Literacy Response

Before I left for vacation, I posted a link to Motoko Rich’s article from the New York Times titled Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? to the high school’s English Department Google Group. I’ll do this occasionally with interesting articles that I’d like to share with my colleagues in the various departments I work with. This one really struck a chord with the teachers, and several of them responded passionately. Here is my response to some of their comments.

What a great dialogue. I was away for a while and came back to read
all of your responses. Many of the thoughts you all expressed echoed
my own, and I pulled some of the quotes that resonated with me from
your responses to comment on.

Brooke wrote:

“It takes time to immerse oneself in a novel and once done
effectively, the reader isn’t even reading anymore. They are seeing
and interacting with the novel on a completely different level of
consciousness. That, one of the most compelling reasons readers read,
is lost on the Internet reader who doesn’t have the opportunity to go
through whatever cognitive process allows it to happen. The novel has
the opportunity to move students through vicarious experience and
changes who they actually are the way experience does.”

Brooke’sdescription shows the nearly spiritual side of reading that we hope our
students can learn to go through. We introduce them to great works of
literature, often types they would never encounter through their own
volition, and then teach, discuss, analyze, oppose, share, empathize
and hope that they emerge on the other side of that novel changed in
some way. The very nature of reading on the internet, as it appears to
me (as someone who does the majority of their reading on the internet)
is cursory. I read much more than ever before, but my choice of to
read longer articles or books is more rare than in the past. Reading
newspapers from around the world, reading magazine articles from
hundreds of magazines a day, or reading blogs written by people in the
education and design field, can be done with much more ease than if I
had to go out to a newsstand and buy them, not to mention the cost
associated with all of my daily reading is zero.

I don’t think our students read online for the reasons they would read a
good book; as Brooke stated in her post, it’s a different animal.
Carol’s respons to Brooke took my thinking in another direction
entirely, however.

“grazing on the Internet is a very different set of skills that our students are now automatically
acquiring on their own. Although we do need to help them hone those
skills, it still remains our primary job as English teachers to expose
them to the rigors, the complexity, the challenge, and, yes, the
beauty of literature–to the “best that has been thought or said in
the world” (to quote Matthew Arnold)– where they will develop and
exercise their powers of analysis, critical thinking, and empathy.”

The ideas she brings out here, those of analysis, critical thinking and
empathy are crucial to the success of our students in their college
years and beyond. One of the books on my summer reading list was “A
Whole New Mind,” by Daniel Pink
, which I recommend to all of you (I
have a copy if you would like to borrow it). The premise of the book
is that the abilities that dominated the Information Age, which were
primarily those of left-brained thinkers, will not be enough for our
children. They need to become able to recognize patterns, find deeper
meaning, see complexity and manage it, have a sense of design and
flow–all skills that we strive to foster in the study of literature.
With those skills, we often find it necessary to push students “To rise to the challenge, to work for something, to feel achievement in
the accomplishment, and to work that brain to figure it out,” as
Carol said. To which I say there may not be a more important set of
things we show our students than these three. And I love how she ended
the paragraph:

“If we aren’t going to guide them through this in the English class room, where will
they encounter it? Internet Age or not, these are not skills that we
can allow to leach out of our common psyche!”

We are not “teachers of technology,” but rather can use tools that
transform the ways in which we allow our students to meet challenges,
think critically, empathize, and connect with ideas larger than
themselves. Our desire to lead them through the processes of critical
thinking and analysis of literature need to be connected to something
within themselves. What is their connection to it? What motivates
them to access these skills?

Andrew expressed a sentiment in his reply about students and the technologies they use:

“Technology, with all its pros and cons, has emerged alright, so why do we have to go out of our way to expose our students to it. They get it just fine, especially for

This raises the question of literacy in general, the definition of which has
expanded greatly over the last twenty years. Our students, and
ourselves, for that matter, are inundated with information whenever
they open their computers. The ability to sift credible information
from sources they read, view, or listen to is essential. While they
may “get” technology in the sense that they understand how to entertain
themselves, they often struggle with its ability to make their academic
life richer and more simplified. That is where we come in. Just as we
helped them navigate the world of the Dewey Decimal System,
peer-reviewed journals, and the like, we must now do the same for the
systems that are making information accessible from everywhere they
are. We need to teach them how to ask the right questions, find
things, evaluate them, and synthesize them into a credible whole. That
part hasn’t changed. The tools that get the job done most efficiently

Image Credit: “”we love to read” mosaic @ HMCRA” via ehoyer’s photostream


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