Motoko Rich’s latest article in her Future of Reading series for the New York Times, “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” describes Lynne McNeill’s use of reading workshops in her junior high classroom. Instead of reading assigned texts, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, McNeill encourages students to select their own books and present them to the class. Of course, an advantage to this approach is that students are more likely to be interested in, and therefore motivated to read, texts they choose. Proponents say that this positive experience could encourage a habit of life-long reading. Other supporters say at least students are reading, even if the quality of the books are lower. People who challenge this approach are concerned that students will lack a shared literacy about reading — if each member of the class is reading a different book, it’s difficult to discuss specific constructs of literature, for example, irony, or develop a shared understanding of themes such as man vs. nature.
But at least they’re reading.
For now, I’m not going to argue that students are reading now more than ever before because the majority of their communication is textual. Reading, like any skill, is developed over time, through practice. So, while the content of their reading may not compare to the literary canons, it still contributes to their overall literacy. Should we dumb down classroom texts to make reading itself more attractive?
Part I: Reading
First, are these readings dumbed down? McNeill uses poetry in class presumably to teach literary conventions and to develop a shared vocabulary for discussing the books students are reading. Potentially problematic is that short pieces of literature are used to illustrate concepts of structure and theme, rather than sustained discussion of longer texts. Part of the reward of struggling through a classic work is learning bits along the way, usually about storytelling, themes, and often historical context. Poems certainly serve a storytelling function, but lack the rich narratives of longer works.
Another advantage to assigning difficult texts is the side benefit of making unassigned texts more attractive. In Lev Grossman’s “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard” article in the Wall Street Journal, he addresses the sexiness of popular novels. Grossman describes this “literature of pleasure” as evolving from the supermarket racks — delicious storylines of mystery, adventure, and romance that feel like guilty pleasures to read.
Indeed, as Matt Groening and Scott McCloud will attest, there is a certain satisfaction in reading texts perceived as subversive — for example, sneaking the comic book into the classroom. In fact, comic book authors are a compelling example of people who developed a life-long reading habit in spite of assigned canonical readings. Perhaps if they had been allowed to read comic books in class instead of Great Expectations, they may have been more engaged in the classroom, but it’s precisely this feeling of disenfranchisement that makes comic book reading so attractive. Would Bart Simpson exist if Groening had a more positive schooling experience? How did the canonical texts, or discussions of them, contribute to his storytelling skills?
Reading difficult texts also teaches us something about the rewards of doing so. Generally, when it comes to school work, the easy path is more attracitve. So, when asked to choose between a selection from the “Twilight” series or Lord of the Flies, students will likely pick the easier text. Reading, like other aspects of schooling, such as sports and math, teaches students life-long lessons. Finishing a difficult text, much like hitting your first home run, not being selected for a team, successfully applying an algebraic formula are more than rites of passage, they are building blocks of character. Through these experiences, students learn about themselves, they learn to overcome obstacles, they discover how to deal with frustration or even failure. They make decisions about how, in the future, they will persevere or retreat. Sure, classical literature is at times unattractive, and as a teacher, I would never intentionally inflict un-fun moments into the learning experience, but much of any training, whether it’s to be an athlete, musician, or scholar has its un-fun moments. Maybe, for example, soccer players shouldn’t have to run laps during practice, but should instead do an activity that is more preferable to them. Perhaps musicians shouldn’t practice at all, because it’s unpleasant.