Cardboard Camcorders Take Playground by Storm!
There’s a short video floating around the Net right now telling the story about a school where all the students started to make toy cameras out of cardboard and pretended to film each other, YouTube-style. It paints a fascinating, and for some people disturbing, portrait of the cultural difference that exists between teachers and today’s students when it comes to understanding the role of media in everyday life.
Earlier this week I stumbled upon a post on the Boing Boing blog about a video segment that’s been produced for the TV version of the public radio program This American Life. (Note: the video has been getting a lot of traffic, so it may not play the first time you try it.) The video is an animated segment that illustrates a story of an elementary school where a large number of fifth- and sixth-graders began making toy video cameras. It started innocently enough; a couple of boys took a box, stuck on a paper towel roll as if it were a lens and decorated it to look like a camcorder. Then one of the boys pretended to be a newscaster reporting live from the elementary school, “interviewing” the other boy.
That might have been the end of the story, but the cardboard camera went viral. Within a matter of days, the playground was full of kids with their own homespun cameras. If they weren’t handling a cardboard camera they were pretending to be a news anchor, or even a member of the production crew. “We became a series of competing news operations,” one teacher recalled.
It all seemed innocent enough, until one day there was an incident on the playground. A teacher went outside and saw a group of students standing in a circle. As he got closer he realized the kids were surrounding two other students, one of whom was pummeling the other. The students that had gathered around weren’t trying to intervene, nor were they standing by doing nothing. Instead, they were reporting live from the scene, training their fake cameras on the fight and offering color commentary as the kids scuffled. Soon enough, teachers ran out and intervened, ending the fight. “It was declared that the whole TV camera craze had gotten completely out of control,” the teacher tells host Ira Glass. “And then they were banned.”
“The camera really changed the way we behaved,” he continues. “It still really disturbs me; we lost our humanity. We let one of our classmates get trampled on.”
I’ve probably watched the video a dozen times in the last 48 hours, not only because it’s a great piece of animation and a well-told story, but because I keep thinking about how the students and the teachers reacted differently. Over the years, kids have acted out all sorts of playground role-playing games, from the cowboys and Indians of my parents’ generation to the Dungeons & Dragons adventures I used to play when I was that age. Kids always take their role-playing cues from iconic motifs of their surrounding culture, and today’s kids are thoroughly immersed in digital culture, including YouTube. So I can’t say I’m shocked that kids would want to play video journalist with cardboard camcorders.
I’m also not totally surprised that none of the kids witnessing the fight stepped up to the plate to stop the scuffle. Is this because they were too busy “shooting” video of it? For some of them, perhaps. Then again, I think back of all the fights I’ve witnessed among kids over the years, including growing up in the 70s and 80s, and the number of occasions where none of their peers intervened easily outnumbers the occasions when someone other than an adult stopped the fight. The fact that I witnessed these fights without getting caught up in most of them also makes me realize that I was one of those gawkers. So gawking at a fight, sadly, is not a new trait of today’s generation of kids by any means.
And I’m also not surprised that the teachers responded by banning the fake cameras. It’s a natural response; a group of kids start a cycle of imitation, something gets out of hand, and a policy needs to be set to deal with it. Back when I was a kid, the cardboard cameras were actually cardboard model rockets. In the fifth grade, some kid brought in a home-made model rocket and launched it during recess, so the rest of us started doing the same until one kid - ahem - brazenly filled the rocket with daisy-chained booster engines just to see it explode in mid-flight. The result? No more model rockets at school. (Good thing they never figured out which kid brought in Big Bertha that day.)
Of course, it’s easy to ban something that’s not supposed to be in the classroom, and paper cameras serve no educational purpose, right? Well, the fact remains that these bogus cameras became all the rage because the kids saw them as a cultural icon, something that’s natural for them to be attracted to. The teachers had a hard time understanding why all of this took place because they weren’t raised in a culture in which everything is online, everyone is a produce and anyone can create media. Clearly, these kids think this way, and when push literally came to shove, seeing everything as a potential moment to be captured, and none of them had been taught how to deal with it.
Calling this situation a teachable moment barely does it justice. But I’d surmise the teachers, aliens to immersive digital culture, didn’t know how to deal with it except by banning it. Yes, there’s no excuse for kids standing by when someone is getting hurt, and this problem hasn’t been exclusive to this generation or any other generation. Yet there’s also a dynamic playing out among these digital natives that’s very difficult for digital immigrants like teachers to comprehend. Did teachers try to discuss the cardboard camera phenomenon as it was playing out, getting the students to think about why they were doing it? Or did they just think kids were being kids, reacting only when someone got hurt?
Can this gap between digital immigrants and digital natives be breached so teachers can play an active role in educating students to use these tools - cardboard or otherwise - responsibly? We can only hope so. -andy