On a recent trip to our public library, my children explored a “technology” table displaying artifacts like the answering machine, a VHS tape, floppy disk, phones with cords, slide carousel projector, an Apple IIe, and of course, a typewriter. Typewriters have a charm that makes them objects of decoration in the homes and offices of the educated or the trendy elite. It’s now cute to own a retro Remington or Smith Corona, indicating perhaps one’s appreciation for the written word or as a decorative acknowledgement that some things never go out of style.
The same is true in education. No matter if you’re a first year novice teacher, or a 35-year teaching veteran, it is natural to compare the students, pedagogy, and the methodology of teaching today to one’s own yesteryear. Teacher lounges are rife with conversations that recall, “we never did that when I was a kid and somehow I learned the material and turned out okay…” Some of that holds true. Some of that is a case of selective memory. But one thing I have seen in my 13 years of teaching that has been on a quickly-moving pendulum is the move away from the more classical approach of teaching novels in English class to teaching (almost exclusively) short, non-fiction texts.
Blame it on Common Core, or No Child Left Behind, or iPhones. No matter the reason, it’s true. We teach far fewer novel-length readings in secondary English classes today in place of far greater page-length excerpts and non-fiction selections. While we still largely focus on analytical skills–we still ask students to decide how the tone, the theme, the shifts in points of view, affect the overall meaning of the text–we are not providing students with the opportunity for reading stamina. Our students today run reading sprints, but rarely have the chance to test the limits of their reading strengths in a marathon. The result is atrophy. Students as a whole, not including those natural readers, those students who carry a book just in case the lesson ends early and they might catch a few minutes to read a couple pages of their books, do not read longer texts today. In their own personal lives, they no longer pick up a magazine (even TigerBeat printed articles longer than 140 characters) to read for pleasure. Instead they scroll the vast universe that is Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter, where reading is in short bursts, or requires no words at all.
The long-term consequence of this has begun to surface in my (upper level) high school classroom. As a group, students struggle reading longer texts. They simply give up. Now, lest I fall into the trap of “we never did that when I was in school,” I want to acknowledge the existence of Clif Notes, a friend (though one we might have been a little bit ashamed of according to the most recent episode of The Goldbergs) and guide in the late 80s and early 90s when we were assigned to read multiple novels in our high school English classes and either couldn’t keep up with the amount of reading assigned, or couldn’t understand George Elliot and James Joyce. So, yes, we found a way to get around all the reading, too. But it was still assigned and discussed and analyzed. We had the chance to think about larger issues, connecting ourselves to the past. Reading novels with dynamic characters gives volatile high school students a chance to realize they are not alone–that their experiences are not foreign, but universal. I want that for my students today. Those who know the joy of reading (I’m thinking of you, M.T., and you, Z.S.) do this on their own. And you know what? Their writing, their vocabularies, their ability to discuss and interpret the world around them, is far superior to their exclusively Snapchatting peers.
It’s time for education to acknowledge that much like the typewriter, which sits on a shelf in the homes of the metro-retro-design-inclined elite, books are also beginning to sit on shelves and never be touched. They look neat, and may indicate a literate homeowner. But unless they are taken from the shelves and held in hand by our students who, curled up on the sofa, immerse themselves in a secret garden or a diary or a memoir from another time, our students will never know the joy and the struggle of the reading marathon. Let’s swing that pendulum back. We must be their coaches, their guides in building up their reading stamina. It’s not too late.
#edublogsclub prompt 13