Like most everyone we are in the constant process of rewriting and refining our curriculum. Just this past week we were reminded that the skills and enduring understandings are the most important aspects of the curriculum and that, in our English classrooms, the texts we read are vehicles to help students obtain the skills. For example, if the enduring understanding is about understanding the hero’s journey, students don’t necessarily have to read The Odyssey; they can read any texts relating to the hero’s journey. This allows students more choice and thus more ownership in their own learning.
This is all true, but there is something to be said for assigning an entire class a novel. I’m all for student choice and giving options, but that doesn’t mean students need options on everything all the time. My juniors have 3 assigned novels that the whole class reads: The Scarlet Letter, Player Piano or The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. My seniors have 2 assigned novels: 1984 and On the Beach. Assigning these novels offers a variety of benefits that extend beyond the classroom.
In a lot of ways, I think it is good to have students read something that is not in their wheel house. When I assign 1984, many students aren’t interested in a futuristic totalitarian society, which is exactly why they need to read it. If we only expect students to work within their own passion and comfort zones, we are greatly limiting their growth and thinking. Are there are other dystopian, totalitarian novels? sure. Do they present the same opportunities for shared and meaningful discussion? I’m not so convinced. When I teach these novels as a class, and see success both in terms of the standards and in terms of student engagement, I’m not so ready to simply throw it all out the window.
The shared experiences and conversations that can ensue from a whole class read are also extremely important. For one thing, I like that by the time my students are seniors they have all read, for example, The Odyssey. This allows me as the teacher to make references and comparisons to it when I talk about heroism while teaching Beowulf. I do this throughout my course too. We read 1984 to start the semester, and I reference it over and over again as we read Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales, etc. If they hadn’t all had these shared reading experience, these references would be lost. More importantly, the shared discussion of a novel as a class is an important learning tool. I routinely watch my students discuss and question each other about a novel offering insight and interpretations to each other. While this can happen in lit circles, that unnecessarily limits the number of people involved.
Student choice is great and can be a powerful motivating tool, but it isn’t everything. Sometimes as the teacher, I know what is best. Students don’t need choices for everything.