Saturday, September 12, 2009

Teachers Or Students: Who Decides What We Should Read?

The debate erupted in the pages of The New York Times a few weeks ago: is it time to allow students to pick the books they should read for English class?

The article, written by book critic Motoko Rich, details how several schools and districts across the country allow students in a variety of grade levels from elementary to high school to make up their own book lists for literature class. The students select a book and read it. When finished with the reading, the child meets one-on-one with the teacher, or in small groups to discuss the reading. He must also keep a journal about the book and his response to it. All of this “is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools,” according to Rich.

How prevalent is this wave of new reading? This month, “students in Seattle’s public middle schools will…begin choosing most of their own books,” Rich reports. “And in Chicago the public school district has had a pilot program in place since 2006 in 31 of its 483 elementary schools to give students in grades 6, 7 and 8 more control over what they read.”

As one would expect, the debate quickly became heated. Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University is quoted in the article as being strongly against this method of curriculum development. “Kids will pick up things that are trendy and popular,” she says. “But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

Letters that came into the paper following the article’s publication seem to be evenly divided. “Preparing students to read for 21st-century success requires that all educators rethink traditional approaches,” writes Michael L. Shaw, professor of literacy education at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

“As all English teachers know, getting students to read for both comprehension and enjoyment is a daunting task,” writes Walt Gardner, a teacher both at public schools and UCLA. “But because the accountability movement, as embodied by No Child Left Behind, ignores noncognitive outcomes, teachers will continue to ignore the attitudes of students. Too often this leads to teachers’ teaching the material in the curriculum while teaching students to hate the material in the process.”

Another writer comments that, “As a student and avid reader, I find it slightly insulting that teachers are giving up on class novels.”

Still another says, “Books of the students’ own choices should certainly be a part of the curriculum, but not at the expense of the classics, which often surprise and delight even the most unwilling reader.”

For me, the issue is not black and white. It is not about surrendering complete control over the direction of the English curriculum and allowing students to make up their own reading lists, nor is it about imposing only the classical canon on them in a way that simply bores and stultifies what should be an enjoyable and interesting experience.

The canon, the so-called “dead white males,” might seem dated here in the 21st century, but I would argue otherwise. Many of those books have been read for a long time, and contain many truths about human existence and the way the world works. They have stimulated human minds to think, consider, reflect, and understand complex ideas and difficult situations. Those books have enlightened and entertained us, even given us the opportunity to expand our narrow view of the world. It would be heresy to dump them because we live in different century, or for what I suspect is the real reason, they are too difficult to teach and read because they challenge teacher and student to think and they do not offer easy or concrete answers.

There is also a need for students to learn to love and enjoy reading. To do this, they should have every opportunity to select their own books. My ideal would be to place the student in the book store and allow her to wander the aisle following her own instincts and interests. Let her read whatever she wants.

My perfect place of equilibrium in this debate would be my sixth grade classroom when I was a child. The teacher had the requisite basal reader, the English book. We might have slogged through a novel or two as well in this curriculum. In addition, my teacher made literally hundreds of books available to us in the form of a reading list with a brief summary of each title. We were required to select so many titles from the list to read on our own each quarter. I believe she gave us a quick test to make sure we had read. She made it very clear that if we did not like our choice, we should return it to the library and select another. This was reading for enjoyment. She also made it a habit to read to us every day from C.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, a sort of priestly Sherlock Holmes for Catholics. I remember being surrounded by books, and we read, often silently, or were read to, all the time. My teacher modeled what a life for a reader should be. She told us how she loved the cold, rainy Saturdays when she would bake fresh bread in her oven and spend the day reading and listening to the rain on the roof of her apartment. She told us how she read books about the places she traveled to in the summer, and visited the sites mentioned in the novels and stories. She carried books with her everywhere she went.

Guess what? I, and many others in the class, became readers. She changed my life, and without that experience, I do not know how I would have found my way.

This should not be a debate. We cannot just let kids pick whatever they want to read. “Would we be so eager to embrace a ‘choose your own math’ or ‘choose your own history’ class?” Times reader Lisa Dunick asks. What she says makes much sense. “We expect that students learn the curriculum in those courses whether or not they are ‘into it.’ Literature is no different, and literature courses shouldn’t be treated as glorified book clubs. By allowing students to bypass difficult texts or texts that don’t seem to relate to their contemporary lives in favor of ‘Captain Underpants,’ teachers miss a valuable opportunity to teach them that real scholastic and intellectual growth often comes when we are most challenged and least comfortable.”

We cannot abdicate our authority as teachers because students fight us over reading assignments. We cannot surrender the classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby because they are challenging and force us to rethink our lives. Left to their own devices, students will lose their way and possibly miss some life changing books. We must guide them. We select the books in the curriculum based on a variety of factors, but one real consideration is age. There are certain books that make a difference in students’ lives at particularly tender ages. I am thinking of The Outsiders and Flowers for Algernon in the eighth grade. I am thinking of The Catcher In The Rye in high school, and Lord of the Flies.

But students can also be reading Stephen King, James Patterson, and Nicholas Sparks. They can follow the adventures of that mouse on the motorcycle, Charlie as he explores the chocolate factory, and the sagas of vampires and teenagers in the Twilight series.

In short, there is room in the world for all books. Reading, both of classics and trash and everything in between, is always a good thing.


  1. Good exposition on this issue. It does seem you qualify your early "my ideal would be student wandering a bookstore and choosing books" [my paraphrase], to a more controlled approach...thinking it over as you write, I guess, as we all do. Your teacher who gave students a long list to choose from, sounds ideal to me, as long as the list is varied enough.

    Abandoning traditional choices because they are too old, or too hard to teach, means abandoning part of our shared culture as well as losing out on terrific books, and probably dumbing things down too.

    And on a larger level, there is a unique benefit to readers when they learn that texts by Homer or Shakespeare, or the Mahabharata or Montaigne, contain timeless human elements and dilemmas. It's easy these days to think that everything worthwhile originated in the last week.

  2. Goldfinch, thanks for your insightful comment. I also checked out your blog, and I am adding it to my list of favorite sites. I love the close up pictures of the paper wasps. Well done.


  3. when i look at the sintuation as a student I think the teachers should decicde because when students do they are more likely to choose what they already read and they forget the other options.


I would love to know who is commenting. Therefore, please use the selections below to identify yourself. Anonymous is so impersonal. If you do not have a blog or Google account, use the Name/URL selection. Thanks.