Letting students pick their own books

The New York Times has published yet another essay in its series on the ‘Future of Reading,’ and this week it’s on a movement in K-12 education that has students choosing which books they want to read for school.  The article only visited junior high classrooms, so I’m not sure how the method would work in high school.  The idea presents some problems, but could potentially change the way young people approach reading.

I’m not sure how I feel about the issue yet.  On one hand, it sounds like a great idea.  For students who don’t enjoy reading, the method could possibly foster a love of reading in students who believe reading isn’t for them.  So a student doesn’t enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird.  But perhaps they’ll find themselves totally taken in by a James Patterson or Danielle Steele novel.  OK, so Patterson’s and Steele’s books aren’t great works of literature.  But if the most hopeless 13- and 14-year-olds realize they enjoy reading something, maybe they’ll continue the habit.

The downside is that all too often, with this type of teaching method, important works of literature are ignored. There are also problems when it comes to teaching students skills they need to pass from grade to grade, but I’ll leave that issue to teachers.  For English people–and lovers of great literature–this is an issue of passing down crucial knowledge about our culture’s great works of literature.  Perhaps I’m a purist in this regard, but I don’t care how apathetic students are toward their English classes–they NEED to be reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird.  I don’t think it’s fair to assume students won’t be able to understand or enjoy great literature. Plus, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to introduce important works to their students.  Exposure to the canon is an important part of a student’s education, providing them with the foundation they need to exceed in high school and college.  You wouldn’t have a student choose which part of history they want to study, would you?  My history teacher tried that in high school, and as a result I wasn’t able to answer questions on the Korean and Vietnam war on the AP History test.  I don’t put my faith in standarized tests, but it would have freed some of my time in college if I had gotten a 4 on that test.

Overall, I believe it’s important for students to read what they enjoy.  That is the only thing that will foster lifetime readers.  But I don’t think it’s fair to say that “classic literature” is unenjoyable.  In high school, an English teacher gave our Brit Lit class the option of reading 1984, The Time Machine or Anthem.   All three were British distopias, but after researching our options, we chose which book interested us most.  It was effective because we met key educational standards, but read what we enjoyed.

I guess the best compromise would be to teach students according to traditional lesson plans, but then provide them time to read on their own.  I don’t know how effective it would be, requiring them to read two books at a time (although I did it all the time).  Perhaps they could alternate, or be required to read books of their own choosing during summer/winter/spring/Thanksgiving break.  Whatever happens, I doubt English education will be changing anytime soon, but when it does, I hope it’s with at least a little nod to the past.


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