When I was a student more than a half century (!) ago, I learned to read with Dick and Jane (though I’m not sure why I bothered – they didn’t exactly draw you in, even with their little dog Spot) and graduated to the Bobbsey Twins, Beverly Cleary, Nancy Drew, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Wrinkle in Time, and Gone With the Wind on my own. In school, teachers assigned the classics, from A Tale of Two Cities to The Red Badge of Courage, Silas Marner to The Pearl. We might have enjoyed reading these books, or we might not – but it didn’t matter. They were assigned, and we did what we were told, writing book reports or taking tests to share our knowledge.
In short, there were very few choices.
But in the world I entered as a teacher, it seemed as if choices were, sometimes, all there were. Often, the available books for students to read in literature circles or, eventually, book clubs were leveled – very high, high, medium, low, and low-low – though that wasn’t something I usually let them know. Students who generally weren’t readers could get still get excited, reading at a higher level, if the book was on a topic of interest – science fiction, say, or gaming – and they had the vocabulary of the genre; students who had been challenging themselves enormously could be allowed an occasional step-down based, too, on extreme interest. And all sorts of students sometimes needed a good push to try a book I knew would be right for them – which, I have to say, I often was.
Still, students had a lot of options. I used the concept of speed dating for what I called ‘book dating’: Students would have a few minutes to ‘meet’ each of the five to seven books offered, looking at the cover (but not only – one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, after all), reading the first couple of pages, skimming the text, and jotting down first impressions – before filling out their choices, in order from first to third or fourth.
(That was probably the most difficult part; I was never more frustrated than when I was reading through the students’ choices, hoping to put groups together quickly but coming across students who had put #1 next to four different choices, or just checked four different choices, as if I would miraculously know the order they wanted. After years, and I mean years, of trying different methods of getting students to number correctly from 1 to 4, 1 being their FAVORITE and 4 being their LEAST FAVORITE – and telling them this verbally as well – I finally figured out a method that worked in my last year of teaching. As my students would say: Score.)
It was always quiet in the room during book dating, classical or New Age music playing in the background, the timer ringing at set intervals to give students to jot down their notes as they prepared to move to their next book. I will say, they took their choices seriously.
And, behind the scenes, I did too. In fact, I would sweat it out. I’d start by spreading out the requests in front of me, on a desk or, at home, on my coffee table, trying to get a feel of what the groups looked like with students’ first choices. Then, I’d start to see problems developing – 10 students wanting a book with only six copies, for example – so I’d begin to move the slips like card, playing the various hands.
While I continued to try to get students their first or, now, second choice – and sometimes their third – I’d also be making sure each fledgling group had enough students who would actually do the reading and required preparation (notes, or research, or questions, or a mix), with those who might only read, or might not read at all, sprinkled in. Because there were always those.
I’d take personalities into account, of course, because a group wouldn’t work with all quiet students – nor would it work with too many big personalities. I’d make sure to keep away those students who had demonstrated that they didn’t get along. And then there were always those couple of students – only a couple, if I was lucky – who had problems getting along with everyone and anyone and thus had to be carefully placed in groups who could best handle them. Kind and outgoing kids worked best for this, and sometimes – though I felt badly for it – they had to deal with this situation more than once because of their own positive personalities. Which wasn’t fair, but which couldn’t be helped.
And then I’d start typing up the groups into a spreadsheet and realize that this group had too many slackers, or there were students who hadn’t gotten their first choice last time, and I had promised I’d try, or a student had put a PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE at the bottom of their slip with reasons why they had to have a particular book, and somehow I had missed it. And so I had to rework the groups again and again.
This process could take an hour or more. Per class. And I had three classes. Four times a year for books, at the least. (I also did an informal book grouping, but this was more fluid, so I wasn’t as concerned.)
And even after all of this, I’d make mistakes with the numbers, realizing the next day in class, as I was handing out books, that I had somehow moved X into Y group at the last minute and now I didn’t have enough books. So I’d try begging from my colleagues, or calling the Media Center, or, on occasion, buying the book myself.
But then there were projects, at least one each quarter. Here, too, students made choices. They were desperate to work with a particular argumentative topic for a PSA, or they were sooooo interested in hurricanes or tornados for their infographic projects. So I shuffled the deck some more.
And then, at the end of the year, came our museum project: preparation for a Museum of Tolerance, as we called it, after a short study of the Holocaust and, in some years, the Civil Rights Movement. Each area of study was represented by a host of books and articles for students to sort through physically and a number of links vetted by our teaching team with various examples of intolerance, or a turn towards tolerance, in this country and around the world.
I knew these kids by then – I knew them very well. So I knew who really was passionate about women’s rights, or LGBTQ rights, or Hispanic/Latino rights; I knew who could understand the background and concepts involved in modern slavery, or the Bosnian genocide. The topics they chose to study could truly change the students’ lives.
They spent time skimming articles and reading a few, looking at pictures, and – hopefully – thinking about what they were learning, over about two periods, in order to make choices they could stand behind. They would eventually have to go a lot further, with the small groups I would help to create, doing original research and – hopefully – minimizing plagiarism as they decided what needed to belong, as they created original exhibits to complement the group timelines.
Ultimately they made their requests, with, occasionally, some impassioned jottings.
It wasn’t the education I had experienced in the ’60s. I had been told what was, from start to finish, taking extensive notes, and studying capitals and world leaders and the history of the Tammany Hall or the New Deal
It was a lot easier for teachers back in my day, and not only because they were highly respected by parents and students alike, the kings or queens of their castles.
I stood there behind the scenes, helping my students to make good choices – but knowing they might not.
Today, during the pandemic, with states beginning to reopen, including the beaches and parks of the Jersey Shore, there are many choices that need to be made. If we did it right, as teachers, we gave our former students the power – as adults – to make the right ones: to wear masks, to social distance, to stay away from large gatherings, to be very careful.
At least, that’s my choice.