I’m trying something new in Adolescent Literature this semester. I have a list of required reading, but we aren’t reading the books in any required order. There are no due dates besides “read it by the end of the semester.”
Five hours of reading a week. That’s their homework. There are few assignments in this course—some work on Twitter, some blogging, and the reading. No projects. No papers. No tests. Nothing to get in the way of what actually matters in a course like Adolescent Literature—reading YA lit and interacting as a community of readers. The five hours of homework reading gives students time to read all of the required books on the syllabus plus more.
I have sound pedagogical and readerly reasons for organizing the course this way (keeping some required reading but imposing no due dates), and my ears and eyeballs say it’s working fairly well. On the whole, there is A LOT of reading going on in this class.
At the beginning of each class, we write on the board what we’ve been reading, and that alone sparks some good conversation. Students discover they’ve been reading the same book; they recommend books to each other; there’s lots of informal talk about what they love and don’t love; we laugh about the odd book pairings that required courses (mixed with personal reading) may create.
It feels more like a reading community during those moments than a class, and that was one of my ulterior motives in organizing the class this way. It’s interesting to see what happens during those minutes of informal book talk. Nearly every student has now read The Fault in Our Stars, because a couple of students raved about it in class and on Twitter. Students are now organizing their reading lives in part in response to what other members of their community are reading. Many books not on the syllabus are making their rounds through the class (A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Forgive Me Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge).
And then there’s the required reading, which is, you know, required.
Except for Mackenzie. Last week, I gave Mackenzie permission to abandon any book she didn’t like.
I didn’t extend that permission to anyone else in the class. Only to Mackenzie. Which perhaps feels unfair to the other students.
But Mackenzie is a special case. She is the only student in Adolescent Literature who didn’t enter the class as an ardent, even compulsive reader.
She is incredibly articulate, passionate about learning, a tremendous writer.
But she does not consider herself to be a reader.
And that is a bit of a problem for a high school English teacher.
She has set herself the goal of falling in love with reading this semester, and the rest of us are trying to aid and abet in any way we can, recommending books, encouraging her, celebrating accomplishments.
And giving her permission to abandon books that she doesn’t love.
It turns out that the first book she didn’t love was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a book that I am absolutely crazy about. It is my favorite John Green novel and almost my favorite David Levithan novel. I have listened to it on audio four times and will probably listen to it again sometime this semester. I think it’s smart and funny and heartbreaking and important, and I LOVE TINY COOPER!
Mackenzie is also smart and funny, and I have a feeling that someday, she might pick up Will Grayson Will Grayson again and find something valuable in it. But for right now, it’s not the right book for her. And forcing herself to read it was sapping her will to read.
What I think will most help Mackenzie discover #booklove is reading books in great gulps, books she loves, book after book after book that she absolutely loves.
When you have that foundation of #booklove, you have the stamina and will to read (some) books that don’t interest you, even to read (some) books that you loathe, without derailing your reading life. Often, as Penny Kittle reminds us, hard books are well worth wrestling with. Ardent readers are more willing to push through Part I of Madame Bovary in the hopes that Parts 2 and 3 will reward our stamina, commitment, and faith. (That example is for you, Morgan!) But a steady diet of books we didn’t choose, books we may or may not like, books that we may not be able to read for a host of different reasons damages anyone’s #booklove, and for readers who don’t have #booklove in the first place, forced reading prevents it from ever developing.
So I did something that I have never done before in a college course.
I told her to stop reading the required reading. I told her to abandon Will Grayson Will Grayson. I gave her permission to abandon any book she doesn’t love.
As much as I admire Will Grayson, Will Grayson and think it’s an important book for students in Adolescent Literature to read, I know it’s much more important for Mackenzie to reach her goal and fall in love with reading. I hope that my other pre-service teachers will also be able to learn something valuable from how I’ve chosen to address Mackenzie’s struggles with Will Grayson, Will Grayson. We’ve talked some in that class already about what it means to trust our students. I trust that Mackenzie will make a good-faith effort to find books that she does like. I trust that she will keep reading. I trust that her goal is sincere and that she wants to reach it.
And I trust that the more my practices in the classroom align to my beliefs, the more my students will learn.