Engaging Texts

I found this post by Will R. of Weblogg-ed quite interesting. He states that textbooks present content that students cannot interact with, content that cannot be engaging because it does not invite participation. I have been thinking about this problem for quite some time. In fact, my previous post shows that, as a teacher, I have been thinking about allowing my students to create content and not just absorb it. Will is right. Textbooks do not invite participation. To those of us who have moved our classroom into the digital realm, textbooks and print in general, seem outdated. They continue to enforce the transmission model of education. They symbolize neatly compartmentalized knowledge.

I want my students to compose their own textbooks and become content producers but, at the same time, I do not want them to lose respect for print. I do want them to see that there is room for engagement, that we want them to interact with text, that the best way of responding to and learning about Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, is to annotate passages, start peer discussion groups, leave digital marginalia in the margins of the electronic text of the play. Do we have the technology to accomplish these goals? Perhaps we're not there yet. But we can digitize old respected content and use blogs as sites of negotiation and engagement with ideas, we can use wikis to annotate electronic texts and start discussions around specific passages. These technologies have provided us with the ability to interact with text. Digital technology has turned print into something we can play with, into knowledge that can be rewritten, rearranged, decompartmentalized.

This isn't about forgetting the value of old texts. It's about ensuring that they do not remain known to our students as merely "old texts" or "big books." A copy of Hamlet that my students cannot interact with, cannot annotate and share online, is more likely to remain just an old dusty text, remote and irrelevant. I am confident that if we give them a chance to interact with texts, attach notes to specific lines, create discussions around ideas and link them to original passages, our students will discover the relevance of these old books in their lives, they will forge their own paths through these challenging texts and arrive at their own conclusions.

This will prepare our students to relate to new information structures and abandon our old visual bias. McLuhan, once again, helps to elucidate the changes that are happening around us:

Western (visual and sequential) man now discovers himself habitually relating to inforation structures which are simultaneous, discontinuous, and dynamic. He has been plunged into a new form of knowing, far from his customary experience tied to the printed page. In the same way that the sense of hearing apprehends details from all directions at once, within a 360-degree sphere, as it were, in a manner similar to a magnetic or electrical field; so knowing itself is being recast and retrieved in acoustic form. As such, by the next century it will destroy all existing forms of school structures. (Marshall McLuhan & Bruce R. Powers, The Global Village).