Sometimes Choice Frustrates

I had this great idea. I am going to let all my students choose everything they read and write- even the kids taking the AP Lit exam. It would be awesome! Students completely excited about reading and writing because they have ultimate autonomy. I. Was. So. Wrong.

At the heart of everything I do is choice and voice. I value freedom in what I do so, why wouldn’t my students? I think to an extent that is true, but for so long students have been mandated as to what to read and write that they don’t really know what to do when they are given utter freedom in school. I have learned this week there is a time for structure, a time for leading, and a process to giving over control. It cannot happen immediately. There is that first moment where students are celebrating, but then they flounder and don’t know what to do.

A little backstory. I embarked on this year determined to have my AP students choose what they wanted to read. A young man I met in Louisville at an independent bookstore told me about something called the Tournament of Books. An idea took root. The real-world tournament of books is kind of like March Madness, but for books. This year’s winner- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I picked it up at the bookstore, and it was a worthy champion. I decided to run my own TOB in the classroom. Students would choose one book they absolutely wanted to read in class this year, research it, compile a sales pitch, and fight for their title. I imagined this space where book love reigned. Unfortunately, as we got into it over the past couple weeks, I became increasingly disappointed with their book choices. We had a roundtable discussion about books we have loved over the years. I thought this would spark their imagination, but instead it reminded them of all those great books they read in middle school before high school squelched their love of reading. As they excitedly vetted their choices with me, I realized they were picking books my daughter had read in 5th and 6th grade, books that were serialized, and generally unacceptable for a college credit class to garner any kind of deep discussion and study. I wrestled with what to do to help them because it was not that they wanted an easy book. It was more they did not know how to choose a challenging book they would like because choice was not a concept they had dealt with before.

Enter Shelfari. I was surfing around looking at book lists and happened upon somebody’s shelfari- a virtual bookshelf through Amazon. I was intrigued and started my own “bookshelf” as an experiment. As I was populating my bookshelf, an epiphany came to me- I could create a possibilities bookshelf for my students to shop as they were choosing their book for our tournament. I am not going to lie, it took me hours to set the shelf up, import information, and write pieces of the  book profiles. I am still not completely finished with the “ridiculously short summaries” section. Regardless, I introduced it to my classes on Thursday. And, they were impressed. I showed them how to go to the shelf, click on the covers and look at the book profiles which include summaries, character lists, themes, awards won, and reviews. A discussion sparked about why I chose certain books, which were my favorites, and how I found books that I had not read. I am hopeful for a really good title fight on Monday!

Lesson for the week- choice is important, but so is guidance on how to make informed choices. Sometimes we have to be the sage before we can be the guide.

3 thoughts on “Sometimes Choice Frustrates

  1. I could not agree more with what you said! I’ve found that in college people ask me what I’m reading and my usual response is a text that I’m reading for one of my classes. Which being a business major can be relatively boring at times. When summer hits, I am so excited at the prospect of having the liberty to choose what to read. Yet I flounder for the first couple of weeks because I have no idea where I should start. I will definitely be looking into the world of virtual bookshelves when it comes time for me to read something that doesn’t contain the words analysis or isn’t a law textbook.


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