Literacy and Literature in the Internet Age
Every day I arrive at school 45 minutes before my students. I check my e-mail and Facebook, peruse articles my friends have posted, read over teacher blogs, and skim the headlines of the New York Times. I repeat my digital routine during lunch, after school, and one more time at night before turning out the lights. Like most teachers in the Internet age, I confront a barrage of digital text, images, and sound bites daily.
Navigating today's world of abundant information and preparing for tomorrow's requires literacy skills more complex than what previous generations possessed. As educators, we have an obligation to prepare our students for the onslaught of information that bombards them through their personal computer screens.
In the past, one of the primary reasons children attended school was to gain access to information. Prior to the Internet, teachers—especially those in the content areas—had the specialized information and taught it, plain and simple. But those days are over.
Today, the Internet gives children access to more information than they can handle. Accordingly, content-area teachers have new responsibilities. They must not just give students information but also, and more important, teach them how to sift through, evaluate, and manage that information. In other words, content-area teachers must become literacy educators.
Literacy instruction can no longer be the exclusive domain of English language arts (ELA) teachers. All teachers must share in the task of teaching literacy, especially Internet literacy. At the same time, ELA teachers must be given equal time to renew their other traditional role: teaching literature.
A Call for Renewing Literary Reflection
Literary reflection is perhaps more important in the Internet age than it has ever been. If we are to teach the whole child and prepare students to be engaged citizens and competent workers, then we must teach them to step back and ask tough questions about the information they sort through on a daily basis: How can this information be used for good or evil? How does this information challenge my worldview? Should this information be more accessible to others? What conflicting conclusions might I draw from this information?
Literature has always been a crucial tool that teachers can use to prompt students to ask questions of this sort. Literature challenges students to see things from multiple perspectives or consider the ethical implications of people's actions.
Furthermore, reading fiction is different from reading nonfiction because reading fiction does not have a particular end in mind. When we read an online news article or a textbook, we look for specific information. But when we read a poem or a novel, we never know what we may discover. We read for pleasure, and if the reading is good, we walk away with a new perspective.
In turn, engaging students in sustained literary reflection can prepare them to do more than just acquire information. It can train their minds to see different angles and consider how information can be used or misused to make a difference in the world. And in our world, thinking in such a way is desperately needed.
Honing the Ability to Reason
Schools must prepare students to not only manage information but also engage with information from multiple perspectives and use information responsibly. Students need practice reasoning to reach different conclusions and contemplating the consequences of various courses of action based on the information available. Literature has been one of the best tools to promote such critical thinking, and literary study should therefore remain an essential feature of a 21st century education.
In my own experience as an educator, the positive effects of literary study were never so palpable as when I taught a unit titled Race Relations in the U.S. For the first week of the unit, I led the class in reading and discussing Toni Morrison's short story "Recitatif." The story features two female characters, one black and one white, but there is no clear indication which character is which race. As we read and discussed the story, students speculated about the characters' respective races, and I challenged students to reflect on their assumptions about race and identity. As we debated the characters' races, we also contemplated why the two protagonists interpreted their shared experiences in conflicting ways. Students wrote response papers in which they explained how two different characters could have the same experience but walk away with very different conclusions.
Following our discussion of "Recitatif," I guided students through an Internet scavenger hunt in which we searched for divergent opinion pieces on race-related issues. Students analyzed the opinion pieces to discern how opposing pundits could contradict one another using the same statistics. Having already had similar discussions as we read "Recitatif," students were quick to point out that facts are not enough to make an argument. Arguments are made when information is arranged and presented from a particular perspective.
Through the study of literature, my students practiced considering multiple perspectives and were thus prepared to understand and deconstruct the journalists' arguments. Because literary reflection formed the basis of the unit, students developed the intellectual disposition to engage the nonfiction texts more critically and responsibly than they would have otherwise.
Sharing the Literacy Endeavor
In the Internet age, literacy instruction must be integrated across the curriculum. Content-area teachers must likewise do more than dispense information. In addition to teaching their respective subjects and the various modes of thinking unique to each subject, each teacher must show students how to sift through, evaluate, and manage information within those subjects. ELA is a content area in its own right, with its own subject (literature) and its own mode of thinking (literary reflection). In the 21st century school, ELA cannot be reduced to a skills-based discipline that supports other content areas. Literature is as important now as it ever has been, and teaching literacy is the responsibility of all teachers.
Bradley R. H. Bethel is a reading and writing specialist at the Ohio State University, where he works with at-risk student athletes.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 26. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.