Required Reading

There has been a big push for student choice of books in ELA courses across the country in the past few years. While I agree that student choice creates more buy-in from students and helps them own their education more, ultimately, I feel that student choice alone fails to create high academic achievement.

The other day a few of my colleagues and I were discussing the BBC’s list of 100 books people need to read. I typically don’t like top #’s lists, because I feel they can be superficial and very subjective, but it sparked an interesting discussion about reading in general. Two math teachers concluded that most of the books they’ve read on the list were read because they forced to do so in high school. They appreciated the fact that they were exposed to that kind of literature (academic/canonized literature) and admitted that they never would have read them if they weren’t made to. Most of the texts that I use in class were on that list, and I feel confident in saying that most of my students, much like my colleagues, wouldn’t read those texts if I didn’t “make them.”

Why make them?

You can Google ” importance of student choice in reading” and find many compelling arguments for its use. Most of the arguments center around data that proves student choice increases reading in general and, therefore, vocabulary, writing skills and the like. I agree that teaching students these skills is absolutely needed and I absolutely want my students to read for the rest of their lives, but I have to ask, “ultimately, what kind of readers will they be?” I argue that we will simply create passive readers; readers that mouth the words, enjoy the characters and plot, but fail to go any further.

I want my students to leave my class with a life-long desire not just to read, but to think analytically about the world; to think about what makes themselves and others tick. This is not to say that you can’t think deeply about student choice literature because I know that in many universities across the nation you can take whole courses in, for example, Harry Potter and other contemporary, popular literature. However, literature like HP doesn’t naturally lend itself to analysis. What I mean is not that you can’t analyze HP. Rather, readers of HP are too easily caught up in the adventure and story, passing over, all too easily, its depth. It’s our desire to be entertained that prevents HP from giving us the wealth of analysis it has to offer. If we only let students choose books they want to read, they will be far less likely to branch away from their comfort zone and challenge themselves. Therefore, us, their teachers, need to push them.

Now let me stress that I am speaking purely from the perspective of an high school English teacher. I believe strongly that students needs differ greatly from K-12. I recently had a conversation with a colleague that came up from middle school this year to teach at the high school. She feels that in elementary school students need to read goofy, fun books that connect to their vivid imaginations (not to say older students don’t have vivid imaginations); middle schoolers need room to explore literature they can connect to on a deeply personal level; and that high school students need to be challenged by literature that pushes them to think outside of themselves. I think this is an insightful way of looking at the developmental differences of students at different ages. As a high school teacher, I need to show them a world they’ve never seen before.

Students are shocked when I show them the true depth writing has. My sophomores read Fahrenheit 451, well when I say read, I mean 25 percent-ish actually read it over the summer and the others spark note it or don’t bother at all. But it isn’t until we look at the text as a class and we take fifty minutes to analyze the first three paragraphs, that they see the importance of language and literature. Even those who actually read it are surprised at the complexity of what seems like such a straight forward book. The best part is, they like it even more because they’ve been let in on the secret power of literature. They see literary texts not as passive entertainment, but as puzzles that need to be solved. We are doing our students a disservice if we aren’t showing them that books are like clocks with intricate mechanisms that make the simple looking hands go round.

Then why not use student choice books to do this?

Because it is too easy to slip back into our comfort zone of passive entertainment and I can’t teach/guide twenty different texts in an insightful, in-depth way at the same time. I realize that I am the limitation in this scenario, but there needs to be something said for my experience with the literature I have read.

One of my favorite texts to teach my IB students (see my previous post about what I “do” with literature) is Heart of Darkness. Its greatness comes from the fact that you can’t passively read it; you can’t get lost in the plot and characters. No student on earth has ever picked it up and enjoyed the storyline. HoD demands a close reading and the enjoyment for the text can only come from solving the puzzle. It’s a very hard text because every word, every dash even, is important. Students groan when we start working with it, but by the time we’re done, they can’t believe how differently they see not only HoD, but all literature.

Students need to be pushed out of their comfort zone and away from what they know of analysis. They need to be shown what they’re capable of, even if that experience is scary and uncomfortable for them.

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