The results were predictable. Some students wallowed in young adult chick lit. A few challenged themselves with authors like Ernest J. Gaines and Toni Morrison.
For years Lorrie McNeill loved teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, the Harper Lee classic that many Americans regard as a literary rite of passage.
But last fall, for the first time in 15 years, Ms. McNeill, 42, did not assign Mockingbird — or any novel. Instead she turned over all the decisions about which books to read to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade English classes at Jonesboro Middle School in this south Atlanta suburb.
This debate has been around for some time. Do you force students to read the classics in the hope that they'll develop critical faculties and a refined literary taste? Or do you allow them to read whatever they want, be it Twilight or Finnegans Wake, in the hope that they'll develop a ravenous love of reading?
Minnesota Public Radio waded into the fray this week on the show Midmorning. One of their guests was Nancie Atwell, a junior high English teacher and the author of The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers.
Atwell is a proponent of fostering a love of reading by allowing students to choose their own books. She argued children need to practice reading voraciously before they can enjoy the classics. They need to build up fluency, stamina, confidence and taste before they can tackle Jane Eyre.
Atwell gave the example of one of her female students. Initially, the girl chose to read Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. Throughout the year, Atwell nudged the student toward increasingly difficult books. By the end of the academic year, she had read 40 books. When the student looked back on the Twilight series, she commented to Atwell that those books paled stylistically in comparison to her two favorites: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Poisonwood Bible.
Yet questions about the reading workshop remain. Are you sacrificing cultural literacy? Are you sacrificing the shared experience of a class studying a common text? Who will be left to shout "Sucks to your ass-mar!" on the playground if no teacher has assigned Lord of the Flies?
After indulging in a little navel-gazing, I can see a similar situation played out in my own reading history. As a teenager, I devoured young adult fiction such as The Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Harry Potter. It wasn't until high school and then college that I started reading literary classics for pleasure. I may have developed my love reading by consuming lighter fare, but I needed something to nudge me toward more substantive reading. In fact, the first literary classic I loved was Fahrenheit 451--assigned to me in sophomore English class.