Saturday, September 24, 2011

We're Ready For Our Closeup, Mr. DeMille

I really glossed over the filming for the Typewriter movie and Mrs. Magic Margin thought people might like to hear more about it.

As class started you could tell the kids were excited. They knew that it was the day that Jack, the cameraman, was going to be filming for the documentary. I didn't notice it until Mrs. Magic Margin (who's also an English teacher at Alhambra) mentioned that many of them looked like they dressed up. Most of the girls had done their hair and chosen outfits just for the occasion. The boys had neatly pressed t-shirts and clean shoes.

Since some of the kids in this class hadn't used the machines before, I made a short slideshow presentation to lay out the basic parts of a typewriter and how to load the paper. It's almost pointless to do these introductions now. Most kids at Alhambra have had some sort of contact with a typewriter before. They aren't the mysterious machines they were two years ago. If that is the only measure of success with the CTP, I would be immensely proud.

Deep thinkers use Royals.
I went through the parts and gave my basic spiel about the typewriter offering distraction-free wirting. They have all heard the mantra before. They wanted to go to the shelf and choose one to use. That's what I like about having such a diverse collection of machines. You can choose a typewriter that fits your personality. They come in a wide variety of styles and it's interesting to see which ones they pick out. I've noticed that students with "old souls" tend to pick pre-war machines. I have a couple of Remington Model 7s and an early 40s Arrow that are often picked up by students with a timeless personality. Others, however, are persuaded by the histrionics of flashy chrome trim and fun colors. This time around there were a number of Hermes selected (of course) and a good number of mid-century Royals.

J.'s choice. Here pictured in my
old classroom. We have since
moved to more spacious digs.
J., a new inductee to the world of typewriters, went to the shelf to choose a typewriter. She gravitated toward the deep maroon Olympia SM3. Taking it back to her desk she said, "Look. It matches my nails." And, you know what, her nails were an identical match.

I gave them a little time to get used to the typewriter they were using and then I gave them the most post-modern assignment ever. They were to write a letter to themselves on a typewriter explaining what their life will be like in 30 years. They used an antiquated device in the digital era to speculate on the course of their future.

The whole class period was great and you could tell they were proud to show off something unique about their school experience. It's not every day you get a chance to use a typewriter in school anymore. As I think about the goals of this project, I am starting to understand that it's less about getting students to write distraction-free and with greater awareness of what they write and more about sharing my love of typewriters and the appreciation of something wholly mechanical.

There is an evil assumption in education that student engagement can only be achieved through the use of modern technology and unceasing novelty. This faulty logic assumes that because these kids are so "plugged-in" that, if what they do in class is not equally "plugged-in', they will not respond. They will shut down and give up. That's a canard. It's not the technology that matters. You can only type on a typewriter, but the impact on a student far greater than I have ever imagined.

P.S. I have heard form several kids that if this movie goes big we have to go see it. Gary Nicholson, if you need screaming teenagers at your movie, I got 'em.


  1. Great post. Very inspiring.

    I sure wish I'd had a teacher like you when I was that age! I was already waaaay interested in typewriters by then and would have been in Heaven in your class.

  2. Excellent post. I suspect with the typewriters the novelty is there just from unfamiliarity, but they can't be cynical about it the way they can with "plugged-in" novelty. The latest graphics-intensive "learning environment" they will automatically suspect (rightly) is manipulative and they will expend more energy figuring out how than in learning. These simple machines are not manipulating them. It's the typewriter's indifference to them that draws them in. The typewriter demands learning beforehand in order to fill the page.
    In other words, the typewriter says "bring it" while the software says "take it."

  3. I continue to be amazed at the success of this project, and the impact you're having on these young people's lives through something as simple and mundane as typewriters.

    To many of them, typewriters are an entirely novel technology, as novel as the latest iThing. I don't think it's about mechanical is old, electronic is new. Novel is novel.

    I'd like to believe that the "technium" (a term coined by Kevin Kelly) includes all of human technology, and keeps expanding to include the old along with the new. Thus, we don't forget how to make hand-forged iron horseshoes just because we just figured out how to make carbon fiber vehicle rims. Technology is not a "zero-sum game." Our culture's sum total of knowledge is (hopefully) ever-expanding. Unless, that is, someone burns down the equivalent to our Alexandrian library. But it's people like you that are keeping the memory alive of technology from a former era. Thank you.


  4. Wonderful. I have really enjoyed following your project and its success. Keep it up.

  5. J has a good eye. Of course nothing else will come up to scratch after the Olympia :-) Just wondering, do any of your students carry on writing on a typewriter out of school?

  6. My immediate thought was to ask the student what brand/color the polish was, just in case you need a supply of touch-up paint. But that's probably crossing some line, and doesn't have anything to do with your project (which project I've enjoyed reading about all this time).

  7. Great read. The director, Christopher Lockett and myself, are excited about adding this element to the film. I think your project is great!

  8. Mr. Adney - This is a great project! As a person in his twenty-somethings who solely writes on manual typewriters I was more than surprised to see what you are doing with these kids in your classroom. As you know, there is nothing like the feel, sound and sight of the print of a typewriter and I am glad that your have given people the opportunity to share that experience and gain a little knowledge of what once was seeming like a forgotten form of creation. Keep up the great work and I wish you the best!

    I will continue to follow this blog.