Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What NOT to Assign for Summer Reading

It's that time when teachers are thinking about summer reading – their own AND their students. In the not-too-distant past, a parent talked to me about books assigned to her daughter, and most of the choices were drawn from a list of the classics. Now I'm NOT talking about Young Adult classics; I'm thinking about those still-in-print books originally published between the 1700 and 1800s. Tale of Two Cities; Wuthering Heights; Jude the Obscure; Les Miserables, etc. 

(Note: The cute boy in this picture is my grandson, and reading in trees is his favorite pastime!)

Please do not think I am ANTI-classics. I definitely am NOT. I also realize that students registered for AP English need a jump-start on the upcoming school year by reading some Austen and Faulkner over the summer. Additionally, I have been researching and building a case for teaching such works in the general language arts curriculum, but I question whether or not teachers should require or recommend them as summer reading. Here are a few questions at the heart of the BIG question.
  • What is the purpose for assigning these works for summer reading? Introducing young readers to timeless, universal themes or ruining vacations at the beach?
  • Can students comprehend these difficult texts without teacher's scaffolding? Will filling out the work sheets or writing up summaries or reflections really help them understand why Heathcliff is such a grouch? (Heathcliff the tortured soul, NOT Garfield's cartoon contemporary.)
  • Will entering into the task without sufficient support discourage their efforts to the point of giving up? How many will make it beyond "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …"?
  • Will they resort to replacing the novel with Cliff Notes? Or the movie versions; ie A&E's Pride and Prejudice with hunky Collin Firth OR Kiera Knightley's 2005 portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet OR the new BBC 6-part episodes?
  • Will the experience create life-long despisers of classics? Will they ever trust an author over 100 again?
Carol Jago, former middle and high school teacher; president of NCTE; director of the California Reading and Literature Project, and a whole bunch of other impressive titles, writes that "we should be teaching what Lev Vygotsky calls the zone of proximal development. Vygostky explains, 'the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it'"(2009). When we assign difficult or frustration-level texts for summer reading without marching ahead of students' literary development, we may be setting up those readers for failure as well as giving them one more reason to dislike reading.

So what makes up a good summer reading list? Good question. Yesterday I talked with a high school teacher whose sophomore students are reading The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom's remarkable memoir about hiding Dutch Jews during World War II. The book is listed as having a 900L Lexile level, within the range of 10th graders, but its length and complexity can make it a difficult read for many teens. That is why teachers often choose it for classroom study. 

After reading The Hiding Place and studying the Holocaust during the last few weeks of school, students will be assigned to read Night by Elie Wiesel during summer. The content is tough because of the topic, but it is short and poignant. The students have the background knowledge needed to comprehend the text and the reading level is 580L. 

Carol J. also believes that "if students can read a book on their own, it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study" (2009). Now there are many things to consider when determining whether or not students can read a book on their own, ranging from having the ability to comprehend the text to possessing the maturity to appreciate the content. But if teachers believe their students can, then that title might be a perfect choice for a summer reading recommendation.

My colleague/friend/supervisor Carolyn discussed this topic as well, and she shared an interesting idea. She thinks books that are short, but unique with richly layered content are great for summer reads. Two examples she mentioned were Yellow Star  by Jennifer Roy or Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Both of these books, written in a poetic, free-verse format, are easy reads filled with thought-provoking imagery and circumstance - fodder for riveting reflections and discussions. (Monster by Walter Dean Myers is also a quick read, written in screen-play format. It is both heart-breaking and disturbing, and guys like it!)

I also think summer reading is the time for fun - yes, F.U.N. reading. A time to include graphic novels or Lois Duncan (queen of YA thrillers) or Louis L'Amour novels (I love Hondo, and Louis hooked my sons onto reading, so I love him, too); OR Hunger Games! Even better!

What do YOU think makes a good "SUMMER READ?" Send in your thoughts about the topic OR share your favorite titles. I would LOVE, LOVE LOVE to hear from you! rbs
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Note: Jordan School District's policy for summer reading lists is consistent with classroom reading guidelines: books must be approved by the appropriate literature committees. If teachers want to include UNapproved books, the compiled list must be extensive enough that students have LOTS of choices. Btw, most titles mentioned in this post have been approved, including HUNGER GAMES, a new addition!


Amy Jo Lavin said...

I'm a strong supporter of choice: letting students choose the books that they read. That's why I encourage incoming 10th grade honors students at my school to develop a habit of reading at least 20 minutes a night from books of their choice. Then, I require them to turn in an essay on the first day of school on one of the books they read. Ultimately, I'm more concerned with the students actually reading than what they read.

I have fond memories from my childhood of spending the summer at the library with stacks of books (and one dreadful memory of having to read Crime and Punishment before my senior year of high school). Summer reading should be fun!

link2literacy said...

I agree with you and so does research that lists choice as a top motivator. Fun summer reading can encourage and support life-long reading! Thanks so much for "dropping by," Ms. Amy! rbs