Thursday, September 03, 2009

Choose what you read in school?

This New York Times article from last weekend describes a "radical new approach" found in some English classes where the teacher lets the students decide what they want to read.

From a high level, this approach didn't sound that radical to me.

Throughout school, teachers always encouraged reading "what we wanted" and provided individual reading time during class to read books of our choosing and writing in a reading journal about them. I distinctly remember devouring contemporary fantasy and fiction novels during my 8th grade English class. The freedom waned a little bit in High School where reading was more standardized, especially as we prepared to take the AP English test and needed to know the content and themes of the classics.

In elementary school, I don't recall a lot of assigned reading per se. I do remember trips to the library to check out fun books we found on our own or as recommended by teachers and librarians. Currently in my kids school, they have what's called the "AR Program", where the kids set a reading goal for the term/year. They read whatever books they want and then they hop on a computer in-class and take a test about that book to make sure they've retained some of the information/characters/plot/etc. Some books are worth more points than others, but it's a nice way to encourage kids to read what they want and apply their own books to class credit.

As an English major with plenty of assigned reading and in-depth discussions about specific books, I worry that basing an entire Junior High or High School English class around "read what you want" could become problematic for kids as they progress to college.

I love the idea of cultivating their love of reading by letting them choose what to read and then for them to analyze and report on that reading, from which the teacher can guide them. However, I also see huge value in having the entire class read a particular book and have group discussions about the book. I think there should be some balance between self-guided reading and group-reading.

I would also recommend that the group/class reading doesn't necessarily have to be "classics" from hundreds of years ago. True, there's some great stuff in Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain and others. But there's also a lot of great contemporary writing.

I would love to see an English syllabus that alternates between "classics" and "contemporary" (maybe even pulp fiction) class discussions while still encouraging self-guided/selected reading options. This way students get to explore their own tastes, while being exposed to "classics" as well as great contemporary literature. They will have the opportunity for individual analysis as well as group discussions to help them see how to unpack a novel.

What are your thoughts? What were/are the English curricula like in your school?

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