What I learned by spying*

*Note about the Title: The full title for this post is, “What I learned by spying: In which I explain why I spent a day monitoring computer activity in random labs of our school, while thinking about reading and literacy”.


  • You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ― Ray Bradbury
  • Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don’t believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it.”― John Steinbeck

actual post

…………….I am the school’s librarian or library media specialist or library teacher, depending on who you ask. Whatever my title, I am responsible for the library collection which includes books, video tapes, a few dozen DVDs, a handful of cassette tapes (audio books) and a bunch of archived materials. Information in all its forms is what I deal in.

……………Unlike libraries of the past, today’s libraries are connected to the rest of the world via computers and thus, our “library media center” is also home to two computer labs comprised of some sixty computers. These computers are now the primary delivery system for information in my library, which means they are central to my job. These computers are extremely valuable academic resources, even when they are not working as ideally as we would all like.

……………A couple of weeks ago, we received an e-mail from our tech department, which had reviewed the computer usage in the school. I don’t think I can legally share everything they said, but it mentioned the fact that some of our bandwidth at school is being used for “non-academic” activities. Most of it is innocent, insignificant stuff … kids watching a music video or listening to a song streaming from Pandora or GrooveShark (Sites I’ve written about and that I love and use). There are also kids playing online games, most of which are remarkably similar to the low graphics arcade games of a generation ago. The email also mentioned that teachers have a program called LANSCHOOL which allows them to monitor student activity.

……………As the school librarian, I have that software program and I have that teacher responsibility. The program doesn’t always work perfectly; I can’t always see all the computers in my labs and it is glitchy in other ways, but it serves a purpose. Most days, I am not sitting in my office playing the role of Big Brother. I am usually unjamming copiers, cataloging books, helping students with various tech issues and doing a dozen other things to keep things running in my corner of the school.

……………Because we have two labs, each with about thirty computers, we treat them as separate spaces and they each have their own LANSCHOOL “channels”. What we call Lab One are the computers which wrap around the wall that surrounds the pit. Lab Two consists of all the computers furthest from the entrance and circulation desk, by the yellow file cabinets.

……………Lab Two has a “teacher computer” station; a leftover, from a bygone technological era before everyone had their own portable mac air. That lab also has its own channel and visiting teachers are expected to monitor and supervise their own students. Lab One in the LMC, and its thirty or so computers, is the lab that I am most familiar with, since I monitor that lab daily. And there are other computer labs throughout the school, each with their own particular LANSCHOOL channel.


……………Any teacher in the school can change the LANSCHOOL channel they are “viewing” so as to monitor their class as they move around to different computer labs in the school. One day recently, I decided to view multiple channels, which allows a teacher to see many labs at once. As expected, I found many students working on what looked like academic tasks such as word documents and presentation slides. I also found many students logged into social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and the ever growing Pinterest. There were also students playing games on sites with names such as miniclip, addicting games and total jerk face. I am familiar with all of these sites (and many others), since I have included them in the “blocked sites” list I use in the LMC.

……………While I surfed around looking into the different labs, I applied the restrictions I use in the LMC and was, predictably, met with disapproval by many students. Using LANSCHOOL, anyone who is monitoring can communicate with the users via a “chat”-like interface. I sent the students messages such as, “Please do not use Social Networks during school hours” or “Please do not play games on these computers during school hours”. Some students familiar with how LANSCHOOL works noticed my name “htoromoreno” in the dialog box and several began communicating with me. I repeated that during school hours, computers were to be used for academic work and that they should find something to work on; something to bring their grades up or improve their knowledge base.

……………The excuses I got in response were also familiar to me, having heard them in the LMC whenever I tell kids I don’t allow games or social networks. The arguments I got can be summed up as some version of the following:

  • I don’t have any work to do/ I finished all my work.
  • We worked all week/ Friday is a fun day.
  • It’s almost the weekend.
  • It’s the last period of the day.
  • It’s the first period of the day.
  • It’s my lunch period.
  • It’s my study period.
  • I’m bored.
  • It’s my free time.

sidebar … connected to my point

……………A few weekends ago I was on Facebook (at home) playing my turn at Words With Friends, when I got an Instant Message from a former HHS student saying something like, “How are you? I’m at work and I”m so bored.”

……………I responded by warning him that he shouldn’t be using a work computer to log onto Facebook, unless he didn’t mind having all of his personal information under his employer’s electronic scrutiny. He informed me that he was using his own smartphone to get online, and that his info wasn’t in any danger. I half-jokingly teased him that he should be spending his down time on the job reading a book, like good bored employees do. We chatted very briefly, a mere tweetful of words exchanged, but it left me thinking about my own boredom on some of those early jobs.

……………Most of my employment before becoming a teacher were jobs, like bicycle messenger and dishwasher, didn’t really allow me time to sit and be “bored”. But there were a few summers that I worked as an elevator operator that gave me many, many hours of literally sitting around. I worked in NYC, and as the low person on the hiring pole, I got all the overnight and overtime shifts that no one else wanted. This usually meant working construction jobs, bringing loads of debris and materials up and down all night long, all weekend long.

……………Because I grew up in the era before cellphones (BC, to the kids) I found myself with plenty of time during those summers and what I was able to do is something that I am afraid is being lost to the current generation. I sat around getting textual; engaging and expanding my own literacy in ways that no amount of class time could ever accomplish.

……………It wasn’t that I was reading the classics either. During those summers I read Mario Puzo’s books and Robert Parker’s Spencer series. I read Iam Fleming’s James Bond series and books like The Exorcist, the Amityville Horror, and Erich van Daniken’s Chariot of the Gods. I started reading periodicals like OMNI, Scientific American, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog magazine. I read the newspaper daily, of course, several in fact, collecting the different papers available as I went through my day. I would do the crossword puzzle during my lunch break or on the ride home, always disappointed when I couldn’t finish one of the many I worked on that day. I also carried with me at all times at least one puzzle book filled with word searches, anagrams, cryptic quotes, and other word games.

……………Reading was how I spent my down time and it was through reading for myself that I became a truly educated person. It would have been impossible for any school, no matter how good, to have put in my hands the education that I forged for myself through the thousands and thousands of hours I have spent reading. And three things strike me as important here.

……………The first is that it wasn’t an organized or purpose driven or test driven plan that got me educated. It was a course set by my own interests and curiosity. I was playing games and entertaining myself, but the nature of this activity, because it involved text and reading on multiple levels, was different than what I see happening in the media labs and via smartphones.

……………The second is that it was all a textual, literary journey; one that started on a printed page and ended in my imagination. I did at least half of the work, taking in what the writer had set before me, as best as I could each time I encountered it. The first time that I read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, I must have been around eight or nine, my mother having purchased for me a Illustrated Classics version of it. It was an adventure story for me of a bygone time and nothing more. By the time it was assigned to me as an English undergrad, I had read Twain’s classic novel about a dozen times and had learned to “read” it as political satire, as historical document, as social commentary. I was literate, and my experience was deeper and more significant. Nowadays, I know seniors with decent grades who do well in most of their classes, and are not embarrassed to declare that they have never read a complete novel. They relish in their “aliteracy” and long to prove their point by resisting reading whenever they can.

……………My third observation is that I was able to sit around reading and working on word puzzles without the interruption of a buzzing, beeping, attention-getting device in my pocket. I am no stranger to the siren call of electronic devices and mindless media. I know their power all too well and it is another reason that I worry about how the current generation of students view their “free time” at school. When I see a student sitting in the library, hands conspicuously hidden inside their book bags across their laps, their eyes following me around, waiting for a moment to either read a text or send a text, I feel sad that they cannot pull themselves away long enough to make a new friend in a book. I see them losing thirty or forty more minutes of their educational time, as they update their social page or kill aliens in a first person shooter, and I can’t help but connect what I see to why, “out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math” in the most recent international test of 15 year olds. These things are connected.

in closing

……………We are living in exciting and revolutionary times. Technology in general and computer advances specifically have transformed the world around us faster than we have been able to keep up with. As a librarian, library teacher and media specialist these changes are the proverbial double edged sword; at once freeing up all the information of the world for use and also unleashing all that entertaining, alluring, non-academic stuff into the laps of our students.

……………When I was a graduate student, considering a career as a teacher, there was an innovative guy named Christopher Whittle who was interested in creating a partnership between education and private enterprises. He went on to create the Edison Schools, which folded in the early 2000s, but when I was student teaching, Whittle had a program called Channel One. In a nutshell, Whittle’s company provided schools with free televisions for the classrooms and a satellite dish for the school. The stipulation was that the school would have to show short “news-like” programs (which weren’t bad, actually) and (here’s the battleground part) two minutes of advertising. The major arguments against the advertisements was that participating schools were delivering a captive audience to the advertisers and that the schools were also giving de facto approval for whatever was being advertised to the students.

……………That was only twenty years ago, but that was a time before YouTube and good streaming video; before Google and Hulu and Oovoo, before Skyping and “friending” were verbs. That was a time before GPS, USB, PDF, JAVA, JPEG, PCI, and a bunch of other letters strung themselves together to confuse the hell out of all of us. We are still trying to make sense of what it all means, but I know that if you spend more time doing one thing, you spend less time doing something else. In the case of too many students in school, the thing they are doing less of is reading and working with text.

……………As far as I’m concerned, our work is never done when it comes to holding on to and promoting literacy. It is a very recent human innovation, going back only five or six millennia, and its history among “common folk” is even shorter. Considering that we live in the so-called “information age”, we are freed from the worry of scarcity. Our overflow of data instead, calls for individuals who have their own deep, informed knowledge base to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, program from propaganda. The best thing our students could do with any free school time is read a book.

closing quote, for good measure

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” … Franklin D. Roosevelt

*CYA Note

While this blog bears the Haverhill High School name and is linked to the HHS homepage, the contents and views expressed in all posts belong solely to the author and should not be taken as being endorsed by Haverhill High School or any of its other employees.

End of the Year Reflections

……………The so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” came and went without much incident (as expected by the sane portion of the population) and thus, we had to pull out our calendars, PDAs, smartphones and digital tablets and continue planning for the future. Like most people, this time of year brings to mind New Year’s resolutions (goals to aim for) as well as making me stop to reflect on the past twelve months and all that has transpired, both in the larger world and personally in my own life.

……………It’s impossible for me to write a coherent, essay-style post covering all the things that I’ve been thinking about lately. So instead, I offer you a list of bullet point observations with some links to let you explore more if you like, less if you don’t want to:

  • Explosion of information/ My role as librarian: It used to be that being a librarian basically meant that you were an archivist and a keeper and organizer of information. Every library used to be a warehouse unto itself and the best librarians knew everything about their collection and where it could be found. The modern librarian is not so much a keeper of information any longer, as there are just too many good resources to warehouse in any one place. Even the Library of Congress can no longer keep up with the data available. The internet itself is still only partially archived because after all, how do you make a back up copy of everything in the world? As such, my job as a librarian has evolved to the point where I am expected to keep and manage our limited text collection, but more importantly, I should be knowledgeable about what is available online. No small task indeed, but one that always leads me to great discoveries.
  • The digital intrusion at home: One of the first things you notice about the modern home is the number of electronic devices in use. At my own house, everyone has their own computer. My wife and I have laptops in our respective home offices, and my sons both have a their own gaming computers in the family room. We have two small LCD televisions, one LCD projector, two DVD players, one radio, one MP3 player and a Kindle Fire. Even when everyone is at home, we are hardly ever all in one room doing something together. I am just as guilty as everyone else, having grown up with a television in my bedroom as my late night companion. If it wasn’t for those late night shows, I might never have seen Jackie Gleason in the HoneyMooners or Lucy and Desi in I Love Lucy or Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (and I’ve written before here about how much I love that show). The only exception is meal time, which I still cook and which remains media free. That is not to say that we don’t do other things together (play with legos, build puzzles, read, play Scrabble, draw), but I noticed that there was usually something “on” in the background as we played. A television show or movie, a stream of Pandora music, someone playing a video game.
  • Words with Friends: This game is really the main reason I still keep my Facebook account. I have become so accustomed to playing my turn every day against multiple challengers from all different stages of my life, that I miss it when my friends don’t play their turn. Because it is an asynchronous game, each person taking their turn whenever they are on, it isn’t really the same kind of interaction seen in the popular multi-player online shooter games. What worries me most though, is how unhappy I am (even if just for an instant) when I log on and I don’t have a turn to play. I wonder how many other people feel this kind of “letdown” from their digital devices, either when they don’t get an e-mail, or a Facebook response or some other digital communication.
  • My oldest kid became a teenager: I now have one of “them” living with me. It is a little bit intimidating to tell the truth, to have to live with someone who is so hypercritical of others, yet so very unwilling to reflect on his own shortcomings. Luckily there are many great quotes to keep me grounded as I make my way through these years. Besides that, all my years in education have been spent in 9-12 except for a two year stop as a k-4 school librarian. One thing I’ve noted so far is that my oldest son, like so many boys his age and older, calls himself a “gamer”, as though that were a title akin to say, piano player or dancer or artist. Anyway, this means that he needs more expensive computers that can handle the graphics demands of today’s online environment. That’s getting expensive, and difficult to keep up with, technically speaking.
  • Curiosity Lands on Mars & the Solar System may be larger than we thought: Now that we no longer have a Space Shuttle program, it seems that NASA’s game plan is to shoot rovers, satellites and probes out among the stars. It’s not a bad plan, really, considering the vastness of space currently prohibits any real long terms journey with people aboard. That, and the fact that all of our technology has really taken quantum leaps in the fifty years since we first ventured into space, means we could learn plenty without endangering human lives. Besides, a space journey that began when I was just a ten year old boy (Voyager I) still hasn’t officially left the solar system, thirty five years later. On the plus side, both Voyager spacecraft (yep, there were two) are still sending back valuable information about the far reaches of our own little corner of the universe.
  • Early human history and the role of art: I love all kinds of art, but lately I’ve castillo cavetaken a special fascination with Paleolithic and Neolithic art, commonly known as cave paintings. Many of the sites have been dated back tens of thousands of years, with the oldest sites being almost 40,000 years old. The sheer beauty of the artwork is a testament to the minds behind the paintings. More haunting and cryptic are the hand prints and outlines of hands that are found throughout the caves. Fifty thousand years or so may seem like a long time to us (since we live only about 75 years, it represents nearly 700 lifetimes) but it is a mere blip in geologic or evolutionary time. What’s more, it now appears that we (homo sapiens) shared the Earth not that long ago with at least three or four other human species (Neaderthals, homo floresiensis also popularly called “hobbits”, and now the Red Deer Cave people of China). As far as we know, only homo sapiens began representing the world symbolically through art, and this distinction may be the key to understanding why we are here today, while our closest human cousins are all gone (or absorbed, some would argue).
  • The Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs-Boson: After numerous false starts, the LHC in Switzerland was able to make preliminary confirmation of the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson. Now, I would be lying if I told you I really understood what the scientists at CERN are doing and what it all means. In a nutshell, they were shooting protons at each other at nearly the speed of light and recording the collision for traces of what “comes out of” the crash. What they were looking for, known on the street as the “God particle”, is the Higgs boson which confirmed the standard model of the universe, and explained why things have mass. Sounds cool, even if I can’t do the math.

I had more to write, but “ran out of time”, as I wanted to post this before the New Year … Technically, I still have about five hours left as I am in the Eastern Daylight Time Zone. WordPress, however, who hosts this site, is somewhere in Europe, where they have already started 2013, so I submitted the post prematurely to get it “in” for 12/31/2012. I missed by 5 minutes …. Anyway, have a Happy New Year, and I will see you all in a few days.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2012. All rights reserved.