Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Should Students Choose Reading Selections?

A recent New York Times article gushes about the success of several teachers who've allowed students to have more (and in some cases total) choice over the reading selections for the year. Teachers who were interviewed for this article talked about increased student interest and interaction with their self-selected texts. Author Nancie Atwell's classroom is a focal point of the last part of the article. Her room is described as overflowing with books and readers. Some critics weigh in with fears that no one will read the great classics if they're no longer assigned in class.

Basically, I feel like this article goes back to two perennial English teacher issues: How much, if any, of the canon needs to be taught and what happens when we shift control and choice from the whole sage-on-the-stage to guide-on-the-side?

I know that I struggle with the first question. I feel like I have enjoyed many of the classics I've read and I've had some good experiences in teaching them to students. More and more, though, I've had better experiences and more amazing discussion with groups of students around well-written, high interest young adult titles. I've worked really, really hard to keep up with current YA titles so that I am able to match students with books that will interest them. I've tried to remember back to my early reading experiences and what it was that catapulted me into the realm of book addict. I tried to remember any of the titles I read in middle or high school and have found that I only remember two that I read as part of a whole-class unit: Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. No wonder I am a bit obsessed with teaching Shakespeare!

What I do remember about my high school reading is that I read books recommended to me by my peers. We passed books back and forth almost as if we were sharing secrets. I read lots of Jack Kerouac, I read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and weird selections like The Taking of Patty Hearst. I did not read any of the canon besides those two Shakespeare plays, but I've managed to read a lot of it in the past ten years or so. I began to read the classics in college and for fun on school vacations. I enjoy them now, but I don't know that they would've made me the reader that I am today if I had been forced to read them in high school before I was ready.

As for the sage versus guide issue, I do feel that it's important to allow students to engage in their own selections and to make choices based on their interests. I know that boys and girls have different interests and the same titles may not appeal to both. I am also amazed sometimes by the books they actually choose to read. Some are much more heady than I would assign in class. Others choose light fare, but I sometimes do too!

This was an interesting article to read. I feel like it gives some credence to the choices I've made this year in terms of the amount of time I've dedicated to SSR and reading circles. It also justifies the amount of personal funds I've spent on creating a little classroom library for my students. Keeping kids in books is not cheap, but I can't resist those new YA titles when they come out. I guess that's the book addict in me!

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