Saturday, March 26, 2011

The joys of independent reading

Recently, in light of some recent events at my school, I've been thinking a lot about the value of independent reading as part of the school curriculum. As standardized testing takes hold (and as independent reading assessment has become more time-consuming and difficult), kids are choosing fewer books on their own. It's a real loss, and it's happening at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum. Our teachers have embraced independent reading, and we're seeing the payoff pretty clearly.

As an AP English student, I read scores of plays and novels. However, the books that I remember are the ones that I chose off of an approved but not core list. These books felt dangerous, outside the classic curriculum, fringe, and my attachment to them was personal. Those seared in my memory are Naked Lunch, On the Road, Turn of the Screw, among a few. They were generally books about people operating outside of normal society, often in deranged ways.

The middle and high school where I work has embraced a different kind of independent reading. Instead of edgy classics, our kids are reading YA fiction, often intense books with strong plots. Most are not reading Great Expectations, or even On the Road or Catcher in the Rye, but, quite frankly, they wouldn't anyway. While some lament the loss of the classic as more modern fiction is embraced, my feeling is that we are creating readers instead of turning kids off of reading for good, which is what would happen if I handed one of my students my personal favorites. My hope is that they will dig deeper and turn to classics after they build their reading muscles, which are often pretty lax.

The way that my school has promoted books and reading is through our "book club." An informal group of people who buy books and might start casual conversations about them. It is not a real book group, which, as a recent New York Times piece notes, is not always necessary. As Rebecca Stead notes, often a reader wants the book to only exist in the reader's mind. "For me, as a kid, a book was a very private world." Stead recalls not wanting to talk to people about the books she loved because it shattered that intimate relationship with the work.

People who want to promote reading, though, have to work hard to build a must-read excitement for a book. As book critic and author Laura Miller states, there's a whole lot of competing interests out there. Book groups and Internet book sites generate excitement and interest around an activity that, for most kids, might not seem worth their while.

“If you want to build a culture where people who could just as easily watch a movie are going to instead say, ‘Oh, I’m going to read this Tracy Chevalier book or ‘The Kite Runner,’ ” Ms. Miller said, “then they do need that kind of stuff like the book groups and discussion guides.”

Letting kids pick their own books is controversial, as this New York Times article -- "A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like" -- indicates. At this point, though, it may be the only way to get kids to read. And, if you can't get kids to read, then you really shouldn't be in the education business at all.

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