My wife recently rediscovered her grandmother’s copy of The Scarlet Letter. The edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1892. My first thought was, “We’re rich!” It turns out that an 1892 edition is not worth a lot, however. First editions of the book have some value, but first editions are from 1850. This led to my second thought: “This book was written a long time ago!” And that led to these questions:
- Why is this book still a part of the curriculum in many high schools? Has nothing been written in the last 169 years that has as much or more value than this book?
- Are we doing unto others what has been done unto us and missing a bigger picture?
- Is there anything about today’s world that demands teaching something other than what has always been taught?
- Should the definition of well-educated evolve? It used to be that being well-educated meant being familiar with The Scarlet Letter and other texts in the traditional literary canon. Should there be a new definition now?
- Has the virtual learning forced upon us by the pandemic increased the urgency to rethink how we teach reading?
Talking like this can cause some upset. I once posted a blog on a site for an educational organization and asked, “Should we think about dropping The Scarlet Letter and updating our instruction?” Let’s just say it didn’t take me long to find out how snarky some people can be. One person said she was going to cancel her membership to the organization. The organization wasn’t responsible for the post, but she was appalled that they allowed it to be posted even though I only asked if we should consider making a change. Don’t touch the literary canon! Yes, some are challenging the white-male aspect of the canon, but we aren’t challenging the book-centric nature of the canon, leaving us stuck with an antiquated idea of what reading is and how it should be taught.
We Must Redefine Reading Instruction
Overwhelmingly, we teach ink-on-paper reading. We obsess over how to get students to read more books. We want them to read poetry. Those are noble goals but are not sufficient to prepare students for the reading they do today. Less than 20% of teens have reported reading books, magazines, or newspapers daily in recent years. Does that mean they aren’t reading? Nope—they are reading online. According to one study, the average 12th grader spends about six hours a day using digital media, with about two hours devoted to each of these: texting, surfing the Internet, and using social media. Those numbers were from the before times. With access to print now diminished by COVID, reading on devices is the norm. Who is teaching students how to read online?
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