touching literature

Recently, I’ve found myself having many conversations with my friends on the issue of technology in the classroom, specifically as it relates to young adult literature. I’ve had discussions that have lasted literally hours with high school students and adults alike, read plenty of articles online that hammer home the importance of social networking in the life of today’s teenager, but have always come up woefully short when looking at emerging trends in technology and popular culture and their relationship to the consumption of young adult literature by young adults. The speed at which technology grows and the rate at which it is adopted into the classroom have a huge impact on students’ ability to learn and retain the ever-increasing amount of information in our world. Students must navigate oceans of information that are constantly changing and being updated every second (all this before breakfast, naturally). Their ability to take in, parse, and utilize this information is becoming increasingly important, and there are a number of technologies available right now that can make this process easier for both teachers and students. The issue, as I’ve discovered, is not whether or not these technologies are powerful or useful, the issue is whether these technologies are relevant in classroom. As amazing as our world has become with the advent of consumer products that once only existed in science fiction, these advances lose there value if we cannot find a use for them in our classrooms.

Part of our discussion has to include the definition of technology. Taking this as a foundation, there are many things that are already a part of our classrooms that can be considered “technology.” In a recent blog post I made, I discussed the use of graphic novels or comics as a way to bring kids into literature. Just as print is a technology, so are graphic novels. This is important when we consider what we’re using to bring information to our students. More importantly, however, is that graphic novels are relevant to the creation and evolution of Young Adult Literature. Already being tested for its value and relevance, graphic novels represent a radical and potentially game-changing shift in the teaching and learning of literature, both classic and modern. If we apply the definition of technology liberally, even teaching methods that have been developed to aid teachers in reaching students with learning disabilities.

This discussion, however, is focused on the colloquial use of the word “technology” and the mainstream, evolving, and cutting-edge products it represents. When we use “technology” in the classroom, we’re usually not thinking about differentiated instruction, we’re usually thinking about smartboards, the internet, and computers. Things have been moving very quickly in tech recently, and the lines between these various devices are starting to blur. It’s difficult, for instance, to differentiate between a computer and the internet. Sure, we may understand that these are very distinct and different things, but one really cannot exist without the other, and their co-dependence has created a unique synergy of hardware and software that has a huge influence over the conceptualization and design of new products.

Why, then are we not looking at Young Adult Literature the same way?

We have our hardware (books), and we have our software (literature). Yet, the way we present these two have not changed for centuries.  The intent here is not to create a new way of disseminating information or to totally revolutionize the way students learn, the intent is to leverage existing movements in mainstream technology to give students more tools to “get it,” while looking forward to see how we can make room for new developments so that our teaching can remain relevant.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the most lamented, important, and yet easily fixed aspects of technology – that it is always changing and improving.  People are always upset that the device they just purchased has been superseded by something new, more powerful, or more capable.  At the same time, students see their teachers, schools, and administration moving and adapting too slowly.  At this point, a half-baked idea or implementation of a pre-existing idea hits the scene, teachers try to use it to get students excited about learning, students don’t want to use it because it feels too much like school and less like fun, and the project ultimately fails.  Take Ning, for example.  The “facebook” of education, as I’ve heard it described, is versatile, and adds an aspect of social networking to a school, class, whatever.  Students can log on to ning and feel comfortable browsing their local school community, and they can get access to their classes and any information associated with them.  Does it leverage an existing skill set that students most likely already possess?  Yes.  Does it have a robust feature set that allows more interaction between teachers and students?  Yes.  Can a teacher use this website and the tools it provides to enhance their classroom time?  Yes.  It can also do so much more.  Teachers are using technology more and more to enhance their classroom learning.  They’re building sites that help immerse students in their learning, in their literature.  Students get excited about things like this because they are able to take control of their learning, to delve deeper into topics and ideas that they are drawn to.  From a teaching perspective, this site is a huge success.  From a student’s perspective, they feel as though their teacher actually cares about their education.

What happens when a student feels left out, though?  What if a student is behind?

Students that are behind in their reading level may feel overwhelmed, threatened, or slighted when they simply cannot access this information.  In my previous post, I discussed the barrier that students have to cross in order to gain access to the information they want.  If they lack basic literacy skills, technology like this will not do much for them.  The last thing a frustrated student wants to do is spend even more time out of school trying to understand things that don’t interest them to begin with.  This is where we have to step up as teachers and discover each student’s interests, and use this information to springboard them to understanding.  We have to use their pre-existing knowledge to move them towards something more.  This is not a new idea, but it is horribly underutilized, and our nation’s policy of standardized testing has left many students in a vicious cycle of failure and misunderstanding.

This is where technology can help.  In recent discussions I have had with some of my colleagues, I discovered that the issue of “technology in the classroom” tends to polarize people.  Some feel strongly that technology can be used to increase understanding, and some feel that it is a waste of time and resources.  SmartBOARDS are phenomenal devices that only a few school districts are privileged with having.  Can they be used to teach YAL?  Unlikely.  Struggling readers who find it difficult to engage with a text due to barriers in understanding and word recognition may take to the shine of a fancy new device, but that may not help them build understanding.  What high school students want, however, is connection.  In talking to high school students at various reading levels, it seems that there are certain characteristics that they share, all of which can be used by a clever teacher to help them reach a common level of engagement and pull them together.

Students today love to feel connected.  They enjoy the ability to communicate instantaneously and have grown up in an age that is characterized by instant gratification.  Reading a book, to many students, is just plain boring.  Students are used to bite-sized chunks of information that are heavy on ideas but short on words.  Blogs are becoming more ubiquitous and important as a means of exchanging ideas and discussing concepts in just about every sphere imaginable.  Print is dying, but there is still plenty of life left in the ideas present in today’s printed media.  The problem is getting those ideas out of the print and into the minds of our students.  Leveraging social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are incredibly important for a teacher in order to capture their students and direct their attention.  More importantly, however, is bridging the divide that currently exists between school and the world.  One of the reasons that students feel alienated is due to their perceived disassociation from other students.  By bringing a student’s knowledge and existing skills into the classroom, a teacher can very easily and very quickly capture students who would otherwise take a back-seat approach to their learning.  Sometimes a shiny new gadget is all it takes for kids to start reading.

Part of being engaged in learning is being given control over what you learn.  If a class has too much structure, students feel constrained.  Too little, and they may stray too far.  Of increasing importance in today’s classroom is the aforementioned idea of differentiated instruction.  A technology in itself, we can use this method to make sure that students are engaged…but is it enough?  We want students to fly, right?  Part of teaching is also discovering and removing barriers to learning.  There are already projects in the works that are seeking to do just that.  Look at that!  How would reading change if the world you’re reading about is literally all around you?  How amazing would it be for a teacher to say, “Let me show you this scene from Hamlet,” or “For an assignment, construct the world that existed when Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath.”  I am positively giddy when I think about those possibilities.  The better technology gets, the easier it is for students to access information, process it, and put something out into the world.  This is the world that I’d like to live in, but there are still further hurdles to overcome on the path to building that world.

In urban schools, where dropout rates are high and absenteeism is a fact of life, we may be able to patch these holes by building an infrastructure that kids love to be a part of.  Naturally, these devices that kids are constantly absolutely thrilled about have a price tag, and when a school can barely afford textbooks for their students, we have to scale things back.  What we absolutely positively cannot do, however, is give up.  So many teachers enter into teaching with an unbridled enthusiasm and world-beating attitude and end up disillusioned when half of their students are regularly absent.  What if a teacher could hold virtual classes?  What if they had a Twitter account that they used to hold class discussions?  This is the unexplored territory of Young Adult Literature, and I’m excited to try to push the envelope of what is possible while discovering what is effective among students.  There will undoubtedly be dissenters and critics who say that literature belongs on the page, and they may have a point.  Taking those ideas out of their confines and helping a student see them in the world around them should be our ultimate goal, and if a student needs to use a cellphone in the classroom to get there, so be it.  I recently had the pleasure of meeting the founder of Project Gutenberg.  Loud and jovial, he (ironically) takes a low-tech approach to life.  He has a basic phone that doesn’t do texting, wears sweatpants all the time, and meets with his friends to discuss life over coffee on Wednesdays at a local coffee shop.  He is, however, absolutely driven in his quest to get kids reading, and he believes ebooks are the key.  He is in constant negotiation with companies like Samsung and LG, trying to purchase old, obsolete phones and PDA’s that are capable of displaying ebooks.  I haven’t spoken to him about the iPad, but I assume he would be thrilled about that as well.  All he wants is for kids to read, and is trying to do everything possible to get these technology into their hands to enable that.  Is technology cost-prohibitive?  Yes.  Is it worthwhile?  Absolutely.  Right now, every classroom in the country may not have the ability to beam a lesson into the palm of a student’s hand, but we’re getting there.

There is still so much to learn, so many things that we simply do not know about this emerging movement.  Publishers don’t know how to license content, and people may not understand how to use the tools that are given to them, but the further along we go, the cheaper this technology becomes and the easier it is to use it.  Soon, the technology that we see in science fiction will be a reality, and will undoubtedly present new challenges to overcome, but the progress we will make along the way will be enormous.  Stay tuned.


tweeting twilight

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.