I've always believed in the joy of reading whatever I want, so I was very interested in this New York Times story yesterday about teaching literature. The question is: Should everyone in the class read the same book or should students choose their own books?
Times reporter Motoko Rich focuses on a middle school teacher in Jonesboro, Ga. Last fall instead of assigning To Kill a Mockingbird, Lorrie McNeill let her seventh- and eighth-grade students pick out their own books.
Some chose challenging titles but if they didn't, McNeill nudged them in that direction. A seventh-grader who started with R&B singer Chaka Khan's memoir moved on to Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Which, actually, is a very cool transition.
(I remember when I was in high school we had to pick a science fiction novel to read, a genre I still don't like very much, and I picked Planet of the Apes.)
The article does a good job of exploring all sides of the issue and of course, it's not an either-or situation. You can assign some books and let students choose others. And there are good points to be made for all sides.
Obviously, the best way to encourage a love of reading is to let kids read what they love. The easiest way to turn them off is to force-feed them a book about which they have absolutely no interest. Reading becomes a chore instead of a pleasure.
(I still have nightmares about trudging through The Brothers Karamazov in high school. Or was it Crime and Punishment? I can't remember. But I think it permanently turned me off from all Russian literature.)
On the other hand, there is something to be said for everyone being on the same page. It fosters discussion and gets students thinking. I have to admit, even though I read a lot most of the classic works of literature I've read were assigned to me when I was in school.
But there was one quote that struck me as kind of sad. Before beginning the project O'Neill felt compelled to warn her very supportive principal: "I am not sure how it’s going to pan out on the standardized tests.”
Even though it's not exactly a revelation that schools today teach to test, statements like that still make me cringe.