“Let them read cake”

“Don’t you read anything but Nancy Drew?” my teacher asked as she looked at the long list of books I’d read recently.

Instead of being impressed by the number of books on my list, she was annoyed by the surplus of Nancy Drew titles, The Hidden Staircase, The Secret in the Old Attic, The Clue of the Leaning Chimney, Nancy’s Mysterious Letterand dozens of others.

One of the trivial biographical details to come out of the confirmation process of Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor was that she, too, was a huge fan of Nancy Drew as were Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor. In fact, Sotomayor credited the roadster-driving sleuth for getting her interested in criminal justice in the first place. I wonder if Sonia also had a teacher who thought Nancy Drew wasn’t quite up to snuff?

The New York Times (A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like) recently reported on the reading workshop movement and on the trend of teachers letting students choose their own books to read instead of sticking to assigned classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby.

Putting students in control of reading often makes educators as uncomfortable as parents putting their kids in control of eating. But when children are finicky eaters, parents are forced to lower their nutritional standards quite a lot.

Many teachers with classrooms full of finicky readers are coming to the same reluctant conclusion. “I actually used to be a real hard-line, great-books, high-culture kind of person who would want to stick to Dickens,” said Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. But now he’s come around to another kind of thinking. “We just need to preserve book habits among the kids as much as we possibly can.”

One reader of the NYT article commented that schools need to help students build their stamina for reading so that they are capable of accessing the classics. “A student reading at the 3d-grade level who is in a 6th-grade classroom will not make headway as a reader by slogging painfully through To Kill a Mockingbird.

“‘Simpler’ books are the foundation upon which students build a lifelong habit of reading and further the actual skill of reading for longer and stronger periods of time,” the reader commented.

The chemistry that brings together a reader and a book is often a hidden, unexpected and underappreciated one. Did we ever think children would read a 3,000+-page, 7-volume book in the summer? A few publishers didn’t think so either and turned down the first volume of J.K. Rowling’s phenomenal best seller, the Harry Potter series.

At one time, Catcher in the Rye was a controversial choice for assigned reading, but then became a staple in high school curricula, popular for generations with tortured adolescent souls. But today, teachers report that the chemistry no longer works for this age group. The modern teen is likely to find Holden whiny, passive, immature and just plain tiresome.

As my time for personal reading has become scarcer as an adult, I have learned to obey the chemistry between a book and my readiness to read it. I know that there is often a right time to read a book. It was only in the days after my mother’s death when I could almost see time evaporating that I was ready to read Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s novel about the passage of time. I am grateful that I never read the book in a class because I would’ve considered it already read and I might have missed reading it at the exactly right moment in my life.

Maybe teachers can do better than letting students “read cake” with skillful suggesting and a good selection of books on hand. The New York Times describes how at the Center for Learning and Teaching in Edgecomb, Maine, Nancie Atwell, the author of In the Middle and The Reading Zoneand a leading advocate of giving students widespread choice, continually makes reading suggestions to the students in her school.

“Despite the student freedom, Ms. Atwell constantly fed suggestions to the children,” says the article. “She was strict about not letting them read what she considered junk: no Gossip Girl or novels based on video games. But she acknowledged that certain children needed to be nudged into books by allowing them to read popular titles like the Twilightseries by Stephenie Meyer.”

Getting students to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of cake might be the best educators can hope for with the digital generation. Short of force-feeding, many students are just not ready for the bowl of lentil and carrot soup and the slice of multi-grain bread you wish they would have instead.

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