The New York Times discovery of the strange new creature called “Reading Workshop” has caused a full-on blog mashup. To assign books or let students choose? That is the question. “The issue is whether that should augment or replace some defined curriculum,” says Eduwonk, who is ”pretty firmly in the augment camp.” Joanne Jacobs opts for the sensible center. But you can’t spell “contrary” without C-A-R-E-Y, and the Quick and the Ed’s main man jumps into the fray, unable to resist taking a swipe at his personal pinata, Diane Ravitch, who had the chutzpah to ask in the Times piece, “What child is going to choose Moby Dick?”
“None, I imagine,” says Carey. “And good!” (Thwap! Thwap!)
I responded in TQATE’s comments, but I’ll spare you the trip:
People in education don’t like to make these choices. Fine. But choice works both ways. If you refuse to say what’s worth knowing, you inevitably choose “nothing’s worth knowing.” Huckleberry Finn? “Kids can live without it.” Shakespeare? “They’ll get that in college.” Langston Hughes? James Baldwin? Maya Angelou? No single work is indispensible, but it’s like pulling a loose thread from a sweater. Keep pulling things out, and eventually all that’s left is “Read whatever you want!” It’s a formula for illiteracy.
We also forget — everyone does — that there are valid technical reasons for common knowledge. The point is not to enshrine a canon, but to understand that language proficiency requires being familiar with a broad range of knowledge in science, history, the arts and other areas that speakers and writers assume readers and listeners already know. Poor readers suddenly look like good readers when they’re reading about familiar subjects. It stands to reason that we should be doing everything we can to make them familiar with more subjects, and shared knowledge, including well-known works of literature and literary allusions (so yes, I’d agree that while it may not be important for eveyone to read Moby-Dick, being familiar is important. Sometimes a little knowledge is just fine).
Lastly, there’s the question of how valuable the 30 different books for 30 different kids approach really is. I was trained in Readers Workshop and had to use it in my classroom. It wasn’t effective, or satisfying. It becomes almost impossible to have deep, rich conversations about books. You can’t possibly be familiar with every book every kid is reading, so you’re encouraged to ask questions that are not terribly deep or interesting: Can you describe the setting? Which character are you most like? Are there any questions you wish you could ask the author? It’s a kind of cookie-cutter, paint-by-numbers way to teach literature. If today’s mini-lesson is “Good readers pay attention to what characters say and do” (yes, we actually teach that to 5th graders) it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about War and Peace or Captain Underpants. At one level, that’s true. At another, it’s just plain silly.
You can easily say “not every child participates in those rich, whole-class discussions.” But not every child is engrossed in reading in the reader’s workshop either. A lot of them are just going through the motions.
Read what real, live English teachers have to say about it at The English Companion Ning (the consensus is we need both choice and challenge.) This debate will get a little national air tomorrow morning at the Fox News Channel. Your humble blogger will guest.