Helping students choose books that challenge them as readers and human beings

I’ve been thinking lately about how to get my students to make independent reading choices that challenge them as readers and human beings. Sometimes they choose the book that is easy and engaging (The Hunger Games for example) (I loved The Hunger Games and enjoyed talking about it with my students who had read it). And whereas I never want to make a student think I’m anything but totally psyched that they’ve found a book they want to read, I also want them to choose to read things that are not necessarily so easy for them to read.

How to approach this? Teach them about lexile levels and then suggest they pick up books that are of an appropriate level for them individually? This is problematic because those kinds of assessments about books don’t necessarily assess the complexity of the content; they may only focus on things like sentence complexity as measured by how many words are in each sentence. I addressed this in a response to a Huffington Post piece earlier this year. Night comes in at a 4th grade reading level but I would never ask a 4th grader to read it, for example.

So I’ve been looking at some other way to get my students to think more critically about their book choices, and this article from the NYTimes may help:

How to Choose Summer Reading for Students –

It makes a couple of points that stood out to me particularly. For one, it reminded me that when it comes to struggling readers, they need to read ANYTHING that grabs their attention to collect successful reading experiences. They will better be able to challenge themselves once they’ve had some good experiences with books. I do end up with students in my senior classes who have not read any books cover to cover for years, in or outside of school. For them, the trick is to find books that will sustain their attention and keep them turning the pages. They need to build a reading practice. They cannot do that if they feel forced to read books that are not immediately engaging to them. I had a few of these kinds of students who got totally sucked into The Hunger Games trilogy this past semester and I was thrilled. And yes the NYTimes article argues that this is the stance to take with early readers, 8 or 9 years old, but I do meet high school seniors who are NOT readers and who have not been readers really ever in their lives (or who WERE readers when they were 8 or 9 but then school ruined reading for them). I need to convince these students that reading is worth their time. And I can’t do that by throwing difficult books at them that won’t lead to successful reading experiences. Baby steps.

But I wasn’t thrilled in all cases of my students reading The Hunger Games for the required independent reading for my class. I was happy to see their excitement, but something nagged at me about this. Their independent reading requirement was to choose two novels on their own that would help their thinking toward the semester’s essential question (who are you and for what do you stand?) which they would answer in their final multi-genre paper and presentation. I quietly wished that students were going after more challenging reads but I felt guilty for thinking that about The Hunger Games. The NYTimes piece explains:

While “The Hunger Games” may entrance readers, what does a 13-year-old gain in verbal and world knowledge from the series? A student may encounter a handful of unfamiliar words, while contemplating human dynamics that are cartoonish, with violent revolution serving as the backdrop for teen romance.

Yes. This is it. I do want my students choosing books that give them “verbal” knowledge–so they need to confront vocabulary that challenges them, sentence structures that challenge them, narrative patterns that challenge them. And they need to confront world knowledge that challenges them as well. Whereas I do think The Hunger Games gives us much to think about regarding how a society could end up in such a nightmarish place (taking this line of thinking terrifies me actually because of the places the world of The Hunger Games connects with our own world). But it’s not even close to the depth that Morrison takes on the effects of slavery in our culture in her novels or that Life of Pi takes on how religion and faith are tied up with our individual identity and the way we make sense of our experiences, or that Slaughterhouse Five takes on how war affects the people who experience it.

In my classroom, my students and I begin each semester reading one book together (nonfiction first semester and a novel second semester). After that, they choose their reading so long as it drives the thinking and research they need to do for each semester’s final task and becomes a primary source for that final task (a persuasive research paper and presentation in the first semester and a multi-genre paper and presentation in the second). So far I have focused on putting many many options before them (my students and I have been building a database of book recommendations over the last few years) and working with them individually to help them find books that will interest them. But I want to add one more layer here–educating them about book choices in terms of what will help their development as readers and human beings. Though this NYTimes article deals with more than is really relevant to this (it makes an argument to teachers that students should be reading nonfiction over the summer), it might be a good starting place and can give my students a few things to think about to guide their book choices.

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