Tag Archives: literature

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.

Edumacation Greatest Hits

Have you ever watched a new episode of your favorite TV show, only to find that it was a compilation of clips (usually “flashbacks”) from old episodes? The Simpsons, my favorite TV show of all time, certainly had its share of clip shows. Since it’s wise to emulate success, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider this post (which arrives at the one-year anniversary of this ridiculous blog) an attempt to reach that level of quality. So without further adieu, I give you Edumacation’s Greatest Hits (A Clip Show):

1. Whale Rider Teaching Resources: A collection of links to online and print resources for those who are teaching the novel, The Whale Rider. How ironic that my most popular post is one that I haven’t yet gotten to use myself. In any case, it’s rewarding to share something that a great many people are excited to read and use.

2. Short Story Mentor Texts: A collection of links to short stories that teachers can use as both reading material and as mentor texts for writing workshops. The idea hinged on Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, which has since inspired a great many posts.

3. Google Lit Trips: My first “huge” post (I couldn’t believe 50 people had visited my blog that week) was an introduction to a great resource that combines literature with the amazing Google Earth – always worth checking out. This was my first foray into sharing the cool tools I’m trying to use.

4. Government and Education: A surprising member of the list – a probably weak summary of the history of the U.S. government’s role in the education system and how it has evolved. I include this in spite of my regret for having written it – in retrospect, it seems like such a waste of time.

5. In Search of Hope: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: The first post I ever wrote that got past 20 visitors (what a huge deal that was). Really it was just a book review I wrote as part of our Reader’s Workshop unit last year. It turned out to be the start of a long, painfully reflective journey.

One observation I had from looking over these posts should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t: people gravitate towards resources, not opinions. I don’t know if it was the tags, the content, or something else, but every one of these posts was attempting to share resources I had discovered for myself. As I move into Year 2 of Edumacation, the single goal I have for this blog is to provide more resources and less personal opinion and commentary. The way I see it, there’s a lot of good stuff out there that I’ve found – why not share it with people?

A Quick Review

Still trying to force myself to make time to post more regularly during my planning period. I think once I get into a routine during plan periods, it will help: update website, respond to parent emails, post, plan. Seems simple enough…

That said, here’s a quick summary of the first couple weeks of the 2008-2009 school year:

1. So far, we’ve read two stories: “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, and “Gaston,” by William Saroyan. The first story we read as a sort of warm-up in marking and annotating a text. “Gaston” we read with the end goal of having our first Shared Inquiry discussion (putting that summer training to use). After about a 20-25 minute discussion in each class, I was moderately pleased with the results. I felt like the discussions were pretty good, even with a couple of my very quiet classes. I really like being able to focus on a good story and draw out some ideas and themes that are applicable to students’ lives. The students generally seemed to like the discussions as well. Was it a life-changing experience? Not really, but it went better than any literature discussions we had last year. Next up: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” and Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education.”

2. Our current writing unit (I’ve been splitting our block periods in half to get more writing instruction into my classes), is borrowed directly from Write Beside Them – we’re using her “snapshot moment” assignment. To get students going quickly, I asked them to write about their scariest moment. Our main focus with this particular assignment is to work on getting a lot of detail and elaboration into the writing – hopefully leading to better elaboration in the narrative essays they’ll write next. So far so good – most students seem to like the assignment (as much as they like writing, anyway). As mentioned in the previous post, however, my biggest challenge is trying to keep students engaged in something purposeful while I’m conferencing with students. Suggestions for this are, as always, most welcome.

3. Our technology teacher leader team has been busy already. Many of us have been helping other teachers with their technology problems and have helped some teachers find new ways to use technology in the classroom. As a building, we are also moving forward, slowly moving away from the old desktop computers and overhead projectors and making sure we’re all using the tools (ELMOs and laptops) the taxpayers blessed us with. Obviously there are always user issues with that sort of change – learning how to use new technology and a fear of change only a couple of examples – but I’ve been impressed with the willingness of our teachers (and administrators) to see this change as a challenge and as an opportunity to continue learning.

4. Football is a time-consuming sport to coach. Along with daily practices and weekly games, we’ve spent some serious time discussing personnel, watching game film, putting together scouting reports and game plans, and scouting games for the varsity. And that’s just at the 9th grade level. But coaching football has already been an incredibly rewarding experience. I’ve learned a lot, not only about football, but about coaching and teaching in general.

All in all, a nice start to the year. Now if only I could get posting about other stuff more regularly…

Review of The Great Books Core Sequence

I recently had the privilege of attending a Junior Great Books Training Core Sequence (courtesy of our building/district). The primary focus of the three courses is learning about and practicing the Shared Inquiry discussion, which is a Socratic-style model for discussing literature and other texts. I might post my notes here, but after taking 3 courses over 2 days, there’s a lot of them. That said, here’s a quick summary of the basics.

  • Shared Inquiry is all about students interpreting a text and sharing their interpretation – and the evidence they find to support that interpretation – with their classmates
  • Every SI discussion begins with a single interpretive question – an open-ended question that asks students to provide an interpretation of the text
  • In a SI discussion, the teacher’s role is to come up with a genuine interpretive question and facilitate the discussion with authentic follow-up questions that are raised by genuine interest in the response
  • Both teacher and student focus the SI discussion on the text – the text is the one thing everyone has in common, and a good text can more than adequately lead a discussion into other realms without students bringing in personal beliefs or experiences
    • This does not mean you avoid connecting texts to personal experience. There are other times that are perfect opportunities to discuss evaluative questions, such as “Do you think X is right or wrong?”
  • Shared Inquiry is not a curriculum in and of itself – just part of a larger picture. This sort of discussion will fit in perfectly with whatever else you are doing in your classroom.

My overall perception of this program is overwhelmingly positive. I’ll admit that I’m a little biased – I am a big fan of the Great Books series (though I don’t have a GB bookshelf…yet). However, this training actually had little to do with the literature. Rather, it was a great introduction into the style of Socratic questioning and discussion. As a young teacher, this is the sort of training I wish I’d had in my teacher preparation courses. I feel more confident and competent to lead text-based discussions, and I have resources to share with other young teachers who might want the same. Definitely glad I took the time out of my summer to attend.

Short Story Mentor Texts

As I’ve been reading Write Beside Them, I’ve been very impressed with Penny Kittle’s use of mentor texts in her classroom. She seems to use great works of literature, both traditional and contemporary, to help demonstrate certain concepts or skills she wants her students to develop. She has even suggested a couple of mentor texts specifically up to the point I am at in the book – notably, Rick Reilly, one of my all-time favorite columnists and sportswriters.

One of our units is a Reader’s Workshop unit in which students select a novel of their choice that they will read and they use that book to compare to other texts and complete assignments on. Popular texts this past year included the Twilight books, Harry Potter, the Maximum Ride series, and other popular YA titles. Our focus in the unit is to help students dig a little deeper into conflict and resolution, as well as develop comparing/contrasting skills on a deeper level (we introduce symbols, motifs, and themes in previous units).

The problem I ran into is that I just didn’t use enough texts to compare their books to. After reading Kittle and listening to her describe how often she uses these texts, I realized I need a better sampling of good mentor texts that will help students better understand the concepts we’re studying. Since I don’t have a lot else to do, and since I feel like this unit can be infinitely better, I’m trying to get some ideas now (we won’t do this until late mid-semester).  A couple of writers that I am already looking into using are Sherman Alexie (my personal favorite), Ray Bradbury, and possibly Jonathan Swift (I’m itching to get “A Modest Proposal” into the class somehow).

Unfortunately, I don’t have a very broad background in short stories (our genre of choice for this particular unit), so I decided to reach out to my “other” professional learning community and ask for your help:

What short stories could I use to help students understand different types of conflict? What stories would provide opportunities for in-depth comparison with the books they choose? What short stories have you used with success in your own classroom? I’m open to any suggestions you might have.