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.

About htwilson

born in brooklyn, raised in queens, massachusetts, that's where I be.
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2 Responses to What I learned by spying*

  1. Neopoints says:

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    • htwilson says:

      Thank you for visiting and reading. Please encourage others that you know to subscribe to my blog. I try to post about twice a month, so I won’t tax to much of your time.

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