On Choice

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.

J. Degan



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3 responses to “On Choice

  1. jillian24

    I agree that teachers are necessary to facilitate conversations about literature. I also agree that the well-chosen and rare class novel can be incredibly effective. I also would argue that a varied literary experience is possible in reading workshop. A teacher should be using her knowledge of books and individual students to encourage them to experience new books and concepts that will also have a element of the comfortable. Students who read the same author or the same series need to be prodded to expand their comfort zone; they probably lack the confidence that they can handle a different type of book. That student, I think, would be an example of a lost opportunity for relationship building, not a flaw in the choice system.

  2. jmdegan

    If I understand Dr. Stearns (and Atwell) correctly, we enable students by giving them choices, but, at the same time, we are trying to direct student’s choices (I want to say here that I am very comfortable with this project). Should we require students to try books we suggest in the project of expanding and elevating their literacy? If not, what is to prevent them from ignoring our suggestions altogether? For some students, natural curiosity might drive the issue, but I wonder if some students, deeply involved in the reading lives they have developed, would be unwilling to modify those lives if they don’t have to. It seems to me that we have to require students at some points to expand their identities as readers.

    My next question is, if we are directing choice, and requiring students to take those directions, is it still choice? And, if we are making those directions based on student interests, how does one begin to expand outside of students’ practices? An earlier post requested suggestions for a student interested in fantasy novels. I had to resist the temptation to suggest Tennyson’s THE IDYLLS OF THE KING. I would for high school students. But this leads me to a central problem with the reading workshop as the primary (or only) vehicle for reading instruction: difficult texts may need to be confronted with the assisstance of the teacher and a community of peers. The reading workshop strikes me as a very individual exercise (or a partnership between readers and the teacher). How do we provide this broad support in a workshop? If we organize a broader peer group, like literature circles, I think we give students greater opportunities to facilitate talk and engage peer readings. Would this not lead to a more thorough and transformative experience (that is, if a student is forced to question the text and his/her assumptions about the text by encountering diverse experiences)?

    Before anyone goes putting words in my mouth, I am not dismissing workshop methods in this critique. I believe that the reading workshop is an effective system for developing students’ literate behaviors. I think creating these strategies are extremely important especially at the middle levels (7-9). But I wonder how broad choice itself can drive a student’s interests and understandings. Dr. Stearns mentioned McKibben and wondered why we aren’t exposing students to these issues. I agree; why isn’t there more interdisciplinary reading at the high school level? But I don’t think these are issues that should be confronted only by students interested in the issue. Choosing not to understand our global environmental crisis, I think most of us would agree, is not a viable option. Why not teach THE END OF NATURE, SILENT SPRING, or (perish the thought) WALDEN? Is the issue of racial difference any less important? Events in Louisiana suggest otherwise. In a world where white students are hanging nooses from a tree that a black student had the audacity to sit under, is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD really irrelavant? Or OTHELLO, BELOVED, LIGHT IN AUGUST, INVISIBLE MAN? I would suggest that it is the insistance on formalist methods, not the texts that are irrelavant. But I am cautious at the implications that students choose the texts they encounter and those they ignore.

    Dr. Yagelski said in one of his posts on this blog, students should be reading challenging books-even books they do not enjoy, even books that are not entertaining. I want to acknowledge student choices, but I also think they need to confront the social issues they will encounter in the world, by choice or otherwise.

  3. sunyprof

    Hmmm, I just posted a long response to you Jerry and it didn’t appear. I wonder if there’s a timed out issue here. Darn. It was a long, substantive post. I’ll recreate at some point. Thanks for your comment. I hope you are nurturing your own blog with lots that you’re thinking about in 506 these days. KES

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