George Lucas Educational Foundation

Common Core and Print

February 8, 2013
Photo credit: dsevilla via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Ten years from now, maybe sooner, you'll be able to find this article and laugh at its concept. Defending print -- how 20th century. As more schools move towards 1:1 computer-to-student ratios, as textbooks become digital and periodicals move online, it will become increasingly rare for students to avoid the glare from computer screens. However, my experiences in the classroom have shown that students can benefit tremendously from reading physical copies of print media.

For my students, newspapers have become our connection to the outside world and to print. Every day, 15 new copies of the "Gray Lady" are delivered to our school. By 8:00 in the morning, these copies of The New York Times are torn open by my students, dissected, shared, written about and debated. We call what we find in the paper "serendipitous discovery," and over the course of a semester we have traveled via the pages of The Times to the far corners of the world. My English co-teacher, Sarah Gross, and I chronicle our exploits with newspapers and our students on The New York Times Learning Network where, on Fridays, we publish Common Core-aligned writing prompts used in our classroom.

Advocating for Print

It's not to say that we couldn't have accomplished thorough readings of newspapers electronically. We just know our students read more effectively with these machines turned off. E-reading is obviously the trend in education as more and more computers and tablets are purchased by school districts throughout the country.

Even newspapers seem to think this is certainly the case. In late January, The Boston Globe announced it was using $65,000 in donations from reader vacation funds to buy 75 iPads for students along with digital subscriptions to the paper. Their goal, according to Globe executive Robert Saurer, is to turn digital kids into digital adults. The Globe is in essence waving a white flag by giving up printed newspapers in schools. Indeed, Saurer admitted as much when he said, "We didn't really believe that a 10- or 15-year-old reading print in school is going to continue on later to be a print reader in their 20s and 30s." Executives at The Globe feel that electronic editions of the paper are more cost effective and have a greater chance of hooking a student population increasingly reliant on their devices.

Before we bury our books, magazines and newspapers, as an advocate for print, I would like to press pause on education's electronic obsession. As teachers, we find that our students concentrate better, read with greater clarity, and analyze text more critically when reading with physical copies of books and newspapers. If you just think about the steps necessary to read an article on an iPad, you would come to this same conclusion. Students have to log onto a website, bypassing the temptation of email and social media accounts, navigate through vast amounts of online content and advertisements, and then focus on an article that more often than not is accompanied by some advertising animation for desirable singles in the area. Even 14-year-olds who are able to get through all this still have to resist the temptation of other websites and games available on their device with the touch of an icon. We've found that these roadblocks will trip up even the best students. They trip me up whenever I open my laptop. With print copies of the paper, for about 30 minutes every day, our students are able to learn the way humans have learned for centuries.

Meeting the Standards

With the implementation of Common Core Standards and their emphasis on informational texts, school districts are at an ideal time to incorporate print media into their curricula. While the efforts of The Boston Globe are certainly commendable, I think teachers need to find a balance in their classes between print and computers.

We have opened every class this year with a New York Times article and related prompt that students write freehand in their journals. After everyone is done writing, we choose students to read their work to the class. Halfway through the year, our freshmen students have written and discussed about 75 essays. As a result of this daily focus on reading nonfiction and writing in response to argumentative, informative and narrative prompts, we have witnessed greater gains in our students' writing, analytical thinking skills and confidence than we have ever experienced before in over two decades of combined teaching.

In an attempt to measure this progress, we decided to give our students an essay we used in a previous year before we started using The Times. Our average score for all 72 students on this essay went up by 1.5 points compared to the other class. We also saw gains that we didn't measure on our basic rubric, like higher-level transitions and more complex analysis of the material. We know these gains are from our daily critical reading and writing of nonfiction presented the old fashioned way -- in print.

The One and Only

The 2012 Newbery Medal for outstanding children's literature was recently awarded to Katherine Applegate for her tale The One and Only Ivan, about a gorilla who moved from solitary captivity at a mall to a new life at a zoo in Atlanta. How did Applegate get the idea for her book? Twenty years ago she cut out an article from The New York Times entitled "A Gorilla Sulks in a Mall as His Future Is Debated," and tucked it away in her ideas file. Two decades later, she wrote a book based on this long-kept article about a gorilla. You can't do that with a story read on an iPad.

So please keep using computers in your classes; they are essential for students. But remember to set aside some time for the printed word. We could never teach again without it.

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  • Assessment
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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