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While quietly minding my own business in a bathroom stall at school recently, I overheard two of my students who didn't know, or perhaps didn't care, that I was there.
"Yo, dude, did you finish reading the novel for the English test today?"
"Me, naw, skimmed through it."
"Dude, you're screwed."
"Nope, I read summaries and analysis online. I haven't finished a book in two years."
Naturally, I was horrified. My horror turned to shock when, peeking through the crack, I saw that the book skimmer was one of my top students.
I teach English at the Crescent School in Toronto, an independent boys' school. For the past decade, I've joined many of my brother and sister English teachers lamenting the supposed decline of reading among young people.
Using all my creative powers, and motivated by genuine pedagogical paranoia, I've sought clever ways to bring my pupils back to their books. Surely, I thought, the world will descend into the seventh circle of Dante's Inferno if they don't.
Yet, despite good intentions and varied approaches by teachers, every year seems to bring greater apathy among students toward spending quiet hours engrossed in a book. Kids don't seem to be reading as much for pleasure; kids don't seem to be reading as much from their required texts; kids don't seem to be reading as much, period.
The cause, frustrated teachers agree, is the growing distraction of electronic media. We could include other modern distractions and compile a sobering list of factors that drive a wedge between children and the kind of close reading we identify as central to the educational experience.
Some people argue that kids are in fact reading more; they are just reading less, more often, and from an increasing spectrum of interest. Aren't they reading blogs, texts, tweets and Facebook pages, after all?
Though this is certainly true, the concern teachers have is about quality over quantity: Kids may be reading, but they are reading crap.
But are we ready for what some regard as a disturbing reality: that deep, prolonged reading is losing its relevance, and may be gone forever?
Students are surviving English class by sampling, scanning and browsing – precisely the same kind of reading they do on the Internet.
Staggering overstimulation has required young people to become excellent multitaskers. They're not alone; a glance in the direction of a modern office reveals work stations with two or three monitors, a desktop computer, a laptop and a mobile device being balanced by employees required not to do more with less, but more with more.
Where does this leave English teachers like me who desperately want their students to pore over the novels of Conrad, Austen and Dickens the same way they used to when mustache-beards were in?
Maybe we should be letting them do what they do best: browse and sample.
As soon as I assign my students a piece of reading, they begin searching for Web-based shortcuts. They read biographies on authors, commentaries on style and context, explanations of themes and conflicts. Just the sort of thing I want to be doing with them, but they beat me to it.
They don't know it, but this has enriched in-class discussions and layered their writing. Students may be reading only part of the text, but by nature they are driven to read around it, too.
Despite all my concern, they don't seem to be suffering; in fact, their writing and speaking is as good as or better than I've seen in previous years.
So, perhaps it is time to meet students where the new reality finds them – reading shorter pieces, more often. Traditionalists may furrow their brows, but steady improvements in provincial testing suggest students haven't reverted to cave-dwelling yet.
English teachers have held on to the 19th- and 20th-century novel with grasping, wrenching fingers. I've been one of them, and truthfully I'm not sure why.
The novel is a distinctly Western convention, and a new one at that – it arrived two centuries after the printing press. The Industrial Revolution increased leisure time, so longer pieces became more attractive – and writers benefited from being paid by the word.
While a teen's reading material 100 years ago might have been as narrow as a few books on a bedroom shelf, a student in my class today has an endless range of possibilities
Lately, in my own classroom, we have started sampling text. Instead of reading one novel thoroughly, we may read the first eight pages of several novels and examine the varying styles, content and perspectives. We then sample from deeper within the works, and compare the styles of endings.
Students are free to read in depth from the works that truly interest them, and they often do.
I recently sought out the reading shirker from the washroom incident to compliment him on an outstanding paper.
We chatted about his reading habits for a while before he said: "I read all the time, sir, but I haven't owned a book for years."
Like it or not, the digital natives entering our educational institutions seem to be ready for school. The question is: Are schools ready for them?
Robert Costanzo lives in Toronto.