For years I taught in an interdisciplinary program, which I loved. English, Social Studies, and Science. Because I believe strongly in the importance of student choice in reading, I developed units which allowed for both choice and the canon.
Here’s an example. We were studying the Civil War. While I worked with my teaching partners to develop the essential question and some of the activities, there were also many days when I had students in a single period for just language arts. I knew I wanted them reading choice novels, but at the same time I felt there were some common pieces that we all needed to do together. We did shared reading for the common pieces, all of which were short stories, essays, poetry, music, or excerpts from books.
Sometimes people get the idea that “choice” means totally open ended. In the classroom, I often use “limited choice.” Students were given a list of probably 30 Civil War books to choose from. I gave book talks for the various novels, some of which I had not read, but I had read enough to be able to introduce.
For example, when introducing The Red Badge of Courage, I made sure to say that it’s a classic and important for future English and History majors to read, but while it’s a very SHORT book, it’s probably the most difficult to read with the least action. (I’d learned that lesson early on when the lowest reader chose it because it was the smallest book!). I then recommended Rifles for Watie, much thicker novel, but assured students they’d like the teenage hero who goes behind the enemy lines. Struggling readers like Rifles for Watie, and then can read more pages when they’re engaged. I had any number of tenth grade boys who were amazed that they read and finished a book 300+ pages long…and liked it!
An example of what we read for shared reading, was “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Students were asked to relate it to their choice novels. The writing was so much more powerful than what I had traditionally done.
Another way of offering choice is to use Literature Circles. In these instances, I’d select maybe 4-6 books that thematically fit with what we were studying. I’d again give book talks on the titles and then have students write down their top three choices. That way, I was always able to give everyone one of their picks. I was also able to balance groups, and if I knew that a particular novel was not a fit for a student or the make up of the group would not be workable, I could still meet the top three choices.
I firmly believe that when we teach class novels, we teach students how to cheat. We teach them how to use Cliff Notes. We teach them how to pass our classes without doing the actual reading. We teach them how to play the game of school, how to ask questions that will make us do the work (we LOVE to expound on our favorite books!), and how to not read. Those are NOT the skills I want to teach students. So if I don’t, I need to make sure that I structure my class so that I’m not teaching these particular skills.
If my belief is that kids need to be reading, then it’s up to me to structure my class so that students must read, to make sure there’s not an easy out that allows them to be successful without reading. It can be done, but it cannot be done with class novels!