The Power of a Choice in the Classroom


   Every student’s been there— your head resting in the palm of your hand as your eyes gaze into nothingness in an attempt to make time pass quicker, your mind embodying the noise and emptiness of TV static. Whether the discussion topic of the day be Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or Ray Bradbury, everyone has sat through a lecture on a book that they simply couldn’t care less about. 

   While other classes indubitably spark this same reaction of intense boredom in students as well, its presence in the English classroom can have unintended, problematic consequences. Having a distaste for history or science isn’t inherently negative, as skills acquired and utilized in those fields aren’t necessarily universal.

   By contrast, high-level reading and comprehension skills are fundamental to any student’s abilities. Students who grow up with a disdain for reading are faced with serious difficulties later in life. Many skills that are essential to functioning in modern society like applying for a job, following news articles and current events, or reading scientific journals, require solid reading and vocabulary skills.

   Students grow disdainful when they lack a choice or control. Most standard curricula prioritize vocabulary and fluency to boost reading test scores. The effectiveness of this strategy holds little bearing, as it leaves long-lasting negative impacts on newer generations by encouraging them to look for more personalized means of entertainment. The New Yorker cites that the average American has steadily declined from reading 0.36 hours on a daily basis in 2003 to 0.29 hours in 2016.

   To see this in action, look no further than trends in other entertainment mediums. By no coincidence, experts have reported a sharply inclining trend in time spent on digital media (computer games, console gaming, streaming, etc.) daily that corresponds to the trend in reading. The ability provided by these platforms to view whatever you want with nearly instant results sways students to stray away from traditional reading.

   “I do think we have a visual culture in many ways, and I think that online games, film, and video streams have an element of immediacy that’s appealing to a wider audience, in addition to the accessibility of technology,” English Department Chair Steven Krueger said.

   To combat this trend, students need to develop a somewhat meaningful desire to read on their own, or at the very least, not develop an antipathy towards books. Allowing students to select their own books for assignments, projects, and reports is an effective and easily integratable countermeasure. As an example, look no further than Economics Teacher and US Dean of Students Kelly Aull’s term project.

   For her Advanced Placement Microeconomics class, Aull has her students choose a book with the only parameters being that the book has a general relation to the subject of economics. After reading the book, students then are assigned to create a podcast in which they are to discuss their experience reading said book. Aull cites this great freedom of book choice as presenting several advantages to both students and teachers.

   “It boosts student’s enthusiasm for the project, increases the likelihood to read and engage with the book, and in turn, gives me better projects to grade,” Aull said.

   She also states that the project provides a welcome change of pace from the normal A.P. style of learning.

   “A.P. curriculum is theory-based, so this is a chance for students to take the theories they learn and come up with real-world applications that speak to them,” Aull said.

   However, reading reports with full student liberty isn’t objectively superior. English teacher Susan Lilley said that “shared reading” in which all students read the same book presents numerous key benefits with the right choice of books.

   “[The shared reading strategy] helps students understand that everyone reads differently,” Lilley said. “To read and discuss a shared text reveals— you see how certain things jump out at certain people and not others.” 

   Krueger furthers Lilleys’ thoughts, stressing the importance of the ability of each student to share their experiences with others.

   “One of the biggest advantages is being able to have deeper conversations in class where multiple students can weigh in on their interpretation of a literary text. The students can test their theories, conclusions, and criticisms by supposing it to classmates and the teacher, and receive feedback and focus on critical thinking skills that are harder to do if 15 different books are being read,” Krueger said.

   Examples of freedom in an English setting already exist, and the results speak for themselves. Mrs. Lilley’s AP English Literature students get to choose a modernized book to later share their reading experience with others in a panel format, with the only restriction on their choice being that the book must be literary in nature. Projects like this generate interest in reading, as students get to read and explore topics, themes, and stories that interest and relate to them on the deepest level.

   While a selected book for the class certainly presents strengths, change needs to happen in order to avert the decline of interest in a crucial skill. A healthy balance of selected books and freedom of choice is key to maximizing student interest in the important area of reading. The current scale is leaning far more towards a pre-chosen book, thus, the inclusion of more choice within reading assignments would help future generations engage with the world’s oldest form of media.