I agree with much of the previous post on the effective classroom. However, I want to make a few remarks about choice.
While students must have some control over the tasks we ask them to perform in our classes, there are some problems surrounding this issue. We need to ask, how much control can we turn over before our role as an educator is comprimised?
Let me state the problem through a couple of examples. In our YA lit class last semester, a teenage girl told an interviewer that she had read 17 novels by a young adult author (I forget the author’s name). The following discussion centered on this girl’s expansive literacy, having read those 17 novels. My argument, for which I was much in the minority, was (and is) that reading 17 novels by one author does not make one literate. Reading all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays doesn’t either. My sense of what Dr. Yagelski calls the “literate subject” requires a broad, multi-disciplinary literacy. Here’s where choice presents a problem, similar to the one Appleman considers in the rather uncritical use of reader-response in the ELA classroom: students will define choice with what they identify with. Remember the class that was resistant to reading Native Son? Instead of engaging ideas that expressly conflict with one’s own, students (like everyone else) are much more likely to engage in ideas that support and reflect one’s own values and understandings about the world. I would contend that the purpose of the humanities, as Mark Edmundson says in his book Why Read?, is to question those values and understandings. Considering the dialogues we encountered in Appleman’s chapter, students are engaging in positive/negative reactions to a text through their feelings and abilities to “relate” with characters and situations. I’m not questioning the validity and value of these responses; much could, in fact, be said for their authenticity. What I am questioning is the failure of this kind of response to engage critically with the issues of a text (the way a Marxist, gendered, or New Historicist reading would). I want to connect this kind of authentic reading practice with the problem of student choice. Given the way students make choices about what they read, does choice lead us to the critically and socially engaged literate subject Dr. Yagelski envisions?
Like Atwell, I would propose a carefully controlled environment of choice. And student choice can certainly be acknowledged in their selection of outside/workshop reading. But I’m not ready to eliminate large group discussions of a central text (although I would suggest that we could fragment the class into literature cirlces reading different central texts- see work by H. Daniels). I still want my students to be sharing ideas, drawing on their individualized, specialized knowledges. I want a more organic discussion than is possible with Appleman’s theory worksheets, but more substantive and respectful of difference than simplified reader-responses (“I think…”/”I feel…”). I think we still need teachers to direct these projects.