Should Students Choose?

Happy new year! Over the holiday break, one of my colleagues sent out a clutch of links followed by a thought-provoking question:

Below are a few articles related to my new quandary as an English teacher: Should students choose their own books?  I struggle with forcing a student to read.  I know it too often leads to a dislike of reading or the use of Cliffs Notes, instead of reading at all.

I thought about this for a few days, and I found myself having some pretty strong feelings on this subject. If you’re interested–and if you’d like to join the conversation!–read on.

So, should students choose? Short answer: sometimes. But maybe not in high school English class.

Longer answer: sometimes. I love the moment we’re in for education. I love that the rate-limiting step for achievement is less and less about access to information. The power of schools is no longer that we’re the keepers of all of the information. Schools like ours, though, remain powerful, because we are curators and stewards of information.

I think it’s critical that we not mistake our students’ ingenuity for knowledge. When I was fifteen, I hated the Odyssey with an unending passion. I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world to read it. Years later, I discovered that that reading experience informed and shaped my experiences reading other books. Because I’d read the Odyssey, I got the jokes in other books. I knew the references. Years after that, I found myself minoring in classics and reading the Odyssey again–in Greek. That’s a pretty unlikely path, I know, but it suggests that I–like most of our students–had no idea what was worth reading at school. I didn’t know that as a fifteen-year-old, but my teachers knew better. And generations upon generations of teachers knew better.

My Edward Said-reading, postcolonial-lit-studying self loves the idea of challenging the canon and allowing our students to stray beyond traditional ideas of what’s valuable to read. However, as a college preparatory institution, we have a responsibility to our students to give them a basis in the kind of reading that their professors are going to expect them to show up with. We also have a responsibility to our institution: if we’re truly preparing all of our students to be scholars, we have to equip them with experience in the canon and experience in how to grapple with it in class discussion, close reading, and analytical writing. It’s good to allow students to have autonomy about their education–the twenty percent project is a terrific example of this sort of opportunity. There are things that are fundamentally valuable to read, though, and I don’t want to deprive our students of contact with those works of art because they as teenagers don’t grasp the books’ value. Not every kid is going to love every book we read. Not every kid is going to love math or chemistry either, but that doesn’t mean we should throw out the unit on logarithms or thermodynamics.

The other way that we as teachers add value is in that shared experience of reading a book. I know that I read differently when I’m preparing to read and discuss than when I’m reading only for myself. There’s something nice and appropriately community-oriented about how we do things in our particular school: everybody reads Hamlet. Everybody reads the Odyssey. While we have honors and AP and regular classes, there’s significant overlap in the curriculum, unlike what many of us experienced in our own high school days. I like that there are some shared touchstones for our community that don’t separate people by intellectual ability. Though we have some students who struggle mightily with Shakespeare and with many of the other things they read, I don’t want to deprive any student of that shared experience. We never know what seeds we’ve planted. For that reason, I think it’s critical to preserve major elements of teacher-dictated curriculum, especially for literature.

So far, this is what our students can expect in college: to show up in a classroom with a more-senior leader and to be expected to talk about and ultimately write about a book’s content and import. That’s fundamentally a task they have to do alone, and it would be ideal if every student could pick their own book to read, read it critically, and then meet one-on-one with an expert teacher to discuss the book at length and in depth. Unfortunately, the structure of our school day and the structure of our school isn’t currently set up to handle that. In our school, one way this could work would be to carefully curate a list of books and to construct reading groups. This would require a lot of legwork on the part of the teacher, including choosing the books, organizing the groups, guiding discussions, choosing writing prompts, and grading papers. It’s a great idea, but it’s tough to do at scale. From a volume perspective alone, it makes sense to scale that experience to our small classes and to have all students reading the same book at the same time. It’s less personal to be sure, but it’s still fundamentally a valuable thing to do.

Additionally, the greater issue that may need addressing with high school students may not be solved by giving them more choices. In a world of selfies and self-promotion, we may be serving a greater purpose by dictating that they have to read this thing, at this time. Learning where freedom can exist within structure is a great skill for them to learn, and it may prepare them for a college experience where they are once again called upon to do tasks they didn’t elect to do.

If the goal of letting students choose the books they read is to engender a love of reading in our students, I’m not sure that that achieves our goal of preparing them for college. I’m afraid that that task may be more the province of elementary or middle school rather than high school. High school students are so over-scheduled and necessarily college-prep-focused that 1) I’m not sure that most of them take time to reflect on enjoyment as an end unto itself, and 2) as much as I think that’s terrible, I’m not sure that changing the books they read in literature classes will address that larger cultural problem.

To pull off real change, it would mean fundamentally altering how we do school. I like that idea a lot. However, in a world with limited school days and a whole lot of books they should have read before they show up for college, I’m drawn to exposing them to as much canonical literature as humanly possible, with as much class discussion and writing as possible. If that makes me a dinosaur, so be it.

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