There have been a few items in the last few days on the interwebs that have made me think about childhood agency. The question of how much independence parents should give (and how much kids can demand) is a serious one and it doesn’t get nearly enough coverage.
The New York Times published a piece on Saturday about English teachers who are taking the radical step of letting their students pick their own books. The issue is mostly framed around the difficulties of teaching them dang kids to read these days. The teachers get all weepy when they see a student picking up a book – even if the book is by James Patterson. Here’s the article’s central conflict:
… fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.
“I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with,” Ms. McNeill said, several months into her experiment. “Whereas when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”
Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.
I’m all for child-guided learning. Thanks to my mother who was probably the most radical Palo Alto Unified School District PTA president in that organization’s proud history, education is the issue where I’m probably the most radical. I want to abolish private schools and grades. And grade levels. I like letting kids decide things and I can’t help but be on the advocates’ side. But as an English major, albeit canon-hating, I still can’t fucking deal with kids reading James Patterson for class. That’s like putting on Gossip Girl instead of Nova because at least they’re watching something. Unacceptable.
The truth is that classrooms shouldn’t be all student-directed any more than they should be all teacher- or administrator-directed. All classes are collaborations between students and teachers. Any time a student asks a question, that kid is redirecting the class. It’s always an ongoing project. I think my ideal middle-school English class protocol would have teachers challenge students to take on books. That way students can suggest something if they have an idea and/or teachers can offer something that the student hasn’t seen. Want to get the kid who loves baseball interested? Give him Malamud’s The Natural. Want to get the 13 year-old me to shut the fuck up? Tolstoy. And no James Patterson to be seen. I can understand some kids not liking To Kill A Mockingbird, but I got a lot out of it and it would’ve been good to get that suggested to me instead of the fantasy crap I would have picked. Add that to some sustained silent reading (SSR, as we called it) at the beginning of class during which students can read their damn Janet Evanovich if they want to and I think we’d have some literate adolescents.
This program does require a few things: teachers who know a lot about books, teachers who know a lot about their students and lastly school boards and parents who can chill out. The last one is crucial, imagine the freak out when people hear that a teacher assigned Lolita to an eighth-grader. Get over it, you ninnies. The idea that there exist parents and bureaucrats who would rather see a kid reading chick lit than Henry Miller makes me want to go and organize a wave of elementary-school occupations. Black blocs of kickballers, I swear to god. It’s just wrong.
Which leads me to my second item, the ad below:
Seriously weak. The part that really gets me is the use of kid narrators. It verges on patronizing to parents, who are all apparently really bad at their jobs. If you can’t bring yourself to have a serious conversation with your kid, choosing instead to release them into the world without this literally life-saving information, then you are a coward and a negligent parent. Sorry, but that’s the state of the World. “Just tell us to wait”? Here’s a hint: if your child is asking for ignorance, then you’re doing something very wrong. Tell your kids the damn truth, wuss.
The last item I stumbled on somehow, it’s the blog and “movement” Free Range Kids. Okay, so their stuff is a little goofy. It’s run by child-freedom advocate Lenore Skenazy who let her nine-year-old ride the subway solo. She seems a bit righteous for my tastes, but not really wrong about anything. I added their RSS feed because I’m really into experimental parenting. Basically the agenda of this post is to give kids Bret Easton Ellis novels and condoms then let them run in the street. I stand by it.