Nina Jenkins can’t remember the last time she wrote more than two paragraphs by hand.
On this day in her math class, she is watching her teacher work out an algebra problem on a Promethean smartboard, which has a touch screen that can save a teacher’s work. In her uniform of white and navy blue, Nina writes out the solution on a work sheet. Her laptop is open, too — flashing alerts for iChat messages and e-mails.
She is tempted to check if her partner has added to a joint book project on Google Docs.
As her teacher moves to the next math equation, Nina’s finger hovers over her mouse pad. She weighs what deserves more attention: the math problem or the book project.
This time, math wins.
“I”ll read it later, I guess,” she says, shutting the laptop and placing her work sheet on the laptop’s cover.
Add up those kinds of choices and you raise independent thinkers, according to Flint Hill’s philosophy. Since she entered the school two years ago, Nina has blossomed into a creative and inquisitive student, her parents and teachers say. And yet she still recognizes the value of the pen and paper. She prefers to write poetry by hand.
“I guess you can say it’s more special,” she said.
“She needs an environment that lets her figure out her own style of learning,” her mother said.
All those options can be tempting distractions, some educators say. Half of children 8 to 18 say they are on the Internet, watch TV or use some form of other media while doing homework, according to a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation study. That makes education experts wonder how much information children are retaining.
“These children are being taught to jump from one topic to the next, and its changing the circuitry of their brains,” said Jim Steyer, president of Common Sense Media, a public interest group that advocates for media safety for children.
Washington Waldorf is less than a quarter of the size of Flint Hill, with 240 students. Parents pay up to $23,000 for tuition. The only technology learning is in a small lab of about a dozen computers.
A good number of the school’s alumni have made careers in the arts, including national symphonies and prominent ballet companies.
The hallways are quieter and have less bustle than Flint Hill. And classrooms look more traditional, with desks arranged in neat rows, each supplied with a ruler and colored pencils. When a ceiling leak soaked the card catalog this year, the librarian saved the files by ironing each one dry.
This morning, Nina Auslander-Padgham’s teacher paces back and forth in front of the students with a history book opened on a music stand. “Medieval History” is written in calligraphy on the chalkboard.
Nina is rapt in attention. She raises her hand to describe the Bedouin tribes of the time.
“They are known for their hospitality,” she says. She has thrived in this atmosphere, her teachers and parents say.
“I know I’ll never use calligraphy in real life, but learning it makes me think of the medieval times,” Nina says after class.
The traditional approach has its limits. After 25 minutes or so, fatigue starts to set in. Some students are gazing out the window. Two students pass notes. A boy in the back row struggles to keep his eyes open.
“We want our students to focus on one topic at a time, to fully engage and learn patience,” said Adams, the school’s faculty chair.
Nina said she was annoyed at first with her family’s aversion to technology.
“Now I’m used to it and find other things to do,” she said.
Those other things include lots of reading and more time on the violin, her parents say.
But there are times when she feels the need to get on the Web. She still wants an iPhone. And her favorite arts and science magazine, Muse, has a Web site promoted on the back cover she’s eager to explore.
“I guess I just wonder what’s on the site, what I’m missing,” she said.
Nina says she can’t relate to the idea of crowdsourcing on the Web and has never practiced the skill of distilling a complicated thought into a tweet. She doesn’t know how to type on a computer.
“I’ll have to learn keyboarding at some point,” she says.