« Why students should self-assess | Main | Teaching student skills »



For students that do not come from "reading" homes and have limited exposure to the canon, a little guidance can go a long way. Just as us "adult readers" turn our friends and colleagues onto books we think are imporant, we can do the same for our students. Of course, there is a difference between recommending a book and shoving it down a student's throat but telling a student that a book is important to read, as far as I'm concerned, is fine as long as one can justify their claim. If some of my students had complete and total choice, they would either read The Post/Daily News, comic books or nothing at all. If we're thinking about our students as being able to enter the greater intellectual conversation outside our school walls, it would be disservice to them to not point them in the direction of books that can help inform and shape the direction of their view of the world. A lot of contemporary literature is informed by more classical literature and we owe it to our students to expose them to that, in some way or form. I would argue that it, in fact, empowers our students.

Tim Fredrick

I'm just saying that we need to allow our students to judge whether or not they agree that these books are important and to question the "importance" of such books. Who are the people who've decided that certain books are "important"? What criteria are they using? Are these criteria valid? Do students agree? These questions are valid, inspire critical thought, and prepare students to engage intellectually in the world.

Bronwyn G

Nani, I would go from your students' choices to the canon in steps. What book reviews/theatre productions/art shows does the Post/Daily normally have? Then point them out, if they have something enriching that the students might learn from and enjoy. Also, there are many graphic novels (which aren't so much a step far) of important authors, like Dickens and Thackeray and Mark Twain. Then they can know and get the story and find the real book if they're interested. I read the Age, the Australian and the Herald-Sun and I do find something valuable from each, especially the book reviews and the theatre. They take up a great deal of my Saturdays and Sundays, and could be considered my homework as they broaden my mind.

I think the people who decide books are important are readers and writers through history, as well as critics and teachers and librarians. They use the criteria of a complete literary experience, which involves character, plot, setting, theme ... they use how much they enjoyed it or not, they use if the book struck a chord on society or how controversial it was (think about D.H. Lawrence). The criteria is valid if it works for many people or if it builds somebody's knowledge of reading and writing and takes them to the next level (this could be multi-dimensional).

Mr Frederick and Nani - and any other teacher who would like to take the plunge! - How do your students decide what's important in their reading and writing process? How could their decision-making processes be better?

Bud Hunt

Why in the world should the end goal of Nani's, or anyone's, students be the "canon?" Which one? Who decides?
Comic books are fairly sophisticated these days -- at least some are. Original graphic novels are some of the best literature being created in our time. Neil Gaiman and others like him are the writers and illustrators telling the stories handed down to us through classical mythology -- and they're telling them well in new and refreshing ways.
What's wrong with that? Great intellectual conversations are (or should be) two-way streets -- students ought to be recommending texts to the so-called literati, too.
While I do think that we can tell students that certain books are important, and worth reading, I also think we'd better be real sure and have a rationale ready when a student challenges our selection.
I have trouble teaching books to an entire class for some of the very reasons that Tim mentions above.

Marco Polo

This question, "who are we to decide for our charges what is important and what is not?" can be seen to be part of a larger issue, which some describe as the collapse of authority, or the death of teaching, or a phony egalitarianism that fails the very people it is supposed to help - the economically disadvantaged. I first came across this idea in a rather annoying yet important book by British journalist Melanie Philips, All Must Have Prizes. Others have argued, more narrowly perhaps, that there has been a definite dumbing down of education, again in the name of egalitarianism or political correctness, and that it's not necessary to do so (John Taylor Gatto, Carol Jago, for instance). I think this issue is worthy of consideration. It's not an easy matter, and studying it reveals a lot of fascinating subplots in education.

Ben Bleckley

Is there any reason students should believe our opinion over others, particularly students who don't want to be in school and don't want to (and many times don't) do homework assignments? Despite the effort we put out to show we care and to show that we do like literature and that we believe they can succeed, we are still, to some students, a major pain.

By encouraging our students to talk about the books they read with other students, don't we have a better chance of getting out students to read? If someone my age from my backround likes a book, I'm probably more likely to enjoy it myself. Why should students read the canon? There are not a lot of books from the "canon" that I've enjoyed reading (or, to be totally honest, see as absolutely necessary to study English).

Here's a thought, and it just occured to me so it is wildly underdeveloped. What if we taught a unit centered around literature circles where students propose and vote on the books from which they can choose?

Charles Nelson

When I read people's comments on this topic, I wonder two things: 1. What research on learning are they basing their opinions on? 2. How often does a football coach let the players call the plays in a game?

Mama Squirrel

(Visiting through the Literature Carnival.)

It seems we're coming from very different places on this. I'm a homeschooling parent of three female persons (including one teenager), and we deliberately include "dead white guys" in our curriculum; lots of them. There are reasons why all those teachers told the same lies about certain books being important...or could it have been that they weren't lies?

Yes, definitely different perspectives, that's all I can say. Thanks for providing the insight into yours.


Is there any reason students should believe our opinion over others...

Well... yes. Presumably because we are older, wiser, and have more life experience. The world is a big place and students are new to it and generally haven't seen a whole lot of it. Good Books, Great Books, Important Books, provide access to an incredibly rich array of ideas from all over the world and all sorts of times.

What I'm reading here reminds me of a tour guide who says, "Yeah, I've been here dozens of times and you never have, and I speak the language and you don't, and I know the history of this place and you don't- but I don't want to injure your critical thinking skills, so who am I to suggest where the most interesting castles are, where the best spots in town are, or how to find a great, authentic, restaurant? You newbies take a vote and decide, and I'm sure your uninformed opinion will be just as good as mine."

With some tour guides, of course, that will be true- but the fault will be with the tour guides, not with the country (or the books).


After exploring your blog, I want to say that---I love your your passion to address struggling readers. Also I think the idea of pursuing a doctorate in this area is especially noble. I read a little of the discussion on the need for students to have a choice with regard to selection of novels. I have personally found that the canon does not motivate the low performing urban student and what i found to work are books relative to student experiences. So far, I have used books such as Sharon Flakes novel "Bang" with much success. Thus, I have gathered a list of reluctant reader books for urban students and thus far the listing is pivotal in motivating students to read independently. I too believe students should have a voice in selecting materials to read.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

NY Times Education Section

Blog powered by Typepad