes with these kinds of meetings is that folks want to exchange information, but have little real hope of using it. On a whim, I laughingly said, “Facebook?” to which my new acquaintance immediately brightened up and we exchanged information, information easy to implement without paper, stamps, etc. What was great about the exchange as it showed that technology does not replace face-to-face meetings, but rather supplements it in a practical way.

As you look at the photo banner of this blog, you see the Tyrrehnian Sea from the steps of the church in Tripi, Sicilia. It is a distance of about 10 miles, I think, which on a clear day seems as if you could reach out and touch the water. While I went to Tripi on a pilgrimage, described in my last entry, I found and wrote this:

“Instead, I found people hybrids in their own ways, and whose stories released me from an internal label as a cheap knock off. I hope to share some of those stories in the coming days.”

Of those stories, my story above, for example, involves the international language that Facebook and Twitter have become. If you count yourselves among the scoffers and mockers and pride yourself as being a non-tweeter (why would anyone do that, you ask), you might find my experience high in the hills of Sicily as an example that make them worth a second thought. My experience there merges nicely with another recent post in which I wrote

“Today, to meet my goal of matching the best of the old with the best of the new, I am sharing the lifestyles of digital natives with a colleague who has dedicated years of her life to the literacy of our town’s youth.”

This summer, besides my trip to Sicily, I worked on a project with a friendly colleague who is also an English teacher. She, by her own admission, is baffled by technology and often frustrated at the behavior of her students, digital natives whom she struggles to keep at bay from their gadgets and computers. She does this, in good part, because she doesn’t understand and can’t use them herself. To her, it often seems as if technology is a cop-out from the work of developing and using literacy. No doubt, there is an element of truth in what she sees, but some of the benefits of technology tools, or the keys the tools may hold as motivators to literacy, are buried beneath the fear created by lack of either curiosity or opportunity to try and to learn to use the tools.

One of the chief ways new media and technology tools motivate students to literacy is that these tools help writers and readers to speak to the literary world they live in – truly the entire world accessible through the windows of their computer screens as well as their colleagues in the next seat or next house. Students love to create and to write, and they want their work to be effective. Our work this summer showed us that they delight in taking care with detail, more so when they feel the work is meaningful.

While I am not against skills practice, I think skills practice is more effective when learners understand how and why and when they will use the skills. Giving that vision to learners is the job of teachers; to do so, the teachers themselves must understand the tools.

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