When she first started teaching high school English 15 years ago, Tina Gordon enthusiastically assigned her students To Kill a Mockingbird, making all of Calpurnia's dishes so they could experience the classic's Southern setting. "I wanted them to live and breathe and love it," she recalls. When the class read Wuthering Heights, she taught them to memorize its famous, passion-filled lines.
But she eventually noticed that not all her students were so enamoured with her love of the classic, that more than a few of them were turning the pages not with anticipation but with groans. So she changed tactics, giving them more choice, creating literary circles that explored books in different ways, such as with movies - with more engaged students as a result.
Being assigned one book to read as a class was once the traditional, often painful, rite of passage for students.
It was also a surefire moneymaker for Coles Notes versions of Great Expectations and Hamlet. But it has been the subject of continuing debate among educators trying to balance the desire to expose a new and increasingly diverse generation to those great old reads with the need to just turn students into great readers.
Reading for pleasure - and not because there's an essay due tomorrow - has been linked to improved scholastic achievement. Some education researchers have argued that means letting students - particularly in middle school and especially boys - freely choose what pages they want to turn.
"There's this belief that if you are going to go to college you have to read certain things," says Gay Ivey, a professor of reading education at James Madison University in Virginia. "When you think about the kinds of things that very successful, educated, productive people read in their adult lives, they aren't breaking down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get a copy of The Scarlet Letter."
For the past three years, Dr. Ivey has been involved with a project at a Virginia school in which 300 Grade 8 English students were allowed full choice over their reading with few strings or work attached, other than classroom discussions about shared themes and small group conversations if several students had read the same book. The goal was to get every student engaged in reading - the kind that you do in your own free time.
"It's [about]the experience we have all had as adults when we forget to eat or go to the restroom because we are so into what we are reading," Dr. Ivey says. "And that so rarely happens in school, and it certainly hardly ever happens with the whole-class-assigned novel."
The results, she says, have been overwhelming. "We couldn't keep up with the need for books," she says. Even in classes with struggling readers, students read an average of 42 books over the course of the school years, some as many as 100. And even with their options open, students didn't stick with Twilight and Gossip Girl series for long - as their appetite for reading grew, so did their interest in more challenging reads, coming to class for example to debate the ending of Walking on Glass by science fiction writer Iain Banks.
There's a perception, Dr. Ivey says, that "when you give choices, they will choose something that's not good for them. But that is not the case at all. We wouldn't have kept kids from reading Captain Underpants. But quite frankly even our least experienced readers didn't choose books like that."
Instead, she argues, students learned a more important lesson. "Sometimes really hard thinking can be pleasurable - that's what our kids experience. Pleasure doesn't have to be a no-brainer."
Dr. Ivey argues that schools would do well to abandon the whole class novel, which, she says, despite new styles of teaching literacy still remains a common approach in North American schools. And to those who argue in favour of a common base of knowledge through class-assigned novels, she scoffs: "The experience of being assigned a book is extremely common. Having knowledge of [that book]is rare."
Pam Allyn, a literary expert and the author of What to Read When who runs an organization that educates teachers, agrees that the time has come to abandon the class novel - leaving it to selected high school English classes designed to teach the classics. While some teachers can be effective with the approach, she says that often students tell themselves: "I have to get through this book. I've got to learn to understand it the way my teacher wants me to." That can be boring for good readers, she says, and "devastating" for struggling students.
Tina Gordon, president of the Canadian Council of Teachers of English and a resource teacher at a Winnipeg-area high school, says many teachers are trying new approaches - such as introducing one book in many different ways, or reading excerpts out loud - and seeing the value in choice in English class. She understands why many teachers still love the class novel, wanting to expose young people to the books they love. But, she says, "some of our practices we keep because they're tradition." And because, she adds, both teachers and parents hold on to the idea that "what makes a more educated person is if they can quote Hamlet."