Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Future of Reading in the Digital Age

Welcome to our new blog! Education Challenges of the 21st Century is sponsored by the Albany-Tula Alliance, a sister city organization between Albany, NY and Tula, Russia. Our expectation is that this will serve as a forum not only between educators in the U.S. and Russia but on a world-wide scope.

This inaugural post is an abbreviated version of a paper to be delivered at the international conference "Education in the Contemporary World" at the Lev Tolstoy Tula Pedagogical Institute in Tula, Russia on September 22, 2009. The presentation title is "The Future of Reading in the Digital Age" and will be presented by Mary Emerson, ATA Board of Directors member.

International Conference on Education in the Contemporary World
Lev Tolstoy Tula State Pedagogical University
Tula, Russia
September 21 – 24, 2009
The Future of Reading in the Digital Age

Teachers and librarians have always been at the forefront in the promotion of lifelong learning and a love of leisure reading. Today, educators worldwide are dealing with these important issues because there is a serious concern that our youth will not be effective and discriminating users of the large amounts of information that confront them daily.
Our children and young adults are constantly distracted by various forms of electronic media: E-mail, MP3 players, reality TV, video games, Facebook, YouTube, cell phone applications including texting and much more. We acknowledge at the same time that young people are social beings who are seeking acceptance and understanding. Though many students read books, they also crave interaction with peers on the Internet or in literature circles/book discussion groups.

Marc Prensky, the author of “Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning,”, offers an interesting distinction between young people today and their parents and teachers.
Digital Natives were born after 1984; they have always had computers, video games, DVDs, mobile phones and digital music players. Prensky suggests that there is strong evidence that the brain structures of this population have changed as a result of constant interaction with technology. Some of the advantages noted are: adeptness at reading visual images, excellent visual-spatial skills, the ability to make observations and form hypotheses and, the ability to multi-task effectively.

Digital immigrants are the rest of us. We have adapted to the electronic environment to varying degrees but, no matter how fluent we become, we will always have an “accent” or a foot in the past. Because presently the vast majority of teachers are digital immigrants, problems in the way children learn are a result. For example, students have little patience for lectures and will “power down” when faced with traditional pedagogy. Students will spend their time texting or playing games while in class as they feel they are able concentrate on multiple tasks. Reading a book in the traditional sense is too solitary and passive an activity for many children and young adults today. Educators and parents must find ways to merge the reality of new technology with aspects of child development in order to encourage leisure reading and lifelong learning. (Prensky)

As educators, we can all agree on the importance of reading. The digital age offers up many opportunities to partner traditional reading with emerging technology and the Internet.
Pairing a video game with a novel for young readers brings the book into their world; players can advance their score only by answering questions with information from a novel. The 39 Clues is a prime example. Online players search for some of the clues themselves, encountering background stories about new characters as well as text and pictures about topics such as the Titanic to the Iditarod sled-dog race. Thus, reading is inevitable. (The New York Times, 10/6/08).

The Age of Mythology is an online game that encourages young people to read far above their grade level. Players become very interested in mythology and as a result will take books from the library or bookstore that are far above their reading levels. (Prensky)
In order to bring children and books into closer proximity, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments and other sessions dealing with technology. Games include RuneScape, a very popular and free of charge online roll-playing game; SCRATCH, which introduces digital animation and game creation; and, instruction on using Windows Movie Maker, Animoto and other Web 2.0 tools.

In addition to game and technology incentives, schools and libraries are offering book discussion groups, literature circles and Book Buddies. These are significant options because of the socialization aspect involved. Students who are challenged readers have the opportunity to exchange ideas, and thus gain motivation from students who excel. There is positive peer pressure to keep up with the reading and self-confidence can increase as participation in the discussion evolves. is a very popular venue for posting original writing, proposing new endings/characters/scenarios to published works and commenting on the work of others with similar interests. The downside of sites like FanFiction is that grammar, spelling and paragraph construction are not considered…it is merely a creative outlet with the added attraction of Interaction with other kids. (The New York Times, 6/27/08)

Though the Internet has created a new kind of reading, there is plenty of reason to be encouraged that reading in the traditional sense will continue…though not always in books! Most teenagers and many children own portable music devices that play MP3 files. Public libraries now lend downloadable audio books with a wide range of topics. Though not reading in the traditional sense, the entire book is available and can be listened to at any time. E-book readers such as the Kindle require interaction with text and have gained popularity but there remains the issue of diverse file formats.

In the ages old classroom model, all students in a class read the same work of literature to study theme and literary craft. This approach builds a shared literary culture, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and best prepares students for standardized tests. There are substantial consequences to this, however, as many students are bored or unable to understand the text.

Educators, librarians and parents have long known that if children are allowed to read books of their own choosing they are far more inclined to finish them , to ask for other similar titles and topics and to become lifelong readers. This approach has been tolerated to some extent but there always looms the issue of quality of literature. In the “reading workshop” approach students are able to choose their own reading for a period of time set aside each day. Many schools are taking the combination approach of dictating some titles and letting students select others. (The New York Times, 8/29/09)

Teenagers are most interested in reading about topics that affect them and their peers. For the past two years, the Albany-Tula Alliance Education and Culture Committee has had a relationship with the Tula Pedagogical and with some high schools in Tula. Our committee has sent numerous “young adult” novels to be read in English by Tulan students who then submit an essay for competition. The topics include divorce, teen pregnancy, runaways, drug abuse, homosexuality, family problems and death among others. The books have been as popular with the Russian students as they are with their counterparts in the United States.

Graphic novels have become an integral part of library collections over the past several years. While they resemble traditional comic books, they are illustrated versions of classic works of literature as well as original titles. Though graphic novels will not and should not take the place of the classics, they are easily managed by many challenged students. They also elicit interest in topics not previously discovered and may lead to reading full length works. Examples of graphic novel titles are:

· Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
· Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
· Diary of a Wimpy Kid
· Bone: Out of Boneville
· Romeo and Juliet: Side by Side

In conclusion, one question is paramount in this discussion: Shall we fight them or shall we join them? On one hand, we are convinced that reading and engaging with full length works of literature leads to better student outcomes on standardized tests. Classroom discussion is enriched when students share a common literary experience. On the other hand, technology is not only here to stay, it is changing daily and we cannot ignore its implications for education. The answer, I believe, is to educate ourselves as best we can to integrate technology into our pedagogy and to maintain educational standards at the same time. This can occur as a result of in-service education and sharing with other educators who are posting on the Internet.

What you are viewing on the screen today is a blog created for this presentation entitled “Education Challenges of the 21st Century.” It is meant to be an ongoing forum sponsored by the Albany-Tula Alliance between teachers, parents and students to address topics of mutual interest and to share new ways to achieve our educational goals and to enrich the lives of our students. Please visit the site and add your comments…we look forward to hearing from you!

Other blogs that you may consider are:
· Teaching Skills: What 21st Century Educators Need to Learn to Survive
· Young Adult (& Kids) Book Central Blog

Works Cited

After School Training Toolkit: Book Discussion Groups and Literature Circles.
Kinney, Jeff. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. New York, Amulet Books, 2007.
Library Thing! Catalog Your Books Online. Connects people with similar reading interests.
LitLovers…Starting Bookclubs for Children and Teens.
Mairowitz, David Zane. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; a graphic novel. New York, Sterling, 2008.
Prensky, Marc. “Don’t Bother Me, Mom – I’m Learning”…How computer and video games are preparing your kids for twenty-first century success – and how you can help. St. Paul, MN, Paragon House, 2006.
Rich, Motoko. “Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers,” The New York Times, October 6, 2008.
Rich, Motoko. “In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update,” The New York Times, February 15, 2009.
Rich, Motoko. “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?”, The New York Times, July 27, 2008.
Rich, Motoko. “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” The New York Times, August 29, 2009.
The entire series from the New York Times entitled “The Future of Reading”.
Romeo and Juliet: Side by Side. Clayton, DE, Prestwick House, 2005. Shakespeare’s text on the left and modern rendering on the right.
Sexton, Adam and Yali Lin. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Manga edition. Hoboken, NJ, Wiley Publishing, 2009.
Smith, Jeff. Bone: Out of Boneville. New York, Scholastic, 2005.
Teaching Skills: What 21st Century Educators Need to Learn to Survive (blog).
Upper Hudson Library System. Books for your digital media player.
Young Adult (& Kids) Book Central Blog.

Grateful appreciation to Trevor Oakley of the Saratoga Springs Public library and Janice Toomajian and Michelle Furlong of Brittonkill Central Schools for their assistance and insight.