One-Book Reads—When Community Building Becomes Challenging - National Council of Teachers of English
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One-Book Reads—When Community Building Becomes Challenging

I’m in two, sometimes three, book groups and I know from experience that interesting, delightful, luscious, learning feeling of discussing a common read with others—one version of an English teacher’s “died-and-gone-to-heaven” experience! So it’s easy to understand why hundreds of One Book Projects pop up in communities every year and why schools have adopted one book reads for their students, often as summer reads that become the back-to-school discussion project.

The thing is, though, that participation in One Book Projects, by definition, is voluntary. But participation in those summer, back-to-school-reads is not—it’s compulsory. Because no one book will please everyone, this opens the door for challenges to the selected text. And once the challenge begins, the “interesting, delightful, luscious, learning feeling of discussing a common read with others” turns a bit sour.

For example, a parent of an incoming ninth grader who has been assigned the class-read of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian refuses to allow her student to read that text. She complains, of course, challenging the book as “inappropriate” and claiming that her student will lose grade points and be ostracized for not reading it. She most likely suggests that no one read the book because of her objections. And, regardless how the district responds to the challenge, the beauty of the one-book read is tainted, the best of its intentions embroiled in controversy.

This is not a hypothetical situation. It has happened many times in many districts, over many different books.

So I would like to suggest a solution that would expand that one-read feeling and, hopefully, lessen the possibility of challenges. Because choice in reading is so important and necessary to our students’ learning (see this blog for explanations), why not make choice a part of the one book read?

For instance, the one-book summer read could offer more than one book for students to read—maybe five different books related by theme or type. Students could discuss the texts in literature circles or book groups; the back-to-school program could be planned to resemble programs like those funded for the NEA Big Read. And the end result?  The compulsory back-to-school read just might become an exciting, engaging, and somewhat voluntary activity that lures students into enjoying discussing the books they’ve read!