I imagine many of you have seen this recent New York Times article that explains how teachers are reducing, or even eliminating, the amount of time spent on whole-class novels in favor of having students choose their own books.
Edited to add: Via Twitter, I just came across this great 1991 essay on the canon. It says a lot of what I’d say, but much more intelligently.
This is not a new story, really. During my brief teaching career, more than a decade ago, I taught a class called Independent Reading. A major component of that class was having students choose their own reading material. (Shared readings and writing were the other elements of the class.) Many of the students in the class were reluctant readers and wouldn’t read anything at all unless they were made to—and even then they’d try to fake it.
Unlike my students, I was enough of a geek to love most of the books I read in school, even The Scarlet Letter, which seems almost universally reviled. I’m thankful to this day that my 9th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Walter, has us read Great Expectations. My previous teachers hadn’t assigned what I saw as “grown-up” books. For required book reports, I usually read teen books, which were fun, but not particularly challenging. I thought that was what I was supposed to read. I was a teenager; I should read teen books. I read lots of them, many more than were assigned, but they were all I read. Once I read Dickens, the scales fell from my eyes. If I could read Dickens, I could read anything. (Little did I know that Dickens is cake compared to Joyce.)
So I see value in assigning the classics. I needed that push. And I can’t imagine trying to teach basic literary techniques without having some shared texts. Also, some works of literature are part of our culture. People over the years have agreed that these books are particularly significant—even if they aren’t the only books worth reading. Isn’t there value in keeping those books in the classroom? How many students will pick up Shakespeare or Chaucer or Dickens or Faulkner on their own? Is it even important that everyone read these works?
On the other hand, most of the students in my Independent Reading class weren’t interested in classic novels. But some of them would wax eloquent about the YA novel A Day No Pigs Would Die. Just as I needed a push to read Dickens, they needed a push to read Robert Newton Peck or Michael Crichton or Terry Macmillan—all popular choices among my students.
I’m not convinced that abandoning the whole-class novel is the way to go, but I see value in offering more freedom. Not every book is a good match for every reader, and if the only books students read in school are bad matches, they might walk away thinking reading is a waste of time. If they’re given permission to read whatever they like in school, maybe they’ll actually find something they like. But I would hope that teachers who do abandon the whole-class novel aren’t assuming that all students will find the classics to be dull. I hope that students will still be encouraged to read old books—and new books and genre fiction and nonfiction. Mostly I hope they’ll be encouraged to read widely and to think about what they read.
What do you think? What were your reading experiences like in school? Did you like the assigned readings? Do you think they still have a place in the classroom?
Notes from My Reading Life
- Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood. A clever exercise in perspective. Sometimes hilarious, but the joke went on too long.
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood on audio. Read the book years ago, and I’m on the last disc. Not my favorite Atwood, but inferior Atwood is still superior fiction.
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.I’ve nearly finished this fun, loopy narrative.
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’ve read the last long footnote!
- The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. Starting the section on rhyme.
- The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. A Booker longlister about the poet John Clare.
- Ice Land by Betsy Tobin. A mix of history and myth, set in 11th-century Iceland.
- Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl on audio. A foodie memoir from the library
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Jon Berendt on audio, also from the library.
Books to Remember
- The Spare Room by Helen Garner. This book was all over the place last year, but the review at Vulpes Libris convinced me that it’s not just soppy sentiment.
- Voice Overby Celine Curiol. The various opinions expressed at Savidge Reads, Paperback Reader, Farm Lane Books, and Reading Matters have got me intrigued.
- Puppet Master by Joanne Owen. Melanie at The Indextrious Reader reviewed this one. Who can resist a book about creepy marionettes?
- Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman. I’ve looked at the audio version at the library a few times, and Eva’s review at A Striped Armchair led to me think I should bring it home with me next time.
- Knife of Never Letting Goby Patrick Ness. Intriguing dystopian fiction reviewed at Vulpes Libris.
- Dance Night by Dawn Powell. Depression-era fiction reviewed by Danielle at A Work in Progress and Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles.