Monday, July 2, 2012

Books vs. Technology: Let the Old Friends Meet the New

I always thought I was a by-the-book learner. I don't mean that I learned the way "I should learn," or perhaps how "the teacher wanted me to learn," whatever those things mean. No I mean, quite literally, that I learned by reading books.

Reading was, for the most part, a good learning method for me. I liked reading. I owned several books. Books were a familiar and trust-worthy medium.

To put it bluntly, books were my friends.

Yes, that's right, friends. When I moved to Michigan ten months ago and stuffed my chevy impala with my life's posessions I ended up with a 1:2:2:10 box ratio. One box of pictures and mementos, two boxes of clothes, two boxes of kitchen ware, and ten boxes of books. You might well imagine the argument that ensued when my fiancé begged me to leave a few boxes behind (because, after all, he needed to fit his possessions in the car too). In the end I looked at him with tear-filled eyes and said, "I can't leave them. These are the items that will make me feel at home. These are my friends."

Now, at this point you might be saying a number of things to yourself: A) "This girl is crazy." B) "How in the world did she fit all those books in her car?" and C) "What does her obsession, or rather personification of inanimate objects, have to do with learning?" To which I would answer: A) "Well yes, but just a little." B) "Several of the boxes went on top of the car, not inside." And C) "Let me explain."

Because I had always primarily learned by reading books, the idea that I might learn and especially teach using other methods, such as technology, was a revelation. It was also slightly horrifying.

I found myself thinking, as I sat in my Teaching with Technology course, things like "That's ridiculous!" and "What kinds of shenanigans will they suggest next?" and "Don't they know books are sacred?"

And it's true, books are absolutely lovely. And it's also true that technology is sometimes horrifying. There's a wealth of information out there, not all of it good, and most of it not private.

But technology can also be beautiful. Especially if it's used for good. Especially if it's used to reach and teach children in new and interesting ways.

In Bill Sheskey's article "Creating Learning Connections for Today's Tech-Saavy Student,"he gives an example of how technology can be used for the good of the students. Sheskey brings a digital camera to class and starts taking pictures of his students as they are working on their science projects. At the end of the class he shows the students the pictures. What happens is amazing. The students start critiquing, analyzing and asking questions. They are able to see what they did wrong, what they did right, and what they can do to improve. This is visual learning at it's finest.

And it started me thinking "What are some ways I can incorporate technology into my classroom?" Yes, I'm an English teacher. Books will always be my primary focus. But understanding is acquired in many ways and through many mediums. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could use technology to make books more accessible? Or use technology to relate the texts I'm teaching to other issues and ideas?

I could let my students watch a TedTalks on how schools can promote, rather than destroy, creativity. I could let them listen to the radio version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or War of the Worlds. I could have them record their own version of Macbeth for the class to watch. I could have them perform a radio play or podcast play of the court scene in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Suddenly, the possibilities are exciting and many. Suddenly, technology does not seem quite so scary. Suddenly, I have new friends and new tools to better help my students.

Now, I know what you are wondering. You're asking, "Did you discuss this new relationship with your other friends? Do the books know?" And even if you weren't wondering I'll tell you anyway.

Yes, I spoke to them. Every good relationship needs honesty. And I was. I was very honest. The books were quiet at first. Contemplative. Wary. But, eventually they came around to the idea of using technology in order to help students better understand texts. After all I was doing it for them, wasn't I? I planned to use technology only as a means to help students "get" what they're reading.

So they agreed. But on one condition:

They get full ownership of the book shelves.


  1. I am definitely going to steal your podcast idea. Way back when I was in high school, whenever we had to film anything, most of the kids just goofed off. Maybe they did this because they felt uncomfortable with the assignment and figured irreverence (or non-compliance!) would save them from losing face. With the relative anonymity of radio perhaps they'll feel safe enough to take their performances seriously.

  2. Honestly, I had not considered technology aside from computers, because that's where 21st-century students live: screens. I do really like the idea of playing audio, etc. I'm curious, though: what do you think having their performances recorded, rather than just watching each of them on their own as they happened, would add to the experience?

  3. I wish I had more time to comment right now, because I could tell you a jillion ways that I've incorporated technology to the English classroom that I never thought possible. But I will say that some of the biggest hits with kids have been to videotape their pieces and responses (even simply having them write on notecards and hold the cards up to the camera) and to create Prezi poems. I did a middle school writing camp earlier this summer, and the campers adored both of those. There's something about making a video that they can play back (or an online presentation that they can view and share) that both promotes ownership of their writing and makes them more aware of their grammar, mechanics, and word choices. If something can be replayed again and again, they have a strong impetus to "get it right" that a one-time presentation simply cannot provide. I love my bookfriends, too, but young students (and even my college students) don't have the same kind of relationship. While I'm off celebrating my 20th anniversary with THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, my students are spending quality time with MIAMI INK, and it's up to me to find the middle ground between the two affairs.

    1. Bethany, I would be thrilled to receive any help or insight you have to offer, even if you share just a few of those jillion ways you've used technology in the classroom.

      That's interesting about the accountability factor that video can offer. If the teacher is the only one who sees the student's paper, she may be more prone to put in less effort. But, if she has to do a presentation, play etc. on camera that will be shown in class, all her friends and classmates will see. This offers an added social incentive to do well.

      Ha! Illustrated Man and Miami ink. That's hilarious. Now, if we could only combine the two. Imagine, for instance, the art tattooed on the cast of Miami Ink was, in reality, the trapped souls of their tattoo parlor victims. I would definitely start watching that show.

  4. Like Asha, I really like your idea about using podcasts/audio tools to help students learn. I know that personally, I would've been wary as a high school student to film myself. I do remember recording an audio presentation in high school. At first it was really awkward but once I got the hang of it, I really liked hearing my own voice and felt confident about having others hear it. I think using audio (versus video) tools would help engage students who are more shy or lack self-confidence. In the long run too, it could boost their self-confidence and give them the courage to engage in activities where they have to put themselves out there more. Thanks for the great idea!

  5. "Do the books know?" That's a beautiful line, Meg. Podcasting technology is really simple these days, so taking advantage of some of the intriguing possibilities that you were musing about is quite an easy thing. Just wait until you see what's possible with a cellphone, for example. Our colleague Liz Kolb will be visiting class in the fall but you might want to have a peek at her resource page.

  6. I liked your blog...and having a mother who has literally thousands of books, to visit her home is to feel you are in a library, I appreciated the imagery. Growing up, my mother insisted we read, my sister and I all the time. While there was not a test, she always knew if we had actually read what we had said we read. Mostly, she asked us to draw what we liked about the book. It did not matter what it was put she always said she wondered what the book looked like in our mind's eye...I think the beauty of books is they create picture and videos and movies and every one is different...unique to the designer of the world shared through the pages of whatever book was being devoured...I am glad your friends made the trek with you, I still have my favorite ones from when I was a young boy and it is always nice to slip into another world now and again...

  7. You're blog seems like its going to be a joy to read!

    I'm think, what if you had your students blog about the books that they read -maybe like an online book club - where they can share their ideas and ask each other questions. We're blogging for this class, it would be interesting to see what high schoolers come up with for blogs about their English classes! Or like you mentioned, having them record a scene from Shakespeare, that's something I had to do in my 9th grade English class (although maybe suggest to them that puppets were not the best way of re-enacting Romeo and Juliet...)

    Fun question: What's you're favorite book out of those ten boxes?

    1. Thank you Lauren! I like the idea about the online book club, as well as having them write a blog instead of an actual journal in class. I've actually been playing around with the idea of creating an interactive website which serves as an online companion to texts assigned in class and helps them read with more depth. It would be like a pottermore (see, but for texts commonly used in English classes.

      Can we please at some point during the program watch Romeo & Juliet with puppets? I think that would be all kinds of amazing.

      In response to your fun question (which is not as fun as you might think): I cannot choose a favorite book. That would be like saying I love this child more than that. There are definitely books that came with me that I like more than others, but favorite is hard to say. If you gave me a few days I might be able to come up with a list of 50, but that's probably the best I could do. I will say, however, that my favorite genre is fantasy and that most of the books I love the most belong in that category.

  8. I'm belatedly returning to earlier blog posts to comment ... as a librarian, I share your deep-seated love for books. Reluctantly a few years ago, I bought a Kindle. Not because I WANTED one, but because I teach about media (books and digital resources) and thought I'd better investigate. Well, color me surprised. I loved reading on Kindle. I loved being able to adjust the font size, read with one hand, "pack" for trips with one print book and a Kindle and not worry about running out of reading material (a decades-old fear), etc. And there are also some terrific digital tools that support passionate readers -- GoodReads or LibraryThing come to mind as ways to capture what we're reading (and see what others are), book blogs to catch up on what's just come out, the SYNC project for free audiobook downloads in the summer, and NetGalley, a portal through which publishers can share pre-publication manuscripts with teachers, reviewers, and librarians. I still love print books, but my heart now has room for both. We can swap strategies if you want!

  9. After I read your blog, I felt like I needed to sit down with a book and have a nice talk with it. I think it is harder and harder for people to just sit down and read the black words and white pages these days. I feel a great sense of achievement when i finish reading a big heavy book, it is indeed a rarity. I am sure I could be learning faster by using technology somehow. Do you think that one day the students won't have any textbook anymore? I guess it will save a lot of trees!