Anyway, I read the article and moved on to other things, only to see that Meg Cabot had posted a response to it in her blog, where she waxed positively vitriolic against the many and enumerated evils of mandatory reading lists. Fast forward to Candy at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, who posted a response to Meg Cabot’s response!
Now we have an argument that looks something like this:
NY Times: What if students could choose the books they wanted to read, read them, write and interact regarding them, and still learn as well as if they had read something traditionally assigned to the entire class? What a wonderful world it would be!
Smart Bitches: Maybe the issue isn’t a book being on or off a list, it’s how that book is being taught and how it’s being presented to students! Maybe if a book was presented as something to sink your teeth into instead of something to be endured, reading wouldn’t be like getting said teeth ripped out, as it sadly is to so many people. And hey, maybe those stodgy old required books are required books because they’ve been around for a long time and have something to teach us! Ever thought of that?
Now here we are, with two clear issues on the table: one, what needs to be done so that reading is an enjoyable activity for students while still teaching what needs to be learned, and two, how does one decide what needs to be learned anyway?
For me, and I say this as a teacher, the most important thing about learning through literature is being able to use it as a tool for articulating what one sees in the big wide world. I’ve never been a huge fan of literary analysis, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it should be taught—instead, I think it should be taught as a way to talk about the books you read, as a way to agree or disagree with a particular point or theme, and as a common language that all readers can share. I also don’t think that formal instruction in this needs to take place all the time, day after day, year after year.
I believe that, once you’ve mastered the basics, you read by reading. You write by writing. You speak by speaking. The most frustrating memories I have of literature classes were arriving at the class period that marked the last day we were spending on a particular work and nobody having anything to say about what we just read—nothing positive, nothing negative, just nothing. What a waste of time and energy!
Would exclusively relying on student choice solve this problem? Probably not. Would having a scripted literature curriculum solve this problem? Probably not. What would go a long way to solving that problem would be a teacher who was extremely well read, not just in genres he or she enjoys, but in a variety of genres, who was ready to recommend books, and then, wonder of wonders, actually having access to those books, either through a classroom/school or public library! And hey, some of those recommendations could be the very same books we’ve spent years trying to get kids to read in large groups! Student choice is a wonderful thing and gives students ownership in their learning; student choice harnessed to thoughtful recommendations and interactions with teachers who actually know what they’re talking about is another, more powerful thing entirely.
Ultimately, if we as teachers and we as readers are going to convince kids at any age that reading is something fun that they should be doing for its own sake, we need to be ready to connect them to works and resources that they actually care about. At the same time, we as teachers need to be ready to encourage students to try books that are challenging for them! So what if a book is long, or has words we might have to look up, or deals with themes and ideas that make us think? That’s not the scary part of reading, that’s the fun part! We need to remind kids that it’s okay to push yourself and to ask for help and to try new things. If we model participating in a literate society by reading a variety of works, not just brain broccoli and not just brain bonbons, we can encourage students to read the books we wanted them to read anyway.