Library Books versus Gaming

A blog post describing a teacher’s personal reservations about allowing students certain types of technology use, on a blog site that promotes technology and libraries may seem paradoxical, but here it goes. By the way, my name is Michael Westfall and I’m a media information specialist in a Chicago public elementary school and a Dominican University LIS graduate student. A big thank you to Michael Stephens for allowing me to get my voice out there. So here is my issue: I don’t like kids playing games on the computers in my library because I feel it is at the expense of the reading of books.

I’m not anti-computer, a killjoy, or a raving modern-day Luddite. I will admit to a little technophobia, but I really do enjoy working with my students on computers. We’re very fortunate to have a fully functional computer lab within our school library, and this year we’ve learned to make Power Point presentations in fifth and sixth grades, used clip art and word art in documents starting in third grade, and have begun typing in first grade. This type of engaged time on a computer is different for me than playing games because working in Power Point, Word, and Excel produces tangible products, something I can view, enjoy, and assess. The tangible product doesn’t exist after playing a game. In the give-and-take spirit that pervades modern day teaching, I have begun to allow game playing as a reward in the last few minutes of library time. I don’t force kids to check out books, but encourage it as strongly as I can. But frequently those books still sit there, ignored and untouched (especially by those in fifth grade and up), waiting for the attention I so strongly feel they deserve.

At heart I am a book person. It’s why I chose to leave general classroom teaching and become my school’s librarian. I’ve worked hard to find and add to the collection books that kids request or show an interest in, and I have been heartened by the reactions of many students to this throughout the year. But beneath my game racism – my gamecism – is a fear. What frightens me is that many of my students have significant difficulty reading and comprehending text online, whether it’s a Wikipedia entry, an advertisement, or even detailed directions for a game. Many of them just don’t seem to get that to use the internet you have to read. To me, this is life skills reading that in importance resides alongside being able to read street signs, food labels, and directions for how to assemble furniture from IKEA or Target. I believe my personal conflict raises a serious question: how to fully use limited school library time on two very different activities – building reading comprehension skills through engagement with books, or fostering the strategizing, problem-solving, and collaborative skills that gaming is supposed to aide in developing.

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7 thoughts on “Library Books versus Gaming”

  1. This is a 6 A.M. comment so take it for what it is. But here is my response:

    If your main concern is students learning to read, my suggestion would be to have students *earn* their game playing time in the library by doing a scavenger hunt in books or having a Book It program (like the Pizza hut one) where students have to read and report in some way their reflection about the book. Somehow it seems as if the two need to be combined.

    All that I ask is that you don’t dismiss gaming as a means to gaining pivotal skills. Like you said, the skills learned through gaming are intangible, but in my own experience, I believe gaming has, in some ways, made me more capable with a computer; it has given me greater hand eye coordination; and has allowed me a sense of confidence that when I try something new I’ll be able to get close to mastery within a shorter amount of time and without formal education. Again, intangible – but to me it seems as if their intrinsically tied.

    ~Kyle~

  2. Two things.

    1. The decline that you note in your students’ reading skills – is that new? You don’t tie it directly to gaming, but rather to the internet, so I’m curious if a different issue is at play here. After all, I know my teachers said the same thing about my generation because of television, yet I turned out fine.

    2. I believe that there are tangible skills, especially reading skills, involved with gaming. In fact, I would argue that a large number of children learn to read (quickly), analyze what they’ve read, and then act on it. Would you feel differently if “gaming” meant learning physics by playing “Rollercoaster Tycoon,” economics by playing “Zoo Tycoon,” or history by playing “Civilization?” Does your opinion change if it’s a board game? A card game? Dungeons and Dragons? Do you attach literacies to those games that you don’t apply to video games, or is all gaming inferior to books?

    I’m not trying to be confrontational by asking those questions – I’m truly curious to hear your answers.

  3. Your second comment, Jenny, really made me think about why I feel the way I do about gaming and whether my views are valid. I had hoped that would happen when I wrote the blog. I don’t view all gaming as being inferior to books. But, I do view board and card games differently than computer games because of the direct interpersonal contact they require. Building this level of face to face cooperation among younger kids is vital. When it comes to computer games, we elementary/middle school educators tend to rely a lot on sites like Funbrain that are deemed “kidsafe,” but so many of the games there that the kids seem to gravitate toward are of the run-jump variety that don’t require much higher order thinking. I have not tried some of the games you listed that would require higher order thinking skills (Roller Coaster Tycoon, etc.). Perhaps that would be a logical next step for me to take to bring gaming into the picture in my library.

    In my post I didn’t mean to insinuate that the gaming and internet use is causing a decline in reading skills. What I meant is that many of my students already are below grade level in reading skills and I feel that the limited time that I see them in the library should be focused on building reading skills, though I now see that higher-order thinking games might be able to help in that endeavor. I only see my students for 40 or 80 minutes per week in the library, depending on grade level, so time is precious. Since I also have the computer lab, I am expected to also teach general computer skills (word processing, research, etc.). That’s a lot to fit in during a short class period. And lastly, as much as I hate to write this, thanks to the “wisdom” of our federal politicians who passed No Child Left Behind, the success of students and schools, even the existence of schools in extreme cases, is now based on test scores, make that one annual test score. There is a huge amount of pressure on elementary teachers to focus on helping students build the skills to raise those reading and math scores. Gaming can seem much less important in light of those pressures and constraints.

  4. I’m not sure I understand why reading comprehension and gaming are two very different activities. Many a times they can be one in the same. If the goal is to raise reading and math scores, and produce something tangible for you, why not create an assignment that combines gaming, reading, and something tangible? Use the discussion boards, the wikipedia entries about the gaming characters as a start for reading comprehension.

  5. I think that you do have valid concerns about kids not interested in reading books. I agree with earlier commenters about the benefits of gaming. I certainly wouldn’t have the typing skills I have now if instant messaging hadn’t come along. Allow me to recommend “Everything Bad is Good For You” by Steven Johnson. He talks extensively about some of the benefits of gaming. You would especially enjoy his hypothesis on how people would have responded to books had video games come before them.

  6. Thanks for your response, Michael, as it was helpful to me to understand where your real issue is – time and where to focus your energies. I think we agree on a lot of points. I don’t discount reading or books at all, and it sounds like you’re not ready to completely discount gaming. And I’m glad the other commenters have noted it doesn’t have to be either/or.

    It’s interesting that you mention “No Child Left Behind,” because I completely agree with you that this legislation has forced schools into a very narrow tunnel that allows almost no room for real improvements in our education system. And I certainly sympathize with your characterization of the lack of time and the need to still focus on the most basic literacy skills. Absolutely no disagreement there.

    However, because of NCLB, I actually think that the library is the *only* way to introduce innovative, modern, and transformative educational initiatives. If you buy into any of the digital learning reports from the MacArthur Foundation (http://tinyurl.com/yyrdpl) or the Federation of American Scientists (http://fas.org/gamesummit/), you start to see where NCLB will prevent any of the changes they recommend. However, if we introduce them through the library, especially in the context of information and media literacies, we might actually be able to lead the change. I’m fascinated by that possibility, but then I’m also biased in favor of more digital, experiential, and gaming-based learning.

    Lastly, I encourage you to attend a gaming event at a public library or read some articles on the topic because gaming has become an incredibly social activity. The stereotype of a teenage boy playing a video game alone in the basement is becoming the exception. Instead, there is quite a bit of interpersonal contact going on, as well as cooperation, sharing, exchanging of knowledge, etc. Viewed from the perspective of necessary skills for future jobs, it’s quite possible that virtual cooperation will become just as important a skill as physical cooperation. There’s an interesting discussion out there about skills we need to be teaching our students. Should we continue to train them for the 20th century industrial world or should we teach new skills for the 21st century information one?

    Again, thanks for a very thought- (and conversation-) provoking post!

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