Tag Archives: books

The More Things Change

In 1979, I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, and I had the scoop of my young journalistic career. Through a source that may or may not have been my mother, a library aide at the elementary school, I found out that books were being quietly removed from the shelves when parents complained without following the division procedures that required a public review. The division library supervisor agreed to be interviewed and provided a strong quote about how much she abhorred this kind of censorship. Just a few days from publishing when she called us at home and asked to have the quote removed. I was angry and disappointed but ended up doing what she requested. The article still ran and may have led to change. But I learned a lesson about power and politics.

Now, power and politics are publicly flaunting censorship, using the law to ban books, emptying the shelves of books by authors from Mary Wollstonecraft to Ruby Bridges with a special focus on those that feature LGBTQ+ characters and issues. Burning books has always been a favorite of fascists and fanatics, fearing the freedom that comes from access to the world of knowledge. In this case, it continues the eradication campaign being carried out by those who are threatened by the mere existence of people with different lives and ideas.

When I taught middle school, I had an extensive and diverse classroom library that supported my reading workshops , and I wonder how many of those books would pass muster, especially when it seems that one complaint can lead to removals for everyone, even if the complainer does not have children in the schools and admits to not having read the whole book. Some of the families that aren’t usually included in the “family-friendly” policies are beginning to push back.

At least, in our web-based world, banning books is much more challenging as we can access virtual shelves. Wollstonecraft along with most of the banned classics can be found at Project Gutenberg. The Internet Archive includes books and lots of other media.* Brooklyn Public Library has been offering library cards for teens across the country to access their banned books. Public libraries offer extensive access to digital resources, providing a level of anonymity for people who may not want to go to the checkout desk at their local branch.

This is all very concerning, frightening really, as these fanatical conservatives seem to be holding lots of cards (read state legislatures and the Supreme Court) right now. This video from Clara via Fifty Shades of Whey is a horrifying summary of the past few months. With all the noise and news and silly stuff, it can be easy to lose the plot of what is happening. Watch and weep and then get started on the work.

*Including an extensive Grateful Dead archive, a band that was often “banned” including after an infamous concert at The College of William and Mary in 1978.

Distracted by Books

IMG_0122I have written about my own love for reading and described my implementation of middle school reading workshops. Those workshops were designed to give my students the same experiences with books that fueled my own love of reading: choosing what I wanted to read and making reading a priority in my day.

Two recent blog entries show that my values continue in contemporary classrooms. Former high school teacher Julia Franks describes making a change in her AP English classroom when she moved away from communal reading and analysis of the classics to choosing their own reading. Her practice arose from her belief that readers make better citizens as they are able to construct more sophisticated narratives around events in the world around them:

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

Given the option of reading the books on the syllabus or reading twice as many books from a list of 300 titles, all students chose the latter and, by the end of the year, had read nearly twice as many pages as mandated on the original plan. And those AP exam scores that seem to dictate the analysis that eats up so much class time? They did not suffer at all.

Franks concludes:

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

Middle school teacher and founder of The Global Read Aloud, Pernille Ripp, describes her own “horror” when, at the beginning of the year, her students reported how little they enjoyed reading. She was determined to change that and she did it with books:

Books, and plenty of them.  Books that were accessible through audio and text.  Books that were not there to push them in a certain direction.  That were not forced on them.  Picture books for the days where chapter books seemed to be too much work.  Free verse for those who had lost their connection with the magic of reading.  Graphic novels meant to teach, entice, and enthrall.  Everywhere they looked there were books and the books called to them.  Without judgment.  Without restriction.  Without one path to being a reader.

And time:

We also took time.  Ten minutes every day to read.  To find books.  To have conversations about the texts we chose.  To find something worthy of our time, that we perhaps would want to read later as well.  Ten minutes that were the expectation coupled with the idea that one should only read good books, not waste our time on books that would make us dislike reading more.  To abandon when needed, to book shop when desired.

The two priorities: the ability to choose your own books and the time to read them.

This message has also been part of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, the book I am reading right now. Sara Lindqvist is a reader who uses books to change a small, dying Iowa town. As she organizes the books in her shop, she put “every unreadable book she could find” on a shelf. These mostly included the award winners that everyone talked about but never read. Sara had tried to by systematic about reading these classics:

She had thrown herself into one ambitious reading project after another, but things had rarely gone according to plan. It was boring to think of books as something you should read just because others had, and besides, she was much too easily distracted. There were far too many books out there to stick to any kind of theme.

Lots of the teachers I follow on Twitter are busy planning their summer reading. I applaud their desire to dive into professional reading, and I have a few of those books on my own list. But, I also would encourage them to let themselves be distracted and see where it leads.






Predicting the End of Things

A recent article in the The Telegraph hailed the end of the Kindle and the return to paper books. This wasn’t about reading: this was about the actual technology of reading and it was based on sales numbers for the two technologies. Kindle sales are down. Paper book sales are up. For those of us who haven’t abandoned paper books, it wasn’t as much of a surprise. We like books. I read both analog and digital books but I think, in the long run, I prefer analog. It’s just a technology that works. Easier to cuddle up with at night and, evidently, not as much of an interference with my sleep according to recent reports. No batteries to die just as I am learning that the butler did indeed do it. And no distractions in the form of notifications about new moves in Words with Friends.
I wonder about the Kindle sales, though. They could be more about all the variety of ways you can read a Kindle book from the web browser to the iPad to your phone. I have Kindle apps on all my devices and I do like to be able to pop in when I’m standing in line to catch up on a few pages or sneak in a bit of reading during a long webinar.
What I would really like to see are statistics about the practice rather than the technology. Are people READING more with all those new book sales or do they just want to put them on the coffee table? In a recent episode of The Newsroom, the Silicon valley billionaire runs his fingers along the books in a library and comments that they make good decorations even though the book itself is dead. Evidently, he hadn’t read this article.
My suggestion to prognosticators is to stop prognosticating. Maybe, indeed, a particular piece of hardware is dead, but the practice of digital reading is not going to go away and, it seems, neither is the old fashioned analog version either. People are people, with lots of preferences, and as long as there is demand, supply will follow right along.

Random Friday Round Up

A gloomy day here.  The rain brought down the leaves and it is starting to look like winter.  The dogs are sprawled around me, snoozing, and I can’t muster the energy for a thoughtful blog post.  But, I do have a few sites to share on several different topics so here’s the random Friday round up:

Miami Book Fair Celebrates 25 Years:  I heard this story on NPR yesterday as I drove back and forth across the state.  The founder of the fair is an independent book store owner in Miami and he reflects on how things have changed since 1983.  When asked about the challenge of selling analog books in an increasingly digital age, he comments that he is “selling the past.”

Guest Blogger on Eduwonk:  I credit Andrew Rotherman (aka Eduwonk) with helping me pass my comprehensive exams at William and Mary.  Today, his guest blogger is none other than Margaret Spellings, soon-to-be former Secretary of Education.  She writes about a new report from the Department of Education that details five areas in which federal, state and local goverments can collaborate to support the use of technology in education.

I Think I’m Musing My Mind:  I’m sorry that I can’t remember who steered me to this piece by Roger Ebert but I’ve read and re-read it several times since.  I found myself highlighting several of his key ideas that resonated with me in this thoughtful reflection on his writing:

The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before.

Of course I don’t think only about writing. I spend time with my wife, family and friends. I read a lot, watch a lot of politics on TV. But prose is beavering along beneath, writing itself. When it comes time to type it is an expression, not a process. My mind has improved so much at this that it’s become clearly apparent to me. The words, as e. e. cummings wrote, come out like a ribbon and lie flat on the brush. He wasn’t writing about toothpaste. In my fancy, I like to think he could have been writing about prose.

Collaborating with Diigo:  From jdtravers, an excellent video with practical tips for using Diigo to comment on student work.  My own experience with Diigo expanded this week.  I blogged about the Bauerlein article and then used the highlights from Ruben Van Havermaet to explore more about new media, including spending a few hours reading Andrew Plotkin’s interactive fiction game Shade.   And, Jeremy Douglass’s website made me think about what it means to be an English major in the 21st century as I approach the 25th anniversary of my own graduation.

Finding Middle Ground in the Reading Debate

It seems I’ve been reading a lot about reading lately.  A recent article in the Chronicle has prompted several bloggers to consider what reading means in the 21st century.   Will Richardson reflected on his own reading practices and what educators should be doing to foster online literacy.   Sean Sharp thought about what online reading practices mean for online writing practices.

Mark Bauerline, the author of the Chronicle article, is not fan of the digital age.  He is the author of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).  I haven’t read the book and I’m not sure I will since at this point in my learning I am looking for arguments from the center.  Plus, I think we can get a good sense of what he believes from his article in the Chronicle.

Here’s the crux of his argument in one sentence: “We must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning.”  Bauerline sees himself and others as the “stewards of literacy” who must protect students from themselves by providing them with rigorous reading experiences.  (Even as I write that sentence, I’m picturing the student in one of Michael Wesch’s videos holding up a sign indicating that students simply don’t do the assigned reading.)

I have not found such a conspiracy in my own life.  Web-based reading has expanded my practice rather than changing it.  I continue to read books, both fiction and nonfiction, while like Richardson, I have transferred almost all my more temporal reading such as news and correspondence to the web.  My “books” have changed a bit since I purchased my Kindle.  But my practice is similar whether I’m reading an online text, a Kindle text, or an old-fashioned book. Particularly in terms of non-fiction, I always have a pencil in my hand.  The Kindle and Diigo come with a digital pencil in the form of their highlighting and annotation tools.   And, for Daniel Schon’s book that I just started reading last night, I’ve got a Ticonderoga along with a pack of sticky notes tucked into the front cover.  I do find a growing preference for digital reading as it is easier to search my highlights and annotations.  But there is something worthwhile in paging through an analog book, reviewing what I underlined or annotated.  In the hunt for a particular quote, I often find other useful comments.

The pragmatist in me is looking for common ground in this conversation.  Bauerlein points to it in his article when he quotes Jakob Neilsen, a Web researcher who has written extensively on web-based reading habits.  Nielsen says,

I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes. I just don’t believe the Web is optimal for delivering this experience. Instead, let’s praise old narrative forms like books and sitting around a flickering campfire — or its modern-day counterpart, the PowerPoint projector. We should accept that the Web is too fast-paced for big-picture learning. No problem; we have other media, and each has its strengths. At the same time, the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets — so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.

There is a place for multiple kinds of reading in multiple kind of formats and our job as educators is to help students practice with all those different types.