Sunday, August 30, 2009

Choose your own textbook

The New York Times has an article called "The Future of Reading" about an admittedly small trend in middle schools: students picking their own books to read instead of having teachers select the books. They don't all read the same book; they each choose a book, read it, blog about it, present the work to the class, and so on. The idea is to encourage kids to read, regardless of the content.

It's not all about student choice, though. If you read between the lines, it's clear that the class is assigned poems so that they can learn about symbolism, imagery, and so on; also, if the teacher believes that the student has chosen a book that's too far from literature (a Transformers comic, say), she'll recommend that the student move on to something more challenging for the next book. Students who don't choose more challenging books hear about it, although it's not clear if this has an effect on their grades.

I'm intrigued by this idea because, as the article notes, not everyone is able to connect with the classics chosen for the classroom. When I was in school, the principle seemed to be Great Authors' Books That Have No Sex in Them: Silas Marner but not Adam Bede, Death Comes for the Archbishop but not My Antonia, Ethan Frome but not The House of Mirth, and Julius Caesar but not Romeo and Juliet. Those pretty much bored everybody equally (sorry, but back then it was true), but more recently there've been attempts to break it up by gender. Depending on whether the current trend is "OMG! We are leaving behind the boyz" or "OMG! Why should we always read what boys want?" we get either male adolescent adventure or How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. Considering the alternatives, the "choose your own book" idea sounds really great.

I'm wondering how this might work in a college classroom, or whether it could work there. (I'm not talking about grad seminars, where it could work very well.) We already give students some choices about what they read, but if students had as a common reading only the poems that were assigned in a survey course, for example, what would we do about discussion?

Could we have a choice of readings from a menu (which would sort of defeat the purpose)? Would you be able to refrain from assigning something that you know "teaches well" and really let the students have a voice?

If you were teaching a class in Chaucer or early American lit, would the students know enough coming into the class to choose their own readings? Do we have any responsibility to introduce students to certain works (the Wife of Bath's tale, for example)?

What would you tell the students who come up with variants of the following: "You're the expert, not me. What do you think we should be reading?"

What's going to happen when students who've had free-range reading through middle and high school get to college and see a book list?

As usual, I have questions. I don't have any answers.


Fretful Porpentine said...

I'm not sure this is really all that new; I remember doing something very similar in seventh or eighth grade, complete with the "getting chewed out for picking something too easy" bit. (If I remember correctly, it was a fluffy comedy about kids holding a prank war at summer camp, and I thought it was rather unfair of the teacher to tell me it was a baby book and I needed to pick something more mature, because "mature" always seemed to mean "depressing" and I really needed some escapist fluff at that point in my adolescence.)

Anyway, we definitely didn't get to choose all our books, all the time (and I'm with you on not being sure how that would work), so maybe it's not exactly the same thing.

Anonymous said...

I actually tried this some time ago. I thought it would be more hip and all. It worked the first time or two, in really small classes with really interested students who were more or less at the same skill level.

Larger and more diverse classes BEGGED for common readings, so they would have something concrete in common.

undine said...

Fretful, that's what made me a little suspicious. It sounds like one of those "be free! there are no rules!" things when what it really means is that you'll be punished if you transgress a rule that you've been told isn't there. They ought to say "pick whatever you like, as long as it's classic depressing literature" and be done with it.

profacero, that's interesting that the bigger classes wanted the common readings. It seems to me that without something to draw them together, the students could start to wonder why they're there if they are all reading something different anyway.

Anonymous said...

I read this article with a lot of interest as well -- and had several reactions: Initially I thought, "Sounds great! What a good way to cultivate individual reading habits in the youth of America!" Then I thought, "But, if they only read crap [and the article discusses the fact that some of the students do read Gossip Girl and John Grisham novels], they won't really learn about the power and importance of literature!" And, then I thought, "Geez, I'm advocating the canon, how did that happen?"

To say the least, I had mixed feelings.

As for the applicability to college-level instruction: I dunno. College students already get so much choice in terms of which classes they take, etc., I think it wouldn't have quite the same impact. I'm not quite ready to give up the syllabus.

Anonymous said...

That's "...I DON'T think it would have quite the same impact."


undine said...

bitternsweet, that's the problem: they SAY "read whatever you want" but they MEAN "read whatever you want that's literary." I think it's better to let them off the hook and create a syllabus before they ask for a common reading as profacero's students did.