Monday, August 31, 2009

Putting it in students' hands

Before we begin, read this. It’s OK. I’ll wait.

Finished? I’ve read through the story twice and think Lorrie NcNeill’s plan is brilliant.

I always liked reading as a kid, everything from The Phantom Tollbooth to Spider-Man, but I was generally indifferent to my English classes. It’s not that I dislike Catcher in the Rye, Othello or Lord Byron’s poetry; but that stuff didn’t speak to me as a high schooler. (I realize I’m probably the exception when we’re talking about Catcher. To my sophomore mind, Holden was a whiner.)

I came to appreciate classic authors as I grew older, but I was much more enthusiastic about the projects in which I had a choice. I did occasionally enjoy a book that was foisted on me, but I felt like I owned the selections I made. I only kept two English papers I ever wrote — one on the X-Men as a source of social commentary, the other on music in Langston Hughes poetry. I selected the subjects for both. (My wife did the same thing. She still has a copy of her Flannery O’Connor research paper.)

That having been said, McNeill’s plan is not perfect and Motoko Rich’s story does a good job of laying out the problems. Kids who don’t want to read are not going to become literary wunderkinds because they peruse the Maximum Ride series. Instead, their selections should be treated as gateway drugs.

Oh, you like Tolkien? Here’s Vonnegut. You like Picoult? Here’s du Maurier.

But the kid has to be willing to grow with you. Lazy readers are going to be lazy readers whether they’re critiquing Henry James or James Patterson. That having been said, kids who enjoy reading (whether it be The Phantom Tollbooth or Moby Dick) are more likely to read as adults.

I like how McNeill has a basement. No Gossip Girl, for example. Not all reading is good reading. I would personally raise the basement a little higher, but I’m not a teacher and don’t know how difficult it is to get a seventh grade boy to read something more complex than Patterson.

An approach like McNeill’s might work best when paired with some restrictions. Yes, kids can choose two or three books that they study during the school year, but they’re still required to read two as a group.

But, in general, I think McNeill and the other teachers who are willing to try something different deserve kudos.

-Jason Lea,

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Blogger Harold said...

A new program to champion mediocrity. The drum beat to dumbdown is sounded again. And our teachers can carry the standard?

The idea that bad books are gateway drugs is an interesting theory, but defies common sense. Good teachers have no trouble inspiring students to read good things.

So now we ask our middle schoolers, what would you have for dinner? Broccoli? Or a turtle sundae?

"Please, sir, can I have some more?" is the teenager's likely reply. But then again, manners are no fun. Let's scrap them, as well.

August 31, 2009 at 6:21 PM 
Blogger Seth said...

As a middle school teacher in an independent school where we've just begun reading workshops similar to those described in the article, I have to forcefully disagree with Harold's thought that this approach champions mediocrity. Good teachers can certainly inspire students to read good things, which seems to be what McNeill was doing in her class, the problem is that in urban districts in particular, students move from grade to grade without meeting the basic proficiency standards, and as a result, while they should be able to read Lord of the Flies in 7th grade, they don't have the literacy skills to do so. In that case, forcing a student to read Lord of the Flies is, in fact, forcing a student to pretend to read Lord of the Flies and settle for not only a poor grade but also a poor understanding of literature.

We are four weeks into the school year, and over half of the students in my homeroom have completed at least one book of their own choosing, in addition to the book that they are reading together as a class. They are, to the man, excited about reading. They will, I believe, continue reading books off their own choosing when they walk out the doors of my school one day. Is that really mediocrity? They will understand the nuances of literature, whether they can drop a Byron quote or not.

September 3, 2009 at 11:55 AM 

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