Their screens were motionless. The group of six adolescents brave enough to put themselves in the center discussion circle barely scrolled through the electronic text they were discussing. If they’d been considering Wordsworth’s “The World is too Much with Us” the immobility would have been understandable – fourteen lines easily fit on one screen. But today, we were on Hamlet. HAMLET. I promise you, I am not such a great teacher of Shax that my students have memorized the order of events, much less specific lines from the play with which to back up their various responses to and arguments about the big questions the play poses. Not even close.
I sat in the outer circle, taking notes on the validity of arguments and other general skills and their motionless screens kept tickling at the back of my skull. I found myself wanting to say something about being a good reader, marginal notes, annotating texts – old school, teachery kinds of things.
But I held my peace because it was at least the third time in as many months that I have stumbled across this same problem. The problem of how to undo all the years of teaching people to be good readers on paper, while many of the tests we use to keep data on people’s educational progress and academic prowess are computerized.
I’m not talking about just the GRE and GMAT level exams for admission to graduate school, but also other (very respected) standardized tests used to track the academic progress of students at levels from the tiniest of first grade scholars all the way up to college graduates. Tests in which reading passages are not manipulable on the computer screen (you can’t highlight lines that seem important, much less make marginal notes). In most cases, the test taker can have a piece of scratch paper, but given the time-pressure factor, that little piece of paper seems at best useless at worst a distraction.
I used to show students how I use flag post-its to keep track of quotes I thought were important or revealing in a text. When working with a copy of a text, or textbook that belonged to me, I showed them how to make notes in the margin to remind them of their thoughts, reactions, and questions at the time of reading. I can’t say that these skills are totally useless even in our shiny, stainless steel digital era. Luckily, many of the texts we work with are available in PDF format, which allows many of these “analog” note taking strategies to continue to be useful. Really, as long as a text can be found in PDF form or converted to PDF, we can still use all the same old strategies for being good, thoughtful, critical readers with only minor alterations in the strategies.
But come test-taking time (or in the reading of Internet texts – articles, blogs and websites), these strategies are virtually useless. How does a test taker effectively keep notes on what he or she reads on a computer screen that they cannot mark? On a piece of scratch paper to one side of their mouse and keyboard. If the test taker is smart, he will include line numbers or paragraph numbers by each note he jots down. Nevertheless, these notes are not WITH the text that prompted the thought in the first place. Re-connecting the thought in the note with the text (imagine yourself switching back and forth from the text on the screen to the notes on your page – the Tazmanian Devil plays tennis) seems to me a most Herculean effort.
Is it nobler, then, to teach using etexts? Will we grow to keep track of our thoughts and where we had them in a text “by heart” in order to excel at the exams we must take to move forward toward our long-term educational goals? Will we insist that exam makers create exams in which the old analog styles of marginal notes and annotation can be performed on their digital texts? Or should we face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the only arms at our disposal the vagaries of flawed memory and analog note taking in the face of a test running at digital speeds? I find myself, like Hamlet, stuck between forms. We are much too digital, but not nearly digital enough.
While our strategies for teaching students to be good readers catch up with all that is being demanded in the digital age, I will continue to search for good PDF versions of texts, or apps that allow a reader to leave a post it in the text of a website. Until the two sides – analog test taking versus digital test taking – catch up with each other, my students’ discussions of texts will be tied either to analog (paper) texts or the PDF versions I can find online. I will show them the tools available, and trust to their ability to integrate new technology quickly. Meanwhile, in my head, all is far from Hamlet’s coveted silence.