When I was in 7th grade, we were supposed to choose a book to read and journal about it. I choose The Eight– a thriller no doubt completely inappropriate for someone in middle school.
I loved it. My teacher, however, was concerned, and suggested I read The Red Badge of Courage instead (in retrospect, perhaps no more appropriate than my choice). I read two pages, fake journaled, and secretly read the other book whenever I thought I could get away with it. And no, I never finished the Red Badge of Courage– never have, in fact. And honestly, I’ve been fine without that little piece of cultural capital. What I do have is great reading fluency and an enormous love of reading- because at least I was reading other books. But what about kids who are assigned something, don’t read that, and never read anything else either?
Penny Kittle made me think of this little episode when I saw the video she produced with Heinemann on YouTube, called “Why Students Don’t Read What’s Assigned in Class.”
In it, she makes a compelling argument- most students aren’t reading what’s assigned in class. Let me say that again because it’s SO important. Most kids aren’t reading what’s assigned to them. The solution? Allow teens to choose what they’re reading, and how much kids read goes up dramatically.
I understand arguments about assigning canonical works in order to ensure that students have some key pieces of social currency. But honestly, it doesn’t matter if they’re not reading the text. Reading something else will still help improve their vocabulary, fluency, and general cultural competency.
Ideally, when students are older and have reading stamina and positive feelings about reading, we can assign Frankenstein or Paradise Lost. But they’ll be just fine if we wait- they’ll certainly read, and learn, a lot more if we let them pick what they want to read. And honestly, if they never read those books but read every thriller ever written, they’ll be fine too.
This is not to say that you should never assign class readings. But I think those readings can be shorter and thoroughly scaffolded and discussed. For longer pieces, I believe in letting kids pick.
And hey, I’m happy to help picket or write letters if your curriculum department doesn’t agree with you.