Power or Peril at Your Fingertips

Along with the Christmas decorations I helped the smaller ones put up this week were the assorted greeting cards we collected throughout the years.  Looking through them, I wondered why I have been receiving less and less recently. Then I recalled how the annual newsletters I created in pdf form and sent by electronic mail had replaced the mailed Christmas cards where I scribbled a sentence or two. The absence of tangible greetings from me probably caused the non delivery of these to my own mailbox.

To date, we haven’t found the need to acquire a proper physical mailbox after having moved to our house four years ago. With e-bills, online accounts, and e-mail, there’s hardly anything to expect through the postal service. Coincidentally, one of my older daughters recently wrote an essay arguing for letter-writing. She makes some interesting points and having received an “A” for this composition, I include it here as a sample 10th grader work. Feel free to skip over if you wish.

To Mail or To E-Mail?

Should people still write letters?  Reflecting on the very idea evokes such thoughts as “snail mail”, “antiquity”, perhaps even “Jane Austen”.  These days many people brand letter writing as an ancient skill that has died out.  Technology has blessed our modern world with simple, speedy communication.  Any fellow with a cell phone or computer can dispatch his ear, his voice, and his words millions of miles across the ocean in a few seconds.  So why should anyone take the time to sit, take a piece of paper, and write?  In the fast-paced, impersonal era of our day, letter writing communicates sentiments with a rare sincerity and inspires healthy thoughts, bringing to both the writer and the recipient a satisfaction our modern technology cannot supply.  

Letter writing conveys personal feelings with an openness that dwindles in modern technology.  To speak one’s personal feelings into the mouth of a cold, heartless telephone intimidates the brave and the faint-hearted; to text a message saying “I luv u” diminishes the value of the emotion behind the words.  Though e-mails can deliver meaningful sentiments, letters deliver the very soul, the genuine feelings that the writer has pondered over and written down again and again.  Nick Bantock, a British author and artist, captured the beauty of letter writing with these words: “The telephone is a great knee-jerk machine, but if you really want to tell someone how you feel, you need the slowness of the letter. In a society where everything is fast, it’s like going out in the country and looking up at the stars.”  Because they offer us a time to think and feel, letters transform meaningful emotions into meaningful words.

Through the extensive time-span it takes to write a letter, this ancient skill also improves a person’s mental health.  Studies show that writing anything by hand sharpens the brain; accordingly, taking the time to write a letter exercises the brain more than in composing an email or a text.  Wendy Carlson, a handwriting expert and forensic document examiner, explains, “If you are typing or texting, it’s a matter of punching and finger-moving. You are doing very little thinking because you are not allowing your brain to form neural processes.”  To write a letter, one must write by hand.  And going through the process of hand writing takes a great amount of thought and focus, which in turn yields a beautiful, active mind.

In addition, letter writing uses thought to monitor our hearts and our words, contrary to the unrestrained freedom of the Internet.  Technology has provided our world with a universal outlet for emotions.  Asra Q. Nomani, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, writes about the temptation of composing angry emails at two in the morning and regretting it afterwards.  She goes on to say, “It’s easy to instantaneously express anger in electronic rants in this age of ‘digital maximalism….’” Because of the speed and simplicity of typing, we can voice our opinions without much consideration, and arguments run rampant as a result.  How can these bitter emails and biting arguments end in anything other than regret?  Plodding through the slow, difficult process of letter writing, however, simmers down those fleeting emotions.  Pen and paper evoke thought, and once the storm has calmed, we can write with clear minds.

Lastly, hand-written letters bring the recipient certain pleasures that our modern technology cannot offer.  Because we constantly wear out the buttons on our phones and keyboards, receiving an email or a text hardly promotes delight.  But a handwritten letter, with its crisp, folded paper and blotted script, brings a fresh relish to the person so wearied of the modern world.  Like a country-born city man yearning for the fields and flowers, our hearts long for a change of scenery.  When we hold letters in our hands and read the flowery cursive or inky print, we feel a certain thrill that absents itself from those dimly lit screens and those tiny symbols blinking at you from cyberspace.  However, the pleasure of receiving something new for a change can hardly compare to the pleasure of actually reading the letter.  We feel gratified because the sender actually took the time to write to us instead of simply sending an email.  Catherine Field, a journalist of the New York Times, wrote on the subject of letter writing: “It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe-keeping.”  Letters yield secrets that the recipient can delight in, knowing they represent bits and pieces of the writer’s soul.

So why should we write letters?  Cyber communication has indeed bestowed our world with wonderful opportunities.  With the click of a button, we can read messages sent oceans away.  Faces of cherished relatives and friends living far from home can greet you on the cell phone and computer.  But when the dazzling Internet fades into a dull screen with blinking words, when our modern technology seems to transform into a mindless, raging beast, a little letter can brighten our lives.  These envelopes do not carry hollow words – they carry meaning.   And while composing an email or a text message hardly exercises anything but the fingers, a letter sharpens the mind and inspires thought.   We live in a world where many people hide behind screens, unable to communicate genuine feelings and open up to other talking, breathing people.  Wanting to strip away that weary façade, we turn to the old-fashioned letter that promises sincerity, meaning, and novelty.

Aside from the disadvantages to modern technology mentioned in the essay above, cyberspace presents its other more severe perils.  It does us good to regularly evaluate the extent of access to the internet we permit our children and to ensure that the standards we come up with are implemented.

In addition, use of the internet can be a distraction to homeschooling.  In our household, where 4 out of 5 children have keyboarding skills and able to navigate cyberspace, we find  having one desktop and one laptop (dad takes the iPad when he goes out and uses it for his own Kindle school books) quite enough for everybody’s legitimate needs.  In reality, the laptop is mine but I keep it available for the more pressing requirements especially of my high schoolers who have online class assignments.  This way, I don’t find myself unnecessarily using the internet when I don’t really have to.

The benefits of the internet cannot be denied though.  In our homeschool alone, we continue to discover how this technological advancement can be made to work for us, rather than against us.

Outsourcing of high school subjects through online classes is the most obvious. The piece of writing above was for a composition class one of my daughters is enrolled in. While I have enjoyed and learned greatly from guiding her through writing curricula prior to this year, it is a relief to have a professional teach her and evaluate her work at the moment.

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The Potter’s School Advanced Composition class

Finding a live Latin class for my other high schooler has equally resolved my inability to supervise her studies in this area.  This daughter has diligently attempted to self-study Latin for a couple of years now and was really desirous we find an online class that will suit her.  We were both pleased that she tested into a Latin 2 class, proving that the time she has spent so far in the subject has been worth her while. Now that daylight saving time has ended, she stays up from 10 p.m.-11 p.m. for this brisk Latin class.

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Lukeion Project Latin 2 online

Both girls are also enrolled in different levels of live French class offered by one of these online schools. Hearing classmates from around the world speak the language you are studying definitely facilitates the learning process.

The wealth of information the internet can provide seems to be limitless.  My 10-year old who decided he wanted to raise fish spent a considerable time researching the “net” before we went out to actually make purchases.  From choosing what fish to breed to what type of creatures could live together, from the appropriate size of the aquarium to actual daily care of the water habitat, the internet had answers to all his questions.

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Keeping an aquarium (or for a time, raising tadpoles) isn’t the only hobby the internet could guide you through. Photography and gardening are other pursuits the children have used information and how-to videos in the internet for.

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gardener subjects for my budding photographer

Artistic endeavours especially benefit much from connecting online.  Do you want to watch someone draw, paint, or sculpt something using a certain medium?  It seems there is virtual class for virtually anything.

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In the same way, the images that cyberspace can conjure seem almost magical.  Often times while reading to the children, whether in history or science, it can be quite handy to have internet access to a visual illustration, aiding our understanding of the topic at hand.  Just start typing in the search box: “map of ancient Egypt” or “African viverridae” or “tabernacle” and discover where ancient Egypt is geographically today as well as in the context of the world or find yourself face to face with species of viverridae that live in Africa or obtain an artist’s rendition of the tabernacle God instructed the Israelites to build.

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listening to Exodus through YouVersion.com with internet produced visual aid

Lending an ear to an audio version of the very extensive and detailed descriptions in the Bible while observing an illustration provided by the internet could prove to be an enlightening experience.

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Hebrew high priest garment as described in the Old Testament

Or instead of flipping through books to find a picture to sketch, just do an internet search.

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As well, I have been very dependent on homeschool curricula sites and forums for most of our homeschooling years. I have utilised  advice on choice of appropriate programs, scheduling or how to implement curricula, evaluating/grading work suggested by experienced moms I have become familiar with through their online pseudonyms.  Moreover, majority of homeschool suppliers are accessible through online stores.

And yes, when I’m all caught up with reading to the kids, checking their work, supervising their school and forget they have to be nourished, doing a quick search for a recipe based on the ingredients I have on hand will always do the trick.

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