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The Tale of Two Tables

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Wandering the aisles of my local Barnes & Noble, I approach a table bearing the sign “Summer Getaway Favorites.” Thumbing through the stacks of paperbacks and new hardcover releases, I see the usual summer fare—fast-paced thrillers from favorite authors like Janet Evanovich and Lee Child, weepy beach blanket reads, and thick historical epics. Summer runs on a different schedule; we savor the slower pace of vacations and the longer days. Juicy like peaches, heart-pounding like theme park roller coasters, lazy like panting dogs, summer books represent everything we appreciate about this time of year.

After selecting a few delectable titles, I continue down the main aisle towards the Young Adult section. What delicious finds await me there? Drawn towards a matching Summer Reading sign, I stroll over to check out the summer recommendations for teens. Lord of the Flies? Bless, Me Ultima? Guns, Germs, and Steel? Siddhartha? These are the hot books for summer? What is going on here? The aforementioned titles are wonderful books, but they stand in stark contrast to the fun, escapist books displayed on the adult table across the bookstore.

Nearby, a gangly boy of about sixteen picks through the stacks, finally selecting Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a tragic novella about a woman who is trapped by the social confines of early 20th Century society (definite chick book). I cannot hold back my curiosity, blurting out, “Are you sure that’s the book you want?”

Something in my demeanor must look motherly (or teacherly), he does not move away from me like I am a weirdo. He sighs, telling me, “It is on my school’s summer reading list and it looks short.”

“Summer reading list? Your school has a summer reading list?”

The boy continues, “Yeah, we have to read four books off the list over the summer and take tests on them when we go back to school.”

I discover later that Barnes & Noble, responding to demands for such required reading list books all summer, puts the most requested ones on a special table for this purpose.

Checking my new acquaintance’s list, I encourage him to take Lord of the Flies, instead. He marches over to the checkout line, clutching just the one book, and I wonder to myself how long it will take him to read those four books. He doesn’t seem enthusiastic.

Thinking back to my teenage summer reading days, I would not have been thrilled, either. I would have resented that list because it kept me from reading my own books. I remember lying in my backyard, slathered in baby oil (hey, we did not know about skin cancer back then) riveted by my copy of Jaws, grateful that I lived in a landlocked place.

I learned many skills during my childhood summers--skills I did not learn in school—how to dive, pick a watermelon, pull out bee stings, and read for fun. Hours and hours of reading over my school vacations are probably why I am such a big reader to this day. Freed from required reading all year long in school, summer was when I read what I wanted.

Would you be surprised to learn the number one reason my former students tell me that they don’t read much in middle and high school? They have too much homework. Think about it, these once avid readers cannot carve out any reading time because of the demands of school! The only time they ever get to read their own books is when school is out.

So why do it? Why require students to read specific books over the summer? Why tie school performance to summer reading? It is well-known that many kids don’t read over the summer, perhaps requiring students to read at least a few books guarantees they read during the break. Perhaps our curriculum load demands that we commandeer part of children’s summers in an attempt to “get it all in.”

We suck up their evenings, their weekends, and now their summers, too? Don’t we resent it when our schools do this to us?

We must remind ourselves that readers who leave school and keep reading are those people who discover reading is personally valuable. When are kids learning from us that reading is pleasurable? When does reading ever get to belong to them and not us? If every book students read, even in the summer, is a book they are assigned to read in school, when do they pick up that reading is an engaging pastime, an activity adult readers pursue for fun?

One hundred feet separates the adult summer reading table from the teen one, a metaphor illustrating the distance young readers must travel before reading becomes an endeavor they can exercise some control over. I imagine many falter on this journey and never make it.

16 Comments

I agree with you completely. I am an 8th grade reading teacher, and my mission is to turn as many of my students as possible into readers....not just good reading students, but life long readers.

That being said though, I remember one time that a forced school reading assignment turned into a magical weekend for me. I was in 10th grade and had been assigned Wuthering Heights. Of course I put it off until the last minute, and since it was due Monday morning I started reading Sunday about noon. I was sucked into the world of Cathy and Heathcliff and didn't come up for air until I finished the last page. I believe with all my heart that if I had read it in sections like the teacher assigned I would not have found it as wonderful as my jump-into-the-deep-end-feet-first approach.

I enjoy reading your blog very much.
Suzanne

Hey Mrs. Miller! I enjoyed reading this article in your blog- thanks for sharing. :) I completely agree... but guess what? We have no summer reading this year! I am so glad... no stress of having to read something, forget it all, and then be tested over it come August. Hope your summer's going great!

So many kids don't like to read in the summer at all. They'd rather do other things with their time, and I can't fault them for that. As a kid, I didn't spend much time reading during the summer. More than likely I was out fishing, riding my bike, playing baseball, going to the movie theater, or something. But not reading.

I did that during school because the books teachers selected for us to read were good books. Yes, I answered the questions at the end and took the tests, but I also happened to enjoy the books. No offense, I don't share the disdain that I've seen expressed about being told what to read.

I became a heavy reader in 8th grade and this continued into high school. My reading lists grew. They didn't shrink at all, and often I'd be roaming the library aisles for more books to read (3 or 4 books at a time). My summers, however, were mine to do with as I pleased. Often, they did not include reading.

There is more than one way to become a reader.

Yes, required summer reading lists are not particularly helpful to you good readers, but they do serve well those of us who struggle to read and will avoid it if given the opportunity.

I've seen schools that, rather than testing the kids, have them turn in a graphic organizer and meet in groups to discuss the stories when school gets back in session. That seems a more humane way to do things, but the feedback from my oldest son may not count because he is a strong reader.

My middle son is a different story (I wrote software to help him), and he enters that school this coming fall.

Great blog!

We try so hard to make sure that our kids are reading "good" books but when I think back on my favorite books, they certainly weren't the ones I was forced to read. I never had any required summer reading and it's a good thing. I was much too busy reading the books I chose that to tie up my time with required reading would have only made me hate the books I was required to read. I am a FIRM believer in letting kids read whatever they want to read.

I have loved to read since I learned to read; I remember summer days with my friend laying in the grass reading. I developed a love of American History through the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series (which I am happy to see on the shelves again). I remember reading books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Pearl, Pride and Prejudice, and Silas Marner as assignments in school. I’ve re-read each one again as an adult and I loved them even more the second time. As a parent, I dread the forced reading. We just made up the READING SCHEDULE for my son who will be a 9th grader in the fall. He has never been an enthusiastic reader, and the forced march through the books has not made him one. But without the schedule, he’d never finish. My older son has always been a stronger reader, and although he has slacked off in his reading, he still enjoys a good book. As a teacher, who assigns summer reading, I feel that getting all the kids reading is important. I know that when we come back in September, I can build some lessons and discussions around the books. Hopefully we’ll have some fun with them.

And, as many have said before me, I love your blog! Thank you!

I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts. I'd rather my students have read something they desired to read over the summer than be forced through a "good" book. Yes, like some of the other posters, I was forced to read "good" books and turned out fine (because I managed in those days before accountability to keep my own reading alive) but, folks, we are the exception. Most students end up hating to read and won't do it unless forced. I taught high school reading for years and in a hundred students, there were always two or three who didn't mind the forced reading of "good" books, but the vast majority weren't so forgiving. They had strong feelings about what the experience had done to them.

And another thing about those books selected for summer reading: why do teachers pick the most difficult text for students to have to read on their own without teacher support? Another surefire way to derail reading: making them spend hours with text they can't decipher without help. Those titles belong in the classroom with the teacher as guide. If you must do mandatory summer reading, it needs to be text the students can interpret without adult intervention.

Love this blog!

I stumbled across your blog accidentally, and I must say I'm thrilled at the discovery. Thank you for such thoughtful reflection.

I'm a senior English teacher in Tennessee, and I have spent many days of my break this summer reading the required "summer reading" selections for the upcoming seniors. (Humorously enough, Siddhartha is on the list and is my current conquest.) The seniors have to choose three; I have to read everything with which I am not yet familiar. And don't get me wrong. I love to read (don't all English teachers?), but I find myself completely understanding why the students are against summer reading, as I choke down another "classic." With that being said, I am glad to see that there are other educators out there from all grade levels who feel that we are robbing students of the ownership of this hobby (and often very personal experience). I've read books that changed my life, but they weren't assigned by any school.

I've only been teaching high school for two years, but already I can see that there needs to be an overhaul in the way we approach required reading. Sure, students need exposure to "classics" in some form; they need to read the greats. However, isn't there some way we can do this without cramming them down their throats and gagging them with antiquated prose? And you're completely right: Summer should be about what students want to read. Most students are completely against reading in any fashion because it's been forced on them, as was mentioned by Ms. Lowe. I think one of the biggest problems with required reading and education in general, really, is that we say we want students to take ownership of their learning and be responsible for certain things, and then we hypocritically tell them what every single step HAS to be along the way. Where's the ownership in that for them?

Thanks again for such an insightful blog. I'll definitely be returning.

Warmest wishes...

Perhaps it is not the reading list that is at fault but the underlying assumption that curriculum teaches children, not that teachers teach children. God forbid we should leave teaching in the hands of teachers, we must instead make teachers follow a prescribed set of guidelines, stick to the scope and sequence- if it is Tuesday this must be Dickens- as though every child has the same needs and comes from the same background.

Of course, one can test compliance with a curriculum, but good teaching can only be identified by actual frequent, ongoing observation time in the classroom by administrators. Testing certainly is easier and gives you "data" (numbers) as though learning can be quantified......in my experience learning occurs in spurts and breakthroughs, then is consolidated through gradual accretion leading to the next breakthrough.

Maybe my experience is atypical. Maybe all the non-teachers who crafted our educational policy know more than it seems they do. Maybe my sarcasm betrays some bitterness at what I see happening to children in my classes. As a person of faith this becomes an issue of justice for me- we are robbing children of their delight in the world.

Keep up the good work here............

I know that as a student i love not having summer reading lists. In my old school we had one every single year which I think is part of the reason I resented reading so much before I meet Mrs. Miller.

I'm of mixed opinions when it comes to required summer reading. A book lover well before I reached high school, I am probably not the best test case for required readings. Sad to say, I would not have read many novels (as part of my formal education, rather than on my own) if not for summer reading, since few novels made it into the regular curriculum. There are books I loved that I would probably never have read if they hadn't been on the required list -- Ceremony, No-No Boy, The Song of Solomon -- but they were also books I felt would have deserved discussion in a classroom. (And you'll notice the trend here is itself somewhat problematic.) On the other hand, being required to read Silas Marner over the summer beetween 10th and 11th grade has, I fear, ruined George Eliot for me forever.

I couldn't really tell whether you disagreed with insisting the students read through the summer, or whether you disagreed with having a suggested list of books.
Although I agree that it is WONDERFUL to have the summer to read "freely", I suspect that by handing out a book list, teachers were trying to target students who might not willingly read anything at all over the summer. Armed with a list, a parent could "encourage" their reluctant reader child to read half an hour each evening.
If it were up to me, I'd modify the assignment so it was a huge long list, but they only had to choose one book.

I am happy to read this article.I am teaching in university.Self reading is more better for student but according to his level.I think in primary education of student ,teacher try make his habit to think your self.In summer student should study but with free mind.

good information...

I stumbled across your blog accidentally, and I must say I'm thrilled at the discovery. Thank you for such thoughtful reflection.

I agree with you 100%. When I taught in West Virginia we also had summer reading assignments. I felt like such a hypocrite. Like you, I remember summer as being the time when I got to read what I wanted. After many years of complaining, I finally got the lists to include some books that students would actually want to read.

If schools feel that summer reading is so importants. Why don't they just have students keep reading logs. Suggest a number of books or amount of time per week for reading. Students can respond to their reading that first week of class. For heaven's sake - no tests. Usually what happens is kids fail that test and then spend the rest of the term digging out of the hole they dug for themselves.

In short, those summer reading assignments are not in the best interest of the kids.

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