I started cooking-cooking about a month after I started teaching middle school in North Las Vegas. Teaching–especially at first–was this eat-you-up, take-no-prisoners type of work. Cooking meant that I spent several hours thinking about something else. How to release garlic from its skin, how to sear meat, make gravy, fry tissue-paper thin German pancakes. Setting off the occasional smoke alarm or discovering a lurking bug on an a head of organic broccoli seemed happily trivial when compared with students, high-stakes testing, administration. I learned through cookbooks and cooking magazines and spending a little too long reading produce labels at the grocery. I occasionally watched an online tutorial (or, in the case of egg-poaching, three or four tutorials) and searched the web for recipes. All this cooking coincided with a push, in Nevada at least, to train students in ‘functional’ literacy. We were supposed to teach them how to read remote manuals. Warranties. Applications. And even recipes. This was an especial priority in classes where students were performing below grade level. The focus of our instruction was reading ‘skills’–not content. Someone–the omnipotent force in curricular decisions–decided that these sorts of skills would transfer from one text or genre to another.
About the same time, enthusiasm for digital literacies and new media practices was sweeping through the Clark County School District (and the rest of education world?). New reading techniques! Multi-modality! AMAZING textual features! Blog about the atmosphere! Tweet about Shakespeare! Within the span of three years, my class acquired access to a departmental laptop cart, I got an LCD projector, a smart board, audio enhancement, a responder system (where every child gets a clicker), and lots and lots of technology training. Functional literacy instruction attached itself to this digital ship–an insidious barnacle. After all, in our NEW! i-World, what literacy is more practical, more functional, more engaging, than digital?
Let me append: I think that digital literacy practices are valuable, necessary, fascinating . . . But, I get caught on the nagging-issue of content. If I taught my students to read culinary blogs or cookbooks, for example–which each contain a wonderful array of textual features and cooking / literacy instruction scaffolding–would that help them read anything else? I say, tentatively-nervously-warily, “No.” Whereas I think a student who can read Huckleberry Finn will have the literacy skills to decode that sticky-bun recipe or the latest entry on navigate robotics blog entry, I don’t think that a student will necessarily transfer their tweet-reading skills to a piece of literature. My technology-rich classroom remained rich in struggling readers.
Over the holidays, I got the chance to ask some relatives this question: Were you ever taught to read a cookbook? All the ladies I asked are good readers and good cooks–all use cookbooks frequently and display their collections in various cupboards around their kitchens. They range in age from 50-85. All of them answered the same way: “No. I just learned.” And the more surly amongst them gave me the stink-eye for asking a question that seemed too gosh-darn silly to merit a response.
So, I suppose that’s what I’ve yet to figure out. What is essential about digital literacy practices? What is new? Where do they belong in the curriculum? How has functional literacy been acquired in the past? How do literacy skills transfer between digital and print-based texts? . . . And, more immediately, what to make for dinner?