There’s a lengthy article at the New York Times about middle-school English teacher Lorrie McNeill and her experiments in encouraging her students to engage with reading, and it’ll probably come as little surprise to many of you that she’s found that giving the kids (almost) free rein to pick their own titles has been much more successful than following the classics curriculum and force-feeding them Moby Dick and To Kill A Mockingbird:
The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on.
… some previously staunch advocates of a rigid core curriculum have moderated their views. “I actually used to be a real hard-line, great-books, high-culture kind of person who would want to stick to Dickens,” said Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” But now, in the age of Game Boys and Facebook, “I think if they read a lot of Conan novels or Hardy Boys or Harry Potter or whatever, that’s good,” he said. “We just need to preserve book habits among the kids as much as we possibly can.”
… 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.”
This certainly chimes with my own experience of literature education when I was at school, and I come from a much more privileged background than McNeill’s students. We were made to read lots of classics (including To Kill A Mockingbird, which I remember as one of the most tedious books I ever had to open), and despite the fact that I’d been a keen reader from a very early age thanks to the encouragement of my parents, I honestly believe it was this teaching method that made me abandon English Lit as an education option at the earliest available opportunity. [image by <cleverCl@i®ê>]
Luckily, I never stopped reading (predominantly genre fiction, as should come as no surprise), but I wonder if I might have thought of becoming a writer much earlier in my life had the connection between books I loved and books considered “worthwhile” been made at that stage. Now I’m older, I read much more widely, and recent years have seen me exploring classic literature with a passion that could only have come from having learned for myself just how much pleasure reading a novel can bring (though, to my shame, I’ve still never gotten round to reapproaching To Kill A Mockingbird, which I suspect I’d appreciate far more now than as a callow and geeky 13-year-old).
What were your experiences of literature education at school? Did you lap up the classics, or did they bore you to tears? Do you think that it’s better to encourage kids to read “proper” literature, or just to encourage them to read, period?