Choose Your Own… Book?

September 8, 2009

Last week, the NY Times  ran an article about several teachers who are using a new approach to reading in their classrooms:  Letting the students choose their own books.  I think this has its pros and cons:

Pro:  Theoretically, if the student chose the book, he’s more likely to be interested in it (although, sometimes we’re not good at choosing books.  I wonder if there is a restart button on this – if Sally starts reading The Chronic(What?!)cles of Narnia and just can’t get into it, can she stop mid-book and start reading L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?) If we grant that by choosing the book the student is thereby more engaged in said book, then we’re offering students the opportunity to develop a love of reading and to see reading as something they can choose to do for fun, rather than seeing it as a chore that they have to do for school   

Con:  Left completely to their own devices, students may not always choose a book that is intellectually challenging.  In the Times article, Elizabeth Birr Moje, literacy professor at Michigan says “choices should be limited and that teachers should guide students toward high-quality literature.”  I realize students may not see a lack of intellectual stimulation as a con in the moment, but overtime, this can lead to students missing out on (established) good writing and literary craft which can then lead to stunted vocabulary and writing skills.  Perhaps students should, as Professor Birr Moje suggests, be able to choose from a select group of books whose literary merit is proven.

Pro:  To go back to the first pro, if the student is engaged in the book and likes it, she might actually read the book, rather than just skimming it or using Cliff’s Notes – particularly because Cliff’s Notes aren’t available for a lot of these more pop-lit choices. I didn’t read all the books I was assigned in school.  I never read Jane Eyre.  I never read Madame Bovary.  I didn’t read all of Heart of Darkness. (I did, however, watch all of Apocalypse Now.) I read, in their entirety, the books or plays that interested me: Every Shakespearean play assigned to us; Catch-22; The Great Gatsby; A Separate Peace; 1984.  Some of these I wouldn’t have picked up had the choice been left up to me. I freely admit that.  But, as suggested in the above con, if students were to choose from a pre-approved selection of books, they could stumble upon a classic that speaks to them.

Con:  Without a standardized reading list there is the threat of the loss of common literary knowledge.  For example, in the movie The Good Girl, Jennifer Aniston’s character sees Jake Gyllenhaal’s character reading The Catcher in the Rye.  He says “I’m named after him.” She responds, “What’s your name – Catcher?” I think this is meant to be a funny and sweet moment between the two characters; I found it rather disheartening.  Not only had she never read The Catcher in the Rye, she clearly has never even heard of it or discussed it in any way.  And she’s an adult.  This doesn’t have so much to do with book reading as it does with intellectual stimulation (and a failed school system) but the example is one to consider when thinking about abandoning the typical school reading list.

Pro:  If a student is excited about the book he’s chosen, this otherwise shy student may be moved to speak up in class.  This is a good thing! Speaking in class, whether offering commentary or asking a question, can boost a student’s confidence.  It challenges students to develop and use critical thinking skills.  It enhances their vocabulary. It can also help socially.  Think about the kids you went to school with who never spoke up – maybe you sat next to her all year in English class and never heard her speak; she was probably ostracized, a la Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. She doesn’t speak – she must be weird or a loser.  Well what if she is moved to speak by some great novel?  What if she has a Kim Kelly moment when discussing On the Road? She’s honest about her feelings and when the teacher mocks her as a delinquent, she is then backed up by Lindsay, an agreed upon “smart kid.”  This bolsters Kim’s confidence and makes her feel like she has something to contribute.  (I miss Freaks and Geeks!)

Pro/Con:  The article mentions “that giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.”  The corollary is that without the shared knowledge of the classics, students may be at a disadvantage when taking standardized test.  This can be seen as a con against student-chosen literature but I believe it actually identifies a problem with standardized tests; a student’s success on the tests shouldn’t depend upon his having read a particular novel – it should depend upon his having read a novel and being able to extrapolate from it and pick up on the various literary devices.  Moreover, (and less relevant but indicative of my beef with standardized tests) most tests, including standardized ones and particularly multiple choice tests – don’t actually test your knowledge, only your ability to regurgitate information and take a test.

What do you think? What are some of your favorite books – classics, pop-lit and otherwise?

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