Tuesday, November 3, 2009

End of the Line for Newspapers?

Today I had an interesting experience that brought center stage how much our world is changing from what it was when we were kids, to what it is for kids today. We can no longer take for granted that our kids know and understand things that we consider basic literacy and I’m not so sure that it is necessarily that much of a tragedy.

For those who don’t know, I teach reading/literature to middle schoolers as my day job. Right now we are working on a unit on expository reading. During this unit I teach my students, 7th and 8th graders, how to get the most out of reading expository and informational texts. Now this can range from better understanding their text books to how to wade through research sources for the right information to just being able to read the daily news and understand what is going on.

It was this last one that caught my attention today. For the first time I’m teaching “gifted” or advanced readers along side my average and struggling readers. It has been interesting. So today when I gave a mini-lesson activity involving reading a newspaper article that I expected to take no more than 10 minutes and wound up spending 30 minutes plus on it, I was dumbfounded.

My average and struggling readers who have been taking “reading” classes all along plunged right in. They took the stack of newspaper I had purchased that morning (and can we talk about the cost of newspapers? Wow…) found an article that interested them, cut it out, answered the basic questions on the worksheet, stapled it together, turned it in and were ready to go on. Average time, 10 minutes. So far so good.

My “gifted” kids floundered. This is the first time that our district has required “reading” be taken by those students who showed a proficient level. Prior to this, they had skipped reading and taken a foreign language. They didn’t know how a newspaper was divided, they couldn’t identify the parts of a newspaper article, couldn’t tell an article from a column from a letter to the editor from an ad. I was floored and frustrated. They’re eighth graders who can’t read a newspaper?

Then, on my long drive home I got to thinking. So what? Other than the fact that our lovely standardized tests will ask them to do such tasks, was it such a big deal that they couldn’t read a newspaper? As one of them said, “Who reads newspapers?” I spent my day teaching these kids a manufactured skill that they will not need except to pass some test. Boy was my day productive.

Our kids are living in a world that will most likely see the demise of the local newspaper and probably the demise of the printed daily newspaper. Magazines continue because they provide background and depth, but the daily newspaper is a dinosaur that is fast becoming extinct.

This makes me sad, on one hand. I know a lot of newspaper folks, people who work for or around newspapers. I myself spent a few months working as a copy editor/paginator. It was an interesting experience. Many of them are the last fish flapping in the drying up pond, trying to convince themselves that the rains will come again. But to be perfectly honest with ourselves, newspapers are out of date. The whole newspaper industry is the Amish cart and horse trotting along the road being whizzed past by the rest of the world-- romantic and nostalgic but not practical.


Molly Daniels said...

You're right; my teens watch the news only for the sports highlights and weather info. Sometimes they'll come home and tell me about a current event they learned while in computer class; two hours later, I'll see it on the news after they've showed it to me online.

My parents faithfully read the paper every day. I watch it on TV. My kids will use their PC's. What will future generations use, their phones? iPods? Technology is changing the way we get our information.

Anny Cook said...

I wonder how much detail we can absorb from the sound bytes on TV. It kind of bothers me...