When are we going to give students credit for all forms of reading?
Welcome to From the Teacher’s Desk, where we take turns further reflecting on our episodes and applications to the classroom.
I might have officially watched too much RuPaul’s Drag Race this summer…still worth it to start here with this week’s blog 🤓
We’ve all been taught reading is fundamental. Many of us became English teachers because we want to share our passion for literature. But what if we expanded the definition of literacy to more than books? How could this better serve a 21st-century classroom?
The History of Literacy
The word “literacy” can be traced back to the Greek language, where it literally translates to “alphabet letters.” To be literate is to be able to read and write, a skill most of us learn by age 6 in school or at home. I still remember the first book I read, an easy-read version of the Sleeping Beauty story.
Let me clarify a few things before I go any further:
I believe in the power of books in the hands of students.
But more than that, I believe in the power of story. The traditional plot diagram teaches us about the importance of facing conflict and acknowledging how it shifts or changes our daily experiences.
This is why I get frustrated when I hear people complain that “kids just don’t read anymore.” It’s true that younger generations are participating in all-time high screen exposure. But do we really need to police everyone’s GoodReads account for the perfect number?
Because the more time I spend around teenagers, the more I see a continued hunger for story and connection. It might not involve Shakespeare or Jane Eyre. But young adults are still turning to experiences and narratives outside themselves to feed their curiosity and imaginations. And if we divorce our classrooms from this world that teens have created through pop culture and the internet, we are missing out on a crucial opportunity to connect with them where they are already thriving.
So what if we changed the definition of literacy? What if it was less about the literal skill of language and more about the ability to retain and reflect on experience? What if real literacy was about the practice of empathy to make better citizens of the world? And what if this involved talking about more than books in our classrooms?
Literacy and Pop Culture
A lot of these ideas are the foundation of Sarah’s and my teaching philosophies. It’s where Lit Think came from. From my first year in the classroom, Sarah helped show me how we can bring the ideas from classics to life by reminding students how they still see these ideas and characters in their everyday lives.
And now we do this on our podcast, where we constantly look at the world through the elements of storytelling to better understand how all human experience is interconnected.
Let’s take a look at a list of some of the top media students invest their time and energy into outside of the classroom. When was the last time you considered anything on this list as enriching or thought-provoking?
Role-playing games (RPG) like It Takes Two, where you have to play with a teammate to process one couple’s broken relationship and prevent them from getting divorced
TikTokers like @mndiaye_97 who teaches you random facts about animals or @drjenniferlincoln who tells you everything you wish you’d learned in high school health class
Podcasts like Maintenance Phase that debunks diet culture in America or This is Love, a combination of every type and definition of love story that’s ever existed
TV shows like Bluey that models the joy of families playing together or Superstore, a sitcom that satirizes the life of retail store employees (in fact, this gif from Superstore says it all 😉)
Each of these pieces challenges its viewers to look at the world from a different angle, to try on a different type of narrative for a moment, and therefore to practice a wider mindset than one might have had before. Sounds a bit like the very reason teachers encourage students to read outside of class, no?
Where to go from here
The moral of this story is that education is better when it’s a bit messy. Give yourself permission to show a 5-minute clip from your favorite movie. Encourage your students to take a coloring break while you share an educational podcast episode for a class period. Transition your bell ringer into a TikTok that everyone watches and then discusses.
When you open up your arms to all the new ways we can create literary students, you are more actively inviting your students into the process. And you’re helping them develop a mindset they can take into the world after they graduate.
This is how we make humans who are ready to make a better world.
Believe it or not, all of these ideas came about from me watching Free Guy on Disney+ for the third time this summer. If you haven’t checked out our episode on Free Guy, you can listen to it here.
And get ready for new content from Lit Think soon! We’ll be dropping our first episode of season 3 in August, complete with a new template and all the pop culture lit thinking your heart could ask for! 🧠📚
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I remember being surprised when, as an inspector, I sat in on an English class and the teacher was explaining to the class how a typical soap opera works. I'd never thought about before, but it was brilliant: cliffhangers, multiple plot lines, and all made to look deceptively simple.