Watch the geeks

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is. I highly recommend the archived web session hosted by Howard Rheingold in which Mimi Ito lead a discussion about connecting interests and achievement with a panel of librarians, teachers and parents. Erin Wilkey Oh also posted this webinar with her reflection here in Digital Is.

Mimi Ito studies geeks.

It takes one to know one!

The geeks, she reports, are highly interest-driven and immersed in technology. Ito says geeks use different media platforms than other students because they put their interests first and friendships, while important, come second. To me, that means they might prefer to Facebook, for example.

I share Ito’s interest in geeks and I like to conduct my own informal studies on them.

It used to be easier to spot geeks. They were the ones wearing glasses, reading books. They were the only ones who knew how to use a computer, before using a computer became so social. Now everyone’s on some kind of a computer and you have to really look closely to see which kids are pursuing their interests. It is harder to know who is hanging out, who’s messing around and who’s geeking out. Before, you could stake out a library and find the geeks. Today, even if you go to the library, you’ll see a bunch of kids on computers. You have to sneak up behind them to figure out who the geeks are.

I like to sneak up behind the geeks because I’m a teacher and I have a sneaking suspicion that studying the geeks a little more closely will suggest possibilities for a way forward in education, especially in an era of increased accountability and emphasis on measuring educational outcomes. Schools can no longer take geeks for granted. We really ought to poke and prod them, prick them with pins, find out how they tick.

When I find a real geeky geek, about 11 or 12 years of age, and I poke him real hard, he gives up his secrets! “School is easy, when it isn’t too boring,” he wails. “Some classes are fun, when we get to do cool stuff, or when we read, write and talk about cool stuff.”

Geeks might not like homework, but if I prick them with a pin, they’ll tell me their ten favorite homework assignments. I record the answers in my notes because I think it will help us find a way forward in education.

Here’s a thing I’ve noticed: when you leave a geek to his own devices, he makes up his own homework, and he enters into his own intellectual discussions. Geeks use the Internet for this all the time. You basically cannot click twice on the web without encountering a geek collaborating with other geeks.

Geeks interests change all the time, but we can learn a great deal by studying how they pursue those interests.

To help in this effort, I’m growing my own geeks.  

The biggest one is six and her interests are as follows: dinosaurs, roly polys, dogs, singing, and animals.

Her mother won’t let me prick her with a pin, so I have hang out with my little geek and make careful notes about her interests. I recently took her to the local library. She’s learning to read, so it is an opportune time to watch this geek blossom.* I watch how she walks through the bookstacks, introduces herself to other kids and explores. It doesn’t get interesting until I start picking out the books.

I’m an English teacher, so I have an agenda.  My approach is complex- I look for books on her instructional level, but I also want high quality literature. I look for author’s names: De Paolo, Fox, Carle, Pollaco, and Yolen. Pulling books from the shelves, I look at the sentence structure, the patterns and the ratio of text to picture support. I find the perfect books for this reader’s development and then things get interesting.

“No, Dad. I only want dinosaur books.”

Despite my  assurances that she will love the books I have chosen, the little geek, unyielding, insists on a new search strategy for me, the reading “expert.” Not only do I have to reshelve the instructionally appropriate materials, I have to find dinosaur books. Not real dinosaur books, I’m told, but dinosaur books where dinosaurs talk and play. We find about 10 and when the little geek concedes that dragon books will work, too, we check out 13 in total.

I record my observations.

Our oldest geek rejects expert-selected, instructionally appropriate materials in her zone of proximal development. She demands to focus on a topic and style of text. In the weeks following our trip to the library, she independently increases her time on text with the self-selected materials. Her method of reading practice, while different than the work I might have prescribed, increases instructional opportunities to model and mentor reading strategies.  

During her recent discussion on, Ito asked a small panel of parents and educators an important question, “Have you seen in your own work some potential for interest-driven work with students?” So, I believe Mimi Ito is onto something when she asks about the potential for interest-driven instruction. I also believe we can ask educators another question: Have you seen in your work the negative potential of continuing with a course of instruction that did not interest students?

*During the writing of this blog post, my oldest geek walked by and told me, “Don’t forget your periods at the end of your sentences, Dad!”