I confess: I am a high school English teacher and I do not have an operational classroom library. Even more scandalous? I don't think that giving students choice reading is the most important part of my curriculum (gasp!).
Do I have a classroom full of books and do I grab whatever I can at Goodwill and garage sales? Heck yes. But do I have a check out system, or even an organized system in which I’ve read every book on the shelf and make a point to recommend titles to each of my 125 students every other week? Nope. I don’t.
And I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to have these things, but after posting my confession in a Facebook thread last night, I faced and read quite a bit of retaliation to the notion that my high school English classroom is not equipped with a library. A few thoughts:
We have a fantastic school library and librarian.
So this conversation would be pretty different if this wasn’t the case. Our librarian is a voracious reader and is constantly fighting for funding and purchasing new books (even ebooks and audiobooks!) for our school. She sponsors our school’s book club. She comes into anyone’s classroom for a book talk ANYTIME THEY WANT. She will sit with individual students to get to know them and recommend the right book. English teachers have a lot of things to do and to provide for their students: with these resources just one floor beneath my classroom, I’ve learned to let the experts be the experts (in YA literature, specifically).
I can’t stand most YA literature.
For myself or for my students. Seriously! The idea that the English teacher should be constantly reading YA literature to purchase for the classroom library and then recommend to high school students is preposterous to me. If YA lit is the developmentally appropriate choice for a particular student, I consult with my incredible librarian (see above), with Goodreads, YouTube, and even social media. Rather than me reading dozens of YA books, I try to teach the students how to find books that will best suit them. I show them these sites, introduce them to the right people, and have them talk to each other. What I spend my time reading and recommending to students are things that will challenge them: I send students to documentaries on Netflix and YouTube, I help them download free podcasts on iTunes, I print off articles from The Atlantic and sometimes even The New Yorker. I find texts (not just novels) that a kid would never have found on his or her own. By the time students have reached my classroom, they are 15 and 16 years old. For many of them, YA literature is a bridge that leads backward: protagonists tend to be just a little too young and the writing just a little too easy. While I would never tell a student not to read a YA book, I’m just not putting it at the top of MY huge teacher to-do-list. Students will find great YA books, but I don’t think they’ll find a Malcom Gladwell podcast just by chance.
A literacy-rich environment ≠ a classroom library.
It seems like this was thrown around a lot in defense of teachers having individual libraries: “Students need a literacy-rich environment!”. Absolutely! But that goes way beyond a collection of books on a bookshelf! That means poetry and word walls, inspirational authors photos and maps of the world. “Print-rich” and “literacy-rich” are completely achievable even if a teacher chooses not to maintain a classroom library or “reading-nook”, at least at the high school level.
Choice reading is not a priority in my classroom.
I know: another mortal sin confessed by an English teacher. Trust me, I’ve read tons about choice. I love Gallagher and Atwell and the other experts out there, but after years of experience in my school with my 10th graders, I’ve decided that year-long independent reading is not what’s most important in my classroom. Our focus is on an inquiry-driven, well-rounded language arts experience. Each of our units is shaped by an essential question and then within the unit, texts are selected (some by the teachers, some by the students) to help students enter into discussion of this question based on their reading experiences. During the year, we do whole-class novels (see below for more on that!), a debate unit (reading lots of research), poetry, literature circles, a service learning project, Shakespeare and independent reading. Choice reading drives two of these units (the lit circles and our service learning project), but our school year is anchored by common experiences and a curriculum written by the teachers. For me and my team, we are constantly weighing the needs of our students and the urgency of college being only two years away. College reading is not choice reading and it’s certainly not always interesting. If students are only reading high-interest novels or the novels that they want to read, how are they going to handle their first college packet of articles? Probably like this:
A trip to Walgreens to buy more highlighters
Reading the bold titles
A first attempt
If a student's entire literature experience is driven by choice and personal preference, I’m not sure we’re raising the kind of generation that will succeed in problem-solving or critical thinking. Choice should certainly be used as motivation and as a way of supporting struggling readers, but the average high school sophomore (in my experience) needs more than choice and independent reading time.
I still believe in the whole-class novel.
Passionately. But I understand that when you hear whole-class novel, you’re probably picturing what your own experience was in high school: reading quizzes, lists of discussion questions, annotating homework, and a chapter by chapter pacing calendar. That’s not what it looks like in most high school classrooms anymore! Let me take you through the first unit of my school year:
Unit 1: To What Extent is America a Dystopia?
Each of our units is framed by an essential question and since we wanted to focus the beginning of the year on dystopia, we crafted this question. An essential question gives the curriculum a frame and a lens for the students to work from. While the students didn’t “choose” the question, we, the teaching team wrote the question and chose the genre because of its popularity in YA fiction, in film, and in its eerie and disturbing current events connections. From this question, we then select the texts. These shift and get updated every year, but this year in a 9-week unit, students will read/watch/hear:
“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin
“The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury
“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Semplica-Girl Diaries” by George Saunders (published in The New Yorker October 15, 2012 issue)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Limetown (a radio-drama via Two-Up Productions)
Video (extended clips) from Wall-E, Elysium, The Hunger Games, and “Sight”
If you’re familiar with even just a few texts on this list, you’ll recognize how amazingly rich AND high interest this reading list is! Also, this list doesn’t include any of the current event news articles that we will pull as the unit is actually happening - I’m pretty positive there will be some engaging stories about North Korea, President Trump, Russia, and other dystopian-esque realities on the horizon for the fall of 2017. So, no, we won’t be choosing what we read, but on this list is a text and an opportunity for readers at all different levels. Fahrenheit 451 is the core text of the unit, but as you can see, students will have the opportunity to learn about our essential question from a huge variety of angles. Assessments for the unit include a socratic seminar, a synthesis essay, and a sprinkling of odd-one-out quizzes. Variety, intensity, depth, and critical thinking how we want our curriculum to be shaped so that students at all levels feel challenged and come to understand their own worlds in a brand new light. If you’re interested in further reading, Kristin Bowers elegantly defends whole-class novels in her blog post: In defense of the whole-class novel as does teacher-author Tracee Orman in her post Defending the Whole-Class Novel.
Caring, passionate, and professional teaching is what counts.
No matter your stance on choice reading vs whole-class novel reading, or any other education debate for that matter, the most important thing I keep hearing all around Facebook are the voices of educators who genuinely care not only about their students, but about their own professional development. Strong opinions about reading means that we have established a vibrant community of teachers that are talking and listening to one another and reading about our profession. This, above all, is what I’m most proud of in the online teacher community. But we must be careful to not be martyrs and to not qualify what "good" or "bad" teachers are based on the contents of their physical classroom space.
After ten years of teaching my population at my school, I can only offer a perspective from my experiences. What I’ve come to stand by is a goal to continually provide opportunities for students to be in conversation about what they are reading and what they are thinking. Yes, I would love for my students to be life-long readers and devour book after book, but realistically and more importantly I want them to be life-long thinkers. Critical thinkers. Critical voters. Through inquiry-based units, a wide variety of challenging texts, I’ve seen great success - it hasn't been a necessity for me to maintain a full-on classroom library to create powerful and important reading experiences for students, and for the new teachers out there who are seeing this all over Pinterest and Instagram, it can be pretty daunting. For teachers reading YA books all summer long and performing the role of teacher and librarian at your schools (so many of which I know don’t have the resources we do), my hat is off to you. Keep doing what you’re doing - I admire you! And for those of you out there feeling like failures for not having a classroom library or a huge stash of books to share with kiddos, worry not. Grab your favorites from home, maybe take one trip to Goodwill, and feel good about a small collection in your room somewhere. There are so many ways to challenge and connect with kids over literature. Keep researching, keep talking, and keep loving what you do. Our kids need every single one of you.