Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Summer Reading Blues

A committee of teachers
I'm on a committee charged with rethinking the summer reading program at Leafstrewn.  Over the past several years there has been a whole-school summer reading book.  The title changes very year: Fahrenheit 451; Farewell, My Subaru; First Crossings; etc.  This afternoon our committee talked about changing things around--perhaps by having a book for every grade, so that maybe every year Freshmen would have to read Fahrenheit 451, but maybe Juniors would have to read Dreams From My Father--or whatever; we didn't talk about specific titles.  I advocated, predictably, for a free-choice program that would require reading at least one book but would encourage reading many more, a program in which the choice would be a central part of the conversation--but I didn't think what we ended up with was so terrible.  The department chair sent out notes about the meeting, which included the following bullet point:

•    We agreed that the goals of summer reading are  1) to promote the enjoyment of reading and 2) to give students practice in choosing books they enjoy reading.

Pleased to see these admirable goals, I went happily off to a seder.

A student's perspective
At the seder table, my cousin, a recent graduate of Leafstrewn and now an English major at a fine college, was sitting--or should I say, reclining--next to me. When I mentioned in passing that I'd been at a meeting about summer reading--I didn't say anything about what had been said--my cousin said, Oh, summer reading!  I said, Yeah--what did you think about the summer reading program?  He said, I can describe it in one word: CRUEL.  I said, Really?!  He said, Well, I don't resent it that much anymore, but if you'd asked me six years ago I would have gone on a rant.  I said, I'm surprised; I didn't think it was so terrible.  He said, Being forced to waste your time reading a terrible book OVER THE SUMMER?  The books were awful, we were forced to read them, and then we didn't even do anything intetresting with them in the fall.  It was infuriating.  My friends and I all hated it.

What now?
First, we might consider surveying students to see what they think.  Second, if our goals are really to promote the enjoyment of reading and to give students practice in choosing their own books to read, then having a single assigned book (whether for the whole school or by grade) is almost certainly not the best way to accomplish them, and is possibly even counterproductive.

An admission
Although I have been a compulsive reader since the age of 5, when I was assigned a book to read over the summer before my freshman year of college (it was "The Machine in the Garden," by Leo Marx), I didn't read it.  And I am not alone.  Many people--even many teachers at Leafstrewn--just don't like assigned reading.  Designing a summer reading program that actually encourages reading may require some unnatural teaching.

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