I’m going to just say this right up front: I hope to challenge some thinking.
I asked some friends for feedback on this post and got opposing advice. I let it rest for half a week. I prayed about it. And then today I read this post by Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure she wrote it in a response to a comment on this post by Amanda Palmer, Secondary Language Arts Coordinator in Katy, TX. I’ve written about my own students and their experiences as they’ve grown as readers before at Nerdy Book Club and on this blog; and I’ve presented on how I advocate for choice in AP English at conferences.
I hope I can be a voice of reason and an inspiration for the good of all students. So, if you’ll hang with me here, I’ve got a case for choice reading in AP English.
“I wish my daughter was in your AP English class,” my friend told me. “She has to decorate Kleenex boxes in hers.”
We’d had this conversation before: I am an advocate of self-selected reading, and I fully embrace readers and writers workshop in my AP English Language and Composition classroom; Sarah is an advanced reader in an AP English course where the teacher chooses all the texts and assigns “clever” ways for the students to show that they are reading. Anyone who knows Penny Kittle’s work, and Donalyn Miller’s work, and my work, which is so much about helping students develop as life-long readers, understands that Sarah is not having the kind of experience in her English class that we advocate and hope for all children.
Making the Move to Move Readers
Many teachers and administrators across the country have recognized that students in secondary classrooms are not reading. If students are not readers, they tend to struggle in all academic subjects — not just English. Schools adopt interdisciplinary practices, whole school vocabulary instruction and stop-everything-and-read programs in an attempt to improve reading scores on standardized tests. Many have moved to readers and writers workshop, where choice-independent reading is key, instead of the traditional secondary-English pedagogy where the teacher selects all the texts, usually classics, and all the writing topics a student is expected to write about for class. Those who have made the move will tell you that choice matters, along with time to read and write, when it comes to student engagement and real movement in our teenage readers and writers.
However, from what I’ve seen and heard, most of this choice is happening in general education classes — not honors and AP English. The teachers in most advanced classes I know of are still making all the choices. It’s like we do not trust our high-achieving students to move themselves into complex texts. We focus on the literature instead of the literacy. And we rob children who already have a grasp of language, who already have many of the study skills they need to pass English classes, with the opportunities to grow as much as they are able.
We make changes in our pedagogy that allow our reluctant and struggling learners to grow but not our proficient kids? Where is the sense it that?
Evidence that Readers and Writers Workshop Works
One day last week, I sat and listened to my district’s ELA director share our state re-tester data. I usually hate this kind of meeting, but our gains are huge — due in large part because of the redesign of tutorial lessons, many of which teachers have adopted into their mainstream instruction. The ELA director changed the model and worked closely with North Star of TX Writing Project to produce writing workshop lessons (most of which came out of my classroom and pedagogy) that broke the mold of Response to Intervention. The dramatic increase in re-tester scores (an average of 200+ point increase per student) proves the lessons are working to move student readers and writers. Workshop-style writing lessons and a campus-wide, district-wide commitment to independent reading is working.
Making the Move in Advanced English Classes — or Not
The next day I sat in a meeting with the AP English team on my home campus. (Important note: The same day that in second period a young woman asked me to recommend her a book of classic literature because she wanted to read something more complex. She and I stood in front of my “Challenge Yourself” shelf, and in about six minutes while the rest of the class read silently, I taught a mini-lesson on Gothic literature and the Regency Era and book talked the Bronte sisters’ books and Jane Austen. Rebecca left class with Pride and Prejudice, a book she chose to read because she wanted a romance that sounded interesting.) In that vertical alignment meeting, the conversation bounced around to what students must know and returned a few times to the books “all students must read.” After a while, someone asked me what I thought.
“Is it really about the book, or is it about the reader?” I asked.
“Well, it’s both,” two teachers answered.
“Then why does the book matter as much as the students’ abilities to read the books?”
“Because they will never read these books on their own, and they have to read a storehouse of canonical texts in order to write on the AP Lit exam,” they said.
“So you’re basing the reading lives of all pre-AP students in 9th and 10th grade on one open-ended question on the AP exam their senior year?”
“Well, they also have to analyze a passage,” one teacher added.
“Yes, and that’s like studying lists of SAT words hoping students learn the few out of 5,000 that might be on the SAT exam. It’s a total crapshoot.
“Shouldn’t we be more concerned about students being able to read at complex levels than deciding which books they must read?”
Another teacher joined in “I want my students to be prepared for the kinds of reading they will be expected to know when they go into college classrooms. That is providing equity. If they know The Iliad, Beowulf, Dante, they will be on equal footing as those classmates who read those things at the affluent schools across town.”
“Shouldn’t the equity be in the skills our students possess? Can they read and understand complex texts like the students across town?”
How Do We Know If Students Are Reading
I know that many, if not most, of those students at other schools are not reading those books. Few high school students read the assigned texts in English classes. Ask them. I have student writing from the past five years that tells me in their own words about their reading habits in high school. And there are plenty of well-researched articles like this one from the English Journal that concur. It is true: few high school students read the assigned texts in English classes. Why doesn’t this matter to their teachers?
“How do you know they are reading the independent reading books you let them choose?” a teacher asked me.
“Because I talk to them about what they are reading,” I answered.
“I do that, too, about the books I assign,” she said, but I am pretty sure that her idea of talking about books with students and mine are very different. I call it conferences. She calls it lectures.
I felt disheartened and sad for the honor student at the outcome of that vertical alignment meeting: AP teachers deciding what four books teachers in preAP 9th and 10th grade must teach in order to prepare students for Advanced Placement in 11th and 12th grade.*
I fear that students will be just as prepared as they have been, which in my one-semester at this campus is not much. At the most, they will read four books a year, and the only students who will read the assigned texts are the ones who are readers anyway, who are studious enough, or care about their grades enough, to do what the teacher says. Everyone else will read a little and Sparknotes a lot, listening in to class discussions, and learning enough to pass exams that cover the conflict, plot, symbolism, and theme of the assigned text. Few, if any, will grow as readers who fall in love with words and characters and the beauty and the texture of carefully crafted stories. It happens over and over and over again.
We deprive the students who take advantage of the College Board’s open enrollment policy, the students who voluntarily agree to more rigor, and we allow them to make it through high school English without growing as readers. I would argue that in many cases, there is high probability that they regress as readers.
How does that make any sense?
Looks Like the College Board Advocates for Readers Writers Workshop
The College Board provides course descriptions for each of the 34 AP courses and exams it offers. The descriptions reflect the course material that might be taught in a comparable college course. This makes designing a curriculum relatively easy for many of the courses taught. Biology and World History, for example, have definite knowledge-based skills that must be covered throughout the course. AP English courses are another story. Since first-year college composition courses are so diverse and vary from college to college, the structure of these classes on high school campuses can be diverse as well. AP programs, and even individual teachers, may design their courses based on their own interests and desires. Of course, the AP classes must reflect and assess college-level expectations, but that’s pretty much the only requirement. There are no prescribed essays that students must write, although there are suggestions of form. There are no required novels to read, although there is a suggested list of authors. Suggested being a key word. Teachers have a great deal of freedom in how they design their courses and what they put on their syllabi. See
AP English Language and Composition Course Overview
AP English Literature and Composition Course Overview
We can still read texts spanning from the 1600’s to the 21 century. We can still read literature that we deem important to our literary canon. But do we have to make all the choices in our Advanced Classes?
We can foster literate lives if we will take the same approach to literacy that is working in thousands of classrooms across the country: Readers and Writers Workshop where choice matters and time to read and write mean deep and lasting learning.
So What’s the Real Deal
After talking this over with several of my peers, I’ve decided on a few reasons why honors and AP English teachers refuse to “drink the Kool Aid” (Isn’t that a nice derogatory way of describing readers/writers workshop? I hear it often):
- Some teachers loved the experience they had with literature in their high school English classes. This is the reason they chose to be English teachers. (I am one of these teachers.) They want to duplicate those positive experiences for their students. A worthy ambition. However, I wonder if they have considered how many of their classmates experienced the same excitement at reading (or not) the literature that the teacher mandated.
- Some teachers are not readers themselves. They love the books they’ve chosen to use in their classes, but rarely do they read anything from a best-seller list, or an awards list. They want to stay with what is known and comfortable. Many times these teachers mistake their duty: to teach the child and not the book.
- Some teachers believe that certain pieces of literature must be read by every student on the planet. “If I don’t teach this book, then these students will never read it” is a statement I’ve heard many times. My answer is always “Yes, but many are still not reading it when you teach it.” We ruin the the taste of great literature for many students when we force books on them that they are not ready for. I’ve asked all of my students this year about their reading in 10th grade. Not one of them has said they love To Kill a Mockingbird, one of two books they had to read last year. Why would we want to turn students off of a much beloved book like TKMB?
- Some teachers believe that 10 to 15 minutes of sustained silent reading at the beginning of class is the same as instruction with choice reading. Sure, this reading time, especially if students are reading books that they choose, is important. It is a step. But it is not the same as structuring instruction around readers workshop where students not only read books that they choose, they think about them, talk about them, learn within them. They confer with a teacher intent on moving the reader in the best differentiated instruction possible.
- Some teachers are afraid of giving up control. They fear that if students are all reading different texts they won’t know how to manage the class or guide the learning. This is a valid concern, but it is also something they can learn how to do. Many of us are doing it. We are happy to share how.
I am sure there are other reasons, and really, I mean no disrespect. I know my colleagues are hardworking and loving educators. I like them a lot. I respect them for the work they do, and I am sure that their students are learning in their classes. I know this is true for many other teachers and classrooms across America, too. I just really want to challenge some thinking.
What if we can do more?
Let’s Allow all Students the Advantages of Choice
More than anything, I want all students to have opportunities to rise above the norm, and maybe, just
maybe, we will see many more students, not just our struggling ones, immersed in books they love, and thinking about their reading in ways we’ve never imagined. Their engagement will improve. Their growth will astound us. They will develop as critical thinkers, accomplished writers, and as empathetic individuals ready to take on the challenges of college and their world.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I shared a draft of it with my writing partners. This response from Shana is important:
“I was an AP Lit kid, and an Honors English kid. I SparkNoted The Scarlet Letter, Beowulf, Iliad, Catcher in the Rye, and the rest. I never read a bit of it. In fact, I didn’t read ANYTHING that was assigned to me simply because of the fact that it had been ASSIGNED. I was stubborn like that. And I got A’s all the way through. And a 5 on the AP test. All the while tearing through John Grisham, Elizabeth Peters, and the entire Bestsellers section of my public library outside of class.
“Then, my freshman year of college, when I took a workshop class in which I was allowed to self-select what I read, I chose the Scarlet Letter and thought it was the most beautiful love story I’d ever read. I finished it and read it again. Since that day, when I realized that because I was one of those AP kids and I COULD read those works, I’ve discovered that I LOVE them. But I never read a single one of them until after high school. My well-known love for Jane Austen didn’t emerge until I wrote a paper on Pride and Prejudice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for my Shakespeare capstone. I just read Mockingbird last summer for the first time ever. [Note: I read it when I was 40.]
“I was never allowed to choose for myself in AP or Honors English, but had I been allowed to…I would have read all of those books, and arrived at a deeper level of love and reverence for literature, much earlier in my reading life.
“One thing I might add — I totally disagree with that AP Lit teacher saying that students needed to draw from classic lit for the test. Many of my AP kids who got 5s wrote about modern classics…Oscar Wao, Life of Pi, whatever. You don’t have to know CLASSICS to ace the Lit exam…you just have to know how to write authentically about complex texts, and that’s what we do in workshop, and what kids should be doing in AP classes.”
I know there are others who have made the shift. I got this in an email message just today from Jeannine in CA. We had a nice chat at NCTE: “Thank you for our November communication. I have altered much of my instruction to incorporate choice reading. The students are soaring!!!”
Another AP English teacher trusting herself and her students enough to make a change and see where it takes them.
Why, Yes, There’s Research to Support This Pedagogy
I mentioned Donalyn’s post at the beginning of this long one. It is all about the research, the theory that outlines and supports what it takes to grow readers. Allington, Atwell, Krashen, Moss, Fisher, Ivey, and Kittle, and Gallagher and more.
I add another: Last summer at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute Penny Kittle had us read Making Meaning with Texts, Selected Essays by Louise Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt’s research spans decades and is just as applicable today as when she wrote it years ago. I challenge every English educator to read the whole of Rosenblatt’s essay “The Acid Test for Literature Teaching, published in 1956. Or, at least to respond honestly to Rosenblatt’s conclusion. Odds are you will make the shift to choice, if you haven’t already:
“As we review our current high school programs in literature, we need to hold on to the essentials, or take the opportunity as re-adjustments come about, to create the practice that will meet the acid test:
Does this practice or approach hinder or foster a sense that literature exists as a form of personally meaningful experiences?
Is the pupil’s interaction with the literary work itself the center from which all else radiates?
Is the student being helped to grow into a relationship of integrity to language and literature?
Is he building a lifetime habit of significant reading?”
*In an email after I’d written this post, I received the notes from that meeting, and I am happy to say that there were no specific book titles listed, just the admonition that students in 9 and 10 grade preAP classes read 3-5 whole class texts of a complex nature. And students need to read 15-20 books a year to grow as readers. (Yes, I did throw in that bit of research while in that meeting.)
©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015
Tagged: AP English, choice reading, Readers Writers Workshop, Reading research
I want to begin workshopping in my AP Lit and AP Lang class. I have read and reread so many threads and blogs and thank you all so much. I wonder if you have found success at allowing students to choose their own book club groups. When I allow all free choice for any collaboration, my students (and us teachers), gravitate to our friends or those similar to us. While this is lovely in some ways, it is also limiting and never offers the opportunity to meet a new friend and connect with someone from a different culture. I wonder what you have found successful.
Not much to say here other than Thank You.
[…] the program. What I observed saddened me. Just like the students in Amy Rasmussen’s article, “Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English” the kids were not actually reading the heavily-lauded classics that were being assigned to them. […]
[…] Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English: […]
[…] English classes. Why doesn’t this matter to their teachers?” – Amy Rasmussen’s Aim Higher It’s true. I am someone who loves literature and I did perhaps 10% of assigned reading in […]
[…] reading choices, check out these posts by Amber Counts here and here. And these by Amy Rasmussen here and […]
[…] “Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English,” Amy Rasmussen explains why students in AP English should get to choose what they read. She […]
[…] I even use Readers Workshop strategies with my AP kids, thanks to encouragement from posts like this one from Amy. She’s the one who started me down this […]
I agree with your post because when I am assigned a book I really don’t end up liking it although their have been exceptions I just really read it because I have to, but when I get to choose my book I end up not wanting to stop reading it until I finish which motivates me to try to find a better book than the one I have just read.
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I love the way you have a perspective in the literacy/reading life of students. This is a new way opportunities are brought up to students as they are encouraged more freely on the choice of books. It is undertood that students are the priority not the books and that is well established by the freedom of choice.
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I love the idea of self-selected reading because not everyone will have the same taste in book genre and challenging and the idea of going beyond or “limit.” This blog post really motivates me to read more not just for a school assignment but also for fun. I love the way you are not afraid about speaking your mind on how others teach and their beliefs.
[…] training. It was a fantastic event with many incredible educators. As we know from Amy’s many rants, advanced educators have a hard time wrapping their minds around workshop. I couldn’t help […]
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[…] are amazing works of literature, BUT I believe students should have a choice in what they read. In Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English, the author believes that students deserve a choice in what they are reading. She talks about […]
[…] the ability to choose their books is a sure fire starting method of inspiring life long readers. This article from “Three Teachers Talk” breaks down the advantages of allowing students …. By allowing students to choose, it encourages better reading and writing workshops, in some […]
[…] love the honesty and passion behind Amy Rasmussen’s piece Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English. Her words served to affirm some of the choices that I have made in my classroom, but more […]
[…] by what they are willing to read when you aren’t shoving material down their throats. In “Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English,” Amy Rasmussen quotes a friend who says, ““I was never allowed to choose for myself in AP or […]
[…] struggle. It’s all about the relationship. There was one quote from Amy’s blog post Aim Higher that I think is relevant to this: “Some teachers are afraid of giving up control.” In […]
[…] the more I talk with kids about their reading lives, the more I keep hoping more and more teachers Aim Higher — not just in AP classes, but in all English […]
[…] too. And students will read more when they have choice. When we couple volume with instructional practices that teach students what […]
[…] (Side Note: To those who say students will never move beyond YA or ‘easy’ reading when it’s all about choice. Um, wrong again.) […]
That should say Penny Kittle*
I really enjoyed reading this blog post as a middle school ELA teacher I incorporate choice and shared novels that are all YA lit. But here are two pieces of advice I would love to ask you. 1. the admin always wants to hold kids “accountable” and thinks reading workshop is terrible. What do I do?
2. How do you deal with kids ruining your books or not returning them? This was a huge problem for me this year.
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Hi, Paul. Thanks for the comment. Just because students choose their own books does not mean they are not accountable for learning from them. Perhaps administration doesn’t understand 1) reading well requires practice, and getting students to practice becomes a chore when they have no say in the books they are asked to read, 2) accountability looks different than worksheets or tests about whole class novels. It’s conferring with kids about their reading, asking them to occasionally write about their reading, using their books to study and emulate writing. About losing books? I do not have a perfect system. I have a clipboard. Students sign books out and then back in. I still lose several every year. Penny Littleton taught me: If you are not losing about 20% of your classroom library, you are buying the wrong books. I can only hope my books make it into the hands of other readers, siblings or friends perhaps.
I love this! It is an affirmation of what I believe and strive to do with my students. This year my Sophomores did Lit Circle/Book Club groups on a group of 14 novels that I’d chosen. The only requirement was that at least one of the books they did had to be one of the classics (I had half classics, half contemporary and YA). This worked much better than the (Sparknoted) BookTalks that they did last year. I had them use their laptops (we are a 1:1 school) to record the sessions, so I got to observe all of the discussions. I move up with this group next year, and I’ll be teaching AP Lang for the first time, and I was nervous about continuing this practice. Now in excited all over again! I’m off to wander your blog and glean as much info as I can! Thank you!
Ps–I picked books that were often on the censored list and got permission forms signed by the parents at the beginning of the year. Giving kids the options to read books that had been forbidden elsewhere sweetened the pot a little and encouraged them to read more. Some still Sparknoted, to be sure, but that percentage was much much lower this year. 😊
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I can feel your excitement. Your students are blessed to have you. Best wishes with AP Lang. You will love it!
[…] found it interesting that this article pointed out how freedom of choice is being allowed in general English classrooms but not in honors […]
[…] “If students are not readers, they tend to struggle in all academic subjects- not just English.” –Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English […]
[…] a coming concert, symbols of existentialism in Camus’ The Stranger, or calculus derivatives. Three Teachers Talk made a open-and-shut case for the need to change the way we teach reading from trudging through […]
[…] is so exciting to me. We have all heard the excuses for holding on to required reading. An article, “A Case for Choice Reading” outlined a few common […]
[…] have written about choice here and here and here. It crops up again and again in our writing, thinking, and […]
[…] In a conversation the other day, one teacher said she likes to use classic literature because the conversations around the complexity help even her struggling students learn. Of course, that is probably true, but learn what? Those conversations will not help those students become better readers. The only way to become a better read is to read. If students are not reading the books we choose, we have to be okay with that. We have to admit that perhaps our goals for that specific unit, and that novel, are different than choosing the book because we know all students will read it. We have to decide we are okay will students not reading. I wrote a pretty long post about this whole debate here. […]
[…] myself all the way home. Why was I trying to justify my test scores? I’ve written about this before. I have much better proof that workshop works than any kind of testing […]
[…] back I wrote Aim Higher™: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English. I am pretty sure I thanked everyone individually for the comments. If not, thank you for helping […]
[…] blog post Aim Higher had a common theme that has been discussed in #yalitclass. The ability to allow students to select […]
Yes, I will share my reading list. Are you wanting everything we read — short pieces and the titles my students choose from for book clubs?
I’m most interested in what they can choose for the book clubs
Sorry for the delay. I’m about to write up a post with those lists right now. Will run next Tuesday. Thanks for your patience — spring crazy in my classroom.
Can you share your reading lists with us?
[…] That was my life from fourth grade to eighth grade and, because of AR, my love for reading slowly dwindled so that, by the time I reached high school, I “read a little and Sparknotes’d a lot” (as Amy Rasmussen so put in her blog post “A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English“. […]
[…] Aim Higher™: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English Was an amazing read! I read this and found myself thinking “Where do I stand?” So I am Pro Choice- read what you feel without restriction. I also fight with myself over the other side of “we need to introduce our young readers to the classics, Whether they like it or not. (they’ll thank me later)” Will they really? Nope probably not. I think that despite the inner battle I want the kids I see at the library, in my kids’ class, and my own kids to pick up a book not with the intention of using it as a door stop, but to read and form their own opinion about what they are reading. This week’s readings have challenged my desire for everyone to read, no matter what it is. […]
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[…] Aim Higher™: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English by Amy Rasmussen […]
[…] Writing Project consultants to write curriculum and train teachers. (I write about that in part in this post.) The ELA coordinator also hosted trainings with Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller, two of the […]
[…] Many of the questions left in the comments on my post a couple weeks ago, Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English, can be answered in a chat about book clubs; however, by no means do I have all the answers. I need […]
You are welcome! Thank you for your thought provoking post! Keep writing!
Reblogged this on Lifelong Quest.
Thank you for reposting! #Blessings
[…] Amy at Three Teachers Talk makes a very persuasive case that students in AP courses need choice in their reading lives. […]
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[…] Aim Higher™: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English | Three Teachers Talk […]
Excellent post, Amy! This blog is quickly becoming my go-to aggregator for RWW research. As an aside, I would say the idea that you need a “storehouse” of books to write Q3 on the free response is a bit dramatic. Even in my pre-workshop days, I always told students that they only needed to know a few books really well to prepare for that question (a comedy, a tragedy, and nice dense novel or two). When I actually reread all of the Q3 questions that have been given, I think I only came up with two that I couldn’t have answered with an essay about The Poisonwood Bible.
Kara, thank you. Oh, yes, how I love The Poisonwood Bible! In five years, I’ve only been able to get one student to read it by choice. Ha.
I absolutely agree and believe your point is spot on. Imagine the growth and in depth study we might get in our readers if they choose those couple of dense and complex books. (Of course, we model and practice with short rich texts before we ask them to do it on their ow. I get asked/scoffed at a lto when I don’t make that clear.)
Best blessings to you and your students, and please keep sharing comments and ideas
Hi Amy, I feel like I have had this conversation many times…and it often comes around to the “these are classics for a reason” defense. I am shocked that high school students are still reading the same books that I read when I was in high school…as though the writing and publishing field has stood still, with nothing new worth reading published since…when? You articulate so well why students need choices and opportunities to figure out how to be a reader–not just a student! I’ll be sharing your post with friend and colleagues…and at the very least, I hope it “challenges some thinking!” Thanks for posting this.
Kim, Oh, yes! I love this “nothing new worth reading published since…” I know, right? I ask my students to participate in four book clubs a year–all contemporary, award-winning books/authors. They choose from five titles. Students still get choice. I get them to complexity. Just yesterday a student said to me “Kite Runner is my new favorite book.” And then we had a chat about the author’s other books. I love that.
Thank you for the comment –and the support.
Laura, I share some of these same concerns, I’ve also learned how to deal with some of them. Choice reading doesn’t always mean we only read whatever we want. Sometimes we do, but other times students have choice with parameters. I’ll share more in another post on what I mean exactly. You’re onto some of it with your 19th century authors suggestion.
Thank you for the comment. It’s sparked my thinking even more.
I have children in high school AP English classes and always assumed that the books they read were required by the College Board.
Should students be given complete free rein to pick whatever book they would like? I’m not sure. I absolutely hated some of the books I had to read in school, but some I enjoyed in spite of myself.
For my own experience with book clubs, when I’ve been forced out of my comfort zone as a reader, I’ve discovered some of my favorite books that I never would have if someone else hadn’t chosen them for me. The choice I made was to join the book club.
I’d like to think that having a book list to choose from would help students discover those hidden gems. Perhaps the conversation should be more like, “We’re reading early 19th century authors, here’s some options, which one would you like?”
Another thought – what if the book is not boring or tedious for the student, but emotionally disturbing. My child is reading a book in AP Eng that has a rape scene – some of the students in class have protested because for them, that is a trigger issue. Should those students be required to read this book? Is there another book that would as emotionally harrowing, but in a different direction?
I have lots of thoughts, but not many answers.
[…] then came Amy’s courageous and oh-so-right post yesterday about choice in AP and Honors level English classes. I wish she’d written that […]
I was stumped by something you wrote. Perhaps I misunderstand your meaning? What did you intend to say when you wrote: “Many times these teachers mistake their duty: to teach the child and not the book.”
I would have thought to point is to teach the child, regardless of the subject matter. Could you expound on what you said? Thank you.
Yes, I agree, as you said, “the point is to teach the child, regardless of the subject matter.” I think sometime we tend to think that our subject matter, for instance, a specific piece of literature, is more important than the child in our charge. I hear many teachers say, “I’m teaching this book,” or “When I teach this book.” Our duty is to teach the child — every child in the best way we know how.
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Reblogged this on The Reading Zone and commented:
This is a phenomenal blog post about choice in upper-level English courses in secondary school. As someone who Sparknoted her way though many English classes while reading hundreds of books under my desk, I say YES!
Thank you, my friend. I was a reader, even in high school. It didn’t dawn on me until I’d been teaching for awhile that many of my friends in my English classes were not.
I loved your “So What’s The Real Deal” bullet points. I was having this very debate with an old high school friend (we are forty-somethings) at a Super Bowl party, when he threw me a softball. He was aghast that my students were not reading Hemingway right now. His main point was, “But if they don’t read it now, they will never read it! Hemingway! He’s a must-read!” Then I asked him, “So what do you like to read now, as an adult?” He said, “Oh I don’t really read.” 🙂
Thank you for the comment, Betsy. I saw a man the other night at church with Heart of Darkness in his hand. I couldn’t help myself and asked why he was reading it. He told me that he’d tried to read this book at least three different times, and he’d never been able to do it. He said now that he was older (at least 45) he was determined to read and understand it. I believe we do a great disservice when we force literature on students before they are ready for it. So many great works get ruined for readers by well-intentioned English teachers. (I’ve never read Heart of Darkness. Ha.)
I teach AP Literature, and I would love to try this. The problem is that I have no idea how to implement it while still holding students accountable. One thing I like about whole class novel assignments is the opportunity to address specific, particular literary devices the author uses. I feel like students benefit from understand those elements, and I worry that in allowing them to choose, we would lose that layer of discussion.
Twice each year, my students do get to choose their books: the first one is when they select a novel from an AP-inspired list, and the second is for a research project in which they choose a book from a list I created of novels written within the last ten years (they research for “literary merit”). Otherwise, they read what I assign.
What advice do you have for someone like me? What can I do to implement student choice next year?
Thanks for your comment. I have lots of thoughts that might help. Please know that I am not saying to never read anything together as a class. We read a lot of complex texts together, but they are primarily short. We have Harkness discussions where students share their thinking and analysis of these texts. We have four book clubs a year where students choose to read books from my short lists — this is how I am able to move some students into more complex novels when they would never go there on their own. I’ll be more specific in another post, and answer you more directly soon. I hope this helps a bit for now. Thanks again!
Thanks so much for this post, Amy! Inspiration! I’m thinking a lot about this very issue in my IB English course where the whole class needs to read specific texts together. I’m determined to make it work. 🙂
Rebekah, you’ll like this piece by Tim Pruzinsky. He teaches IB in an international school in Thailand (I think). http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/EJ/1034-mar2014/EJ1034Read.pdf
LOVE it. Thank you!
Reblogged this on My So-Called Literacy Life and commented:
Excellent case for choice reading in AP Lit classrooms…and a great pairing with my brief post from this past summer, Books I Only Pretended to Read in HS: http://mysocalledliteracylife.com/2014/07/07/books-i-only-pretended-to-read-in-hs/.
Oh, yes, Shawna! I remember reading your piece. Like minds! Thanks for the comment.