Should Students Be Allowed To Design Their Own Reading Lists?

According to Motoko Rich of the New York Times, some teachers are moving toward a more open reading curriculum that would allow students to choose their own books, as opposed to titles from a school-issued reading list.

The objective is to engage students in workshop-like discussions by having the class choose a book to read, as opposed to a teacher assigning one to them. Supporters of the workshop format say that the open environment is more conducive to discussions, as students are more open to talking about books they choose on their own. Critics, however, claim that the students are missing out on more challenging materials, and that allowing them to essentially design their own curriculum allows them to breeze through the reading discussions without being challenged by more difficult texts. The trick, educators tell the Times, is to find a balance between the two.

"If what we're trying to get to is, everybody has read ‘Ethan Frome' and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it," Harvard Professor Catherine E. Snow tells the Times, "But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there's a lot to be said for the choice approach."

Lorrie McNeill, who is pioneering the choice-based program in her middle school classroom in Georgia, says that allowing her students to choose what they read ensures that they develop a love of reading, instead of viewing books as a chore or a task: "I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they're actually interacting with. Whereas when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird," I know that I have some kids that just don't get into it."

The best teachers I had in middle and high school were able to incorporate lighter fare and challenging classics into the curriculum, encouraging us to think critically about everything from nonsense like Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories to serious work like Toni Morrison's Beloved. I admire McNeil's approach, as she seems to understand that once you "assign" a book, you zap the reading pleasure right out of it (I've actually had to go back and read classics from high school simply for enjoyment purposes, as I read them solely to prepare for essay tests and class discussions when I was younger), and that allowing students to choose their own materials allows them to challenge themselves to perhaps take a more critical look at what some might consider "easier" reading. I don't think the classics should be tossed aside for the works of Stephanie Meyer, but I do think McNeil's approach is an interesting way of allowing students to develop of love of reading, classics or no. One hopes that that love of reading will push them toward more challenging fare, once the Twilights and Harry Potters of the world no longer hold their interest.

What say you, commenters? Should students have more of a say? Or are we being too easy on students by allowing them to potentially avoid classic literature? And which books would you choose, if you had the chance to design your own curriculum?

Reading Workshop Approach Lets Students Pick The Books [NYTimes]