The other day I was lecturing on the 1920s in my AP U.S. history class and mentioned the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes. Three or four years ago, I found this great website called Poets.org. Poets.org has recordings of some of the most famous poets from the late-19th and 20th centuries reading their poems aloud. One of these poems is Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. I play it aloud for the students every year. I think there’s something so wonderful about hearing the poem from the poet’s mouth, listening to how the poet emphasizes certain words and lines, hearing the writing come alive.
After I played the recording, I recounted to my students how my old AP English literature teacher (shout out to Mr. Geier!) had done the same for my classmates and me. I remember listening to W. B. Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (my personal favorite) and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. The difference was, of course, he did not play these recordings from a website. Instead he had these recordings on an actual record, an LP. The sound was not nearly as good as what I played for my students. There was a scratchiness and background hum to the recordings that has mostly been removed from the digital versions. But it has stuck with me all this time.
I’ve heard people say that it is not the technological device that matters but how one uses it and incorporates it into the classroom. And this is true from a certain point of view. Fifteen years ago, my teacher wanted me to hear a poem read by a poet, just as I wanted the same for my students in 2013. He used a record player, and I used a computer and a website. Now, some teachers wedded to traditional methods and traditional technologies may take this as evidence that they don’t have to change, they don’t have to embrace the new technologies to get the same results, but that would be the wrong assumption. You see, Poets.org is better than my old teacher’s LP. It is free and houses thousands of poems and recordings on one site. A student whose interest is piqued in the classroom can go home and listen and read as much as she likes with a few clicks of the mouse and for little to no cost. This was simply not true when I was in school listening to that scratchy LP.
So while the device shouldn’t be the sole driving force behind what we do in education, some devices and technologies are indeed better and should be embraced as such rather than resisted or simply ignored. It’s a lesson I learned from my old teacher. You see, while he still used those old LPs, he was also the first teacher I ever had who required us to use the Internet for research purposes, and this was when there was very little on the Internet! And while I’m not in touch with him anymore, I would strongly suspect he’s ditched the LPs for Poets.org like me.