Donalyn Miller’s post “Let My People Read,” is about the sad reality of assigned summer reading that so many kids get. I’m with her 100% on the need to leave kids alone to read whatever they want over the summer. In fact, I’m happy to see more media attention given to the research indicating that the best way to keep kids reading over the summer is to give them books. Next week is our last of the year and I’ve got a book handpicked for each of my students to read (or not as they chose) over the summer. Where Donalyn and I appear to differ is on the idea of reading a book together as a class during the school year.
Don and I expressed dismay that another slew of great works will be slowly destroyed for our daughter during months-long novel studies next year.
Sigh. Now I understand the hatred many have for this approach to books and literature in school because it is often done badly. Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” makes me wince every time I read it. For I think that exploring a piece of great literature together can be wonderful, that it can be as fabulous a way to enjoy a poem as any other, that it is celebrating the work, not torturing it. Certainly I had my share of boring novel studies throughout my schooling, but I also had some amazing ones. I remember the excitement of reading The Iliad and Odyssey together with my 8th grade English teacher and an incredible college class where we delved into Goethe’s Faust. And so I feel strongly that we teachers should do the occasional novel unit — one where the class becomes a community, helping each other in an exploration of a particular work of literature.
Turn the class into a book club like the ones we participate in as adults. The kids can then experience the book together, responding to it in real time, exclaiming, becoming choked up, being surprised when someone he/she doesn’t know has the same response to a particular moment, gaining insight from another peer, and so forth. Reading the same book for school is, to my mind, a social experience not one done in solitude. I do this with the books I read aloud, but I also do it with books the kids read. This year we started the year reading Charlotte’s Web together and ended in literature circles with The One and Only Ivan. Loving each book by itself, finding wonderful images and pieces of writing, seeing connections between the two — all of this and more made both experiences exhilarating ones.
I believe in giving kids ample choice in what they read, but I also believe in the power of shared literary explorations. To me close reading, whole class book study, and so forth can be a joy not a horror.