The Importance of Choice

frusrated teacher

Penny Kittle said,  “A book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it.” This single statement has shaped my teaching career more than just about anything else. And for my first fifteen years, my students (and, chances are, probably yours, too) simply weren’t reading.

I was beyond frustrated.

So, I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than teach how I had been taught. I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than reuse the resources I had feverishly created the years before. I decided to teach the students in front of me, even though it required me to turn what I do in the classroom on its side and allow the students–who were fake reading, at best–to choose what books they would read. Part of my rationale was to help my readers build the stamina they’ll need to tackle the 600-pages-per-week of assigned college reading AND the other part was to help them fall back in love with reading.

Study after study has shown that the more students read, the better they will be at reading, writing, grammar, spelling, and even the unavoidable test-taking.

What study after study has NOT shown is that students have to curl up with the Complete Works of the Bard or anything Dickens or even–dare I say it?–Harper Lee. Nope. These studies simply show that students need to be reading. Period. And my students weren’t doing that. 

Lest you think your cherubs would never fake-read (which Much-Younger-Me absolutely believed), check out the video below. (I show it to my students every September!) It features a group of Penny Kittle’s seniors–all of whom earned good English grades despite–wait for it–rarely cracking a book!

My favorite comment? The Everyman who confesses (at 1:23) to snowing his teachers with, “‘Well, this really gets back to the American Dream’… and then you just make a bunch of stuff up.” That was literally every literature circle in my class prior to allowing choice.

Mind you, this was in spite of my high expectations and my years of facilitating seminar discussions. And I worked hard at creating higher-order-thinking questions that were challenging and could not be found online. (Even now, I generate my own questions so students can’t allow someone online to do the thinking for them. For example, the use of color in The Great Gatsby? I’ll bet both your students and mine would have trouble ignoring the Siren Song of the 52.8 million (!) hits Google just generated for me. In 0.56 seconds.)

Even still, my students weren’t authentically reading. Their writing was formulaic and lacked depth and/or free-thought. Their discussion contributions were superficial and redundant. And they fake-read in my class just as much as they had the year before. Even though they supposedly liked (tolerated?) Teacher-Lady.

However, that all changed once students were allowed to choose what books they were going to read. 

I’ll be posting how I have made Choice work in my classroom and the importance of a blended approach separately. In the meantime, if you’re uneasy with allowing your students to direct their own learning, know that I was, too. It’s. Terrifying. After all, who’s the one with the literature degree in the room? However, choice in no way means that Teacher-Lady works less or avoids steering students toward rich titles or withholds her vast knowledge about all-things-ELA. On the contrary, it means that in a Choice Classroom, “students assume responsibility and self-direct their own learning.” Which is one of our district’s 21st Century Learning Expectations.

But for Choice to work in any school, we need to establish some ground rules.

  1. DON’T JUDGE WHAT THE STUDENTS ARE READING. Please don’t assume that because the students are young and inexperienced and don’t hold a literature degree, they are reading “garbage” or “bubble gum” literature. And for the love of all that’s holy, please don’t shame the students if they happen to pull out a Choice Book during your study hall or after your quiz that you don’t feel is “real” literature. Some of their choices are lighter-fare. However, when was the last time you went to the library or Amazon.com and left with only rigorous titles? Likewise, most of us don’t exclusively watch Shakespearean film adaptations either. We read (and watch) for different reasons. And if we’re going about the business of creating lifelong readers, what they read–especially when they have a say–cannot be judged. (I’ll save my “Who Died and Made YOU What-Students-Should-Read King/Queen?” post for another time.) Plus, it’s all about moderation. Those lighter-fare reads are the very Gateway Titles our reluctant readers need to come back into the fold. Rest assured: My sophomores authentically read–and enjoy!–The Great Gatsby every spring. When they’re ready. But many of them confessed to fake-reading it when I used to assign it in September. Same level of readers. Same Choice Reading Program. Just students who weren’t ready yet.
  2. DON’T ASSUME IT’S QUANTITY OVER QUALITY. And please don’t tell the students that reading should be about quality over quantity. Says who? You don’t know what the students are reading. You don’t see the students who struggled through The Hunger Games in September poring over Vonnegut and Orwell and Heller and Shakespeare in February. Further, why are they even mutually exclusive? Why not hold students to a higher reading standard quantity-wise while helping them climb Teri Lesesne’s “Reading Ladder” toward more complex books? Ironically, I only require my students to read one Choice Book each month–a number so low it would make both Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller guffaw. However, because my students quickly realize they actually enjoy reading (they just don’t love what we teachers have done to it), students read upwards of 80+ books during our 10 months together!
  3. DON’T JUDGE WHAT GOES ON IN OTHER CLASSROOMS. This is a good rule for all of us. We shouldn’t judge what our colleagues are doing in their classrooms–especially if we’re not current in what the research says. Until we read a professional development book about literacy or attend a workshop or take a graduate class or do something else to professionally develop, have we really earned the right to cross our proverbial arms and assume that what our colleagues are doing (with results) is lesser than whatever we’re doing? Conversely, Choice Embracers shouldn’t judge what goes on in a more teacher-centered or lecture-heavy or traditional classroom. Students need to be exposed to all types of teaching.
  4. DON’T ASSUME, IN GENERAL. And how about we just put a moratorium on assumptions altogether? Don’t assume that those of us who allow choice don’t teach whole-class novels as well. Or dig in to texts with close-reading. Or assign works from the Canon. Or adhere to the one-size-fits-all curriculum that was purchased for us on top of all of the rich work we do with Choice Texts. We do all of that–and then some.

Can we disagree? Absolutely! After all, don’t we teach our students that respectful discourse is how we better understand the other side? Isn’t that one of the very reasons we read? However, let’s put the assumptions and the judgment and the book-shaming the aside.  It’s time we have each other’s back. We have enough on our plates.

Okay, rant over.

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