Letters from Abroad: READ THAT BOOK, OR ELSE?

[Intro to the first Letters from Abroad: Thanks, Megan! I was thrilled to receive the invitation to blog as a guest author at Tor.com and have been working on a short series of blogs that I hope will interest you all. Since my first book (The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children) is for younger children, my blog posts will include thoughts on writing for children and how sci-fi and fantasy relate to children’s books for 3rd to 5th graders. But I also hope to bring you a few interesting posts that simply relate to my varied scientific and sci-fi/fantasy interests,  and some interviews too. Also, a book giveaway! Note: The Witch of the Danube Canal (photo right) is graffiti art from downtown Vienna, Austria, where I am blogging now.] So, onwards with the first letter!

I must write first about this New York Times article on whether middle school students should each read their own book in class—a book they choose—and then discuss all the books they are reading, or if they should all read the same book—chosen by the teacher—and discuss the single book.

Now, before we leap to one side of the argument, there are things to be said for both sides. Maybe the most important thing to remember is that each teacher should be allowed to develop his or her own style and if they can pull off a good lesson, then great.

Still, I must say something about this crazy reading workshop style of teaching English literature where each student reads a book they pick themselves.

Let’s consider the two options:

1. A group of 25 students read 25 books and the teacher leads them in a discussion of some literary idea as it relates to their books. In the context of this discussion, each student adds to the discussion based on the book they are reading or one they’ve already read.

2. A group of 25 students all read one book—a well-written one, hopefully, with deep insight into the human condition—and the teacher leads the class in a discussion.

I have to say that, despite how important the second sounds, the first also sounds to me like it is worth a try in some classrooms. At least, say, for the first half of the year. Then, when students are more used to discussing books and have been engaged by reading a lot of diverse voices—and hopefully have the perspective that every English teacher already has and is trying to bring to the students: a love of books—they might be ready to explore a book that might seem a bit more distant to their experience.

The point with the first method is that, with so many books being read in class, and some of them—the students’ favorites—getting passed around and read by many students, there simply is a lot more to discuss and a lot more to compare.

Example: Let’s say you wanted to talk about how an author uses setting to reflect the theme of the story. With one book, you spend all your time picking through the details of the single author’s use of this method. But if each student is reading a different book, suddenly you have examples of 25 different authors and how they use their settings in their books. Who cares if some of the authors don’t employ the technique with success? That is a great point for discussion too. And if the setting in some books serves some other, totally different narrative purpose than the one under discussion, then, if there is time, that adds even more to the discussion of setting. Run well, such a class sounds vibrant and extremely educational.

There is one large drawback, and since I want to be realistic, I don’t want to overlook it. To lead a discussion of so many books, the teacher has to be fairly familiar with them all. If a student is having trouble discussing their book, the teacher will have to draw the student out, and to do this the teacher must be able to talk about the book him or herself. That is to say, until the students are more used to discussing their books, the teacher will have to fill in a bit and support them.

Think about it. Sometimes to make a point about an author’s technique or ideas, you need to be able to turn right to a certain page and pick out just the perfect moment in the story. Or at least know in general where the author is going in the book. Teachers, who are often overworked and underpaid, simply may not be able to read so many books so quickly and carefully. After a few years, however, a teacher using this method should be more widely read in books the students might pick, and more used to discussing them. With younger children too (elementary school), it’s easier for the teacher to read a lot of books quickly, and the discussions are simpler. On the other hand, elementary school doesn’t seem to face the same problem. When you read Charlotte’s Web or My Father’s Dragon to kids, I’ve never seen anything but rapt attention. And these books are as literary as one could get.

With that caveat, I can recommend (to anyone teaching creative writing or reading) taking a look at The Art of Teaching Reading and The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins, who pioneered the reading workshop teaching method discussed in the NYTimes article. Calkins really understands how authors write and read.

If nothing else, consider this from the article:

Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing.

What luck! Sounds like it will be their favorite 40 minutes of the school day.  And in a world where students often don’t have time to read their own books during the week, isn’t it great—and educational—that they will have some time to do so?

What do you remember from having to read books in your English class? Do you support students choosing their own books to read and discuss? Or should we be concerned that awesome, older books lose out because they don’t have the marketing behind them to reach students? Is it the case that students picking their own books puts Hollywood and similar in control of English classes? Or is it the opposite, is it that schools should focus on helping students analyze popular books exactly because they read them much more often? Is there a happy medium that can be reached where students are exposed to great books but also get to follow their own, eclectic tastes?


Keith McGowan is the debut author of The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children, which was named an “inspired recommendation for children” by independent bookstores nationwide. He is published by Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Company.

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