I remember as a kid looking through the Sears Catalogue and putting check marks or stars beside the toys or clothes that we wanted. What I didn’t pay attention to was the fact that the catalogues were either Fall/Winter or Spring/Summer editions—back when the fashion industry came out with new lines only a few times a year. But now, companies like H&M or Zara come out with new items every week—causing the clothing industry to pollute the planet at an alarming rate. 

Companies that used to have 2-4 lines a year have turned to the fast fashion concept and are churning out lower quality items more often in the year. This has shifted consumer attitudes where we buy more items per year and dispose of items more quickly. We don’t stop and think about how the transformation of the fashion industry over time has also transformed our habits and the consequences of this on society and the environment.

Sustainability is a definitely a trending topic which many companies tout as a marketing tool to (1) sell their product/gain consumers and (2) do better for the planet. And reading on paper and for sustained amounts of time needs this same marketing strategy. The way that more sustainable fashion will contribute to saving the planet…more sustainable reading will help to save society.

Even though I finished reading Maryanne Wolf’s book, Reader, Come Home, in July, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Wolf’s book is “…a deeply informative epistolary book that considers the future of the reading brain and our capacity for critical thinking, empathy, and reflection as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies” and it is told through a series of letters she writes to the reader—making it accessible and inviting.

I have had numerous conversations with people over the past couple months—my hairdresser and tattooist included) about their reading lives. (Yes, I ask everyone I meet what they are currently reading!)

And I am hearing the following response (or something similar over and over): “I can’t sit and read anymore…my mind wanders and I find that I lose track and have to reread parts.” It was when my mom (the very person who instilled in me a love of reading) iterated the same thought that I started to become…a little worried.

A Disclaimer: This post is not about how digital reading is an inherently bad thing…it is about how it IS a thing… and one that we need to pay more attention to. So although I will not be discussing the benefits of reading in a digital format in this post…I do recognize that benefits exist and that there is definitely a need to cultivate healthy digital reading habits in students.

When I had my own classroom, I placed a lot of value on developing a student’s reading life and I saw the effects of this at the end of the year when not only had every student increased the number of books they had read than the previous year (even if it was only 1), but more importantly, every student had a better understanding of themselves as a reader.

This is how I showed that reading had value in my class (this post on MovingWriters.org I wrote, goes into more detail):

  1. Time given for reading at the beginning of EVERY class (and I sometimes read with them)
  2. Have comfortable spaces in my room to read
  3. I kept a visual reading ladder of my reading life
  4. There were weekly books talks by myself and/or students
  5. We set reading goals (number of books and diversity of genres)
  6. We discussed the interconnectedness of reading and writing

Wolf’s book affirms not only why all of the above was important, but it also solidifies the criticalness of it for the current context. And with all that is going on in the U.S. politically and culturally right now, reading (and I am talking about sustained reading of longer, more complex texts) is not only necessary…but could even be seen as a rebellious act.

Unlike physical movement and speaking, we are not born with the capacity for literacy and numeracy — this must be learned/developed. There is a lot of research in connection to the science of reading…there are gaps when it comes to reading in a digital world. Wolf’s book is packed full of information regarding not only what happens in our brains when we read, but more importantly how digital reading is affecting this skill.

She notes that over time, texts online have become syntactically less complex, broken up into smaller pieces of information, and simpler vocabulary. Due to these shifts in the reading content and structure, readers are more likely to skim and scan a text (usually zig zagging back and forth across a page). If this is the type of reading that saturates an individual’s day to day, the ability to engage in longer bouts of sustained reading of a longer text (where the syntax, vocabulary, and structure is more complex) diminishes.

Let’s face it…in the busy-ness of life, we tend to gravitate toward what is more convenient and a quick morning skim on our devices can trick us into thinking we are engaging with the world around us. But reading is not only something that we need to train our brains to do, it is something that we need to acknowledge does not come easy, but that that is the point!

A few resources that helped me gain traction in nurturing reading in my classroom:

Why Does This Matter? There are a BUNCH of reasons…but here are 4!

Reason 1: Rebels!

Wolf states that when we rely on digital reading there is “…the illusion of being informed through the daily deluge of eye-byte sized information which can trump the critical analysis of our complex realities.” She connects this to how “a democratic society depends on the undeterred use of these critical capacities and how quickly they can atrophy in each of us unnoticed.”

Yes, within our classrooms we teach the academic requirements of our subject area or grade level, but we are also teaching these humans to become better humans who will be competent at interacting in their communities. Author and university professor Yong Zhao states that: “it is not a teacher’s job to get students ready for the future…the future is MADE by our students and it is our job to prepare them to participate and create a better future.” Part of this is to empower their reading lives—to make them all rebels!

Because technology has shifted the way we are able to access information—it is easy to get bombarded with too many options. When this happens, we can revert to accessing places for information that make fewer demands on our thinking.

As this happens, Wolf worries that “more and more of us would then think we know something based on information whose source was chosen because it conforms to how and what we thought before (conformation bias) … there begins to be less and less motivation to thinking deeply, much less to try on views that differ from one’s own life … and we are lulled into a form of passive cognitive complacency that precludes further reflection and opens wide the door for others to think for us.”

So basically our democracy is at stake. Since we don’t want to create a generation of sheep, we need to build an army of rebel readers!

Reason 2: Fast & Slow

UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield describes how our brains adapt to whatever the dominant medium it is exposed to.

“If the medium provided promotes processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. The result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.”

— UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield

As Greenfield alludes to in the quote above, the medium is the message. Both types of reading are necessary and students need to become adept at not only switching between mediums, but understanding the difference between them.

And this needs to be explicitly taught and discussed with students: (1) What is happening in our brains when we read in both contexts? (2) When is reading digitally and in real life beneficial? (3) How can we build and effectively use both skill sets?

Wolf connects the act of reading to Aristotle’s view of what makes a good society: knowledge, entertainment, and contemplation. However, Wolf also notes that the act of contemplation is waning and that the shift in how we read is part of the reason why. When we think about the current political and cultural situation, not only in the U.S. but the world over, we can gain some perspective on why we need to provide time for this slower type of reading to take place.

Reason 3: Windows & Mirrors

Students need literature that provides WINDOWS (where they can see others) and MIRRORS (where they can see themselves). Yes, they can find these windows and mirrors online, but when reading is slowed down, when it is comprehended, when it is contemplated…that is when empathy and empowerment will have the opportunity to emerge. This could be supplemented by including stories of community action and activism instead of just the individual ‘heroes journey’ type narrative. Here are some books to get a collective action library started:

Reason 4: Habits

— Richard Steele

As previously stated, literacy is a learned skill and as such, it must be cultivated (and hopefully from a young age). I know I I am not alone in this: a new set of high school students enters the class at the start of the academic year and a large number, if not majority, of them say that they used to read (back in ES or MS), but they don’t have time for it now …or they have lost the desire.

Fact: Reading is definitely not going to be something every student is passionate about.

Also a Fact: Reading is something that will benefit students in whatever vision of a future they have…we just have to help them see that (SEL—start with connecting to kids!). And by creating a habit of reading, the benefits of it will saturate into other aspects of their lives, as well.

Final thoughts…

In giving space for students to do the slower/sustained reading, we will nurture engaged citizens who will:

  • build a sense of inquiry (into topics such as fast fashion?!)
  • look for opportunities to connect/empathize instead of disconnect
  • develop an appreciation of the written word (translating into their writing lives!)

If we don’t put value on and give time/space for sustained reading (supplemented with critical thinking skill sets) in our classroom, I fear generations of passive consumers of information (and clothing); I fear generations of disconnected individuals who are apathetic to another’s plight (or that of the environment); I fear atrophy of contributing to the common good (of each other and our planet).

What will your first step be toward building a more sustainable reading life for yourself and your students?

Not only do I thank you for visiting this site and reading my thoughts…but I would love to hear your thoughts and wonderings, too. Please, leave a comment below, email me at readwritemore@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @readwritemore

You can also see more of my writing (along with the writing of some other brilliant and beautiful minds) at MovingWriters.org

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