Photo by Darwin Bell
Should kids be “forced” to read books they aren’t naturally drawn to, or should we just be happy that they’re reading anything at all, whatever it might be?
This question has been needling parents and teachers for a number of years, and it got plenty of people particularly riled up over the weekend, when it was addressed in a New York Times article: A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like. (Thanks to Twitter friend and school librarian, @bookhouseboy, for letting me know about the article!)
A generation ago, it wasn’t really a question; of course kids should be forced to read the classics, at least when it comes to school assigned literature. The question itself might be relatively new, for teachers, but this type of question isn’t really new. There are many age-old versions of it, and many subtleties surrounding the question, that aren’t nearly so black and white.
For instance: Should picky eaters be forced to swallow down vegetables, or should parents be happy when they eat anything, assuming that good nutrition habits will come later?
When it comes to reading, the two sides of the argument are summed up here (from the New York Times article by Motoko Rich):
In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.
But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.
Personally, I tend to avoid seeing things as black or white so it doesn’t surprise me that I can see positive aspects to both approaches. I do have some opinions, though, and I’m really liking the food metaphor, so I’m going to run with it as I share my thoughts about how and what kids should be reading. (Disclaimer: I speak as a parent and lover of books, and do not pretend to understand all of the challenges teachers face in the classroom and regarding district regulations.)
Choice as motivator: Green beans or Brussels sprouts?
I think kids should be eating some vegetables and reading some classic literature, but they can also be given some limited choice in the matter. It seems to me that forcing any specific thing on kids, in a specific way, makes most of them feel cornered and resentful, and even rebellious. If the grownups make it clear (you will be eating some vegetables tonight with dinner) but give them options (should I make green beans or Brussels sprouts?), kids tend to take more ownership in the matter. This approach offers freedom within structure. The same goes, I would think, for reading teachers who offer options: Everyone in this class must chose to read either Harper Lee or Anne Frank—you pick.
An appetizing disguise never hurts: Some Hollandaise for that asparagus?
Just because something is really good for you doesn’t mean it’s destined to be a bitter pill to choke down. In other words, not every classic piece of literature has to be slopped onto the plate like a pile of lukewarm, mushy peas. So don’t throw the vegetables out because kids turn up their noses—find fresh ways to approach them and serve them. Take the classic literature and have kids read it, but let them respond to it in exciting formats and new ways. Disguise it just enough, under a bit of Hollandaise sauce, and soon maybe the good habits will come without requiring extra effort.
It’s all about community: Avoid eating alone
Just as dinner, ideally, is not only about directing food toward your stomach, reading is not just about ingesting words. We tend to think about reading as a solitary activity, but I think the communal aspect of engaging books and ideas is as important as each individual actually reading the book. It worries me to think that a class of kids might all be reading different books, so they might miss out on those important opportunities to discuss, form opinions, and debate. It’s almost as sad as the thought of some family members, night after night, each heating up their individual frozen dinner of choice and eating it when and where they want, without the motivation to plan and share the food, the space, and the accompanying conversation.
Save room for what’s sweetest: The undeniable validity of ice cream
It’s important to teach kids that what’s good for them is usually not what tastes sweetest, and that’s OK. It’s a huge life lesson—the best things in life take work and discipline—so the sooner they learn it, the better. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for everything gooey, sugary, sticky and rich. There just has to be balance and moderation. I think kids, parents and teachers can all work together to find that sweet spot, as long as they share common goals and ideals. There’s always room for dessert after dinner, and always a place for those Valentines Days and Halloweens of abandon and sweet celebration, when the healthy diet is temporarily put on hold. Let the kids go crazy and read what they want. Just make sure they brush their teeth really well when they come down from their sugar high.