Let Them Choose Books!

choosing-books-1

Penny Kittle wrote,  “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. The studies simply show that students need to be reading. Period. And my students weren’t. 

Lest you think your cherubs would never fake-read (which Much-Younger-Me thought), 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 despiterarely 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 my feverish crafting of higher-order-thinking questions that couldn’t be found online. (ASIDE: 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 few students could ignore 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 both forms of communication merely parroted back what the students thought Teacher-Lady wanted to hear. Or what we had already discussed in class.  Shockingly, 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, the one who knows which standards have to be met? 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, there needs to be some ground rules.

1) DON’T JUDGE WHAT THE STUDENTS ARE READING. We can’t assume that because our students are young and inexperienced and don’t hold a literature degree, they are reading “garbage” or “bubble gum” literature. But some of them are. And that’s okay. We can’t shame these lighter-fare choices. After all, when was the last time we went to the library or Amazon.com and left with only Faulkner, Joyce, and Rand? Or we logged in to Netflix and only watched film adaptations of The Bard’s plays? We read–and watch–for different reasons. And if we’re trying to create lifelong readers–or at least readers who will be able to survive the 600+ per week they’ll be assigned in college, we can’t judge what they choose to read.

Plus, it’s 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. In the 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 yet ready.

2) DON’T ASSUME IT’S QUANTITY OVER QUALITY. And we can’t tell our students that reading should be about quality over quantity. Says who? We don’t always know what our students are reading. We don’t always see the students who struggled through The Hunger Games in September now 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 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. After reading zero the year before.

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 can’t judge what goes on in a traditional classroom either. Students need to be exposed to all types of teaching.

4) DON’T ASSUME, IN GENERAL. What if we just put a moratorium on assumptions altogether? We can’t assume that Choice Embracers 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. Choice Embracers do all of that–and then some.

For Choice to work, we need to put our book-shaming and judgment and assumptions aside. Can we disagree? Absolutely. We teach our students that respectful discourse helps us understand other points of view. And isn’t that one of the reasons we read? However, we also need to consider the students in front of us. And teach them.

And, of course, you know where I stand: Let them eat cake choose books!

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