Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Moment of Silence for the Death of the Book

I think the question I want to start off with here is this: DOESN'T ANYONE READ ANYMORE? I mean really, doesn't anyone ever just go out to pick up a book for the pure joy and anticipation of a good story? I ask this knowing that yes, people do read, and people out there still love a good story, but as I stand on the precipice of the traditional bookstore taking a nose dive, I find myself wondering if it's because of technology or if it's because people don't read. This question has been nagging at me for weeks, but last night it kind of boiled over in my rage pot (which is located behind my mouth, apparently) when I attended a school board meeting for our local school district. Jason did a big post about their attempt to integrate technology into the classroom, so you should hop over there and read what he had to say, but what struck me was the teacher statement in the presentation about how you can't expect a student to learn without technology. The comment was somewhere along the lines of "The kids are so tied to technology that you can't expect them to learn without it. You can't just hand them a book and expect them to get research out of it." My question here is: WHY THE HELL NOT?! Why can't we use books in addition to technology?

I've had this complaint for years, actually. I can't stand the fact that when I ask a student to research a subject for a report or a paper, I get a collection of Wikipedia pages in the works cited section. Really? That's the best you can do is Wikipedia? But the fact is, that's all they know. And isn't that a failure on us as teachers? I've heard from many teachers that if they tell the students that their research can't include any citations from Wikipedia, the classroom nearly breaks out into a riot. Heaven forbid they require one book source for research. I had that problem in my student teaching. We required the students to research their five paragraph essays and one of their three sources had to be a book. The most frightening thing for me was that they had no idea how to find a book with research information in it. Thank goodness for a really astute librarian. But honestly, even if books go digital, it seems as if people don't understand how to use them anymore. Everything is on the internet, but there is a real lack of understanding that the internet does not have an editor.

Perhaps what is the most difficult for me to understand is why people see technology as a replacement to legitimate written research. I mean, a book is a book, regardless of whether you are opening it from a libary or reading it on your iPad or Kindle. It's still an edited source of literature and information. So why do we think we can just replace that with a Podcast or something? Why do teachers think that the solution to their kids not paying attention in the classroom is to hand them an iPad. Sure, they'll be paying attention but it won't be to you. They'll be playing Angry Birds with the sound turned off. It is not a fix-all to the education system. I am not opposed to technology in the classroom. In fact, I love it. I think that when used properly it can enhance lessons and make them both interactive and interesting. If nothing else, PowerPoint presentations allow for constant visual aids which helps the visual learner. Videos, podcasts, and interactive learning quest programs are all amazing, and they can really enhance a traditional lesson. That's the key word, enhance. They don't replace good lesson writing and they don't automatically make your lesson great. You still have to have the proper source material to provide the information, regardless of how it is delivered. You don't get to just say "Oh, I put this on an iPad, now it's perfect". It still takes working at what you're doing.

And it still requires you to know what the hell you're talking about. I took a class in college where my History professor stood up in front of us on our first day of class and said "How many of you hated history in High School?". Most of the hands in the room went up. He then asked "How many of you had History taught by your football coach?" and nearly as many hands went up. He went on to tell us that history is uninteresting and boring when it comes from people who are just reading off names and dates, but that the subject was usually given to the Football coach because it was easy to read off names and dates. He said history is a living and breathing experience and unless you give it context, none of the names and dates matter. He couldn't have been more right. And I feel that way about this whole book issue. The internet, or any piece of technology, is just a series of binary code with information that may or may not be accurate. Until you breathe some life into the source material and give it some context, it means nothing. Books weave a story. The internet bullet points facts. And now, that's all our students are able to do.

For most of the high school students I know, reading is a huge chore when they have to "like...go through all of those words and figure out which parts are importantan and stuff". Websites are easy. They break everything down in a series of bullets. No thinking required. But I don't think the kids started out that way. I defy anyone to find me a person who can't name at least one story they loved from their childhood. In a failing book industry, Children's Books and Young Adult Books are the only areas consistently growing and outselling themselves year after year. So I don't believe that kids don't want to read. I think that somewhere along the way it just stops being an expectation because "they're so plugged into technology anyway..." and suddenly it becomes less interesting. Maybe the test scores went down not because we took laptops off of everyone's desks, but because we took books out of their hands.

But hey, what do I know. I just teach English. I just sell books. For now.


Rebecca Wiechman said...

The decline in the book market is indeed depressing, and even more so if you consider it could be because people have stopped reading altogether. I shudder to think of that.

In terms of kids and their research papers, I am not a teacher, but I can offer up the following compromise: teach them how to identify a good online source vs. a bad one, and why Wikipedia is the latter when it comes to a research paper. I'm sure there are good soldier teachers out there that are trying to do this, but I do worry about preserving the value of information when I talk to younger folks and their loyalty to Wikipedia comes up. Maybe they do rely too much on technology, and maybe someday all books will be digital. But if they ultimately don't know the difference between good information and bad, and don't know how to think critically for themselves, our society is doomed.

Sara said...


I couldn't agree more with this blog! Very eloquently stated. I think you're right that kids are not inherently adverse to reading, and in fact they love it until reading for recreation starts to go out of the picture for them. I still have tons of 4th graders who LOVE to read and literally beg me to go to the library when they need new books. But as students get older and become involved in more things, I think reading falls by the wayside as a recreational pastime for most kids. A select few keep it on their short list of favorite ways to spend an afternoon, but most kids abandon their books for easier, more immediately gratifying entertainment. Reading becomes work instead of pleasure, which is so sad. I think the Nook and Kindle are great because they sort of make reading "cool" again because you get to do it on a neat little gadget. However, I think you're right that we have to be careful not to rely on technology to make everything interesting. It should be a compliment to rich instruction and content, not a substitute. Thanks for a great READ!