In my previous post Building a Culture of Reading through Choice, I discussed how teachers might create more avid and willing student-readers by offering multiple texts from which students may choose rather than one compulsory text read by the entire class. I received many emails asking how I implement this in my classroom, how I choose books, and how I facilitate student learning when there are several different texts. Since so many people were interested, I thought why not just write another post? As any teacher knows, if one student asks a question, there’s probably 8 or 9 others who were wondering the same thing but were too shy to ask. So–to those of you who emailed: I hope this helps; and to those who were too shy to ask: don’t be! (I know–completely unhelpful advice).
As I stated before, I don’t like being told what to read, especially if I’m told to read it because it’s a “classic” and “canonical.” On my own, if still a bit begrudgingly, I decided to read Moby Dick and David Copperfield because peer pressure still has some power and I had to see what everyone kept going on about. Both texts are actually great books, in spite of Melville’s eight chapter obsession with whale blubber and Dickens’ guide to the importance of a young housewife’s domestic and financial training. However, after reading each one, my first thoughts were “Good book. Could have been about 300 pages shorter.” I seriously doubt I would have read either of these books if they’d been forced on me, but since I came to them of my own volition, I was more willing to read the “classics,” and afterward, I felt rather accomplished and proud of myself for taking my medicine like a good girl.
My point here is that I chose to read those texts, so my happiness and misery were completely of my own doing, something that I am much more willing to stomach than if someone else is in charge of my happiness or misery. I find my students to be the same way, so in each unit of study, I weave classical and contemporary texts to provide students with choice in reading material. Some students want to read the classics (oh, the joy when we have those students!), and others want to pass the class, perhaps learn a few things, and not be bored to tears in the meantime (this was me). By offering canonical and non-canonical texts, I maintain rigor, depth, and complexity at the same time that I differentiate instruction for the various reading levels and skills for the diverse classroom.
There are three essential ways I design reading lists that incorporate classic and contemporary novels: parent-satellite reading lists, theme-based reading lists, and literary theory-based reading lists. Of course, any unit of study that provides multiple texts is (at least, should be) inherently linked through theme since that is what provides the essential questions of a unit (I know, a “duh” statement).
Parent-satellite reading lists are especially good for summer reading programs when students have more time to read and think about a texts. For my course, I choose one “classic” novel and provide a list of three or four contemporary or near-contemporary works from which students may choose, all of which have a common thread. This past year’s summer reading list included Things Fall Apart as their primary text, which I paired with Angela’s Ashes, The Red Tent, Reservation Blues, and Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Upon reflection, for the upcoming year, I chose to eliminate The Red Tent and add it to my term paper list instead. In all cases, each book provides a different view of marginalized peoples and cultures, and through these texts we explore the dangers and detrimental effects of our own cultural assumptions and beliefs. At the end of the semester, I asked students how they felt about the summer reading compared to previous years’ reading. Without exception, all 150+ of them stated that they appreciated having a choice of novels to read but that they also thought having a parent text that every student had read was a good strategy since it provided a common ground for discussion and a basis for understanding the other texts. Most of them didn’t see textual connections prior to discussion, but once they realized all of the texts were linked, they appreciated the fact that so many different authors could talk about the same themes in different ways.
Another method is theme-based reading lists. While it isn’t much different than parent-satellite reading lists, which all have a common thread running through them, this particular method requires two or three novels that share the same multiple themes, motifs, and plot events. For example, this past spring, I gave students the choice of reading Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Umrigar’s Space Between Us, and Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. All three novels had a character who is marginalized, a character who keeps a secret, characters who experience tragedy and redemption, and overarching symbols and motifs reflected both in the titles and throughout the plot. What made this unit especially fun is that my students were able to collaborate with students in Florida and in Vietnam to discuss the novels via Google Blogger.
A final method of aligning reading lists is through literary theory. In this instance, I provide a reading list of three or four novels or short stories that share particular lenses through which they may be studied, i.e. post-colonial literature, gender studies, ecocriticism, Marxism, New Historicism. Generally speaking, if a work has similar themes (as in the two sample lists in the previously discussed methods), then they will also share similar avenues of study. Those are great places to introduce the various literary theories so that when the time comes to introduce a unit that will focus on, say, Gender Studies (Woolf, Atwood, Chopin, Plath vs. McCarthy, Stevenson, Conrad, Kerouac), then students will have the background necessary to discuss the works through these theories. Of course, adding secondary readings from sources such as JSTOR or WorldCat serves another purpose: students read analytical writing and begin incorporating those traits into their own writing. Bonus!
Negotiating these kinds of discussions takes a bit of finesse on the part of the teacher. Clearly, in this capacity, the teacher becomes (and should be anyway) more of a facilitator than an imparter of knowledge. There are many small-group student-centered learning activities a teacher can use, as well as PBL tasks and whole class seminars that naturally stimulate differentiated instructional techniques and help a teacher skillfully negotiate the various strands of interest that arise through discussion.
By allowing for student choice in reading material, teachers can improve student learning outcomes and expose students to higher level critical and analytical thinking by helping students make connections across texts. Too, it empowers students by giving them instructional and reading choices that ultimately lead to a (renewed) love for reading and learning. In my experience, I’ve found that students usually read several of the books on the “choice” list because their peers enjoyed the novel they chose for themselves, which, as you can clearly deduce, exposes all students to additional texts and improved reading skills. After all, the best way to improve a skill is to practice it!
I’d love to hear your ideas about reading choice or even a great novel to suggest adding to my reading lists!