Book Review: Reader, Come Home (The Reading Brain in a Digital World)

You can’t be around kids at any age for any amount of time and not worry about what the extended use of small and large screens is doing to the developmental brain. But it still feels so anecdotal. Our teacher lunch room is full of stories and complaints about diminishing attention spans, student writing primarily centered on video games, lack of persistence, and more.

As someone interested in the possibilities of digital literacies, as well as a father, this shifts that seems to be moving under our feet as we move into a more digital world is unsettling, too. It feels as if we are in one of those epoch moments – like moving from oral to written stories, or the age of Gutenberg — where we don’t really know what will emerge from the digital revolution, and we’re hoping for good things but fear the bad.

Reader, Come Home (The Reading Brain in a Digital World) by Maryanne Wolf is the perfect read for this unsettled moment. It will not, by any stretch, ease your mind. In fact, Wolf, a reading teacher and brain specialist who has worked for years on reading skills, will likely set off alarms, if anyone is listening.

And if you’re not listening, you should be.

Wolf’s main premise, supported through multiple findings from emerging research, is that reading on the screen, particularly for young children, is fundamentally changing the way the brain works with the processing information, and that the drastic decline of book reading – the paper bound things on the shelves — in favor of device reading is altering the complicated way the brain develops, over time, to be able to not just process information, deeply, but also to spur comprehension and connections beyond the textural levels.

Wolf would say that my sentence in that last paragraph is too long for a screen-developed reader to read and understand, and she pulls in research showing this to be true. And she explores her own reading life, too, to show how even she (and maybe you, and certainly me) have had our reading lives changed and altered by our time with screens.

Wolf, for example, does a scientific experiment on her own reading of a Herman Hess novel she loved and found she could not attend to the book for even moderate stretches of time. Her thinking would not follow Hess’s complex sentences and ideas. However, she was able to retrain herself back to deeper reading, which informs her ideas about how to address screen reading.

I won’t share all of her scientific explanations, except to say that when a young child is learning to read, each story and each book is part of the layered growth of the brain, building on the previous. Each book is layered on the last. Each story becomes a connector point for the next.

When a young child reads on a screen, though, the pleasure motivator of entertainment — the media, the links, the ancillary information — not only encourages them to skim the surface of text, but teaches them that this is how you read text. The brain remembers and builds those skills with multiple reading. When the brain encounters text, any text, those — skimming, searching for entertainment — are the skills it draws upon.

Comic The Deep

Research has shown that depth of understanding and retention is definitely impacted by screen reading. And, worse, skills that one might develop by reading with a screen do not transfer over to the skills needed for traditional reading on paper. If anything, the screen reading skills diminish the paper reading skills. This is the counter to the argument that people are doing more reading than every these days, just in smaller segments on smaller screens. Reading on screens is not reading in books.

The implications of that are what we are seeing in our classrooms and complaining about in our teacher rooms. It’s what so many of us parents fret about when we don’t see our children reading for any extended periods of time anymore. It’s a generational shift. And it may not bode well for the future.

Wolf explains that families have many reasons for handing over a device to a young reader — it becomes the babysitter for harried parents, it might be viewed by immigrant families as a better teacher of language, it starts as a minor entertainment diversion and escalates into something larger in the lives of children, etc.

Comic The Experience

Wolf does not advocate a “head in the sand” philosophy nor a complete shut-down of all screen reading. Instead, she suggests a path forward, acknowledging the likelihood that devices and screens will continue to dominate the lives of young people (and she does tackle some digital access issues and socio-economic disparities in our communities).

Her central suggestion to addressing the problem of screen readers is to first educate more parents and families on the benefits of “read aloud” between small child and adult — the benefits are many and complex, and all research indicates that reading aloud to infants through teenagers (good luck) has immeasurable impacts on academic performance and success in later years. She notes how many pediatric offices now provide books for all families visiting for check-ups, and use the interaction in the doctor office to teach about the importance of reading aloud.

But Wolf also suggests that our educational system needs to make a significant shift in how we approach the teaching of emerging readers. She lays out three tiers of her approach — but the main element is that we explicitly teach both reading of books and reading of screens in the early elementary years (each requires different reading skills.) By teaching skills in how/when to read digital texts and also how/when to read traditional texts, a young reader begins to develop what Wolf calls “a Biliterate Brain,” trained to understand that we read on the screen in one way for a specific reason while we read books in another way for another reason.

Her hypothesis — based on her work in childhood brain research — is that eventually, the adolescent brain will merge those two skills into a solidified reading approach and will instantly toggle between skills needed for a certain kind of text — reading as code-switching on auto-pilot.

This would require pretty significant shifts in how we teach literacy in school, of course. While many classrooms have devices or computers or access to mobile phones, the curriculum around explicit teaching of reading digitally for comprehension is not a significant part of the educational landscape. It should be.

Even Wolf doesn’t claim to know if this approach of “biliteracy” will work, but she argues that we can’t just sit by and watch a generation of young readers learn to read on screens. The altering of our brains from our devices is real. So is the altering of the brains of our children, and our students, and our future. It’s not enough to shrug our shoulders and hand another device into small hands. We need to recognize the issue and begin to something about it.

It’s up to all of us.

Peace (on paper),
Kevin

Springfield Armory Camp: The Scents and Smells of Learning

Armory Camp: Scent of HistoryOf all the senses that educators tap to help students learn something new, the sense of smell is often the one we use the least, right? Yet, scents provide deep learning experiences. Memories connected to smells are powerful, lingering long after the event. We saw that idea in action yesterday at our Springfield Armory summer camp, where a visitor who does historical demonstrations – Reba Jean — arrived with vials and bottles of smelly substances, and a quarantine sign on the door.

The theme of the day at our camp was immigration, and Reba Jean made distinct connections between migration and immigration (and emigration) and the Influenza outbreak of 1918, when millions and millions of people around the world died from the epidemic, also known as the Spanish Flu. Unless you were in Russia, then it was called the German Flu.

“Someone always wants to blame the other, the ones they don’t know or don’t like or don’t understand,” Reba Jean, who is a historical interpreter at another local history museum, explained, tying the discussion to something we had spent the morning on — the reasons behind immigration patterns and how newcomers are met at borders by those already there.

Yes, this was history — the Springfield Armory itself was a magnet for many immigrants across the globe during the World Wars because it needed workers and because potential workers wanted to help soldiers fight the wars — tied up with modern days news cycles of our southern border.

In the demonstration, Reba Jean had campers sniffing a variety of scents before telling them what it was they were smelling. All of the scents representing ways that people tried to ward off Influenza in the 1918 outbreak, which began at a military base in America and spread to the world when those soldiers were shipped off to war fronts.

Among the scents:

  • Pine oil
  • Vicks Vapor Rub
  • Camphor
  • Garlic
  • Vinegar
  • Listerine (Lister oil)

The looks on the faces of our campers — all middle and high school students from a social justice school in Springfield — was priceless as they closed their eyes to sniff out history in little cups. Reba Jean did a brilliant job of connecting the sensory experience to the topic of immigration, too.

Afterwards, I realized how little I have ever used the sense of smell in my own classroom, but how powerful it was. I could see it on the faces of campers, and afterwards, in reflection, they explained how they found the activity memorable, connecting what they discovered through their noses with historical information Reba Jean was sharing.

Peace (on the winds),
Kevin

A Poem of the Margins, from the Margins


Magic Margin flickr photo by Theen … shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I am the ink-made marks
in the margins of the
text, the voice you’ve not
said out loud — not yet —
my comments and doodles
left like candy to the side,
all colored and sweet,
for my future self to complete;
I won’t hide them, these thoughts
tumbling from an active read,
and if the author ever notices
my presence on their page,
I’ll shout from this space:
I am here, I am here –
I build upon the idea
you left for me in there

This poem is part of my regular poetry writing, inspired by reading and interactions with others. This poem sprouted from other ideas about the margins of texts. You can read more poetry at the site where I gather my poems before they get lost. At least there, I know where they are.

Peace (left for you here),
Kevin

Springfield Armory Camp: Messing Around in a Maker Space

Armory Camp: Maker Space 3D ActivityYesterday was our first day of this year’s Springfield Armory Camp – a writing partnership that was first forged years ago between the National Park Service/Springfield Armory National Historic Site, the National Writing Project/Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and Springfield Schools/Duggan Social Justice Academy.

One of our activities was to consider the reasons why Springfield was chose (along with Harper’s Ferry) for a national armory by George Washington and other military leaders, and we used excerpts from a letter by General Henry Knox that explained the rationale — the nearby Connecticut River, the abundance of lumber and timber, the local community of experienced workers and the high plains bluff that overlooks the entire region.

HenryKnoxLetterActivity

We then had our campers work in small teams to create a 3D map of the main elements of Knox’s letter, visualizing how their community was chosen so many years ago to play a crucial role in the country’s history. It was fun to watch them plan out and try to build out these maps, with glue and paper and odds and ends of things. The resulting maps then helped spur some writing and some conversation about the geography of Springfield itself.

Peace (into Day Two),
Kevin

 

Waterfall Feldgang

I’m tinkering around with a digital story tool called Soundslides after a visit to Bash Bish Falls with some of my family yesterday morning:

Peace (in water),
Kevin

Comics for the End of School

School Ends: The First Impression

Over in another online space, I am working to make and share a comic every day for 100 days as part of a challenge. I don’t know how I will do it. But I am trying (I am on day 16!).

With the end of the school year (kids left yesterday but I still have today in the classroom), my comics were focused on those final, hectic days. I had a great class this year — sort of loud and most days edged on chaos on times, but overall, they were wonderful, and I will miss them, for sure.

School Ends: Too Loudand then …

School Ends: The Goodbye Classroom

Peace (in the frames),
Kevin

Help the Next Person Through the Dark (via poet Joy Harjo)


Espaces Vides (#03) flickr photo by lepoSs shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I love this final line from a poem by Joy Harjo, entitled For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in its Human Feet:

Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way
through the dark.

which completes this poem I discovered via Teach that Poem project (poems emailed every Monday), which shared the poem out as a suggestion to teach on the last days of a school year:

Peace (as school days end),
Kevin