literacy and learning in the digital age

It’s been an insanely busy week at work and it’s only Tuesday! Part of the insanity involved rushing through planning for a grant opportunity that we’re working on to improve and update our services for students, which led to my boss handing me a stack of books by James Paul Gee on gaming and learning. I don’t often post on the sort of reading I do as a professional, but I’ve been tumbling quotes from these books like mad and thought I’d share some thoughts.

Over the last two days, I sped-read my way through Gee’s Language and Learning in the Digital Age (2011), Good Video Games + Good Learning (2007), and Women and Gaming (2010). All three discuss how learning is changing and how video games can serve as learning models for instruction, skills development, and the creation of what he terms “passionate affinity spaces”–think maker spaces and gamer groups where people gather to talk shop about whatever they are interested in. Each of the books makes for great reading on the subject of gaming and digital literacy, but Language and Learning was by far the best of the three in my opinion.

gee1In one chapter, Gee discusses the kind of literacy that students encounter in school and why this fails to provide students with the kind of knowledge they need for the real world.

He identifies these as follows:

essayist literacy – the kind of literacy that involves writing essays and other formulaic written assignments. A literacy that is not encountered outside of school. When was the last time you wrote a 5 paragraph essay?

school content literacy – What is taught within a discipline as the knowledge of that subject area. Facts that are not often translatable to real life situations and are not practical/applicable forms of learning. Gee proposes that games can serve as a model for practical knowledge application (ie – Sims player learns about graphic design by playing with their avatar’s appearance), and suggests the need for a move away from content knowledge to knowledge based on problem-solving.

“School abstracts the content from the problems and we get students who can pass tests, but not solve problems” (Gee, 2011, p. 67).
“People need to be more adept at learning new things than storing old, oversimplified, sometimes false ‘facts’” (Gee, 2011, p. 67).

test literacy –The kind of literacy most students encounter today. Learning based on rote memorization and test-taking skills that are not applicable after high school. “Today’s tests often lead to knowledge and practices that are used nowhere else than in school” (p. 67). He notes, “too often we get students who have only (temporarily) retained a good deal of content in order to pass a test” (p. 68).

Gee also explores the idea of Passionate Affinity Spaces in detail and describes it as a new, out-of-school learning space where learning is part of popular culture. According to Gee, “Passionate affinity-based learning occurs when people organize themselves in the real world and/or via the Internet (or a virtual world) to learn something connected to a shared endeavor, interest, or passion” (p. 69).

People engage in the space in different ways and through varying degrees of engagement. No “professional” credentials are necessary, only interest in the subject and activity-based experience. Everyone can produce knowledge in the space and the groups are led through a system of flexible leadership and mentoring. Knowledge is shared by all and everyone contributes what they know.

As he described them, “affinity spaces are about sharing a common endeavor where people learn things, produce things or knowledge, and can, if they wish, become experts” (p. 71). These spaces, thereby lead to “‘systems thinking’ – being able to think about and work with others to deal with complexity and complex systems” (p.73).

gee2However, one of my favorite quotes comes from one of Gee’s other books, Good Video Games and Good Learning (2007), wherein he writes:

Beyond the traditional literacy gap–the literacy divide between rich and poor–there is another gap in education, one that implicated even the understandings of more privileged children in school. This is the gap between passing tests and really understanding. Lots of research has shown, for years now, that, in areas like science, a good many students, even those with good grades and passing test scores, cannot actually use their knowledge to solve problems. (p. 143)

Students are being taught to take tests. They are not learning the skills to make them competitive. They are entering college with poor literacy skills–they can’t write, articulate their thoughts into coherent, logical statements, or analyze information. I see this every day and can see the negative effect of the push for students to memorize and regurgitate “facts” over independent thinking. It has to change and Gee’s ideas serve as a thought-provoking introduction for anyone interested in taking part in that change.

Parisian Dreams


Paris in Love by Eloisa James

Eloisa James’s memoir of a year spent in Paris (with a few jaunts through Italy) beckoned from the library’s NYT Bestsellers display until I could stand it no more and just had to take it home… never mind the giant stack haunting me from the corner of my room, this book had to be read. Though I am not much of a memoir reader, I loved the idea behind this one–a memoir told through a collection of tweets, FB posts, and short essays. Bite-sized vignettes filled with Parisian details and slice-of-life encounters. It was the perfect escape during a stressful week. Amusing, funny, inspiring, and moving scenes result in a narrative that often made me forget I was reading non-fiction. Several laugh out loud moments (like when James mentions that a group of boys who were play-fighting with baguettes were pretending these were giant penises) even earned me funny looks from students as I read during my lunch break 😀 .

I also learned a few things about myself while reading…

Life Lessons I Learned While Reading Paris In Love:

  • I need to learn to make risotto. Especially as the boy has mentioned it more than once while watching MasterChef.
  • Parisian women have the best sense of style. I can only hope to emulate this.
  • I used to adore fancy underwear, when did I start to rely on plain cotton and satin? I need some lace!
  • The “Lemon Barley Chicken Soup” on page 136 must be made soon!
  • The boy and I also have trouble seeing eye-to-eye when it comes to money matters, but maybe we can make this work with time and patience.
  • I must one day see Paris as the French see it ❤

I have also just discovered that Eloisa James will be at the Miami Book Fair International… I must find a way to be there!


Becoming Jane

I was curious to read Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen and picked up a copy a couple of years ago when I saw it in the bargain section of the university bookstore. As I will generally watch anything Austen, I have watched the movie of the same name. I was not especially impressed by it and much prefer “Miss Austen Regrets” as a dramatization (if speculative) of Austen’s life and times.

This is the second Austen biography that I have read, and I much say that it will not be my first choice is asked to recommend an Austen biography (that one goes to Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life). Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it seems to me that Spence takes several liberties with the little that we do know about Austen. Firstly, I feel that this book should more rightly be titled Austens in Love as it seems to be mostly an account of the marriages (or lack thereof) of the members of he Austen family.

The movie “Becoming Jane” makes much of the relationship between Jane Austen and Tom LeFroy, as presented by Spence in this biography. Spence bases his exploration of Austen’s relationship with Tom LeFroy on comments made in Jane’s letters to Cassandra. There is little enough evidence to support or deny Spence’s claims regarding the extent of the relationship between these two, and I am not arguing that he is right or wrong in making such a claim, but I am not convinced by his conclusions regarding LeFroy’s influence on Austen’s works.

Continue reading

Jane Austen’s Letters

I finally settled in to read Jane Austen’s Letters this past weekend. I enjoyed the reading but my main pet peeve has to do with the edition that I own. It’s a white paperback published by Pavilion Press and features a black and white drawing of Austen on the cover. It was one of the few editions that I found that only included the letters–I have copies of all the books and Juvenilia, so I didn’t want lots of extra content–but I did not realize at the time that it only has the letters. But that’s what I wanted, right? Well, yes, but I would have liked some explanatory notes, perhaps a brief genealogy to keep all the family connections in order. I read Claire Tomlin’s Jane Austen: A Life last year and found myself having to refer back to it to remember who’s who, who lives where, and what happened when. Not a terribly frustrating experience, but it would have been nice to have it in the text.

I also did not care for how the letters were arranged. The first part of the text featured Jane’s letters to Cassandra, while the second part was arranged chronologically and included all letters written to other members of the family–mostly Jane’s brothers and nieces and nephews. I would have preferred to have all the letters arranged chronologically, for the sake of continuity.

Olivia Williams as Jane Austen in Miss Austen Regrets

But now that I have finished my complaint… I thoroughly enjoyed Jane’s letters to Fanny and Anna, her nieces. Her advice to Fanny on love is thoughtful and incredibly modern given the state of women at the time. Advising Fanny against too hastily accepting a match when she knows not her own feelings, she writes:

I am perfectly convinced that your present feelings, supposing you were to marry now, would be sufficient for his happiness; but when I think how very, very far it is from a “now” and take everything that may be into consideration, I dare not say, “Determine to accept him”; the risk is too great for you, unless your own sentiments prompt it.

Her letters to Anna have a more playful tone. Her letters to Fanny are as from a loving confidant, while her letters to Anna show a sense of affection and admiration for her niece’s literary efforts. The letters discuss Anna’s manuscript for a novel titled Which is the Heroine? and hint at Jane’s enjoyment of the story and her advice for bringing depth to the plot and characters. It makes me which Anna had actually finished and published the novel.

The letters to Cassandra revealed more of Jane’s concerns and daily life, her travels and visits, and the minutiae of home and dress. Though the relationship between the sisters is said to have been a close one, I found that the letters were less affectionate than the others written to friends and family. But we may never know what the missing letters would have revealed. Perhaps these were saved from the fire by virtue of their revealing so little?