Last night, I read "The Education Issue" of The New York Times Magazine." Two articles made me think about the role of nonfiction books in K-12 classrooms: "Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?" and "No Child Left Untableted." The first article discusses the ways in which some schools are intentionally teaching children how to identify emotions and "reframe" their responses to specific situations. The second discusses the rise of the tablet computer in classrooms and how one county in North Carolina purchased over 15,000 of one particular kind of tablet for its middle school students and teachers.
Now, I happen to think that teaching children and young adults how to navigate their emotional terrain and learn how to work together in community makes sense, particularly when they are bombarded with anger in all forms of their daily life -- from the halls of Congress, to the school cafeteria, to Dance Moms. Kids need help making sense of how the world works, how to read facial cues, how to control their emotions and their voices in heated debates, how to move beyond what they think someone meant in order to actually have a dialogue about what they did. If teachers don't help students do that, some will never learn. And to pretend that conflict doesn't exist within a classroom or outside in the halls makes no sense. Everyone suffers. Kids need tools and strategies. But do I think you need to buy an expensive program to do this? No. Certainly, I'm biased, but in my work with middle and high school students over the years, we learned to have those conversations in the context of exploring literature and history, through the voices of the present and the past. Having sustained discussion, creating a classroom context in which students can safely talk about texts but also talk about themselves, their world, their conflicts, matters. Not just in order to develop the speaking and listening skills they need or to cite evidence from the text to demonstrate critical thinking, but because it helps them to develop empathy and understanding of lives beyond their own. Nonfiction books can help students and teachers have those conversations, can bring the world into the classroom and the classroom out into the world. Teachers need to be know about those trade books, have the ability to choose the trade books best able to to meet the needs and interests of their particular community, and have the funds to purchase them. Most schools don't have that money. Or, it is not permitted to spend it on something as "risky" as trade books.
Guilford County, North Carolina has a lot of money to spend, thanks to Race to the Top. The author of the second article writes, "The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems." As I read the second article, I wondered what kinds of discussions might not take place in Guilford County, North Carolina this year because of the pressure teachers must feel to maximize their use of the tablet computers.
I do not believe in a false dichotomy between print and digital texts. I think that as educators, we need to use all types of texts and genres with students to explore the world. Students need to be reading and writing multigenre and multimodal texts as well as traditional text types. But when one company is deciding the reading material for thousands of children, and a school district abdicates that responsibility, I am afraid. Why does it seem okay to take those decisions away from the teachers and librarians who know children best? I love tablet computers for their portability of content, for the ways in which students can construct texts. I couldn't teach without the range of digital resources my university's library provides through its databases. But I am the one who decides what my students read. And when I taught middle and high school, I was the one who decided what my students read. Or they decided.