Pick Books You Like

I read an article by Motoko Rich in the August 29, 2009 issue of The New York Times that talks about the future of reading.  Rich writes about Lorrie McNeill, a middle school teacher in Jonesboro, Georgia who last fall turned over the reading assignments for her seventh and eighth graders to the students themselves.

Rich states that the approach, called reading workshop, is catching on throughout America’s public schools as a way to teach students how to enjoy reading rather than forcing them to read traditional tomes such as Toni Morrison’s  Beloved or Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird, a selection that McNeill used to require her students to read.  Selected school districts in Chicago, Seattle, and New York are employing similar tactics, according to Ms. Rich.  At the same time, she states that none are going as far as Ms. McNeill who attended a seminar in Atlanta taught by Nancy Atwell.  Atwell and Lucy M. Calkins at Columbia University’s Teachers College have emerged as “gurus” of the reading workshop movement.

Rich balances comments from critics of the reading workshop approach and proponents of the approach.  Some of the critics acknowledge that if allowing students to choose the books that they read leads to an enjoyment of reading, than it’s probably better than requiring just the classics to be read by the entire class.

Many critics of McNeill’s approach argue that reading a work as a group allows for meaningful exchange and insights into the substance of the book.  Other critics speculate that one teacher cannot possibly keep up with the many and varied selections of an entire class of students.  Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University and Assistant Education Secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration states in the article that students are more likely to pick up “’trendy and popular’” books and not the classic works like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, perhaps leading to a generation of students who are completely unfamiliar with the works that have shaped American literature for decades and longer. 

Proponents of the methodology note that instilling a love of reading in students can be difficult when educators and administrators force them to read works with which students have a difficult time connecting.  According to Rich, John T. Guthrie, retired professor of literacy at the University of Maryland, has conducted several studies on how student choice impacts performance on reading comprehension tests and has found that “giving students…options can enhance educational results.”  While McNeill herself notes in the article that she struggles from time to time with students who neglect to challenge themselves by reading works that are substantive, her students are reading works that are arguably as challenging and thought-provoking as “the classics.”  Though it sometimes takes some guidance, McNeill’s students are reading works like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings among others.

The article concludes with a summary of the state standardized testing scores for reading of McNeill’s eight graders, 15 of the 18 scored in the highest bracket.  Only four of the same students had done so the previous year before McNeill implemented the reading workshop program.  I wish Ms. McNeill and others continued success in finding innovative ways to improve the ways in which our children learn to enjoy reading.  Our nation’s future depends on it.



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