The comments to my recent post on why students don't read got me thinking about whole-class, teacher-selected novels and why they might not always be the best solution. Of course, I realize that we are never going to stop teaching novels like this, but this kind of instruction is the dominant type in our field (especially in high school) and I think this is a mistake.
This installment is about the reasons against this type of curriculum. I put these ideas out there to challenge the status quo. In my eyes, it is dangerous to teach in a certain way without questioning why one does it and looking at the reasons to do it and reasons not to. My follow-up installment will look at the reasons to teach this way (and my responses to the reasons). We must constantly question our methods, look at both sides, and do what is best for our students.
1. Ignores that students have a variety of ability levels. Reading one book for 30 kids assumes that every student in the class can access the book in their zone of proximal development. Now, it is completely possible, but in today's world of inclusion classes, it is even more unlikely that every child will be at exactly the right level that challenges the students just enough to be educationally beneficially, but not frustrating.
2. Ignores that students have a variety of interests. Again, it is possible that 30 students would all have exactly the same tastes, but very unlikely. This is what leads to students saying, "This book is boring." It is boring - to them. There are very few books that are universally appealing (and us thinking that it should be universally appealing to our students doesn't make it so).
3. Focusses instruction on what students are to "get" from the novel and not on improving students' reading skills. It is inevitable during a whole-class discussion that when a teacher sees that students are not "getting" part of the book, that they would want to correct it. Great teachers find ways for students to do this themselves, but most teachers either clear up the misunderstanding directly or ask leading questions to clear it up. This does not help students as they need to learn how to do all this stuff on their own. In my experience and from what I've noticed from dozens of teachers and student teachers is that when you are teaching a whole class novel, the main concern is if students "get" the book. We should be focussing on teaching skills so that students can do this work on their own for the rest of their lives.
4. Does not foster students learning how to select books. Yes, we need to expose students to books that they would not otherwise select on their own. Adding to students' cultural capital is a prime reason for using teacher-selected books. But, in the world outside of school no one will be telling our students what to read. We should be teaching them to select books of their own. When adults are looking for a book, we do a lot of evaluating in order to figure out if the book would be entertaining, useful, etc. When students never have the opportunity to do that, they don't learn how to do it. This then leads them to not know how to select books or, even worse, think that reading books is something only done in school and to be dictated by someone else.
All of these reasons contribute to students not becoming life-long readers. Deborah Meier said at a speaking engagement recently that if when students leave us and go on with their lives and they never pick up a book, we've done something wrong. We should be teaching students how to read (which includes what to do when they encounter a difficult text and reading for pleasure) and doing everything we can to foster a love of reading. Whole-class, teacher-selected novels may not be the best method for doing this.
Next installment: Why we do use whole-class, teacher-selected novels and what's good about them?