Out with the New, In with the Old

Swapping technology for typewriters to teach writing
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Photos by Rachel Coward

Located in the heart of Kirkland, a place where people come from all over the world to create cutting-edge technology, and a few blocks away from Google’s giant campus, is a class of kids who are learning how to read and write the old-fashioned way.

Click. Click. Click. Ding.

That’s the retro sound that fills teacher Brad Coulter’s first-grade Lakeview Elementary classroom, where 16 pupils are learning to write and spell, minus autocorrect or the help of a delete key. His classroom is full of vintage typewriters that he’s collected over the years, and the kids can’t wait to peck away.

“I teach them that if they make a mistake, they just keep going,” the teacher said. “We don’t correct. We don’t erase. So, I think they have to slow down and think before they write.” When students make mistakes Coulter reminds them, “It’s part of the art of the page.”

The budding wordsmiths are so excited about typewriters that six of the 16 in his class asked for typewriters for Christmas. Santa’s elves weren’t sure what to think about that vintage order.

Henry, a student in the classroom, says the typewriter has helped him with his spelling skills. “‘Cause when you type that much, you can, like, learn more sounds,” he said. “‘Cause when you type you get like a story to do, and that’s how you get more things to spell and you get better at it and you get to learn more words.”

Ryan, who wants to be a writer when he grows up, said the biggest word he’s ever spelled on a typewriter is “probably George Washington?”
While Coulter does have Netbooks for the class, he chooses not to use them for writing lessons. It’s not because he’s anti-technology. In fact, he used to be a tech trainer for the district. He thinks typewriters are an easier writing tool for young students.

“For a first-grader to log on (to a computer), they have a specific username and a specific password and if they make one mistake it doesn’t log on,” he said. “So logging them all on takes 15 minutes and invariably about a third of them have a problem and you’ve got to log them on again.”

With a typewriter, there’s no fuss. Coulter loads them with paper when the kids are at recess, and at about 11am, the machines are ready for the big imaginations of the 16 little writers.

Typewriters offer instant gratification. Short stories develop and print as each letter stamps onto blank white paper. It’s instantaneous, tactile and satisfying. Several of the kids said they love the sound each key makes as it hits the page. Others think the whole device is pretty amazing.

“It’s just really cool that there’s like stamps, like miniature stamps on keys. So it’s super cool,” said Pensee, another first-grader. She likes to write about little animals which live in the woods. When asked what animals in particular she said, “Like bunnies, birds and flies.”

20150115_Typewriters_LakeViewElementary_291Coulter’s students do have to learn handwriting, but he believes typewriters equal the playing field for dyslexic students who sometimes have a tough time expressing themselves with a pencil. “You hit a key, and you make a letter, and it looks the same as anybody else’s,” he said.

While the typewriter offers big lessons in spelling and typing, its biggest payoff seems to be improving the writing skills of the first-graders. With no access to the Internet or games, Coulter’s students are focused on shaping their creative voices through words.

“They’re writing more and they’re writing better. I swear. I mean it’s not just the typewriter. I’m not giving all the credit to the typewriter, but it seems to motivate them in a way that makes them want to write more,” said Coulter.

Anika said she’s written a seven-page story already. “It was about a little girl named Lucy and how she went off to find a golden sphere … and a tiger helped her,” she said.

Another student, Andrea, said she likes to stand while she types because that’s how Ernest Hemingway wrote his stories. She likes writing poems on the typewriter and says that one of her works is about how “the wind flows like a beautiful ocean.” When asked what her favorite word to type is, she said, “Flamingo!”

But as fun as typewriters are to have in class, it’s curious that so many kids would ask for an old-fashioned writing tool for Christmas. Sure, the kids like the way it sounds, but for some, it’s more.

For Pensee it certainly is. She’s one of the six students who got a typewriter over winter break. When she got in trouble with her mom for riding a scooter in the house, she marched downstairs to her “new” typewriter and wrote a note explaining how angry and hurt she was.

“There were all sorts of things in there about things that weren’t fair and she was mad about,” said her mom, Julie Arnan. “And she thought I didn’t want her to have any fun. And she came back upstairs with her letter and tapped me on the shoulder and gave it to me, and you know, like presented to me her feelings.”

For Arnan, it was great to see her daughter working out her emotions by journaling them in a healthy way. Even Pensee agreed that writing is pretty effective. “It’s actually good for me to have typewriters so I don’t yell,” she said.

Four days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Coulter’s classroom was filled with the sound of little fingers hitting keys. His students were busy writing about the historic civil-rights leader, and at the end of class, they shared their work via a big projector.

Pensee wrote: “Martin Luther king jr. started freedom 1929-1968.”

Henry wrote “[Martin Luther King] was triing to get the people to lisin to him one day at Rosa parks.”

And Johann, a quiet kid who kept to himself during most of the lesson, wrote: “I love school so mach, but I love Lother jr. beter, he was a good man, he was good, he was a black, he sav the day, he did on the 26 day.”

The vintage typewriters have become a treasured tool for the budding writers in Mr. Coulter’s class — the perfect vessel for young minds — and a way to write about, record and celebrate things like bunnies, golden spheres and good men like Martin Luther King Jr., who was just “trying to get people to listen.”

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is the managing editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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