Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rutgers Scholar on Reading in the Digital Age

As we explore the role technology plays in early literacy development, we’re always on the lookout for cool happenings in the realm of kids books. Imagine our surprise when dotMomming stumbled across an undergraduate course being taught this summer at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, about learning to read in the digital age.

Titled simply Children’s Literacies, the coursework examines how literacy has expanded beyond the basics of reading and writing to include technological literacy as well. We reached out to Patrick Cox, who taught the summer course, is a Ph.D. candidate in the childhood studies program at Rutgers, and is clearly passionate about digital books and their effect on early literacy.

We'll devote the next many posts to exploring digital books and learning with Patrick.

DotMomming: Can you talk about the Rutgers course? Who was your audience? What were your topics? What did you hope to accomplish with the program?

Patrick Cox: The course is taught in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers. Previously, the only children’s literature courses taught on this campus were offered through the English department, a discipline that takes a particular approach to literature. My department wanted some sort of children’s literature course that approached the literature in a Childhood Studies sort of way, which meant, first, it had to be a multi-disciplinary course, and second, it had to keep “the child” at the center of the study in some way.

So in a very important way this course is a children’s literature course that deliberately includes media other than books: e-readers, toys, CD-ROMs, websites, transmedia texts, cell phone novels, vooks [combination of books and videos] – we even looked into stories told through clues on T-shirts! People are really doing some amazing things with how they tell stories. And children’s and young adult literature is leading the way.

I wanted students to end the course with a greater awareness of and appreciation for some of these other forms. But we also read novels, short stories, picture books, comic books, graphic novels, because none of these things have been replaced; they’re part of children’s literacies too.

On another level, the course is about literacy itself: how it has developed, why it’s been taught, what has the spread of literacy meant for our culture, how has it been used as a “gatekeeper,” and what has it meant for those who have been left out. So my students also read about cognitive development as children learn to read, pedagogical approaches in classrooms, educational theory, ethnographies conducted in schools, scholarly work on incorporating popular culture into literacy instruction, and popular writing from newspapers and magazines to get a feel for the general cultural discourse and controversies around these new forms of literature. We also spent a good deal of time discussing the role of the marketplace in new literacies.

The course is open to any undergraduate student at Rutgers, and I hope those majoring in Childhood Studies find it fits with the rest of their courses: a one-of-a-kind course in a one-of-a-kind department. That to me is very important: it should be a course people can’t find anywhere but here.

I always hope for a certain number of students to come from the Teacher Prep program as well, to bring their expertise to the classroom and, hopefully, think in a different way about their role and approach as literacy instructors. Also, the undergraduate population is not a bunch of 18-year-olds anymore. Most of them are older (some quite a bit older), and half of my students have kids of their own.

I love teaching parents, as a parent myself, exchanging new ideas and materials and hoping they leave the course with an understanding that there are multiple forms of literacy, multiple ways to teach children to read, that literacy instruction these days begins at home and at a very young age, and that it’s OK to have fun while doing it. Also that not having the latest technological device will not doom your child to a life of illiteracy.

I’ll be teaching [Children’s Literacies] again this fall and then again in the spring. Enrollment for the fall session is already at capacity!

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