I had a rare evening out with a dear friend recently: dinner, followed by a concert. As we walked from the parking lot toward the auditorium, she was bemoaning the omnipresence of YA (Young Adult) literature in the reading diets of a number of college-age students she knows. (My friend,
an educator at an independent school, is often visited by former students.) It’s not that she has anything against YA lit, she said, but one of the most glorious times in her freshman year in college was falling in love with Thackery. She spent hours reading in her dorm room, and she feels badly that her bright, talented college students are so focused on YA lit that they won’t have the same experience.
When I pointed out that my free reading choices these days run to murder mysteries and that her student friends might be seeking a similar kind of respite, she went on with barely a breath. “I know things are different for them; this is a different time altogether. But it’s just sad that there isn’t the time, or maybe it’s that there isn’t the inclination, for that kind of reading.”
She had said something similar over dinner, recounting an NPR interview with an author that she’d heard on her drive to the restaurant. “He wrote the thing on paper,” she said, “real paper, with a real pen.” The experience of writing on a computer was just a qualitatively different experience for him.
Her comment segued into a discussion of all the digital tools she is aware of but doesn’t use, how aware she is that her professional background needs updating in the area of new technologies, and, at the same time, how intensely she is avoiding it. How her students do all this stuff– including plaigiarizing– because they just don’t have time to do the assigned work. “‘Repurposing'” she sniffed. “Nope. Plaigiarizing”
“So what responsibility does that teacher have in this?” I asked. I wasn’t talking about the volume of work kids were dealing with. “The world is
different. There’s been an explosion in options for learning, for showing what we know or that have thought about. In what ways does the teacher’s assignment reflect that? If the nature of the assignment is such that a bright, conscientious, overwhelmed student can root around on the Web and piece together a paper, it seems fair to suggest that the teacher may be complicit in this plagiarizing. And if the teacher can’t tell a patchwork paper is different than other writing the kid has done during the year….”
My friend got it; she agreed.
My friend is bright, highly educated, and knows her way around all kinds of high-tech gadgetry. It struck me that she wasn’t railing against technology, at least not completely, in the way that many people– especially those who don’t use computers for even word processing. She was sad that a way of being, with a book, with one’s thoughts, might be passing. She’s just missing Thackery.
Later that evening, when I checked into Twitter, many of the tech-related education conversations were there– decrying teachers who won’t learn, who think social media has no place in learning. The cry is that these teachers are hanging on to the past, teaching our children for the past, the industrial age. I don’t disagree.
But technology is not the answer to all that ails schooling in the U.S. And since my chat with my friend, I’ve realized that sometimes, the people who are saying NO to tech may just be missing Thackery.
The Web makes things possible that never were, but it also makes things (that may have had real value) impossible. Literacy researcher Donald Leu & his research team talk about the need to help kids develop dispositions for living in the age of the global information tsunami.
Rather than stay stuck in the discussion model of “tech is good!” vs. “tech is bad!,” we need a different discussion, framed around questions like what dispositions go along with a love affair with the novels of Thackery (or anyone else)? How does the Web disrupt these? In what ways are these disruptions problematic? Useful? How might we weave these into ways of thinking about learning and teaching in a global, information-rich world?