Call me old school about school, but I have always viewed the school year as taking up roughly ten months of the calendar year. During that time, teachers introduce students to a variety of learning activities, attempt to instill solid work habits, decide what should constitute homework and hope that students leave feeling not just like they survived but they grew as human beings from the range of experiences.
There is a growing movement against assigning homework. Some say it does not advance a child’s learning, particularly up until high school. Many parents feel it infringes on family time during evenings and weekends when a child should pursue other interests or simply learn to appreciate unstructured leisure time. Still, homework is the norm in most schools and households. But required summer reading effectively classifies reading during July and August as more homework.
When I was in school, my English grades were good. As for Woodworking (“Industrial Arts”) and Physical Education, not so much. I cannot imagine how miserable summer would have been if my wretched Woodworking teacher required that I build 2 birdhouses and a lamppost over the summer. What if my P.E. teacher had ordered that I climb a rope three days a week, run laps around my neighborhood and learn to finally connect the bat to the ball as peers smirked and whispered putdowns throughout July and August?
The point is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. We also need to make personal choices about how to spend free time. As much as I value reading, it should not be incumbent upon me, as a principal or a teacher, to set forth a reading routine for summer. I am not there to oversee it. I should not be prescribing how children and families spend a portion of their vacation.
I do understand that many parents struggle with developing a leisure reading habit in their children. Teachers do their part during the school year, often assigning reading minutes and requiring students to submit monthly reading charts that document books/pages/minutes read. At some point, educators have to step back and see if there are any fruits of their labor.
I have always felt that reading attitudes are more important than current levels of comprehension and fluency. There are many “aliterate” readers who can read, but choose not to unless forced. Yes, I am sure they are one of the targeted groups for required summer reading. Will their interest grow? Fat chance. I know firsthand. Beginning around the middle school years, I stopped reading. At least, I stopped reading school-sanctioned works—namely, fiction books—unless there was a test on the book. I did, however, spend time reading. I read a great deal in newspapers and magazines. I devoured Mad magazine and wondered why entertaining parodies were never mentioned in school before high school. If I had been required to read certain books or a set number of minutes during the summer, I may have shut down altogether.
I never belonged to a public library summer reading program. Some kids jump on board, but I didn’t want a sticker or certificate. That would only have cemented my then-unwanted geek status. Still, I did bike to the local branch from time to time, checking out a few books on hockey or orangutans or how to get rich. I didn’t have to do it on a set day or time during the week. It was just an option that I usually tied in with a stop at the convenience store for yummy, unhealthy summer treats—a Fudgsicle, a pack of gum, a soda or, if I’d just been paid for mowing the neighbor’s lawn, all of the above.
Have we forgotten what summer is about? Did the people who now prescribe summer reading have miserable vacations when they were growing up or were they the natural readers who didn’t have to be coerced to read Julie of the Wolves and The Borrowers?
To be clear, I was not a prolific summer reader. I spent much more time riding my bike, hiking the escarpment, playing marathon sessions of hide and seek, splashing about in our pool and engaging in a great deal of imaginative play. Yes, I also watched too much television and let many afternoons crawl by with my head six inches away from an A.M. transistor radio. I am thankful that I had time to be bored and to have to figure out what to do on my own.
I am reminded of one of my favorite picture books, A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech. It is one of the few in which a principal is a main character. Mr. Keene loves school and his fine students and teachers. In fact, he so loves seeing how much everyone is learning that he believes more school will make things even finer. After all, you can never have too much of a good thing. School on weekends, holidays and, yes, summer! This wonderful book is always such an entertaining read-aloud. The students moan and groan—they even yell!—as I keep stopping the reading and pretend to jot down Mr. Keene’s ideas about more school…just the thing our school needs! It takes a student to (politely) confront the principal to tell him there are other types of learning that cannot happen at school or under a school’s direction.
During any given school year, I hope teachers do everything they can to inspire a love of reading. I hope they have built classroom libraries with new titles and not just dusty paperbacks with torn covers (although some of the best reads are the ones that have survived mud puddles and spins in the dryer). I hope teachers have actively been a part of school and public library visits with their classes. (It surprises and disheartens me when I see that students do not know their way around libraries. Where are the graphic novels? Where are the books about pets? Where is the Guinness Book of Records?)
I hope that teachers have introduced new types of books through lively, memorable read-alouds and enthusiastic, informed book talks. I hope that they have spotted the pretend readers during silent reading times and tried to find something—anything!—that will pique their interest. Calvin & Hobbes? Book One from BONE or Wimpy Kid? The sports section of the local newspaper? Hopefully, we as educators have done our part in planting a seed. At some point, I think it is up to the learner and his family to take over.
Recommended reading lists make more sense than required reading lists. To be fair, many parents are not up on what interests today’s ten-year-olds. As nostalgic as we may be, Encyclopedia Brown (thank you, Mr.Sobol!) may not have the appeal it once did, even with new book covers. I think much can be gained from talking with the classroom teacher during the school year if a child is not keen to read on his own at home. Also, visit that public library and talk with the children’s librarian. If you are lucky enough to live near an independent bookstore with a well-stocked children’s section, drop in and ask what is selling.
Nothing, however, can replace talking with your own child about reading. Let him vent if need be about all the boring books he has been subjected to. Let him tell you what bothers him about reading. If you haven’t been there along the way in championing reading, in listening to your child read, in reading to your child and in reading at the same time your child reads, you have a steep uphill climb. Still, don’t give up. Pull out a book that has been made into a movie and read it to, or with, your child. I worked with a group of readers that hated their teacher’s “old-fashioned” book choices. I surveyed the group and downloaded the script from “Despicable Me”, a movie they all said they thought was hysterical. We did table reads of the screenplay and improved fluency by re-enacting scenes they chose. The kids loved it. (Watch how a child focuses on reading with expression when he is trying to emulate a movie character.)
The year before, I encouraged teachers to poll their students. Instead of creating a Good for You reading list, why not have the students each nominate a title? The list that goes home lists the title, author and the student who recommended the book. Now the book isn’t something Miss Chang suggested, but one that Johnny thinks is good. (It would also help if students searched online to see which titles are available at the local library. The titles should be books that are accessible and won’t totally wipe out a kid’s lawn mowing/Fudgsicle fund.)
Will some children go all summer without reading anything more than a cereal box? Yes. Will the reading gap grow? Most definitely. If we are really concerned about the reading gap over summer, why not change the school calendar? Same number of days, but make the breaks shorter and over the course of the calendar year. Many educators don’t want to get into that discussion. Ironically, they like their extended summers to do what they see fit.
There are some students who genuinely struggle with reading. Imposing a reading requirement over the summer may only make things worse. A parent who tries to help the child read may belittle or overcorrect. The books may be too difficult in the first place. The child’s self-esteem as a reader plummets further and a negative attitude (i.e., resistance) grows. If these children truly need to read in the summer, a tutor or summer school may be an option. These choices may, of course, do more harm as well.
I don’t believe required readings will close the gap or, more importantly, improve a person’s desire to read. The same kids who don’t do their homework and don’t do the home reading during the school year will be the same ones who don’t do the “required” reading in the summer. What then happens? Do they start school in September with a failing reading grade from summer?
I picture my summer birdhouse, too wobbly for any warbler, a woeful creation. A generous “D” on the first day back in Woodworking. What a long school year it would be.
I suppose the Twitter version of this blog post about summer reading is inspire, don’t require.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear the success stories as well as the frustrations over school involvement in summer reading.