Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reading for Pleasure for Kids?

Yesterday's New York Times online has an interesting article on giving students more choice in what they read, an idea I can really get behind. I teach freshmen, but a few years ago I stole a unit plan from a senior teacher, tweaked it very little, and started using it. Now almost every teacher I know does some variation on the Independent Book Project.

It starts with a visit to the library. The students are given the parameters: they must choose either a novel or work of literary nonfiction (for example, the memoir of a race car driver is ok, but a picture book about cars is not.) It must be at least 150 pages long, though I tell them if they find a shorter book they really want to read, come talk to me. This gives some leeway to "differentiate" instruction for special needs students.

For the next three weeks, approximately 33% of class time (classes are 88 minutes long) is devoted to this project. As they read, they are writing study guides for their books. They are creating vocabulary lists and forming opinions. Their goal is to imagine that they will be the teacher, leading a class of their peers through this book. They write quizzes and a review, make recommendations as to why or why not this book is worth reading. Who would enjoy it and why, why, why? etc.

Finally, they select three items from a list of enrichment activities such as: Interview a character from the book, draw a map of the book's setting, create a soundtrack for the book and write a brief explanation for each choice, draw a chapter in your favorite graphic novel/manga/comic book style, write a new chapter or rewrite the ending. . . you get the idea. Guided choices offering the opportunity for each student to show off her skills and tastes. Empowerment.

I love doing this project with my students. With the new district-imposed timing, however, I'm not sure where I can fit it in, but I'll find a way.

Not everyone agrees that this is a good idea. For example, a Bush Education Expert:

“What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

Right, you should. But will you, if reading has been a dull, punishing experience? I read Moby Dick, voluntarily, when I was thirty--a transcendent experience--but I'm so grateful no one tried to force me to read that in high school.

From Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like:
But literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read ‘Ethan Frome’ and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

My goal has always been to instill a love of reading in my students. I tell them that no matter what path in life they choose, Art will enrich their lives, and I believe it. I'm still going to teach Shakespeare until they pry it from my cold dead fingers, but if it takes Twilight to build a bridge to Romeo and Juliet, I'm good with that.

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