Text selection: The importance of other “Book” choices

It is important to recognize that the books students read and study in school are finite – a scarce and valuable resource. From middle school through twelfth grade, a typical student might read and intentionally study forty or fifty books in English classes (assuming five or six books per year from fifth through twelfth grade) – we hope more, but some students surely will read fewer. These books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works within and interacts with society, so they must be treated like the precious resource they are. Consideration should be given on not just whether each book a student reads is “good,” but also what the totality of the texts chosen for students accomplishes as part of their broader education.

Such scarcity implies the importance of mediated book choice. Of course students should have a book that they are reading on their own. And occasionally it’s surely fine for students to read their own book choices in class. But there is power in shared reading —power that is generally underrated.

Other “Book” Choices

While we make the case for reading books as frequently as possible, text selection should also include plays, poems, short stories, and articles in order to complement the finite number of actual books that students have the opportunity to read. Here are a few thoughts on each:

  • Short stories. Short stories are low-risk ways to introduce daring texts; when making bold experiments in expanding students’ range in and exposure to different types of text complexity, fifteen-page experiments are often more forgiving than three-hundred-page experiments. You can also study a short story in a few days versus a novel’s few weeks. That shorter duration often makes it easier to study its narrative structure and more viable to reread it, allowing students to glimpse the development of ideas and themes with the beneficial knowledge of how everything ends up. Nothing builds meta-awareness of how narratives work like rereading a full narrative. Because they can demonstrate aspects of theme and structure in such short space, short stories can be especially powerful when paired: two examples of satire; two unreliable narrators; two third person narratives with different degrees of omniscience.
  • Poetry. Poetry is frequently resistant. Its intentional resistance makes poetry a great tool for familiarizing students with the experience of reading challenging text of filling in the gaps around what you know. It’s also ideal for establishing meaning with very challenging language. Like short stories, poetry can let you dive into intensely challenging text without committing to a three hundred page novel.
  • Articles, essays, and excerpts. Articles and excerpts are at their best when connected and often compared to a book. It’s worth noting here, however, just how many types of articles and excerpts there are. Consider the book review, for example—how often our students approximate its forms while rarely, if ever, seeing a professional example of the form. Consider, also, the lowly obituary. Our colleague Peter Sipe, at Boston Collegiate High School, reads an obituary with his class every Friday. “An obituary,” he notes, “is the story of a life; death is just the detail that gets it printed.” “It’s real character education, the past made present,” he adds, and his students have studied the lives of the famous, the infamous, and the unknown alike.

One of the greatest gifts a student can get is a book they might never have considered or known, brought to life to life through great teaching. Yet we often find ourselves reading blog posts with titles like, “How to Get Kids to Read—Let Them Pick Their Own Damn Books” and “Why Do We Force Students to Read Shakespeare?.” It is to us a form of low expectations to assume that students will not find that they like what they knew nothing about, or presumed they wouldn’t like, before they began reading it. There is power in shared text, and letting students experience other types of texts is an important factor to consider in choosing books.

Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway are the authors of Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy. For more information, please visit, www.teachlikeachampion.com and connect with the authors on Twitter, @doug_lemov, @colleendriggs and @ericawoolway.