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[ICTs in English] Weekly update – Text studies in the digital age


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  • From: Hamish Chalmers <hchalmers AT ashs.school.nz>
  • To: "ictenglish AT lists.tki.org.nz" <ictenglish AT lists.tki.org.nz>
  • Subject: [ICTs in English] Weekly update – Text studies in the digital age
  • Date: Fri, 8 Mar 2013 19:22:04 +1300

What do you think would happen if for a unit on making meaning of a text we provided students no readings or interpretations whatsoever but instead let them find their own? Perhaps they’d jump on google and find a whole mess of ideas, some terrible, some average, others a little better and then do their best to integrate them in a coherent way. With a bit of pushing in some cases, we might also be able to convince them to deliver these understandings to us in an essay, speech, research report or visual text. I imagine most of us would be justifiably concerned about how convincing their readings of the text would be. Without us vending ‘our’ take on the text (and after all we’ve probably all had a bit of training and at least some interest in analysing films, novels, poetry, computer games etc) how could we be certain their ideas wouldn’t be horribly underdeveloped?

When we go through much the same process for developing our own ideas, our ability to process all this stuff is (hopefully!) quite a bit better than our students. We’re quite good at reading one person’s essay, or someone else’s website on Lord of The Flies, figuring out how this sits with our present readings of the text, assessing the quality of what we’re absorbing and then synthesising or rejecting it. But how much time do we spend teaching our students the skills they need to find and evaluate and how much time do we spend just delivering ‘our’ readings?

I’m guessing that for a few hundred years or so (that’s the amount of years I always choose when I don’t really know how long something has been around for) prehistoric/pre-internet teachers would spend quite a lot of time developing their own readings of texts without access to the same diversity and sheer amount of ideas us lucky tecchos do. If they were a good teacher, they might start this well in advance of teaching a text so they had time to process and appropriately complicate their ideas and then be convincing enough to present them to students. Obviously they’d also have access to some essays or books by a famous literary scholar to really inform what they were developing. (Perhaps this is one of the things that has made Shakespeare so popular, other than the fact that he’s totally awesome, there’s just so many darned analyses of his texts out there.)

Of course, this is all rather different now. Our students have access to, although not always the skills to efficiently process, a huge variety of ideas on the texts we study. As in all other subjects, our status as the person who knows the most about the text or topic in the room is severely under threat. If the balshy student who hits us with some unconsidered angle or detail we haven’t considered on a text is something we lose sleep over, now more than ever this is a reality. Darn that internet!

So what do we do with this then? Obviously just letting them loose on the digital morass and stepping back completely isn’t the answer and we know that they need a whole lot more information and digital literacy knowhow along with a mega-dose of critical thinking skills to assess the quality of what they’re coming across. Seeing as we’d also be hard pressed to argue that we shouldn’t present them with at least some readings of a text there must be a happy medium somewhere. It would certainly suck the joy out of making meaning units if we never got to talk about our readings and strong opinions on the texts we love. And in many ways, teaching students how to find and assess what’s out there, then synthesise this with what they already know is a huge opportunity. No longer do we have to give all of it to them, now we can give them a little, set them off to find more and check it against what we’ve given them, come back and process some, add a little more and send them off again. Assuming we can handle the ego hit of losing our place as the fount of all knowledge, this actually places a lot less pressure on us. We no longer need to have the perfect, most convincing reading of a text.

If we look at the way we run classes during text studies though, how much are we really taking our hands off the wheel? Are we willing to let them get out there and find some of it themselves? Maybe making meaning text studies are our last bastion of real expertise? If we let this one go, how will we convince ourselves we still have something awesome to offer? Despite how much harder (imo) it is to come up with a good process and strategy than it is to construct a reading of a text that impresses a bunch of sixteen year olds or a manic class of year sevens, actually we’re pretty darned lucky we’re officially tasked with it. While devising processes and strategies that works across multiple contexts for different students is challenging, it’s the one thing they can’t get from the information superhighway.

Hamish Chalmers
Facilitator: ICTs in English
http://englishonline.tki.org.nz/




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