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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Readers Blog: The World on Wheels

Texting: Blessing or curse

This column appears in the March 11 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Sports fans do it from their seats. Millions do it to help choose the next "American Idol." President Barack Obama even used it to give supporters the scoop on his choice for a running mate.

Indeed, text messaging is everywhere, and it's here to stay. It's equal parts communication tool and cultural phenomenon. Depending on whom you ask, texting might be the greatest innovation since the Internet. But its ubiquitousness is hardly met with universal love.

The criticisms are many. Among them: Texting is expensive, it distracts us from daily work, it feeds our destructive need for instant gratification, it encourages short attention spans and, lastly, it's making us dumb.

Full disclosure: Since I have a disability that limits motor functioning, I find texting tedious and use it only in crowded, noisy environments when absolutely necessary. But I typically have dismissed most of the above objections as overblown, given all the worse bad habits one can name. But the recent arrest of a 14-year-old Wauwatosa East High School student made me reconsider.

According to a Journal Sentinel report, the student disobeyed a teacher's order to stop texting and denied she had a phone, forcing the school's resource officer to search the room. A police officer discovered the phone in the student's pants while the student laughed. School officials suspended the student for a week, and she was cited twice for trespassing on school grounds.

School officials were quick to say the arrest was for the girl's behavior toward the teacher and police officer, not the act of texting. However, while classroom disruption takes many forms, texting was the means in this case. As someone too old to have texted in high school, I sought counsel from some teacher friends. I already knew that cell phones aren't allowed in classrooms, so I wondered how often students smuggle them in.

Predictably, my friends told me phones frequently are confiscated. One said his school district required parents to pick up their child's phone in person after it has been taken away and that a second violation results in the school keeping the phone for the remainder of the academic year. Unfortunately, the prevalence of texting may pose an even more substantive problem for educators: an erosion of students' writing skills.

The consensus among the teachers I spoke with was that the texting culture of abbreviation and brevity makes for poorer quality work and worsens grades, especially in the first weeks of school before correct grammar and proper mechanics can be instilled. These problems usually are overcome easily but not without "whining and disregard for directions," according to one. Allegedly "complete" assignments are sometimes three sentences. One suggestion has been to require writing in all subjects, including math.

This seems like a worthy idea, as kids must be taught the importance of writing skills in the professional world. Parents and educators are uniquely qualified to do so by any reasonable method necessary. Except, of course, text messaging.

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