Can’t the Students Just Choose Their Own Novels?

On Twitter a few months ago, a teacher I know shared that he wished his kids had more say over what they were assigned to read in their high school English courses. More specifically, he retweeted another teacher advocating for student choice of texts to illustrate the point about his children’s disappointingly prescriptive high school experience. The original tweet was one of those idealistic, inspirational missives about letting go of tired, restrictive pedagogy and embracing the future.

The implication of that original tweet was clear: there are bold, innovative teachers who allow students to choose their own books to study and traditional teachers who don’t, the latter, presumably, being the kinds of teachers who say things like, “I don’t know…can you use the restroom?”

Which got me thinking. I have no doubt this father is right about his kids’ English classes, and I can only imagine the very serious literature they and their peers are all reading at exactly the same time. I can see that getting to choose some of their books could make them more interested and engaged with the process of studying them, which is undoubtedly a positive outcome. Plus, agency, right? Co-construction? All good things.

What I wonder about, though, is not whether or not students should ever be able to choose their own books to study—of course, they should—but whether or not student choice of books is the bold step forward we’d like to imagine it is or panacea for a plague of uninspired language arts teaching.

Because when it comes right down to it, everybody reads the same book and everybody reads their own book have one key thing in common: they both treat the book exclusively as course content to be taught and learned. When that’s actually the case, say when students are studying the conventions of narrative or the novel or characterization in a general way or even trying to get better at reading and can learn all this from a variety of books–from any book, maybe–sure, why not let them choose ones they’re excited by?

But what if we’re using a novel instead as a medium to inquire into issues of power and privilege or fairness and justice? What if a book is a tool for investigating a particular concept or global context? And what if that book is studied along with accompanying texts of multiple modes and varying types to provide deeper conceptual understanding? Basically, what if we’re teaching language and literature in the IB DP, MYP or any other inquiry-based program?

We don’t read books only to understand those specific books. We don’t even read books to understand all books: how they’re structured, what devices they use, etc. We read books to understand the world, and sometimes we need to teachers to help systematize or mediate that understanding.

So, I’d say where it’s feasible, let kids choose their own books. Where it’s not, don’t. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. My high-level DP Language & Literature students will choose one of their own works from the IB’s prescribed reading list in this new course, but I’ve chosen the other five for them after a lot of planning and thinking about how they connect to the courses global issues, conceptual understandings and areas of exploration.

And I’m fine with using the modal verb can to express permissibility as well as ability.

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