School Lit: Should Students Pick Their Own?

Ashley Thorne

  • Article
  • August 31, 2009

The New York Times has an article today entitled "A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like," about the influence of Nancie Atwell, author and founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia's Teacher's College. Ms. Atwell pioneered the concept that instead of requiring an entire class of eighth-graders to read, for example, Huckleberry Finn, teachers should allow students to pick their own books.

The Times article follows another teacher, Lorrie McNeill, as she emulates Atwell's model in her own classroom of middle school "gifted students" at a public school in Jonesboro, Georgia. Ms. McNeill keeps tabs on what her students are reading, monitors their pace, suggests new books based on her own reading, and steers her students to more challenging material than they might have chosen on their own. She loves the new method and isn't going back to assigning the whole class To Kill a Mockingbird.

We'd like to turn the idea over to our readers. Do you think students in middle school, high school, or college English should select their own literature, or should they participate in a class-wide reading of a single text? The Times article lays out the arguments for both sides:

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.

Write in and let us know your opinion. And as food for thought, here's an excerpt from a comment on the article:

Letting kids read only popular series-type books might be a way to hook them in, but they really, really need to be exposed to classics and to challenging modern lit like "A Lesson Before Dying" (another book I would personally call life changing). At the same time, educators need to accept that the common literary ground is changing from all dead white guys to something a lot more complicated.

Oh good. Those dead white guys were so straightforward.

Image: Ben White, Public Domain

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