Every day I arrive at school 45 minutes before my students. I check my e-mail and Facebook, peruse articles my friends have 3
posted, read over teacher blogs, and skim the headlines of the New York Times. I repeat my digital routine during lunch, after school,
and one more time at night before turning out the lights. Like most teachers in the Internet age, I confront a barrage of digital text,
images, and sound bites daily.
Navigating today’s world of abundant information and preparing for tomorrow’s requires literacy skills more complex than what
previous generations possessed. As educators, we have an obligation to prepare our students for the onslaught of information that
bombards them through their personal computer screens.
In the past, one of the primary reasons children attended school was to gain access to information. Prior to the Internet,
teachers—especially those in the content areas—had the specialized information and taught it, plain and simple. But those days are
over. Today, the Internet gives children access to more information than they can handle. Accordingly, content-area teachers have
new responsibilities. They must not just give students information but also, and more important, teach them how to sift through,
evaluate, and manage that information. In other words, content-area teachers must become literacy educators. Literacy instruction
can no longer be the exclusive domain of English language arts (ELA) teachers. All teachers must share in the task of teaching
literacy, especially Internet literacy. At the same time, ELA teachers must be given equal time to renew their other traditional role:
Literary reflection is perhaps more important in the Internet age than it has ever been. If we are to teach the whole child and
prepare students to be engaged citizens and competent workers, then we must teach them to step back and ask tough questions
about the information they sort through on a daily basis. Literature has always been a crucial tool that teachers can use to prompt
students to ask questions that allow them to think independently, creatively, and more critically. Literature challenges students to see
things from multiple perspectives or consider the ethical implications of people’s actions.
Furthermore, reading fiction is different from reading nonfiction because reading fiction does not have a particular end in mind.
When we read an online news article or a textbook, we look for specific information. But when we read a poem or a novel, we never
know what we may discover. We read for pleasure, and if the reading is good, we walk away with a new perspective. In turn,
engaging students in sustained literary reflection can prepare them to do more than just acquire information. It can train their minds
to see different angles and consider how information can be used or misused to make a difference in the world. And in our world,
thinking in such a way is desperately needed.
Schools must prepare students to not only manage information but also engage with information from multiple perspectives and
use information responsibly. Students need to practice reasoning to reach different conclusions and contemplating the consequences
of various courses of action based on the information available. Literature has been one of the best tools to promote such critical
thinking, and literary study should therefore remain an essential feature of a 21st century education.
In my own experience as an educator, the positive effects of literary study were never so palpable as when I taught a unit titled
Race Relations in the U.S. For the first week of the unit, I led the class in reading and discussing Toni Morrison’s short story
“Recitatif.” The story features two female characters, one black and one white, but there is no clear indication which character is
which race. As we read and discussed the story, students speculated about the characters’ respective races, and I challenged students
to reflect on their assumptions about race and identity. As we debated the characters’ races, we also contemplated why the two
protagonists interpreted their shared experiences in conflicting ways. Students wrote response papers in which they explained how
two different characters could have the same experience but walk away with very different conclusions.
Following our discussion of “Recitatif,” I guided students through an Internet scavenger hunt in which we searched for divergent
opinion pieces on race-related issues. Students analyzed the opinion pieces to discern how opposing pundits could contradict one
another using the same statistics. Having already had similar discussions as we read “Recitatif,” students were quick to point out that
facts are not enough to make an argument. Arguments are made when information is arranged and presented from a particular
Through the study of literature, my students practiced considering multiple perspectives and were thus prepared to understand
and deconstruct the journalists’ arguments. Because literary reflection formed the basis of the unit, students developed the
intellectual disposition to engage the nonfiction texts more critically and responsibly than they would have otherwise.