Category Archives: reading

On E-Books, Reading, and the Course of Human Events


A Little Background

A couple of months ago, my amazing wife got me a great birthday present – a Barnes & Noble Nook. I had been conflicted about getting an e-book reader, but was ready to give digital books a shot. Since I’m both technophile and bibliophile, the gift made perfect sense. And given the amount of time I spend in front of LCD screens (laptop, iPhone, TV, etc.), I was grateful not to receive a Nook Color or an iPad, which would just add to the eye strain that I already experience. And the E-Ink screen has lived up to expectations – it really does mimic the experience of reading on a page quite well.

Of course, being something of a classicist, it’s a weird mental adjustment to read digital books. I’d always been the type that loves to smell the pages of old books and I really appreciate a nice leather-bound edition of Poe’s Complete Works. That’s obviously not an option any more, so I went with the next best thing – a beautiful handmade leather cover from Oberon, which at least gives it that nice leather smell, so I can feel a little more like I’m reading a real book (side note: I’m not affiliated with Oberon in any way, but I’m really happy with my cover). Even so, there are still books that I will insist on keeping in hard copy – classics, favorites, and so on.

There are a number of features with the e-reader I really enjoy that I know I would never get with a book. One of these is obviously having one device that I am comfortable with, rather than learning the feel of a new book every few weeks. Oddly enough, another feature I love is the ability to quickly go from one book to the next, even download a book on the spot and start reading. Even if I’m thinking about buying a book, I can preview it on the Nook first and decide whether to purchase it. In the same vein, the Nook allows me to go to any Barnes & Noble and read a book for free while I’m connected to their wi-fi. All are very nice features.

The feature I most appreciate, though, is the Nook’s ability to lend and borrow books, particularly borrowing from a library. This is the sole reason I preferred the Nook over the Kindle. I think the ability to borrow books at will is an incredible feature. I can honestly say that I’ve checked out more books so far this year than I checked out in the last 4 years combined, all because they were quickly sideloaded onto my Nook. Thankfully, our public library (King County Library System) has a great selection of e-books available for checkout, so it’s been a pleasant experience. I simply download the book, load it onto the Nook, and then “return” it when I’m finished. I can keep the book for up to 21 days or return it early, just like a traditional book.

Certainly there are issues that bug me – highlighting is a nuisance and I wish I could view only highlighted passages (would be great for note-taking). The touchscreen often experiences a good deal of lag or is unresponsive. And E-Ink technology still has plenty of room for improvement. However reading books on the Nook has been a mostly positive experience.


As I mentioned, it was the last feature – lending and borrowing – that really sold me on the Nook. As I see it, that Kindle did not (until recently) allow lending or borrowing was a shame. It seems like a good piece of hardware, but we need the ability to share. Whether it’s status updates on Facebook, links through Delicious, or books, sharing things we enjoy connects us to others. Even if it’s just the library, there is now a connection between borrower and lender. Consequently, when the lender (in this case, the library) needs something, I am indebted and likely to oblige (by voting in favor of the library system, in this case). Similarly, when a friend comments on something I share on Facebook, I am much more likely to return that comment. In doing so, the relationship is strengthened by a common bond or interest.

Thus, my preference of the Nook over the Kindle was not so much about the best device, but about which one will provide me with the better opportunities. And isn’t this what reading is really all about – opportunities? Opportunities to experience something you normally wouldn’t be able to, opportunities to learn from the wisest mentors in history, and opportunities to think about one’s own existence from a different perspective. As literary critic Harold Bloom shares,

“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.”

This is why we read – we read to better ourselves, to expand our minds, to understand the world around us, and to find a challenging joy – a difficult pleasure. Thankfully, my Nook has allowed me this difficult pleasure. While I know a Kindle would have met that need just as well, I guess in the end, I just couldn’t imagine choosing a device that limits opportunities for reading.

The other thought that runs through my mind (especially when I read articles like this one from CNN, reporting that Amazon now sells more digital than physical books) is what future generations will think of us as a result of this technology. I just recently started reading 1776, and as I read about the history of the American Revolution, I am struck by how most of the information in McCullough’s book is gleaned from letters and other hand-written documents. Because historical figures such as George Washington and William Emerson, Sr. engaged in such hand-written correspondence, we have a record of not only the events that occurred, but also the thoughts and emotions of the people involved. Will future generations be able to look back on us and say the same? Will emails, chats, phone calls, and digital books stand the test of time in the same way that ancient manuscripts have? Or will they disappear from the human consciousness, much like the original internet websites have slipped from our minds? I don’t have an answer for any of these questions, but I can’t help but wonder what the consequences will be of this rapid advance in technology. As Isaac Asimov pointed out,

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Are we thinking forward about the consequences of this sort of change? Have we considered what the ramifications are – how the world will be? I just don’t have an answer.

Classroom Tech, Part IV: Shelfari

A snippet of my "Books I've Read" shelf, complete with ratings

A snippet of my "Books I've Read" shelf, complete with ratings

I’m in the middle of  a series of posts outlining how I plan on using technology during the coming school year. I’ll share some tools, resources, and ideas that I intend to use with students in the classroom, and hopefully you, the reader, will share some advice or thoughts of your own, either in the comments section, or on your own blog (just let me know if you do!).

Unlike the other tools mentioned in the previous three posts, Shelfari is not something I am just now starting to use with students. I’ve used Shelfari with my students for a year and a half now, with a mixed bag of success, and I’ve posted before on what it is and on some of my experiences with Shelfari. All told, it’s been a great tool, and my experiences using it with classes have yielded a couple of strategies to make it more effective.

  • I primarily use Shelfari in my English classes as a way for students to document their outside reading. To do this, I ask that they write a book review (which includes both summary and evaluation) on Shelfari. From a management standpoint, the most effective way for me to grade this is to create a group for each class period and work through each class separately. This is really nice because I can stay up to date on what kids are reading, they can recommend books to me or their peers, and their reviews can be read by anyone on the website.
  • Shelfari would also be a great resource for students who are looking for books to read, particularly if you’ve been using class groups. They could use other students’ shelves and reviews to find books that they might be interested in. This could also include an added writing component in which students have to explain why they selected the book that they did, encouraging them to use some metacognition and think about the criteria that they used to select that book.
  • There are numerous other groups on Shelfari that students could be encouraged to join, many focused on a particular literary interest such as a genre, title, or author. Students could interact with other Shelfari users in these groups and hear from like-minded people. There is an obvious safety concern here, as we don’t know who students are interacting with, so that is something that would have to be discussed thoroughly before encouraging this activity.
  • One oft-neglected feature of Shelfari is the “on loan” check box for individual books. Say you keep an inventory of all your books on Shelfari. If a student borrows or checks out a book from you, you can find that book on your shelf and go to the details page. Under the “Editions” tab, there is a check box that says “loaned to a friend.” If you check that box, you can fill in the information – who you loaned it to and when – and save that until the book is returned. While I do wish it was a little easier to access this feature, it’s pretty handy nonetheless.
  • I often use the Wish List shelf to keep a list of books that I’m interested in reading. This might be a really great way for students to build up some interest in a variety of books and let you see the kinds of books they want to read. This opens the door for recommendations, reviews, and other great interaction. You might even make it an assignment to add 2 books from different genres that the student is going to read. One additional benefit to doing this: if students have a list of books they want to read on their Wish List, they should never be telling you they don’t have a book to read.

These are just a few of, I’m sure, innumerable ideas for using Shelfari in the classroom. Unlike some of the previous tech tools, I can say with complete confidence that most students – particularly young adults – enjoy using Shelfari. They laugh and make fun of it early on, but once they start getting into the different possibilities (particularly interacting with their friends), they really do start to engage a little bit more.

Next up in the Classroom Tech series (Part V) will be an oldie, but a goodie: PowerPoint.

Six Great Ideas – Journal 2

“Six Great Ideas,” by Mortimer J. Adler – Chs. 3-4


  • “Precisely because it can be everybody’s business, it should be part of everyone’s general education…Only by the presence of philosophy in the general schooling of all is everyone prepared to discharge the obligations common to all because all are human beings. Schooling is essentially humanistic only to the extent that it is tinged with philosophy-with an introduction to the great ideas.”
  • “If philosophy is everybody’s business, then not only should everyone be able to use these words correctly in a sentence when the standard of correctness is merely grammatical, but also everyone should be able to engage, to some extent, in intelligent discourse about the object of thought under consideration.”
  • “These three ideas [liberty, equality, and justice] are the ones we live by in society. They represent ideas which a considerable portion of the human race has sought to realize for themselves and for posterity.”
  • “I turn now to the other trio: truth, goodness, and beauty. These three ideas are the ones we judge by. Unlike the ideas we live by (liberty, equality, and justice), these three function for us in our private as well as in our public life.”
  • “A great idea is almost always one about which challenging questions have been raised. The great philosophical questions are, for the most parts, questions about the great ideas.


  • On the first quote: I’m encouraged that Adler seems to agree with me (or is it vice versa?) that philosophy should be a required part of the K-12 curriculum. I learned more Thinking Skills and Habits of Mind in my philosophy courses than in all the rest of my education combined. It is utterly necessary to develop such skills just to read philosophy texts, let alone discuss them or write about them. And there is plenty of precedent for the success of philosophy in high schools – look at the International Baccalaureate program, which offers credit for philosophy.
  • Following a discussion on vocabulary and the observation that the six ideas he will discuss are truly simple words, Adler notes something interesting: that the words are simple grammatically, but very complex and layered as “objects of thought.” This seems to be true of so many different words – easy to learn how to use them, but difficult to truly understand what they mean.
  • As Adler concludes the introductory section of the book, he previews his discussion of the two groups of great ideas: the judging ideas (truth, beauty, goodness) and the acting ideas (liberty, equality, justice). Of these, he says that the greater set is actually the former. Truth, beauty, and goodness, according to Adler, are the dominant trio of ideas because they affect the acting ideas. For example, without a concept of goodness, ideas like liberty and equality and justice are just objects of thought. It is the notion that they are good ideas that makes them so valuable to us. Not surprisingly, this is very similar to Plato’s theory that the Form of the Good is the highest of the forms and illuminates all other ideas.
  • On the last quote above, it reminds me of one of my favorite truths about philosophy: Doubt everything. Doubt leads to questions. Questions lead to answers. Answers lead to truth. Without some sort of honest doubt, no great theory (or idea) would ever have been posited. If Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t doubted the goodness of segregation, the world would have been a much different place. This is why I continue to advocate doubt as one of the strongest habits of mind (even if it doesn’t get mentioned as such).

The Great Ideas

I just started reading a book that’s been on my Shelfari “Plan to Read” shelf for about a year. It’s called Six Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler. As I started reading this book, I realized that it touches on both of my academic passions: literature and philosophy (more of the latter, to be sure). I also realized that I would want to respond to it. A lot.

Solution: Online Reader’s Journal. I plan on posting some key quotes and my responses to the text as I read through the book. Hopefully it’s not too tedious to read, especially since I’ll start it now.

o  o  o

Reader’s Journal, Six Great Ideas, chapters 1-2


  1. “It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives.
    Acknowledging this is not enough. It is also necessary to understand why this is so and what philosophy’s business is.
    The answer, in a word, is ideas. In two words, it is great ideas – the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live.”
  2. “Ideas, as objects of thought, do exist. The idea of truth or of justice does not cease to exist when I cease to think about it, for others can be thinking about it when I am not. However, unlike the chair I am sitting on or the book you are holding in your hand, which does not cease to exist as a perceptible object when no one is perceiving it, objects of thought do cease to exist as intelligible objects when no one at all is thinking about them…Ideas exist objectively, but not with the reality that belongs to physical things.”


  • Adler’s comments in the first lines of his book (Quote 1) line up very well with what I continue to believe – that everyone should “do” philosophy. Philosophy covers the most elemental aspects of what it means to be human, and requires developing strong thinking skills and good habits of mind – exactly why I’m trying to put together a course curriculum for a Philosophy class.
  • The 6 great ideas, which he mentions in the first chapter, are truth, goodness, and beauty (the ideas we judge by) and liberty, equality, and justice (those ideas we act on). These strike me as being very elemental ideas and very much worth studying/discussing in school
  • While I found Adler’s discussion of the nature of “ideas” and the two types of ideas (subjective ideas and objective ideas) interesting, I’m not sure a lot of people would feel the same way. The writing is definitely slanted towards those with a predisposition to philosophical thinking and reading
  • The final idea, though (Quote 2) is fascinating to me. What is an “idea”? Is it a “real” thing, or just something that doesn’t really exist? Adler makes an interesting argument – that there are two distinct kinds of ideas. The first, subjective ideas, are those thoughts that only I can have. The second, objective ideas, are those “big ideas” that everyone can think about (like truth, justice, etc.). I like this distinction, though again, it might seem boring and meaningless to the average reader.

So far, pretty interesting book.

Virtual Whiteboards

One of my colleagues got me interested in a fairly new web 2.0 technology: virtual whiteboards. Imagine sitting in a room full of people, all of whom have a marker. Together they all make changes to a plan or illustration, add comments, etc., and all on the big whiteboard at the front of the room. Now give that picture a web 2.0 spin – a site where any group of people can get together and mark up ideas, documents, and/or pictures with insightful comments, helpful pointers, or even just silly little mustaches. This is a virtual whiteboard. Virtual whiteboards combine the best element of wikis (collaboration) and the best element of chat rooms (real time conversations).

Of the several that I’ve tried, probably the best to date is called Twiddla. I found the link via the great people over at ReadWriteWeb. What’s so useful about Twiddla is that, unlike other Whiteboard sites, Twiddla allows you to surf the web within the site and collaboratively mark up websites. Similarly, you can upload images or documents (Word, Excel, and PDF files), insert mathematical formulas, even open your email, and use Twiddla’s features to mark up the medium of your choice.

I can see a lot of great uses for this technology in the classroom:

  • Virtual study sessions for just about any subject area – English, Math, Social Studies, Science, Foreign language, health, you name it
  • Group editing a classmate’s (or teacher’s) writing
  • Getting feedback on the design of a class website or blog
  • Visually demonstrating reading skills, like using context clues to understand vocabulary
  • Visually demonstrating writing skills like paragraphing or editing
  • Visually demonstrating research skills, such as identifying site authors or using topic headers in Wikipedia
  • Playing tic-tac-toe

OK, so maybe the last one isn’t totally “educational,” but you get the idea. Twiddla has the potential to be an impressive classroom tool that I’m already finding ways to use in my classroom. Now if only I had a classroom full of laptops…


It’s always a tough day when I have 5 classes worth of papers to grade, only to find out 1/5 of the way through that the students didn’t “get it.”

I gave students some questions about conflict and theme after reading the Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron.” As I’ve been grading them, I realized that many students did not understand theme or how to identify theme. Of course, being the progressive, students-first teacher that I am striving to be, this means that instead of completely forward, I need to reteach the concept of theme to my students. This means that I’ll have to find time in the next week or two to address the topic in a new way. After that, I’ll try to reassess (similar questions – different text) and see if they “get it” a little better.

On a brief side note, it’s nice to know that my administration and colleagues will be completely supportive of this. It’s also nice to know that my students will be able to go back and get better at something they didn’t get and I won’t be falling behind on a scripted curriculum.

Goals for This Year

I just had my annual goals meeting with our administrator and thought it would be worth sharing the three goals I’ve set for myself this year. They’re each fairly specific and I’ll probably be inquiring about other teachers’ solutions to these in the near future.

1. Develop a stronger understanding of how to teach the writing process (rather than just the  product); specifically, methods for conferencing with students while keeping the class engaged in meaningful learning.

2. Find creative and purposeful ways to model thinking (including reading and writing strategies) in front of students. Part of this is being willing to make embarrassing mistakes in front of students.

3. Become innovative in creating and assigning papers, projects and other assignments by employing role playing strategies to raise real-world problems for students to solve.

One of the things I appreciate about these goal meetings is the opportunity to lay out my vision for my own development as a teacher, and for my students’ development as readers, writers, thinkers, and most importantly, people. I am forced to reflect on my own teaching critically and find areas that need to improve if my students are going to get the best possible education in my class – something I enjoy thoroughly.

I should note that both goals 2 and 3 are in part inspired by the book our administration has us reading: Teaching for Tomorrow: Teaching Content and Problem-Solving Skills (a link to the book’s Shelfari page – something I’m going to be doing when I mention book titles). I was pleasantly surprised to find myself marking pages with sticky notes and plowing through some of these big ideas and little strategies.