Reading: Screens or Paper?

We are a reading family.  It’s been that way since the words of Goodnight Moon and The Big Red Barn echoed through the house as our children were young.  One of my favorite memories of reading is in 2007, when the last Harry Potter book came out.  My son Ryan could not wait.  He was, after all, a classmate of Harry Potter.  He and Harry were almost the same age as Harry went through Hogwarts and Ryan went through Malibu High School.  Ryan turned me on to Harry Potter after I witnessed him read the first book for the fourth time.  “What is this book you keep reading?”  I asked.  “Only the greatest book every written about the greatest wizard ever,”answered my son.  I read it and was hooked too.
We were on vacation in Arkansas when the last Harry Potter book came out.  We had a big day planned on the boat at Greers Ferry Lake.  But on this day, reading was going to be part of our lake experience.  We were in Wal-Mart at 6 AM on the day it came out, and Ryan started reading immediately in the back seat as we drove toward the lake.  He finished around 11:00 AM and handed the book to me.  I finished around 6:00 that evening, and we talked the rest of the night about the book.  Yes, it was a little odd that we had our noses in a book in the midst of heat and beauty, but we took breaks, water skiing and swimming throughout the day.  But to share a book, love a book, and talk about a book is one great example of a life well led.
Ryan on Greers Ferry
Since I received my first iPad on Father’s Day 2010, I have become a digital reader as well as a paper reader.  I believe there are advantages to both, but at this point, I primarily read digitally.  My consumption of books has doubled since I became a digital reader.  My consumption of information has increased multiple-fold.  OK I’ll say it, I love reading on my iPad.  It has been a game changer for me.  I get that it’s not for everybody.  My younger son is a 12 year-old who loves paper books and his digital to paper ratio is probably 1:10.  I don’t judge.  I do question why the heck he thinks that way, but I have let it go.  For now.  The bottom line is : we all have personal preferences.
Naomi Baron recently published an article in the Huffington Post, Why Reading on a Screen is Bad for Critical Thinking.  It is based on her Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World book.  It’s an aggressive title on a critical topic.  The world of digital reading is still relatively new, and we have much to learn.  We are absolutely correct to study and learn about it.
Sometimes, critical reading is not at all necessary.  When I am reading about the Dodgers, reading a thriller book, or reading my Twitter feed, I certainly do not need to read critically all of the time. Scanning, reading for understanding, and then moving on is perfect for digital reading.  I don’t think anyone would question that.
But when I read for deeper understanding, there are certain  actions I must take, whether it be digitally or with paper.  I cannot read for understanding without writing while I am doing it.  When I am reviewing a dissertation, or when I am reading a book on leadership or learning, I want to make sure that (1) I truly understand what is being stated, (2) I think about how that impacts my learning and my life and (3) I remember what is most important in that reading selection.
Sometimes I will print out the document, and go at it with a pen in hand.  I am underlining, circling, taking notes, writing questions and completely engaged with the text as I read it.  When complete, I scan the annotated document back in to my Evernote account to make sure I can access it at any time.  So even when I read paper, I am at my best when I can access it digitally.
But more often, I will use digital platforms that support highlighting and annotating.  Highlighting could not be easier digitally.  You have a multi-color highlight set with you at all times.  Annotating takes a little practice, but again, it works beautifully in the right platforms.  If I cannot highlight or annotate easily (like with the Kindle or PDF Express apps) then I cannot read closely using a digital device.  But if I can, and in 90% of the cases I can, then that is what I most often do.  
The biggest advantages for digital reading for me are that (1) I can access a massive amount of information on demand, and (2) I have access to everything I have ever read, the text, my highlights and my annotation, anywhere, anytime.  That to me is a dream come true and I love living that dream.
If E-reading had existed back in 2007, the story of reading the last Harry Potter would have been a little bit different.  We would not have had to go to the store.  We could have woken up and purchased it immediately.  We could both be reading at the same time, stopping to discuss as we read along.  We could have shared ideas, both finished by noon, and played together the rest of the day, intertwining our play with conversations of the half-blood prince.  It was still a great day, but it could have been even better.
The questions asked in Naomi Baron’s article are spot on.  I wish the title could have been: Challenges in Reading on a Screen When It Comes to Critical Thinking.  The point I will most certainly concede is that if you cannot stay focused on digital reading, and you treat reading an important book or piece like you treat your Twitter feed, then book reading is the way for you.  I believe it takes practice and discipline, and I believe that ‘mere mortals’ are more than capable of achieving that discipline.
I don’t judge either way.  I do have a strong personal preference, and I know the way the world is going.  If we don’t learn to read critically using digital devices, then we are going to be in trouble.  Let’s acknowledge the challenges, and find ways to address them successfully.
Thanks for reading,
Mike Matthews

On Advanced Placement and Weighting

For the first time ever, we implemented a weighting policy in our high school. Advanced Placement classes will receive an extra grade point when we compute a student’s GPA. Students and parents may think it will provide an advantage in college admissions, but it won’t. We already do quite well in that area, and no student has been harmed by a lack of weighting. It will help a very small minority of our students who are trying to receive financial aid from seven or eight colleges in our nation. I resent the policies in those colleges, but I cannot change them. So we are now weighting.
One of my concerns and a concern for counselors and teachers in our high school is that we do not want this new weighting policy to encourage students to take more Advanced Placement classes than they should. We have read research on this, and the research contends that weighting grades is a reward for students taking AP classes, not an incentive for them to take more AP classes. We all hope that is the case.
Allow me to give you some of my thoughts about AP classes and student stress. First of all, I am a fan of well-taught AP classes. I taught AP US History for eleven years, and I loved it. I considered it to be a thinking and writing course using US history as the content. I strongly believe that any student who wants to go to a four-year college should take at least oneAdvanced Placement class during their high school career. Advanced Placement is as close as you will get to college rigor and it will give students a feel for collegiate rigor. When taught well, AP classes go far beyond memorization, instead focusing on writing, analysis and problem-solving. Right now, 57% of our graduates take and pass at least one AP class and exam before graduating. While that is wonderful, I would like to see that number be more like 70% or 75%. That is the amount of students that we see going directly to four-year college.
On the other hand, one of the biggest concerns that our counselors and I have is students who overdo it with Advanced Placement classes. It’s hard to define what “overdoing it” means.Students have different abilities and some are able to tolerate more than others. Using my version of common sense, taking one Advanced Placement class a year is excellent, taking two Advanced Placement classes a year is considerable, and taking three is really the equivalent of taking a full college load while also taking high school courses and all the activities that go along with that. In my mind, taking three AP courses is extreme. We have students who take four and five. I believe that is unhealthy and unwise, but I know some of our students and parents insist upon it. We do not have any rules at this time to stop it, but I know our counselors discourage students from overdoing it. I applaud their efforts.
I encourage students to take Advanced Placement classes in the areas that they are passionate about. If you know you are going to pursue liberal arts, take your AP classes there.If you are leaning towards the sciences, take your AP classes there. Or you can take my advice to college students on which college courses to take – find the best teachers you can and take their courses. Great teachers can make anything interesting. Students should choose wisely. They are giving up some of their own time by taking too many. And I want students to have as much time as possible that they can call their own.
I have mentioned before my appreciation for Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz (2015). He’s states, “We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes.” We should all encourage students to pursue their passions as much as possible while they are in school. What kind of passions am I talking about? Music, acting, arts, athletics, thinking, problem-solving, friendships, building anything, worthy causes, and any other great use of time. Our job as parents and educators is to help our students find and pursue those passions. We cannot do it for them. All we can do is encourage. And if they have no time of their own, there is no time to pursue those passions.
We will be analyzing our Advanced Placement numbers carefully. We will be watching in particular for new students taking at least one AP class. If that number increases, I will consider that a victory for all of the students and for the school. We will also stay vigilant in evaluating the number of students who are taking more than three advanced placement classes. If this number rises, I will consider it an unhealthy result of our weighting grades and we will have to consider how best to address that. In the meantime, let’s all encourage our students to find balance, and to find time they can call their own.
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews