Choose Your Own Adventure: Formative Justice in the Library

space vampireEvery choice I made led to my death at the hands of the space vampire. Despite this spate of savage endings, I kept frustration in check as I read, re-read, and re-read Choose Your Own Adventure #71. I was 10. I was hooked. Space Vampire consumed everything.

It is a pleasure to talk with high school students who share the feeling. The lure of reading is a thrill. Sometimes I encounter students who bemoan the fact that they used to feel like great readers. They talk about how they used to use their free time and that now they will opt for streaming shows or practically anything else to unwind.

When we encounter limits to our attention, abilities, and time, we are asked to make choices that affect formative justice. That is, we can’t do it all. When faced with finitude, we are forced to make choices about how to best invest our potential.

Aziz Ansari aptly quotes Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to illustrate a crisis of formative justice in his show, Master of None.

The narrator sits before a fig tree full of ripe fruit. Each fruit represents roles, desires, places, or achievements. In the face of an overwhelming abundance of competing desires and possibilities, the narrator is unable to choose. The figs begin to rot and fall to the ground.

Libraries are ideal places to promote formative justice as people make choices. When librarians listen to their patrons, they start to help people make informed choices about potential investments. There are multitudinous ways this could happen, but two ways I focus on are independent study and connected learning.

Independent Study

Our school pursues a curriculum “that demands students join in the design of their own education, and which makes creativity, innovation, risk-taking, reflection, and resilience central to every academic experience.” In this way, independent study represents a significant academic culmination, a path that asks students not only to locate their desire, but also to determine an appropriate pursuit of study that extends beyond the bounds of our offered curriculum.

A library is a natural home for this kind of pursuit. It’s not the grocery store, but more the kitchen, the dining room, and living room. It is an open space with tools and supportive staff members that will help students choose a fig, make it into pie, and then find a suitable venue to share it with the entire community. In the independent study scenario, this is all done for credit.

Connected Learning

But what happens when students identify a passion outside of the school curriculum that is not within the bounds of an independent study? Libraries can support them via connected learning, a situation in which “a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success or civic engagement.”

Independent study and connected learning share a lot in common. They both revolve around young peoples’ passions. They both require support. They both lead to recognition from the wider community.

They differ in that connected learning works like the precursor to independent study. That is, it is the thing a student does even before the possibility of academic recognition. It is the thing a young person elects to do in their free time. It is the thing that consumes and becomes oneself.

In this way, as my ten-year-old self identified as a reader (for fun and for profit), my passion took the form of Space Vampire. Choose Your Own Adventure #71 didn’t form the totality of my situation, support, and recognition, but it did serve as a node in my history as a reader. It allowed me to make choices, feel the rush of discovery, and stem frustration as I died a thousand deaths.


Author: Mark Dzula

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

2 replies

  1. Mark, how well I remember 4th and 5th grade boys that were mad for Choose Your Own Adventure books (my son included). Then in the 6th grade, the dreaded book list arrived and woe to be told… none of these were on the list. To paraphrase Don McLean … this was the day that Choose Your own Adventure died… however they soon discovered Lloyd Alexander and lived the adventures of Taran.

  2. Thank you Kate,

    Good to hear the boys pushed further in spite of these set limitations. I am thankful that Taran had a home in these young readers’ “decision trees” and allowed them to branch out. This makes me wonder about the role of limitations in pursuing formative justice. Might limitations be productive?

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