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Computers and Controversy

Grandfather and Computers

Alan J. Peterson

My grandfather, my father's mother, was born in Sweden in 1891. He received two years of formal schooling. To help support his family, he went to work in a factory at the age of twelve. When he reached the age of seventeen, he immigrated to the United States. He became one of the thousands of Scandinavians who were processed through Ellis Island during the first years of the twentieth century.

My grandfather, like most of his fellow Swedes who would make the long journey to the United States, could not speak English-not one word. To attempt to circumvent this problem, an English-speaking neighbor in Sweden created a cloth sign which my grandfather later sewed to the front of his bib overalls. The sign cloth read:

This is Victor Eklund
Please sent to Dunbar Township, North Dakota

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Although it sounds impossible to me, his trip to the Dakotas went smoothly. He was assisted along the entire route by individuals who read his crude sign and took pity on him.

When he reached Dunbar Township, North Dakota, he moved in with a family from the "old country," his sponsors. The Victor Isaaksons were one of many Swedish families in Dunbar Township. Grandfather later married Amy Isaakson, Victor Isaakson's oldest daughter. They produced five children: my mother, two more girls, and two boys.

When Verner, the oldest, was seven years old, he started school. He came home after the first day crying. He could not speak English. He knew only Swedish.

From that day forward, my grandfather banned Swedish from his household. Swedish was not spoken in his house again.

What does my grandfather have to do with computers? Perhaps nothing, and perhaps everything.

Many of the terms that I have come to know in the past few years that are associated with the computer seem to imply that a new "language" is actually being learned. This language of computers, along with its special grammar, terminology and syntax, is certainly foreign to most Americans. Computer literacy courses at high school and college levels certainly imply that a new language is being learned and that apparently most people must be taught.

But how could this new language be best taught? As the head of his household, my grandfather made his decision. "We will learn by necessity," he said. "We will learn because we will have no other choice."

Teachers in computer-intensive classrooms need to give up the pen, our old language. To learn the essence of the computer language, we must become dependent upon it. Our grading, our comments, and written discourse with our students must be either via the computer or produced by the computer. We, as teachers, will gain by doing this, but, more importantly, our students will gain.

Teachers will gain insight into a technology that is not going to go away. We then can make more informed decisions about the disadvantages as well as the highly touted advantages of computers in the classroom. Students will not be subjected to dualistic assignments, comments, and grading. Their role model, the teacher, will

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clearly lead by example. Teachers and students can become as one in their means to the goal of the best possible education.

Perhaps most of the teachers that teach in computer-intensive classrooms have already made this decision. I have not. At this point, my dependence on computers is only partial. I, like my grandfather, have let the cloth sign of "I am an English teacher" be my excuse and my explanation of why I don't use computers more. I still compose with paper and pencil and then transfer to the computer. My comments on students' papers are written in pen. This list could go on.

But once the conversion is complete what will be lost? What will be gained?

My grandfather returned to Sweden when he was sixty years old. The Swedish he remembered was not precise enough to carry on conversations with his brothers and sisters. It was a frustrating time for him. After a two-week visit, he returned to the States. He never returned to Sweden.

I asked him years later why he had given up speaking Swedish entirely. He simply replied that it would not have worked any other way. "Some things are for the past; they are only for the memory." I also asked him what he felt he had gained because it seemed he had lost so much. He said, "I have gained you."

Computer literacy is and will continue to affect lives, our lives and students' lives, in more ways than we can now imagine. We, the teachers, need to let go of the past and jump, no leap, no "warm boot" into the future.

Alan Peterson teaches at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, North Dakota.