It’s no secret that many kids are frustrated by school. Absolutely shocking, I know. The truth is that school doesn’t provide a very relevant experience for many kids. Children who don’t see themselves as having much of a career at all when they get older, kids who would rather go into a technical or vocational trade, or kids who are distrustful of institutions based on their own experiences with racial or class biases may all have difficulty in school already. Why, then, would any teacher assign a book that the students find frustrating? Wouldn’t teachers be better served if they let kids choose their own books?
My colleague Autumn Grace addressed this topic recently on this blog. While she lays out some excellent arguments for allowing kids to choose their own reading, I’m here to argue in favor of a slightly different point of view: I think that kids could stand to be frustrated by reading a little more often. This doesn’t mean that kids should be prevented from choosing their own books, not necessarily, but it does mean that teachers should make sure kids are reading books above their grade level.
One of my favorite school shows is Freaks and Geeks, and I remember watching this scene from the third episode when I was younger and scoffing. It seemed to me that the teacher was being overtly condescending to her students, and probably challenging them too much, especially considering that the students in the show were just 14 years old. A few years later, however, I found myself reading Crime and Punishment for the first time, and my opinion changed.
I think one of the truly special things about school is that you can try difficult things and always have a resource. Students should feel comfortable taking risks in school, because risks, in my opinion, are very important for developing the kinds of skills necessary to succeed in the job market. If kids only ever read books that they’re completely comfortable with and unchallenged by, will they truly grow as readers? It’s an open question, but I personally think that high school is a wonderful time to start to encourage kids to step outside of their comfort zones.
Let me return to a point I raised earlier: won’t frustration levels in reading increase the dropout rate? There’s no conclusive evidence for this as far as I can tell, but here’s my take on the issue. A teacher’s job is to motivate students. That’s possible even with difficult assignments as long as a teacher understands what their students value and how they can reach those values in their pedagogy. I think the gains to frustration levels of reading—the possibility for students to become more confident, the possibility for their reading to improve more quickly, and the pride that they’ll feel at having read through a difficult text— are worth the risks. Students can choose their own books if they wish, but I think those books should be genuinely challenging. That’s what teachers are here for, to help students with challenges, so why not encourage kids to take on the challenge?