Getting students to read can sometimes be a monumental task. With so many other engaging multimedia entertainment options for children to choose, assigning chapters to be read for class often results in students arriving in class without having completed the required reading. I can’t say I blame them. In my own education, I’ve been assigned some texts that were real snooze-fests. And if we are being totally honest, I am much more unlikely to read a novel that is assigned–perhaps there’s a bit of passive-aggressive behavior in that. I don’t like being told to read something because it has “literary merit” and is part of the canon.
The headache of getting students to do their homework and convincing them that the novel we are reading is “good” (whatever that means) can be a lot like getting a two year old to eat his vegetables and can result in a veritable 3 Stooges act: the broccoli is yummy, here comes the airplane, open wide! Honey, hand me a towel so I can wipe the broccoli-and-spit off the wall. Reasoning with a two year old is fruitless (or vegetableless, if you prefer). No amount of scientific research about the benefits of vitamin C and A and antioxidants and all the other advantages is going to convince a child to eat his vegetables. But–pour a cup of Veleveeta on it, and presto! Artificial golden goodness masks the health benefits (really just cancels them out), and we feel accomplished as parents. “My child just LOVES broccoli! He can’t get enough of it!”
In the case presented above, wouldn’t it be better to find a vegetable your child does like, or better yet, offer a variety of vegetables from which he may choose? It is quite likely that he’ll grow into eating broccoli as an adult, so forcing him now will only prolong the battle and exhaust a parent. Allowing a child to choose his vegetables sets him (and you!) up for dietary success, as well as long term healthful choices, and when his tastebuds finally change, as they always do, he won’t carry a deep, abiding hatred of all greens.
I find the same thing to be true of teaching literature. Sure, there are some works that are “good for us” and that we really shouldn’t go through life without reading, but is it necessary to force it on students now? Full disclosure: I hated The Scarlet Letter as a junior in high school. So much so that I absolutely refused to read it in college–yes, I failed that exam–and I refuse to teach it now. The same is true of The Grapes of Wrath. My close friends have been subject to my vociferous diatribes against Steinbeck and that ridiculous ending. I’m all for symbolism and I can appreciate a jacked up ending as much as the next person, but come on! Really?!
Now, had I been given a choice of reading materials my junior year, I may not have nearly failed the entire year for only reading a third of each novel assigned (I earned a 69.52 for the year). It is also likely that I may have picked up those books as an adult and enjoyed reading them. However, as a 16 year old, not only could I simply not relate to a woman who hides her love affair with a minister to protect his reputation while she suffers immeasurable humiliation and the daughter born from this affair is ostracized (for the love of God, who would do that?!?), but having grown up in poverty, I didn’t need to read another tale of woe and sorrow about a family that falls apart because of The Great Depression. Some things we can’t relate to, and others we relate to far too much.
Let’s imagine instead that my high school junior English teacher had given me an option of classic and contemporary texts to read for each unit, such as The Grapes of Wrath, Jude the Obscure, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Angela’s Ashes; or The Scarlet Letter, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Their Eyes were Watching God, and The Cider House Rules. In this scenario, I might have read Grapes or Scarlet Letter. After all, I really enjoyed the other books I just listed. Too, they’re all thematically linked, so imagine the amazing discussions that could have been borne of our reading and understanding of these books! Whatever objectives my English teacher had–whether it was for us to read critically, make inferences and connections, consider an essential question–could have been accomplished by allowing us to have a choice. Even better, our susceptibility to peer influence may have prompted us to pick up a couple of the others, either out of sheer curiosity or mere competitive natures.
My own experiences in high school and college of being forced to read a text have altered the way I teach literature now. I hate seeing the dejected look in students’ eyes when they are told they have an assigned reading. Some of them carry that rebellious spark in their eye that reminds me so much of myself, even now. For that reason, with the exception of two instructional units in my curriculum, I always give students a choice of reading material. I know at the high school level, offering complete freedom in reading material is impractical and may be impossible considering time and curriculum restraints. Therefore, I design units around a theme rather than a work, and I provide classic and contemporary texts from which they may choose. And I tell them I NEVER choose boring books (I don’t! I have impeccable taste that way).
Do I care what they read? No. I’m just glad they’re reading, and when they feel that they have a choice of which “vegetables” they want, they are far more likely to try them all. Or at least not wholly reject them on the basis that they were forced upon them. Who knows? Perhaps later in life when they have enough life experience to appreciate the power of love, secrets, guilt, brotherhood, and honor, they will pick up The Scarlet Letter or Grapes of Wrath and learn something about themselves in the process.