Sunday, August 30, 2009

Students Pick Their Own Reading

I really like the idea of students having a say in what they read. This follows well on my earlier post Kids & Reading. I see two major problems with required reading at the middle and high school level. One is that while some kids may find a few gems they enjoy, nothing is as much fun when someone forces you to do it. Second, the reading lists are always chosen by the prior generation. Back in the 60s, our reading through senior year of high school went from Chaucer through Hemingway and Faulkner. By definition a "classic" has to be "judged over time," but other things come into the mix as well. The Lord of the Rings caught on with the counter-culture back then, but even though first published in the 30s, it was not yet seen as "serious" enough for required reading. I'm guessing these days it comes highly recommended, and I'm also guessing most kids now prefer the movie. The next generation of teachers and administrators will likely insist at least some of the Harry Potter series (click that link at your own risk) make the list of required reading.

I do think a mix of assignments works better, but not when it functions in the old style of one reading list fits all. I know this is hard to do in larger classrooms, but kids who choose certain contemporary novels can be steered in the direction of classics of a similar theme or genre. A recommendation for the kids reading chick lit might be some Jane Austen. If they like vampires and horror, they could also read Dracula and Frankenstein. Teachers should encourage students to appreciate that shorter isn't always better, and that some works can have meaning beyond the basic story, but students should also be allowed to prefer the new over the old.

This could go a long way, not just toward getting kids more interested in reading, but ending the notion that academia has a "lock" on what's of value or that students must be forced to "appreciate" certain works and authors. Or worse, those disastrous attempts by teachers to reach out to students by choosing what they think kids would identify with. In my first year of high school I'm pretty sure that was the reasoning behind assigning John Gunther's Death Be Not Proud that served only to ruin our summer vacations and cause us to freak out every time we had a headache or kink in our necks.

Next I'd love to see kids perusing the Internet for favorite zines and stories and poems to share with classmates. Why not bring it all into the 21st century?

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