THERE was the student who wanted to read Tolstoy, but abandoned “War and Peace” after a bewildering day with the Russian aristocracy. There were the students who had just come from Albania, to whom a Harry Potter novel was as inscrutable as Aramaic. There were the students who needed special attention, which I could barely offer. And then there were the ones who read quietly and would have welcomed a discussion about “The Chocolate War.” I couldn’t offer that, either.
So went “independent reading” in my seventh-grade classroom in Flatbush, Brooklyn, during the 2005-06 school year, a mostly futile exercise mandated by administrators. On bad days, independent reading devolved into chaos. That was partly a result of my first-year incompetence, but even on good days, it proved a confounding amalgam of free period and frustrating abyss.
This morass was never my students’ fault. A majority of them were poor, or immigrants, or both. The metropolis of marvelous libraries and bookstores was to them another country. To expect them to wade into a grade-appropriate text like “To Kill a Mockingbird” was unrealistic, even insulting.