Thursday, February 3, 2011

I Rant/Review Two Websites

Context: this response was the full response from an assignment given to go to two websites and look around, then report our findings. It turned into much longer than seemed appropriate as a reply on our class google site, so I blogged it! (And why anytime I say the word or variants of the word 'blog' I do so in an excited 'new caaar' Oprah voice?)

Anyways, here's what I found looking through two websites, and

I really liked, and think it’s a great idea to basically compile so much of the information that is out there, and then add in their own. Seems like a great tool, but I have some concerns. To me, it seemed at times more like a site to teach writing, not reading. As a writer I really enjoyed a lot of the video clips, and found the bit on journaling to be a great thing for kids to learn about, but how does that help a students reading of a book? How does a picture of the author, reading their blogs, watching them talk about their writing process, actually inform a reader?

When was firmly about the books and informing reads of the books, I found it to be amazingly helpful. But often, in my opinion, it seemed to get too far away from the books themselves, which is a trend I’ve noticed. It used to be the books were the focus, but more and more it seems the authors become celebrities, their doings become the news, their opinions about their book or process become the ongoing affect of their books. This is great for student-writers, but first I feel it’s important to teach people to actually read, which I find is being cut out of our overly-glamorizing of authors and the craft of writing.

Which leads me to I’m confused. I kept trying to find how this fit in with the other website, and how it could be used as a teaching aide. I searched by ‘author’ and realized it was searching users of the site, not authors of books, but authors of user-submitted fan fiction. At first I thought the site was called “fanfiction” as a bit of a blunder by some librarian or teacher’s group that didn’t realize what ‘fan fiction’ actually was, and meant it to be ‘fans of fiction.’ But nope, the site is filled with user-submitted stories using characters, settings etc, from published works. (and I understand what fan fiction is, which is why I was so disappointed, I guess).

And searching ‘story’ revealed user-submitted stories, ugh, no thanks. I finally, by browsing, found all these ‘stories’ were divided into categories of real books, so browsed those. Ah, finally I came to some actual book titles I recognized, and clicked on them. And there was a ‘reviews’ button, so neat, maybe it’s kids giving reviews of these books I recognized! Nope, it’s ‘reviews’ of the usually terribly written stories ripping of the original book cited.

I forced myself to read several entries (after starting to read several more and needing to stop), and comments, and I’m not sure how this will at all inform me as a teacher of English, or a writer, or a reader. They were mostly dreadfully written ‘stories,’ filled with vapid reviews with comments akin to ‘realy grate I luv it!’ Not sure I’m seeing the connection to teaching/informing young readers or the site (which does teach and inform), or maybe that’s the point?

I kept hoping to find the ‘real’ section of; the one where when searching I could find something more than user submitted hack-jobs and vapid replies. I never found it though, and the only connection I can make to the material in this course and, is the way all the focus is getting shifted from the actual text and story in the books to the authors and writing. It seems to be creating an environment where EVERYONE wants to be a writer (and thinks they are), but not everyone seems to be actually reading, much less studying what they read.

I hope to someday teach fiction writing at various levels, and already in my studies and learning I’m finding this to be one of the biggest problems: everyone wants to be a writer, nobody a reader. But how can you be a good writer without being a good reader? Why does it no longer seem okay for the actual book to be the experience? I read Where the Red Fern Grows as a kid, and the book is still with me and moves me to this day, and I have no clue who the author even was. It doesn’t matter than I know that author’s process, or see him/her speaking about the importance of some social matter, or learn via twitter that the author loves pecans. The actual book, the story, gave me everything I could ever want, but I feel that’s being lost.

These days books aren’t about reading, and not even about the books anymore. My nephew, when he was ten, was caught up in the first wave of Harry Potter hysteria. I was so pleased, as he was never naturally inclined toward books… but then after talking with him, I realized he wasn’t really reading as a reader. He was reading so he had plot-points to discuss on the playground, reading so he could get a sneak preview of the movie, reading so that he was one of the cool kids that could claim he’d read the book, then wait for the movie or crowd into a book store to buy the next book during an over-blown book-release party.

But where was the actual reading? I read the first book in the Harry Potter series to have something to talk with him about, but when I asked him what he imagined things looked like I got shrugs and told he didn’t want to ruin the movie by thinking up things on his own. When I asked how Harry felt at certain points, I was met with more shrugs, as he’d rather tell me instead about J.K. Rowling, what she said about the next book, when she said the movie was going to come out, how she wrote on napkins. It wasn’t reading, it was only vaguely book-related social-positioning.

And so too do I see this again with the two sites we’re explored. One seems a very reputable and amazing resource for teachers, readers and writers. But even on we start to see the tendrils snaking away from the texts, away from the stories and characters, toward something else. Toward author sites (that are as much marketing as informative), toward the process of writing, toward author’s becoming a part of the process of enjoying a book. These tendrils in and of themselves aren’t bad, or evil, but seem to me to be the start of readers going in a dangerous direction (if you believe not reading is dangerous, as I do), the focus shifting further and further away from the actual things we read.

Is it important to connect with the authors? Is it important that books are becoming a social phenomenon? Is it important that kids, more than ever, seem to be writing? Yes, it’s all amazing, great, absolutely important. But there’s a time and a place. And a cost. Reading seems to be a dying art form, yet in my opinion a vital one not only for writers, but for people of a compassionate and informed society. There are more things to read than ever, and more writers, but are there really more readers? Are kids reading just to get a sneak peak at the movie? Are kids reading just to know what the other kids are talking about, so they can revel in basic plot points to fit in? Are kids reading just so they can fuel their own fan-fiction writing (that in most cases could benefit from a lot more reading, before putting pen to paper). Are kids actually reading anymore? Like really reading?

People used to not only hear stories, but listen. People used to not only watch movies, but see them. And I wonder if kids these days really are reading books—experiencing and internalizing and being moved by stories—and not just... well, there’s not even a word for when a person flips each page, looks at each word, but doesn’t truly read a book, but my fear is in a few years we’ll need just such a word.


  1. Hmmmm--I thought I'd posted a response earlier. It isn't appearing. It was brilliant--I hope I can recapture it.

    I've worked for so many years to try and get kids reading that I've learned to take advantage of any toe-hold I can find. If kids read Harry Potter just to keep up with play-ground dynamics I'll use that to get started. I think teachers, parents, and other adults all need to take advantage of these opportunities to help develop reading abilities. We need to scaffold to the next step.

    But, overall I agree with the idea of trying to stay within the covers of the book (or edges of the screen). Authors often talk about being amazed by the conclusions critics and reviewers draw from their books. On the other hand, I've had years of literature courses in which teachers/professors have required that I study the author and the historical period to fully appreciate a work of art. Sometimes it helps. I've never fully appreciated English Romantic poetry. But, reading about the poets and the historical period did bring me a little closer to being able to read the works. I do think your question deserves careful consideration.

    About fanfiction. Now that you're over the shock of it all I wonder if you might think about it again. It may help you to read a little "new literacies" academic work. The BSU library has and ebook "New literacies : everyday practices and classroom learning" by Lankshear and Knobel. In Chapter 4 "New Literacies as Remix" they talk about fanfiction and they ways in which teachers have used such sites to help refine literacies among students. I agree with you that you have to be a reader to be a writer. I think the reverse is true as well--to really read well you need to also write. So, fanfiction is an opportunity to scaffold students into writing. As you can see they are very motivated to post their products.

    I'll be interested in your on-going thinking here.

  2. Gah, blogger just gave me an error and deleted my reply too. Damn technology, I guess we're both having to recapture the magic.

    I read a ton now, but as a kid I didn't. I hated it. But, in school we were required to and I had teachers that made the reading interesting and relevant. It built first the practices of reading, then the appreciation. Maybe kids are different these days, but I keep hearing fellow future-educators fall back to the ‘at least kids are reading something’ sentiment, which I don’t think is healthy.

    I believe school and education is to expose students to new things they don’t already undestand (which means they don’t already know they like). Show them the door to being a reader, open it a bit for them, and if they wish they can walk through.

    The problem I see, I suppose, is that phenomenon reading like Harry Potter or Twilight let people (kids especially) seem as if they’ve walked through the door to being a reader. Then, I see parents and teachers give a sign of relief; at least they’re reading something. I question if a lot of them really are, though. Like 'real' reading.

    And it’s tough to make judgments on what ‘real’ reading is and isn’t, but I think there are distinctions that can be made. In my fiction classes we don’t study things we like, we study things we can learn from. So too with most English classes I can ever remember (or maybe that’s changed now, I am pretty old).

    Pleasure reading is good and important too, but was always separate. And I wonder how many kids are being let off the hook from difficult reading, and being given easy, pleasure reading, with the 'at least they're reading something' sort of reasoning.

    With classics, I definitely see more benefit in studying the authors just as much, because whether anyone likes it or not, most classics have to be taken with the history and time period to fully understand. I'm not convinced that's necessary with more contemporary works, as the historical aspects are established enough yet to even have a context.

    Having the writer involved can be good, of course, but usually only if the writer is in the capacity of a teacher, not just the writer. (Sorry, but I don’t care what JK Rowling’s favorite color is, though I’ve seen kids who think it’s quite the exciting literary news).

    Fanfiction in and of itself doesn't shock or offend me. I’m just having a very hard time figuring out how it actually fits into teaching English, whether writing or reading. I think I'm dubious because the more I learn about educating, the more I see (and hear about) what I consider short cuts. To me it falls into the 'at least they're doing something' category, which I'm not comfortable with.

    I guess I don't understand why students need baited into reading or writing. Maybe because I never did, so my perspective is different than most students. To me pleasure/phenomenon reading and personal writing (which fanfiction seems to me to be) are great, and the kinds of things students do when they're motivated to do 'more' than just what's required. And meanwhile, the 'real' reading and writing still need to be done (and I hope is still getting done). Hopefully teachers can find new and interesting ways to keep it relevant.

    [continued below, sigh]

  3. It worries me that I’ve heard so many future teachers and parents fall back on the ‘at least they’re doing something’ reasoning, which to me sounds like giving up. Students won’t pay attention to something like Lord of the Flies anyway, so why bother trying to make them, why not just let them read something they like, as then at least they’re reading something.

    Of course, everything ever comes down to balances and moderation. There’s obviously enough room for all types of writing and reading, in all settings and situations. I just fear the swing too much into either direction, really.

    And I think media is to blame, in part (of course). I don’t believe it’s all as dire as it sometimes sounds, that no kids were reading anything, so thank God Harry Potter saved literacy. Just don’t buy it, and long before I wanted to teach, or was writing or even reading heavily, I saw it as a lot of BS. But I think it’s BS that has actually planted seeds in the minds of teachers and educators, and I think it’s dangerous. Sure, kids need pleasure reading and writing too, but isn't the point of education to expose kids to things they may not already know and understand? Fitting in too much pleasure reading and writing, means something else gets pushed out, doesn't it?

    And thanks for the comments. You recaptured well! And I appreciate the dialogue, as I think it’s how people learn and we need more of it! And I'll definitely check that book out, thanks for the direction there.