For a recent assignment in one of my classes, I was tasked to uncover and explore an issue that is trending in the discussion of Young Adult Literature. I could have found plenty of topics relating to the overuse of certain character archetypes or the efficacy of having a profit-driven publishing industry decide what is best for kids to read (books are written for girls because more girls are reading. you’d think that if someone wrote a book for guys, more guys would read? pish posh, that doesn’t make us money). Instead, I decided to do what I do best: look at recent trends in technology and articulate their effects on society. I love looking at the evolution of tech and the way it’s been changing our world, and I’m exploring more and more ways of using it to the benefit of kids in the classroom. I also happen to love books and reading the exciting stories in YAL.
My initial idea was good, but limited. There are plenty of folks out there who are already exploring the integration of social media and the modern classroom, and I’d be lying if I wasn’t already considering the effect that twitter will have on shakespeare. There are, however, better ways to use these phenomena of social networking and social media to increase literacy and involvement in literature. We always think of “technology” as shiny, expensive objects that are mostly intended for a specific audience. The fact is that “technology” is everywhere. Understanding how the mind works, how people react to different social stimuli, how societies react to changing world conditions; all these are technologies that we can leverage to help kids read. In this case, in this post, I’m not concerned with the latest Apple product, but rather the utilization of our collective human experience to create a better English classroom.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Josh Elder, author of Mail Order Ninja, hearing him speak about the use of comics/graphic novels in the classroom, and grilling him about the possible perils and pleasures of having this unique form of literature in front of this country’s young minds. Josh makes some good points, and I’d like to focus down on just a few for the purpose of my arguments here. Josh opened up with establishing the graphic novel in the landscape of literature, namely that graphic novels and comics are the landscape. Prose, in his point, is a wholly subsumed subsidiary of the experience of a comic. If you add pictures to words, it becomes a comic. If you remove words from a comic, you still have…a comic. This is important because we are used to reading certain kinds of literature in certain ways. Comics and graphic novels demand new skills from us, a new way of digesting information. The world of pictures and text is also one that gives us the ability to give the gift of literature to a much wider audience. Authors want that, teachers want that, and more people want that every day. Why, then, does literature have to be confined to prose?
There are kids who may have wanted to read at one point, but are now living in a state of fear. These kids started out with their classes, learning their alphabet, learned to piece some sentences together, and, at some point, hit a wall. In some cases, these kids may have even missed the whole alphabet thing. A friend of mine had the opportunity to participate in City Year not so very long ago, and would tell me stories about his experiences. He told me some heartbreaking stories of kids who desperately wanted to read so that they could feel better about themselves, feel like they were moving forward and learning something. Sometimes these kids could barely read, falling behind in simple texts and books far below their grade level. In some cases, these kids were even having trouble identifying letters in the alphabet. One story he told me involved a student who could only recognize two letters. When I consider my upbringing, the stress my parents placed on getting a good education, this story is absolutely amazing to me. Two letters. How can a person find any measure of happiness when they are constantly bombarded by symbols and signs they simply cannot recognize? Is that a quality life? It’s no wonder that so many kids become violent when they’re literally assaulted every day with reminders of their own inadequacy.
Interestingly enough, there are things they can recognize, but mainstream culture tells us that these things have no value when it comes to education. They can feel music, understand movies and the plots contained therein. With a little bit of digging, I’m sure they’d be able to identify and articulate abstract concepts that the intelligentsia believe themselves to have a monopoly on. Movies, music, and comic books/graphic novels communicate in a language that we do not have to learn. They can be a way for us to understand things that we have no first-hand experience with, no empirical evidence of. The theory of multiple intelligences tells us that people can learn in a variety of ways, and that there are many ways to teach any type of subject matter. A good teacher needs to recognize this. We, as a society, still hammer home this idea that literacy only happens one way – with prose. If a student has a difficult time understanding what they’re reading, or if they reach a point in their education where reading becomes more of a stressor than a means of conveying information, we need to find a way to teach this student and make sure he or she understands what he or she is learning. If educators (and I place myself in this category) do not find a way to teach this student, we have failed.
Let’s bridge this over to the tech space. What browser are you using right now? I can guarantee you that there’s someone near you right that is using a different browser, yet, they can view this information in the same way you can. Underneath each and every single web page is a mountain of code, a language that you most likely have never learned, may not recognize, and maybe never even seen. Yet, you’re looking at this language expressed in a way that you can digest. Are you tracking me here? The web is insanely complicated, and developers are constantly striving to simplify the way we interact with it. They’re trying to see what we want to do, not giving us another hurdle to overcome. What’s important to these developers is that you receive what they’re putting out into the world. That was the entire purpose of language, of literacy, of printing books. Somehow, though, we got stuck on this idea that the written (or printed) word was where the buck stopped. Our world is packed with so many forms of communication, and more are being discovered all the time. Developers are scrambling over each other to be the first to utilize these new technologies to deliver content to the end user.
Someone please explain to me why we’re not taking the same approach to education.
There are kids in classrooms who are staring at pages in books the same way you’d stare at the almost infinite amount of code that is running the page you’re reading right now and thinking to themselves, “I wonder what this all means? I wonder what it would look like if I could see it?” They know there’s something there, and they want access to it! There’s something in the way, though. It’s this singular approach to literacy that we have adopted as a society. We know this, we understand it, but by constantly perpetuating the same memes in education, we’re telling them, “Look, this just isn’t for you.”
It seems counterproductive, doesn’t it? Let’s fix it.