Saturday, September 05, 2009

Reading Workshop

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.


At 9/05/2009 11:54 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

Here is my experience and what I do as a lowly high school teacher:

I have my students read books like Huck Finn (for my juniors this year) and Heart of Darkness (for my seniors) while at the same time requiring them to read a book each semester of their choice and turn in a book review (NOT the same as a report).

In my senior English class, my students read excerpts from Beowulf, The Iliad, The Canterbury Tales, Gawain & the Green Knight. They read Hamlet, even though the textbook has Macbeth. They read Spencer, John Donne, The Romantics, and The Importance of Being Earnest. ---All to highlight various elements of literature and promote critical thinking.

My students read both what I assign and what they want.

I can see your point that students get saddled with teacher favorites, but I find value in taking my students through a familiar litany of important works.

One of my biggest obstacles is the fact that only one in 30 or 40 students in high school even possesses the most basic skills or aptitude for real critical thinking, and I don't think they have been pushed because too many educators have relaxed in their approach to reading.

'Let them read what they like because I want them to enjoy reading' when they really mean to say, 'Let them read what they enjoy so they will like ME.'

When everyone is reading something different, the teacher is allowed to divorce him or her self from the need to check for real and deep understanding because no one can honestly expect a teacher to read 30 different books and ask probing questions for 30 different books.

So what happens? 2-3 students read and their appreciation for reading increases. 3-4 students do an okay job getting by. The rest of the students in a class are merely marking time, knowing the deepest question they will get asked about a book they chose will be, "And how does that make you feel?"

If I gave my students the opportunity to choose their own books (they have to choose from a list) most would spend two weeks trying to convince me they should be allowed to read catalogues and Maxim Magazine because that's "what we are used to reading."

It's not pretty, but after teaching for more than a decade and earning a masters in literacy studies, I have come to understand the biggest influence on the enjoyment of reading comes from the parents and the availability of books in the home. I have taught remedial reading and those classes keep getting bigger each year because more and more students find reading of any sort a waste of their time.

Taking that into consideration, I'd much rather work with literature I know I can use to take students to deeper meanings---even if they don't have the thrill of reading books they have chosen for themselves.

I have a LOT more thoughts on this, but I will pause to allow you to poke holes in my argument.

At 9/05/2009 9:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The art of teaching Readers and Writers Workshop is guided choice. Only by meeting students where they are comfortable (independent reading levels and interest) and moving them to increasingly complex texts, multiple genres and, yes, classics, will they become Renaissance literati ... well-rounded, broadly read young adults.
It's not that difficult, but teachers need to widely-read individuals themselves to pull it off. When English teachers rely solely on the tomes of the past 5 or more decades, what example does that set? That our current society has nothing worth to read or that adds to our literary heritage.
Today's lit is the classics in the making ... and much of it connects with students.
Think about it ... do adults read fiction because they have to or because they want to? Why should we set a different standard for our students?

At 9/06/2009 6:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Don't look to me to poke holes. I don't teach elementary or secondary, so I've no standpoint to poke from. "Choice" is a great concept, but I understand that students might not be to a place where they are quite ready for it.

In my daughter's second grade class, they're doing this for one book each. True, as they get older, and the books longer and the classes larger, teachers would be hard-pressed to keep up, but with only one book out of several being "choice" I don't think it would do any damage. Maybe? Even if the critical thinking skills aren't taxed . . . ?

Anyway, we're having a similar problem at the college level. We now teach as many sections of pre-college writing as we do the first First-Year writing course. These are Compositin courses, not Literature courses, so there's not much direct relationship to the topic of "readers workshop."

Anon, that sounds wonderful. But it also seems a very subtle and difficult thing for teachers to do. It's what we all want. To bring people from where they are to a place a little further along the way. Hard stuff, with all the pressures from administrators and etc., I would think?

At 9/09/2009 2:10 PM, Blogger J.E. Jacobson said...

One value I see in requiring reading texts is the challenge of reading above one's own level. My students (high school) would never choose to read The Scarlet Letter, Red Badge of Courage, Huck Finn, or The Great Gatsby on their own. By requiring them to read these (as juniors), they are faced with texts that may indeed be hard to read. But literacy research shows that that's when we learn the most as readers--when we read above our comfort level.

I also think the onus is on the teacher to make the texts applicable and accessible. For example, I had to read A Separate Peace in high school, and for whatever reason, I hated it. Now (oh the irony) I have to teach it to my freshmen. But I missed out on so much of the novel when I was the student, and my teacher did nothing to engage me.

I like the idea of choices from an approved list, but I also really value specific requirements. Just my two cents.

At 9/13/2009 10:55 PM, Anonymous Ashley C said...

I think, as an avid reader in elementary school, that there is value in letting kids pick some of their own books. When I was a kid we were encouraged to read during "free reading time" which was right after library time (funny how that works).
I remember in college I took an independent study with two other people of current or recent American Lit. featuring Tom Wolfe, Billy Collins, Nikki Giovanni, Ntosake Shange, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers. These works were so much more relevant and real than Beowulf and To Kill a Mockingbird (which I do happen to love.) I think the debate here is over updating classics. Should the cannon taught to students include Judy Blume and Tom Clancy at age appropriate levels? How many lit courses that are "Modern British" or "Modern American" never get past World War 2? The works studied are classics, no doubt, but can serious literary criticism and principles not be learned by Kurt Vonegut or Sandra Cisneros?
When the Harry Potter books came out the general reaction from parents was relief because their kids were reading again. Maybe if kids related to some of what they were being taught they might want to read it. Until then, free reading cannot be a bad thing even if the books are bad.


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