Teaching in 2D

Photo courtesy of mofetos (flickr.com).

The “Innovations in Reading Prize” that YARN recently received (Thank you, National Book Foundation!) has gotten me thinking about, well, innovations. I don’t want to be a downer at such a happy time for YARN, but I’m actually struggling right now with some of the reading and writing innovations in my own classrooms. This semester I’m teaching an online writing course (Innovation #1) and a traditional on-campus course in a “smart” classroom (Innovation #2).

Let’s take Innovation #1. While I truly believe online courses are shaping the future of education, I see them as being fairly old-fashioned. They remind me of the Classical education achieved through reading, reflecting, and reading more. I teach a WRITING class, but everything we do is mediated through the act of READING. My lectures, my feedback on assignments, even my weekly announcements are text-based. Frankly, the students who are weaker readers often end up being weaker writers because they don’t absorb the instructional material as well. I had one student beg me to just call her on the phone and talk to her, please! I don’t blame her. In an on-campus classroom (or even a Webcam classroom), I could have appealed better to her different visual and aural learning styles.

Even my bricks-and-mortar classroom has its innovation challenges, however. Behind Door #2, we have the Smart Board and wireless classroom! Computer labphoto © 2008 Eric E Castro | more info (via: Wylio)
In theory, I think it’s totally cool that my students can open their laptops, take an in-class exam, and upload it immediately.  It’s like we’re in a futuristic literary salon or Left-Bank cafe, all writing together in one room. And yet there’s something missing. We may all be breathing the same air, but we’re still living life in 2-D, just like my online students. Case in point: On the day of the final in-class exam, I wanted to say a few parting words and give modest advice before they began writing (nay, typing). I didn’t say anything particularly poignant or earth-shattering…but in anticipation of the exam their laptops were already open. No eyes were on me, even when I was praising their skills and saying goodbye. I’m not criticizing my students for it – I do the same thing to my own husband when I’m sitting at my computer – but we’ve lost a facet of human connection when we’ve lost eye contact. And when we’ve lost human connection, we’ve lost our writing souls. Writers are meant to be listeners, observers, eavesdroppers and voyeurs.

Ok, now I know I’m overstating things. I don’t mean to sound like a fuddy duddy. I’m just fascinated by the phenomenon. Lots of smart people are studying the effects of technology on education and have some complicated insights, but, from my perspective in the trenches, I’m finding that, for starters, I simply need to be more transparent with my students about the influences of technology on our three-dimensional, sensory experience.

Here’s what we talk about, when we talk meta-cognitively about technological innovations. We talk about how to turn technology off. I turn off the Smart Board and lead discussions without PowerPoint. We close our laptops except for specific exercises. We work more often in peer groups, hold mini-conferences during class, and meet more often in office hours. We sit in a circle so we can see each other. We stand up and take a 7th-inning stretch during our two-hour class meetings. In other words, we learn how to look away from the screens in the room. (I counted 47 screens last week in a room with 22 people.) The goal here is to stimulate all the senses, not just the visual ones.

Mostly, we take a moment to remember that we don’t have to lose our proven, non-tech learning methods in order to add the new high-tech ones. The unintended consequence of technology is that it often replaces, rather than enhances, our old best practices.

After doing my tech-transparency talk with my students, the biggest –and most surprising – change I observed this semester involved proofreading skills. My students don’t seem to see their mistakes very well on the screen, no matter how many colored squiggles Microsoft Word puts on their documents. My advice was simple and tech-free: Print your paper. Read it forwards. Read it backwards. Cut up the paragraphs (or scenes) and re-arrange them. Read aloud. Have a friend read it aloud, and don’t read along. Just listen.

Ear.photo © 2010 Daniel Dale | more info (via: Wylio)

There, I’ve said it. That was my innovation this semester. To downplay reading and emphasize listening.

I couldn’t believe the difference, even among my online students who did this at home. Better listening=better reading=better writing.

YARN is soon going to do podcasts of its published pieces to marry the acts of listening and reading. Our recent interview with Samantha Schutz revealed that she falls asleep listening to stories on such radio programs as This American Life and the Moth . Her listening inspires her writing. It’s so easy to get caught up in the flash of technology that we can forget that innovations are not just about how many ways we can now read, write, and listen to things, but how well we’re doing it. In the innovations game, it’s not just about the quantity of devices and platforms; the quality of the experience counts. We need all five senses to make the most of a 2-D world.

Colleen Oakley, Poetry EditorColleen is YARN’s poetry editor.

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