Thursday, February 9, 2017

Choosing Readers over Choosing Texts

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a North Star of Texas Writing Project summer institute. The colleague who recommended me for the program informed me of the impact that the experience would have on my teaching, but I had no idea that I would come to define my career by pre- and post-workshop.  Not only did I write like I hadn’t written in years – both in terms of variety of genres and in sheer quantity – but I also formed deep connections with teachers across content areas. I remembered what it feels like to be a student and a writer. I learned how authentic reading and writing workshop works miracles. This corresponded with my chosen inquiry. As a fairly new AP English literature teacher whose conscious didn’t feel at peace with a narrow test-prep approach with a standard survey of British literature, I researched the pedagogical principles that supported choice in the classroom. I sought to incorporate choice into a workshop-based AP course that would not only prepare students for that AP exam but also create readers. After all, as ELA teachers, don’t we want our students to want to read for the rest of their lives, long after they stop receiving reading assignments? 

I am currently in my fifth year of teaching AP Lit., and I feel confident that the feedback I have received supports the idea that choice and Advanced Placement courses are not mutually exclusive; in fact, choice might just be essential to our students’ future as readers. Not only have my AP scores supported this (I taught the class of 2013 using full-class novels which were chosen based on how many times they were referenced on the AP exam as well as the desire to cover all of the major literary eras, and my AP scores have increased, and have remained above national averages, since I began to offer students some choice in which texts they read), but my students have also provided positive feedback about how the ability to choose what they read has provided them with more incentive to thoroughly read and explore their texts.

I should probably note that the reason I felt compelled to write this post is because recently, I heard several well-meaning, experienced teachers express genuine concern that the classics “are not being taught anymore” and that “we should make students read them because if we don’t, they won’t ever choose to read them on their own.” Yes, that’s right – I clearly heard the words “make them read…” – because yeah, that works.

I understand the fear that students will miss out on this [white] cultural heritage that has been passed on for decades. I understand the longing for tradition and the idea that our students should read book X because we read book X in grade X. I understand the fact that some of our students, if given the choice, will choose less-complex books than we might expect from a student in a specific grade-level. But you know what? Those students might need to choose a less complex book – for now. If told to read books like The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before they’ve learned the skills to analyze such a text, they’re merely going to give up or refer to Sparknotes instead of reading the book, and teachers who don’t believe that aren’t actually listening to their students.

Since I’m already guilty of crafting a lengthy blog post, here’s a brief description of how I provide my students with choice:
1.     My course has an overall theme that connects to essential questions.
2.     Each unit in my course has its own sub-theme and questions that connect to the larger thematic idea. I chose 8-10 novels of “literary merit” that relate thematically but represent different genres, eras of literature, and style. I begin each unit with a book talk, and I encourage my students to read a sample from each text to choose one that feels right to them.
3.     If students do not wish to read one from my list, they may choose another with approval. It must have merit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean canon. As a great friend and mentor, Amy Rasmussen, once told me: “They didn’t stop writing great literature in 1950.” If a book has won a Pulitzer Prize for literature or comparable honor, it has merit.
4.     I teach the skills necessary to analyze longer texts through the exploration of shorter ones in class: poetry, prose, drama, and film analysis serves to give students the tools they need to connect to form and meaning as they read their novels. Meanwhile, I regularly conference with students about their reading experience.
5.     Instead of multiple-choice tests that require students to regurgitate what they memorized about their novels (and likely gleaned from Sparknotes), I assign carefully-chosen projects, facilitate discussions (yes, it works quite well even when students have read different books), and have students write in a variety of forms to demonstrate their thinking. Yes, grading takes more time. But my students remember what they’ve learned, connect with their texts, and start reading as writers and vice versa. It’s magical.

Before I share some of my students’ thoughts, I want to note that the most surprising benefit of this system is that students almost always end up choosing to read the classics that they would avoid reading if told to do so. As students talk to each other about their books and gain comfort reading – because they feel ownership in their choices – they branch out and try new texts that might have previously overwhelmed them.

This feedback came as a response to some final questions, asked and answered via blog, which included: Which book did you like the MOST that you read during this course, and why? Which book that was assigned for you to read, during any English class in grades 9-12, was your LEAST favorite, and why? Those are some of the most basic questions I’ve ever asked, but the responses were insightful and informative, and they support choice in the classroom. Note: Beowulf was the assigned summer reading text and not my choice.

Here are a few snippets from students:
  • “Being able to pick our own book to read made the class even better, because we got to choose something to read that would fit our own styles instead of being forced to read something we may not like.” –Tiffany
  • “The book I enjoyed the most…are all the ones I chose to read. I had been wanting to read 1984 for a while and I got the chance. It was so interesting to me because my favorite books to read are dystopias. I liked The Picture of Dorian Gray because it’s different form what I’m used to reading. I like the fact that it was controversial. The Nightingale just had me feeling all kinds of emotions. It was hard to put it down because it was full of suspense. Although I loved 1984, Animal Farm was not for me. I was excited to read it, but it let me down. I don’t think it was the book itself, just the fact that it was assigned with a lot of work. Also, that we had assigned chapters every week, so I couldn’t read it and enjoy it at my own pace.” -Isela
  • “By you giving us freedom, we’ve been able to produce more creative ideas and products. You have definitely helped me prepare just a little bit more for college. Thank you!” –Kara
  • “I suppose I should designate Beowulf as my least favorite book that I had been assigned to read in the duration of my high school years.  I did not despise it entirely; it simply was not very appealing.  In addition, I never completed it.  With only a handful of chapters left, it is one of the few books I have not at least forced myself to finish.  Thus, it will always be a sore spot on my conscious. For my final remarks (at least my final mandated remarks, but I am not making any promises), I would like to state that I prioritized this class over my others even though from the grading perspective this made the least amount of sense.  I honestly felt the need to learn and not just merely make last minute memorizations.”  –Allison
  • “The book I liked best that I read for the class was Les Miserables because I liked it the best and because it was so long I cracked and got the audio book, and I enjoyed having the book read to me as I followed along even though it was a 12 1/2 hour audiobook. My all time least favorite book from my high school Englishes was Bless Me Ultima. It was plainly a boring book and the more I tried to read it the less I was interested in it. I didn’t even end up reading it, honestly. I just sat in class and listened to everyone else’s discussions and from that I got the general gist of the story and such.” –Clancy
  • “My least favorite book that I have been forced to read during high school was Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. The storyline was not necessarily bad, but I feel it moved too slow and the ending fell flat of what it could have been. I also believe my distaste for the teacher at the time lead to my distaste in a book she wanted us to read, and the fact that she did not have us do anything exciting with the book. Hands down your class has been the best English class I have had throughout high school. You have been the only English teacher (and almost teacher in general) that has made me truly think and want to be a better writer and read more. I truly thank you for the experience I have had this year.”  – Hannah B.
  • “I have to say The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde had to be one of my favorite books. It was beautifully written to the point where everyone line seemed like a piece of literary art. My least favorite book that I had to read in high school had to be Beowulf. Nothing about it pulled me in. I almost just skipped it entirely, but I felt too pressured.” – Hannah T.
  • “THE BOOK I HATE LIKE REALLY HATE IS BEOWULF OH MY GOSH! Yes, I understand it’s a classic and whatnot but it just doesn’t catch my eye I don’t enjoy it. I would definitely not recommend that book to upcoming juniors.” –Julio
  • “I enjoyed reading Frankenstein quite a lot. Something about Mary Shelley’s writing style appeals to me, perhaps because it vaguely matches my own in fiction stories (or rather, to say I try to match her writing would be more accurate). I love her attention to detail and delightfully thorough descriptions—really, the overall utilization of imagery. I also love dark, depressing novels, so I may have a bias. I’d have to say either Beowulf (“Seamus Heaney”) or The Road (Cormac McCarthy) is my least favorite assigned novel. I honestly don’t remember what I read for freshman or sophomore year. The problem with Beowulf was that I just didn’t want to read it for school. Thinking I had to annotate and write note cards for it ruined whatever excitement I may have originally had for the epic, and I find that unfortunate. It was never even finished. (…oops.)” –Katherine
  • "I’d have to say that my favorite book to read this semester was The Help. I watched the movie a few years back, but the book destroyed the movie. The book has so much detail and I could never put the book down. I’m usually not the type to read about racism because the topic makes me extremely rigid, but having multiple points of view throughout the book was intriguing. Beowulf made me fall asleep at least 5 times every time I read it. I love a lot of the books I read this year but Beowulf will never have a place in my heart. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t fight off the urge to absolutely hate the book.” – Katrina
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain was by far the most enjoyable book I have read this semester due to Garth Stein’s intelligent use of wordplay and characterization of the dog, ... but books like Animal Farm… I can not! I understand the historical context of the book, but I never got into it. You know whenever you’re reading a really good book, that it’s physically hard to put it down. Not caring that it’s 4am and you have school tomorrow. Well, I could put that book down faster than it takes a bullet to hit something, and that’s pretty darn fast. It got to the point where I got nowhere reading it and ended up reading the Sparknotes on it. I would read it again if someone paid me a million dollars, but I would loath every minute of it.” –Mari
  • “One of my favorites that I read was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I remember this novel being on the reading list last year for English 3, but I never actually read it. I really enjoyed this book because the plot was very interesting to me and I had never known that the monster’s name was not actually “Frankenstein,” until now. This all being said; I did have a least favorite book as well. Some may disagree, but I did not find To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee to my greatest liking. It may have just been the circumstances under which I had to read it, but I was not super interested.” –Sebastien
  • “My favorite book from this year was probably Station Eleven. I have a tendency to gravitate toward classics, but I’m glad that I chose a more contemporary novel (and I’m glad that this was an option). Station Eleven was really well-written – along with the non-linear style, it had a compelling plot line and fleshed-out characters.  The story and its themes have remained with me all semester. It’s actually very rare for me to dislike a book. Most of the time, I find something to enjoy about everything I read.  However, I really couldn’t enjoy any part of Beowulf.  I know that it’s a historically important text and laid down an archetype for countless future literary endeavors, but neither the plot nor the language really gripped me.  I never felt involved, so finishing Beowulf never seemed to have any pay-off.” –Gioia 
  • “Anyway, my favorite book that I had to read this semester was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which is strange because I never would have thought that my favorite book would be a classic. I think I liked it because it was a gothic novel and I liked the dark tone in the book. I also liked that I my favorite and least favorite character changed periodically throughout the book, as things were uncovered. I would have to say my absolute least favorite book that I was forced to read was Animal Farm. I don’t know what it was about it, but I never finished the book and I hated every page that I did read.” –Isabelle
  • “The book I enjoyed the most during the course would have to be The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I don’t really like reading so much but this book got my attention from the beginning. The story was very emotional and I enjoyed how it included a little of history in it talking about Afghanistan and their differences groups. My least favorite book was Animal Farm by George Orwell. We had no option but to read it but that book was boring and I was so lost while reading it. It lost my attention from the very first page. I would skip pages towards the end because it just seemed like a waste of time if I kept on reading it when I was lost the whole time.” –Jessica
  • “I also have a new found appreciation for Shakespeare and the English classics thanks to you.” –Jonmarcus
  • “I enjoyed reading Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen the most. I have always loved the romantic era in history and literature. The writing style was not what I’m use to but it has sparked an interest in reading more similar material. My least favorite has been Beowulf. I could not get into that book but the history behind it I found intriguing. I basically choked it down and avoided it as much as I possibly could.” –Prescilla
  • “Out of the many books I read (all the way through, while understanding them completely- very rare) during the course of AP English Literature, Hamlet by William Shakespeare was by far my favorite. I related so much to Hamlet himself (though not his struggles), and the plot was so intriguing and engaging. I’ve also found one of my new favorite quotes from him: the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy/monologue. My least favorite book, probably of all time, was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I couldn’t read it because of many reasons, some of them being that the pages smelled like my dead hopes and dreams, the language was outdated and therefore extremely difficult to understand, and it was straight-up boring. I loathed the characters, I loathed the plot, the time period, everything about it. I also spent a good two hours making every ‘A’ in our presentation scarlet, as a joke, but it was traumatizing. It just made me more bitter.” –Rana
  • “Although yes, there were often times I became bored with the text I was reading, I loved having a list to choose from as opposed to a “you must read this” kind of thing that usually occurs. My least favorite book I read, however, would have to be Beowulf. (And no, I will not apologize because this book was trash and my eighth grade self said the same thing.) As of books I was forced to read that I hated the entirety of high school? I’m going to go with most books in AP English III. (I’m so sorry Mrs. --- for living off of SparkNotes in your class, however, I always had a great understanding of the work and could answer a multitude of questions regarding scenes that weren’t covered by SparkNote people. Maybe I just got lucky?) As the memories come flooding back of this class, one of my favorite books I had the opportunity to read in this class was The Help, and mainly because the character build up and hidden jokes throughout really make the novel great.” –Siera
Every student shared similar reflections about what worked for them; they want what all of use want – some sense of autonomy and ownership in our own learning, a chance to make decisions based on individual preferences, needs, or curiosity, and for their time to be valued. So when teachers have a choice, we need to offer choice.