Sunday, March 18, 2007

How We Read Is Determined by What

Or, Should English Language Art Teachers Widen the Net They Cast for Texts Students Ought to be Taught How to Read?

I've been swimming in The Fischbowl. On this turn of Littleton, Colorado's school administrator Karl Fisch's blog The Fishbowl, chock full of thought-provoking ideas and links for educators, I found myself in the deep waters of Terry Sales blog, particularly Sale's take on a Locus magazine column by Cory Doctorow, "You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen."

The article makes good reading and points out how technology has had a more-than-we-might-think impact on the arts, in particular literature.

In response to Doctorow's ideas, Sale, an English Language Arts teacher, ponders whether we should be teaching traditional literature texts or teaching reading in its wide arrayof textual forms, i.e. not just novels, short stories, poems, and plays, but the mutlitudinous variety of things we and our students read everyday. Sale notes that our curriculums mostly center on books,

"Traditionally, we require our students to read and pretend
to appreciate stories and novels. Yet the novel, along with being an
“invention,” as Doctorow suggests, is an art form. We don’t require all students
to take art appreciation classes, or study music theory, or attend the ballet.
But aren’t those forms as viable and important as literature? I tout novels as
explorations of the human condition and windows into other eras and cultures…but
don’t paintings and operas and films do that too? Is reading The Kite
any more enlightening than watching Babel? And if the goal
is an understanding of universal human nature, how does an hour of reading a
novel compare with an hour of reading off a computer that’s connected to Google, [or] YouTube . . . ?"

I think he is suggesting that our ELA emphasis should be on reading--all reading, of everything. (I can feel the cringes: "Isn't the load of the English teacher too much already? We can't do it all!" and "What we teach is much more than a skill--it's a body of knowledge on the human condition." Yes, well, as they say shift happens.

Much of that shift has to do with what and how we read different things differently. Doctorow touches on the idea that form in which the message is sent has a great effect on how it is received. He points out:

The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of
the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive
style of the novel.

This fact coupled with the question the end of the above excerpt from Sale's blog, is what interests me as a teacher-student of the every-increasing myriad texts we are presented with in our culture. I find myself reveling and reviling in the mix, let alone wondering what my students are doing with it and how I can help them. I suppose it depends on where an English teacher finds himself or herself on the spectrum of teaching literary skills and of teaching literary concepts and of teaching literary content (i.e. for the purposes of this discussion, I'll define ((albeit vaguely)) as the expression of the human condition).

As I mention in my earlier post, visiting the New York Kid Robot store was like stepping into a new culture. It's the same feeling I got this morning when I followed a link to Sakai and tried to figure out what an organization that touts itself as a "collaboration and learning environment for education" really is, how it works, and how I might use it in my classrooms.

I wonder if all reading skills are transferable. How is reading a novel like reading a culture? Instead of teaching the organization of a novel, perhaps we should be teaching our students how to figure out the organization of a novel.

And what about the novel? In a hundred years hence will novelists be considered as quaint as poets seem today, as Kurt Vonnegut suggested a few years ago in an NPR interview? He sees that newer technologies for storytelling such as film and Internet are better at keeping people's attention.

Will showing students the organization of a novel help them with ablog as much as a film? What if films start following the scheme of a blog rather than a film? I guess, that might be a video game, right? Okay, what if linear plot doesn't matter at all. Will it change the way we view the human condition? Perhaps will we construct a view of the human condition that is more aligned to it.

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