Students’ choice: Who picks Moby Dick?

Should children pick their own reading? J. Martin Rochester is dubious. He spoke to a young high school principal with new PhD in education about “the difficulty of getting students to summon the patience, stamina, and will to read dense text, particularly book-length writings, in an age of instant gratification, sound-bites, jazzy graphics, and condensed versions of knowledge.”

The principal said, “Today’s students are actually smarter and better than students of yesteryear, since students today get to choose their own readings.”

Really? I immediately wondered whether we should trust the judgment of adolescents, much less pre-adolescents, to decide for themselves what makes educational sense.

Except at a few high school in affluent suburbs, students are studying less, Rochester writes.  “Most fifteen- through seventeen-year-olds study less than one hour a day,” according to surveys.

A 2011 study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that only 39 percent of incoming college freshmen “report that they studied 6 or more hours a week on average as high school seniors.” . . .  In the 2010 study Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska found an overall 50-percent decline in the number of hours a student spends studying from previous decades; less than half of the students surveyed had ever written more than twenty pages for any class, and relatively few had been assigned more than forty pages of reading per week.

How many students will choose to work harder than they must? Diane Ravitch once asked: “What child is going to pick up Moby Dick?”

In an Honors English course at Rochester’s local high school, students were told to pick a “great book” to read for a semester project. One student picked Paris Hilton’s autobiography.


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  1. I don’t understand this attitude. Even the people who go on about 21st century skills and preparing kids for the workplace should admit that one important job skill is the ability to do things you don’t feel like doing, and do them well, because the job demands it and you want to get paid!

  2. lightly seasoned says:

    One of my frustrations with the kids coming up out of middle school is their expectation that they like every book they read because they’ve always chosen what to read for class. They’re perfectly free to read whatever they want — but for my class they will read what is assigned. Heck, I don’t even like everything I assign (can’t stand Mockingbird).

  3. George Larson says:

    I agree, but all the mandatory reading I have to do for work is all non fiction. Reading confusing emails, dense user’s manuals, contracts, position papers, plans, laws, policies, regulations or prospectus is what these children will face as employed adults. If preparation for work is the primary purpose of education then fiction is not very important. I think there is a case for learning the myths, rituals and symbols of our culture, but our schools seem less unwilling to make the effort. I recall Bill Cosby did exactly that on one episode of the Huxtables.

    • lightly seasoned says:

      Well, I disagree with your premise. Job prep is one purpose of education, but not necessarily the primary purpose. Much of my professional reading is also (dreadful) non-fiction, so students shouldn’t have a literature class? It’s just one class a day in high school. They read non-fiction (if they read) in the rest.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        And I think one can practice “Doing a good job and reading and writing something out of my comfort zone” by reading MacBeth and writing essays as easily as by reading and responding to confusing emails. In fact, thinking and writing about these texts will at least ensure that the students can PRODUCE clearly argued, well-written interoffice communications!

        • lightly seasoned says:

          Right. And as a bonus, they’ll know Macbeth! Core Knowledge and knowing stuff and all that.

  4. Crimson Wife says:

    Where is the middle ground between assigning every student to read the exact same book regardless of interest, and allowing complete student choice? What about providing a list of a couple dozen classics and allowing students to select books off that list? This is what my 12th grade English class did, and I thought it was great. I was into love stories, so I picked an Edith Wharton novel. Maybe it wasn’t something I would’ve chosen as beach reading as a 17 y.o., but I did enjoy it.

    • When I was in high school, I remember a few times when we had to choose any book off the AP reading list, and several others when we chose from a short list of similar works (modern lit, romance poets, adventure stories, etc). Other times we all worked through the same story.

    • lightly seasoned says:

      They read for pleasure on their own time. I’m sure that’s what everyone else here did/does. With CCSS, seriously, I have one hour a day to meet THIRTY ELA standards with students who range from well below grade level to well above with all kinds of learning disabilities and emotional issues in between. The old days when we were in high school are over, my friends. I used to do a choice unit every year. There’s just no wiggle room for that sort of thing anymore.

  5. If everyone’s reading a different book, how do you have anything approaching meaningful class discussion? The Guernsey Literary Association model is all very well and good for a club, but not so much for a class!

    • cranberry says:

      In my kids’ schools, the class discusses a common book. Students may choose a book to analyse in a paper.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      In the class where we were permitted choice off of the list, we discussed selections out of a literary anthology of short stories & poetry. It’s a lot less painful to have to read an assigned short story in which I have no interest, then a several hundred page novel.