To Choose or Not to Choose? What’s Your Opinion?

After reading the article Students get a New Assignment: Pick Books You Like, by Motoko Rich, I started thinking about my teaching practices and previous experience with reading and discussing literature in the classroom and decided to post a few thoughts.

I grew up in Puerto Rico and attended a small K-12 Catholic school where reading was very structured and students had no choice in what they wanted to read for a class; much like many schools in today’s educational system. When I was in elementary school, I knew once I hit a certain grade I would be expected to read the classics: Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós, La dama del alba and La barca sin pescador by Alejandro Casona, María by Jorge Isaacs, La charca by Manuel Zeno Gandía, Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos, Yuyo by Miguel Meléndez Muñoz, La llamarada by Enrique Laguerre, La carreta by René Marqués and Don Quijote de la mancha by Miguel de Cervantes.

Was I looking forward to it? About as much as a trip through the desert without water. Think of it this way, I worried about it so much, I still remember all of the titles. Don’t ask me what they were about, though, I have no idea! I was scared silly and rebellious about reading the classics. When I began to read them, I felt no differently and, I’m sorry to say, I never finished most of them.

The only ones that caught my attention and did not make me squirm were La dama del alba, La barca sin pescador and Doña Bárbara. The first two were short and interesting, while the last one is the only book my mother has ever raged about, so I really paid attention and ended up agreeing with her. Mind you, she does not like to read and no matter how hard she tried, she would fall asleep! The saddest part about all of this is that I was a voracious reader, but none of my teachers had a clue about the titles I wanted to share with them. Unless it had won an award or was a classic, they would just shake their heads at me and recommend another title. There was no one to discuss my love of books with. It was especially difficult in Puerto Rico, where the books that had characters my age were all in English and most of my classmates were not interested unless it was in Spanish.

While I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I started teaching my teddy bears at the age of 5, I also knew I didn’t want to be a teacher that forced her students to read something just because “it’s classic, so it must be good”, or because “I know what you should be reading”. I loved reading and I wanted my students to realize that there is so much more out there than what they are given in the classroom, which is just as good. I firmly believe that if students begin by choosing and reading something they enjoy, something they can engage with on different levels, eventually they are more open to reading classic/award winning works and discussing them in class.

However, the sad reality is that if teachers want to keep their jobs, they must follow the curriculum by reading a certain novel for a certain grade and forcing all students to read and discuss the same thing. While a few students might really get into it, chances are the majority are being left behind.

I was one of those teachers. I wanted to impress and I wanted to keep my job. But after a few years, my rebelliousness came back and I brainstormed ways to get around this issue of reading the same books. The key word here is “compromise”. A roomful of ESOL (English as a second language) students need to read a Shakespeare play AND learn English? Fine, let’s get the manga version. Add to that a trip to the ballet interpretation of one of his plays and the students learn more than they would had they only read the original. Even though we all had to read the same thing, since they read and saw different and more relevant interpretations, more of them actually enjoyed it!

The only activity I was able to add to include choice was “library Fridays”, where I would take the students to the media center and they would pick any book they wanted from the shelf and read. I also allowed magazines, manga, comic books; basically anything with words. I wasn’t too popular with the librarians who wanted me to provide further instructions, but it gave the kids the opportunity to explore and not feel pushed to read something they couldn’t care less for. It made a big difference in their approach to reading.

Here are some other strategies that have worked for me when I wanted to encourage my students to read:

1. READ: sounds silly? There are too many teachers out there who push reading but don’t actually read YA or children’s literature. Of course the kids catch on to this quickly. If they see the teacher as a hypocrite, they will refuse to do what you tell them. Think about it, you would, too!

2. Make sure your students catch you reading: I would sit out in the hallway in my “free” time for at least 10 minutes to read a YA book every chance I got. There were many students that pointed and whispered and there were many that came up to me to ask what I was reading. “Is that for a class?” “Nope” “Then why are you reading it?” “Because it’s an awesome book, that’s why! You see, it’s about…”

3. Refer students to other readers in the school: My door was always open, so when kids learned I loved to read and that I was reading books they also enjoyed, they would come to me and share. Then, when other kids asked me for recommendations, I could easily say: “Talk to X, s/he read that book, too!”

4. If you can, let students choose their own books: In the end, the less you recommend, the better. If you can get students talking to each other about books, you’ll see how reluctant readers are more willing to pick up a book.

5. Keep an open mind: So what if they’re reading a magazine, comic book or something other than a novel. Everyone has to start somewhere. Plus, many magazine articles suggest other resources, which will eventually lead students to look for more literature on what interests them. As for comic books and manga, many extra or “exclusive” stories are written in book form, so they will eventually have to gravitate towards books if they really want to know what happened to their favorite hero/heroine.

If you have other strategies that have worked for you, please feel free to share.

Also, how do you feel about giving students a choice in reading material for class? Do you believe we should continue reading the same books and discussing them in the classroom, or are you in favor of reading workshops, or something else?

As always, comments and feedback are encouraged and appreciated! 😉
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8 Responses to To Choose or Not to Choose? What’s Your Opinion?

  1. Ebony says:

    This is what should happen. Both. Kids need to be exposed to the classics. There are so many books that were great that I would have never picked up because I didn’t think they would be great.
    Some examples of books that I would have never read on my own: Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Z for Zachariah.

    Why is it when questions are posed like this, does it have to be one or the other? Doing both is great. As a teacher, you should want to expose them to great literature and you want them to read…alot. Mix it up some, let them choose their first book then you choose the next.

    When they choose the book and you have them do whatever assignment, give them the opportunity to explain to you why it is a great book. Pick the best explanation then you read that book (books you already have read don’t count).

    When you are finished with your “assigned” reading, maybe take a few minutes out of the class day and give them a quick report as to why or why not you did/did not like the book. That would be fun for them and it will give you an opportunity to read a book that you might not have ever read.

    • Prisca says:

      Hi Ebony, thanks for joining the conversation!

      Like you, there were some classics I read for class that I enjoyed and would not have otherwise picked up, but I find that I appreciate them now much more than I did at the time I read them. If, like you suggest, I had been given a title AND a choice for others, I probably would have had a much better experience. Pairing up a classic and a contemporary book is an excellent classroom practice.

      However, I firmly believe that student choice must come first. Not haphazardly or without some guidance, but it should be an experience that takes time and is given a lot of importance. There are simply too many students that are used to teachers deciding for them, which has made them either rebellious or complacent.

      Thank you for sharing your ideas. I loved the activity you suggest where the teacher gets an “assignment” of reading a book recommended by a student. I’ll certainly write that down in my growing list of ideas/activities.

  2. You weren’t popular with the librarians? What kind of librarians were those? They always encouraged us to get the teachers into the Media Center during library school. Weird. For my part, I would welcome any teacher who used the Media Center for something OTHER than using the computers. I also encouraged my students to check out any book they wanted: graphic novel, award winner, sometimes even that were beyond their “reading level”. I never limited them to the classics or award winners.

    Growing up I was also force-fed the classics, and did not enjoy them. I think now that I am an adult I would enjoy and understand most of them. What did a middle school student know of the meaning behind the words for most of those books? I’m thankful that my school had a large collection of YA books and that the librarian was friendly and allowed us to explore everything the library had to offer. I don’t think my love of reading would have sparked otherwise.

    • Prisca says:

      Well, I suppose they didn’t see “choosing a book for fun” as enough of a reason to get the kids in the Media Center. The librarians always asked if the kids needed to complete a book report or a quiz on what they read. Honestly, on “Book Fridays” I just wanted them to read and then talk about their book.

      I loved when a group of boys crowded around a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” book and read the articles to each other. When I would approach them, (after they figured out I wasn’t going to reprimand them for it), they would share the grossest articles with me and enjoy themselves. We would have a conversation and I shared with them other interesting or gross information and then told them to find out more about it. More often than not, they would turn it into a game and search for the information. They were having fun and learning. How cool is that!

      • I did that with my kids too! I think I understand why some of their teachers didn’t like me…
        Anyhoo. I would let them roam and pick out whatever they wanted, then I would walk among the tables and ask them about the book or just listen to whatever they had to tell me. Reading is not about making book reports or taking Accelerated Reader quizzes.

  3. Book Chook says:

    You sound like such a wonderful teacher!

    I totally agree that kids should get to choose their own books. I guess I would fence sit, and say have maybe one or two books for in depth study, where a teacher needs to meet certain outcomes that can only be done that way. I am not a high school teacher, so I don’t know if you can always work it without some books being treated in that way. But I know I want kids to love to read, and I loved to read despite being forced to study books I loathed.

    • Prisca says:

      Thanks for your comment!

      In-depth discussions are absolutely necessary for kids to get more from the books they read. While it’s true that reading is at first a solitary endeavor, sharing and discussing the book with others is necessary and should be fostered in the classroom. Like you mentioned, it might not always be possible depending on the school context, but as long as teachers are trying different approaches, students will respond.

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