From The New York Times last week:
I came across this and thought it interesting. It’s a quick read. I just became aware of this trend last week, when my daughter’s second-grade teacher sent home a flyer about the “Reading Workshop” that my daughter’s class is going to be starting soon. My daughter was thrilled. She gets to bring her favorite book to class. She’s recently discovered chapter books, and really likes to read to us at night.
. . . last fall, for the first time in 15 years, Ms. McNeill, 42, did not assign “Mockingbird” — or any novel. Instead she turned over all the decisions about which books to read to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade English classes at Jonesboro Middle School in this south Atlanta suburb.
Among their choices: James Patterson‘s adrenaline-fueled “Maximum Ride” books, plenty of young-adult chick-lit novels and even the “Captain Underpants” series of comic-book-style novels.
But then there were students like Jennae Arnold, a soft-spoken eighth grader who picked challenging titles like “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, of which she wrote, partly in text-message speak: “I would have N3V3R thought of or about something like that on my own.”
The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on.
In New York City many public and private elementary schools and some middle schools already employ versions of reading workshop. Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing.
In September students in Seattle’s public middle schools will also begin choosing most of their own books. And in Chicago the public school district has had a pilot program in place since 2006 in 31 of its 483 elementary schools to give students in grades 6, 7 and 8 more control over what they read. Chicago officials will consider whether to expand the program once they review its results.
None of those places, however, are going as far as Ms. McNeill.
In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.
But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.
“I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with,” Ms. McNeill said, several months into her experiment. “Whereas when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”
Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.
“What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”
Indeed, some school districts are moving in the opposite direction. Boston is developing a core curriculum that will designate specific books for sixth grade and is considering assigned texts for each grade through the 12th.
Joan Dabrowski, director of literacy for Boston’s public schools, said teachers would still be urged to give students some choices. Many schools in fact take that combination approach, dictating some titles while letting students select others.
Even some previously staunch advocates of a rigid core curriculum have moderated their views. “I actually used to be a real hard-line, great-books, high-culture kind of person who would want to stick to Dickens,” said Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” But now, in the age of Game Boys and Facebook, “I think if they read a lot of Conan novels or Hardy Boys or Harry Potter or whatever, that’s good,” he said. “We just need to preserve book habits among the kids as much as we possibly can.”
As a teenager growing up just a few miles from Jonesboro, Ms. McNeill loved the novels of Judy Blume and Danielle Steel. But in school she was forced to read the classics. She remembers vividly disliking “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Still, she went on to teach it to her own students.
Well, that’s a novel idea. And then the question: on which side do you fall? Or do you fall into the well of the third term (a combination of free choice and uniform curriculum)?
I think I’d fall into that third category, but with a heavy emphasis on the Reading Workshop. I like the idea of free choice, and then peeking over the shoulder of what others are reading. Perhaps getting interested . . .
Great literature rarely excites kids. Great literature wasn’t written for them, so why should it excite them? I mostly hated all those classes when I was young. And then I ran home and read Sherlock Holmes, and the Tolkien books (which I was introduced to by my fourth-grade teacher in end of the day reading time, so there's still a role in my mind for teacher-directed learning - but she didn't do it as part of the curriculum . . . this was how she finished out the day, when we had some extra time to fill [so my love of reading was born not of a curriculum, but from how to fill extra time - I like that idea]), and Louis L’Amour westerns. By the time I reached High School I moved on to poetry, being curious. And there I found my first anthology of poetry at a book-sale: The Caterpillar Anthology, edited by Clayton Eshleman.
My story would certainly not be the norm of what would happen under a reading workshop formula, but I still think some version of it is a great idea.
And then comes the second point, this one about how Ms. McNeill disliked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and then went on to teach it to her own students. This is exactly what I think is wrong with the education system when it comes to poetry. We shove antique and fusty poems at students and demand they fill in the blank with the proper answer as to theme or whatever, and they mostly grow up to hate poetry, thinking there’s always a blank to be filled in properly . . . and what do they do with this stuff they never liked when they become teachers? Indeed. The circle keeps circling. I think a love of reading is killed in most people by their being waterboarded by the classics.
So I’ll toss my vote with the reading workshop, flawed as it probably is.