Let My People Read by Donalyn Miller
Last week, our daughter Sarah, a rising freshman, brought home the reading list for her pre-AP English class next year and asked us to order all of the books for her. Scanning the list, I couldn’t help sighing: To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game, Frankenstein—the usual suspects. We have copies of all of these books in our home library. Sarah would never ask for our copies, though, because reading these texts in school requires defacing every book with marginalia and required annotations.
Don and I expressed dismay that another slew of great works will be slowly destroyed for our daughter during months-long novel studies next year. Sarah took the long view, “Mom, I would rather they ruin these boring books in school instead of dissecting ones I really like.”
I begged her, “Please read them first, then go back and do the work you need to do. These books are great literature. You should appreciate them!”
Sarah looked at me like I was insane, “Why would I read them twice? No one does that.”
I grumbled under my breath, “I bet half the class won’t read those books once.”
When Sarah shared her plan to begin reading these books during the summer and “get it over with,” I put my foot down, “You will not begin reading any of these books before August or I will not order them for you.”
Sarah laughed, “Are you kidding me, Mom? You’re a reading teacher. Are you actually telling me not to read something?”
Shaking my head, I told her, “It’s summer! You should be reading what you want. It’s bad enough that school takes over your reading life for nine months. They are not commandeering your choices all summer!”
Thankfully, Sarah is only required to read one book before school starts, Fahrenheit 451. It seems a lot of kids in our area have more extensive summer reading requirements. Walking through our local bookstores, I see tables of books displaying “Summer Reading List” selections accompanying lengthy reading lists from nearby schools.
While I understand that teachers are concerned about summer slide or summer slump, the documented decline in students’ reading levels between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next, I question whether or not assigning specific titles and reading assignments accomplishes teachers’ well-intentioned goals to keep their students reading over the summer months. As Penny Kittle says, “It’s not rigor if they aren’t reading it.”
Assigning complex texts for summer reading doesn’t assure students are reading. Even if students muddle through these challenges, I suspect more than a few readers miss the deeper themes or fail to understand the books. Kelly Gallagher talks about “underteaching” books—sending students off to read difficult texts on their own without support from teachers—a practice that results in poor comprehension and reduced engagement for most young readers. Reading books they don’t understand does nothing to improve students’ reading ability and goes a long way toward disenfranchising them from reading altogether.
Beyond the futility of assigning challenging books to students for independent summer reading, I wonder how children ever develop a passion for reading when they never have the opportunity to pursue their own reading interests. Summer is prime time for readers to dive into a series, research a topic that fascinates them, read every book they can find from a favorite author, or explore the stacks at the local library. Do we deny our students the only chance many of them have to read what they want when we mandate summer reading requirements? It shows an alarming lack of trust and respect for children when we assume that they won’t read (or won’t read anything we deem worthy) if we don’t require it.
For students who dislike reading, it is unlikely that taking over their summers with extensive reading assignments will do much to engage them with reading. For students who enjoy reading, requiring summer reading fosters resentment and disengagement with school reading in general. Students’ reading ability and lifelong reading habits would be better served if we encouraged students to check out books from school and classroom libraries over the summer. Given access to books and choice in what they read, students will read more over the summer than they do when choices are limited (Allington, 2012).
Reading belongs to readers, not to teachers. If we want children to see reading as anything more than a school job, we must give them the chance to choose their own books and develop personal connections to reading, or they never will.
As for Sarah, she just asked me to order The Perks of Being a Wallflower, so she and her friend, Hayley, can read it over the summer. She is digging in her bookcase to make a stack of books she wants to read after she finishes Perks. I know Sarah will be well prepared for her English class this fall because she will read all summer. She will finish Fahrenheit 451 before school starts. I imagine the book will spark a lot of dinner table conversations about individualism and totalitarian efforts to control and limit free thought.
As well as a word or two about irony.
Donalyn Miller is a fourth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday.
Oh, I hope whoever her teacher is doesn’t ruin those books…they are wonderful!! There are so many AWESOME things that can be done to teach them well and not kill them for the reader! Good luck to both of you! Read on, Sarah read on!
I worry that the emphasis on “close reading” in the elementary Common Core will lead to teachers killing some great books with kids as well. I had a great discussion with a parent yesterday about how she now thinks she should not have put so many rules for reading on to her daughter, as she now ( at 17) rarely reads. If teachers feel they must have whole class novels I hope they find ways to preserve the pleasure of reading in other ways.
For a wonderful look at authentic “close reading” in elementary school read What Readers Really Do by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. It is excellent. Shows how engaged reading helps improve reading in elementary school. This does not look at all like the test prep idea of “close reading”. Vicki writes about this on her blog as well.
All I can say is Donalynn Miller, I love you! You are such a voice for what matters for kids and reading. I know there are many others (Penny and Kelly to mention the two you note) who are with you. We need the other teachers to take a look at what matters for real kids and real readers.
What a way to start my day!
Janet, I am reading What Readers Really Do and loving it. It’s not getting a lot of attention; trying to get others to read it, too!
AFTER she’s read Fahrenheit 451, please point her to the authorized graphic novel version drawn my Tim Hamilton (my recommendation: http://booksyalove.com/?p=90) and the b/w movie version, then ask – did Bradbury’s vision come through in these visual formats?
Hopefully, having multiple ‘views’ of the same work will help her help her classmates thoughtfully discuss what they “read” when they scanned the SparkNotes version… sigh.
Sad sad when all the nit-picking takes away the joy of reading books which have earned their right to be called “classic” not through the efforts of AP English teachers, but because their stories and their storytelling touch something deep in so many people.
Well said, Donalyn! I can see schools recommending titles for students, but requiring them to read certain titles is a problem for me. Sadly, the lists of “required” reading have been getting longer each year, making it even more difficult for the rule followers to find time to read for enjoyment. What is most disappointing about required reading is the follow-up. So many times, there is none. My own children have had to write a paper upon returning to school to document having read one of the books. No discussions were ever held. Not exactly an effective way to raise a generation of readers.
Even our summer reading program at the public library here is unreasonable. The goal is so high that it is nearly impossible to reach the end goal in our meager 60 day summer break. In order to “win,” my kids, who love to read, will have to push, push, push themselves rather than just enjoying their hobby. Why the push? Where is the celebration and gentle encouragement to keep reading for fun?
As for summer reading lists from school, I do wonder if there is a connection between summer reading lists and high-stakes evaluation systems placed upon teachers. If so, I am sickened. Are our students becoming merely “data points” that we must keep under our fingertips in order to prove our effectiveness?
I also notice that your daughter is taking a pre-AP class. I have concerns that we equate a larger work load with higher-level thinking. This is unfair to our strongest students. Are the students in remedial reading classes expected to accomplish a rigorous list of texts over the summer? Do they have a reading list at all?
I’ve had this same conversation with two Nerdy Book Club members about my own son’s summer assignment. His books? Frankenstein, The Poisonwood Bible, and Metamorphosis. Plus, he has to analyze two poems. What am I left to do, but nag him about reading them? Horrors! We’ve discussed this together at great length, along with how I reached out to the fantastic teachers I know online for their opinions. At least he understands that there are those in the book industry and many in education that fully understand what is at stake when we shove required reading down the throats of students without a corresponding policy of developing reading enjoyment. My son will be a senior this year, so it is too late for him. My hope is that this subversive movement to redesign reading programs in schools accelerates and spreads and gets implemented more quickly before we kill the joy of reading unnecessarily in more and more students.
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Love this post! I want to memorize the second to last paragraph.
I love how you wrapped up this post 🙂 Kathy (thebrainlair) and I read and discussed Fahrenheit 451 on our blogs last year. What a remarkable work of art!
This post reminded me to check for my son’s required reading heading into 6th grade. Thankfully, he has a small list of books and can choose one. They are all reasonable – with some variety of genre and length. I don’t know what he’ll be expected to do with it once he gets to school, but at least he’ll have plenty of time to read other things over the summer.
It’s a conundrum, the required reading list, precisely for the reasons you mention. My friends and I have had this very same discussion: how many texts are, to an extent, ruined by having them force fed to us as teens, when many of us simply don’t have the intellectual capacity (or motivation) to appreciate them for what they are.
Thanks, Donalyn! I hope our children get bathed in something other than dystopia. While I believe children should be told the “original” and “dark” versions of fairy tales, I feel strongly that the telling must be done in a community of care. I’m in the final pages of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman: “In short, play inaugurates practicing, and practicing is a matter both of repetition and of modulation” (p. 272). His use of modulation is elaborated in the section including the phrase: “metamorphosis of rules.” Isn’t summer, including reading, a time to celebrate play?
Here’s a thought: Ditch pre-AP and AP classes. Let’s face the fact that both AP Lang and Comp and AP Lit are year-long test prep courses. To achieve the goal of preparing for the tests, teachers often have only that goal in mind when assigning and teaching beloved classic texts. Since the College Board dropped its standards for AP teachers, we’ve seen an alarming rise in reliance on canned AP curriculum and test-prep materials.
In my own school, incoming freshman are required to complete an online unit for “Animal Farm.” I heard so much moaning about how much students in ninth honors hate “The Book Thief” last year that in my speech classes I started giving free reading time each period and ended the course w/ book pitches just to try to fend off the ongoing “readicide.”
The first goal of teachers has to be to instill a love of reading in students. And parents need to ask themselves whey they insist their kids take AP classes.
Glenda, have you read The Book Thief? I is such a great book – one of the favorites of my 8th graders during a Holocaust unit. It breaks my heart to hear that a 9th grade teacher ruined such an amazing book. BUT my students got to choose their book, and when they heard that The Book Thief was narrated by death, all six copies were gone and a waiting list was started! Choice is so powerful.
Thought provoking stuff for sure. What’s missing is a recommendation for what a teacher can do to teach and not ruin great books. I know that’s not the focus of this post but it is linked inherently. Is the practice of note taking in the margins a no no for you on general or just during the summer? I would love thoughts on this. Thank you.
Joe, I have written about whole class novel units in the past (in the Book Whisperer and elsewhere) and didn’t want to retread those ideas here. I suggest reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love and Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, which I reference in this post.
We just had a similar conversation at our house. I wanted her to read them now and then later but she has learned it is not efficient to read them in June because then she’ll have to revisit them!? Grrrr.
I have often read and reread great works of literature. I know I’m a book nerd, but I see value in the reread. The first time through, I’m reading just for enjoyment. The second time through I’m rereading to see what the author did to create the effects that it had on me as a reader. I don’t require that students do a reread with their summer reading (and I have dropped the requirement of writing notes – which was originally more for them to remember their thinking as they read it than for them to share with me) – but we do reread passages when we discuss in the first week or two of school.
This seems to have been slowly building in these past years, a franticness from the teachers who are pressured from the testing to “do better”. Sometimes I wonder if they are readers and understand what it is to love a book, to immerse oneself in the story just for the joy of it? And then I feel compassion for what they are experiencing themselves. I sent many an 8th grader who had read tons of books in the years with me off only to have him or her visit and say they were hardly reading anything-too much to do for the class! Thanks for a terrific, but sad, post!
Based on the reading teachers I know, I’d guess they don’t know what it is to love a book or even the process of reading. They’re either burnt out on following strict guidelines on which books to teach when and how or were never readers to begin with and got into it because it was the easiest certification (sad, I know). This does not stop me, the math teacher, from making a constant stream of reading suggestions ranging from dystopian YA to romantic suspense to well-regarded graphic novels to mysteries to Russian lit — to both the teachers and students.
(I work in alternative ed, so your mileage may vary.)
As a university professor who teaches methods classes in reading and literacy, I find your comment that reading certification is the “easiest” to obtain quite remarkable. I’d be curious to know what state you are referencing, as I’ve taught in 2 different universities in 2 different states, and the certification process and requirements to be highly qualified are quite rigorous.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game, Frankenstein—the usual suspects.
Indeed is there nothing written in the last 40 years that worthy of being used as a course work book?
Of course there are amazing books written in the last 4 decades, and many schools are giving students the opportunity to get to know very contemporary novels. However, does that mean we have to throw out everything that came before the late twentieth century?
Thank you Donalyn! So, so, so true! I’ll be using this post in a class I start teaching tomorrow!
I so agree! The last two years, being the only honors 9 Teacher, I switched to asking incoming students to read at least two books from any genre. Provided a list of examples of high interest ya novels. And emphasis these are just suggestions, bottom line just read! Then we spend the week sharing and suggesting! I finally got the h10 to tweak their required list, it’s better, not as open, but some choices at least. I think reading lists should be required for all levels not just honors. However, those lists should just be getting students to read, not dissect. Because unfortunately not all students have parents encouraging them to read!
I never had a summer reading list and was able to read widely as a kid. I worry that all this assigned summer reading makes reading a chore not a joy. Good for you for not letting Sarah read Fahrenheit 451 before August! I had a copy handed to me on World Book Night. I’ve never read Fahrenheit 451, but it is on my summer read list….for pleasure!
Oh, to get to read F451 for the first time again! Enjoy!
Reblogged this on booksandbassets and commented:
Here’s an excellent article from Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer. Enjoy!
Thank you for this post Donlyn! I am giving away a bunch of books from my classroom library. But reading your post also reminded me to tell my students they can also borrow books from my classroom library over the summer. I am worried about next year. At least one of the teachers makes students check out books by Lexile.
As a parent, I say Amen and as a teacher, I say Amen. Thank you!
What a great discussion! My thoughts are going in so many directions. The one thing I will say is my soon to be 23 year old had free reading every summer. Some summers he read and others he did not. Sometimes teachers assigned and he refused to read them. I worried and worried about whether he would be a reader.
Home for the weekend we were discussing the new Great Gatsby movie. His comment was “I missed reading a lot of those classics but I think I am ready now to go back and really read them. I have more background knowledge and experience to understand them and compare them to my current reading.” Did you hear that- he is currently reading and now interested in what the classics might have to say to him as a young adult. Maybe pushing reading isn’t what we need to do. Maybe just modeling and discussing books as family and friends would be enough. .
So spot on! My last library classes of the year were chats with students asking them that whatever they read this summer, to just make sure it is something they like. I did show the YALSA video of nominated books but only as a conversation spark about the kinds of books that any of us might like. Sharing with the students as a reader was a wonderful experience.
My daughter’s first grade class visited the public library on the last day of school to get them excited about the summer book club. She came home excited that she was only one of two students who got to checkout books on their fieldtrip, having tucked her keychain library card in her pocket that morning, having worn jean shorts under her dress so she would have a pocket to put it in. At first glance, then, her refusal to sign up for the summer program (and huff at the summer reading activity packet that came home) seemed contradictory to her enthusiasm in holding up Geronimo Stilton when I asked her about her day. When I asked her to explain, I knew she understood something big about reading, “it’s not about the prizes, Mom.
I see she’s taking pre-AP English 9, which means her goal is to take AP English classes. All of the books on that list have appeared on the exams in the past. Unfortunately, the pre-AP teachers have to cover those texts as well.
With that said, I highly recommend that you read – or let her read – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.” I teach AP Language, and I have my kids read this essay every year. It holds English teachers’ feet to the fire in the way texts are taught and how we ruin the love of reading. It made me think about the way I teach reading and how I can walk them through more complex texts when needed but still give them the freedom to form their own ideas and opinions about the text.
One thing I have done the last three years and allowed my students to pick their final reading novel. They complete a marketing campaign for their chosen work and “pitch” it to us on book fair day. Since I cover so much in such little time, I always tell them that I feel that at the end of the year, reading should be put back into their hands and they should be allowed choice. I’ve enjoyed it – and I also have veto when my juniors try to pick a middle school book. But, it exposes them to a lot of different titles (me too) and I don’t end up reading the same reading log over and over again. It’s one of my favorite assignments to grade for the year.
I end up having an interesting conversation with students regarding how reading has been taught, and then we discuss the fact that reading is not a subject matter, it is a skill. One that seems to be left to English teachers because, you know, no one else reads on this Earth.
My summer reading lists are getting shorter each year, and always include choice. But I am a little sad to hear these four books referred to as “the usual suspects.” Love them all, and have had kids love them all. If she is going into AP track, unfortunately, there are books, genres that have to be read…why anyone would pick the major works for kids to read alone, I do not understand though–those are the books we love to read together.
I’m with you on this one. I’m not sure why the classics – which are more difficult for students to read (even if it’s just because they are called “classics”) – are assigned over the summer. So much can be done to get kids excited to read a book – even the ones that require much more effort to “get” – if they have a teacher who can get them excited about it and support them when they get lost or frustrated or are unsure of themselves. To assign it before they even know you and expect that they have done a whole lot of legwork before they get to class seems to start everyone off at a disadvantage.
To that end, I took a different approach last year and this year with my honors reading assignment: I took a classic (Of Mice and Men) and paired it with a related contemporary YA (The Pull of Gravity). My students told me that they enjoyed reading them both and we had some outstanding discussion about both when they returned to school. (If I remember correctly, several reread parts or all of one or both before the summer was over because they wanted to compare the connections they noticed with the ones they might have missed.) This seems to be win-win . There are a ton of YA titles out now with ties to the classics: Being Henry David by Cal Armistead (ties to Walden), Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos (ties to Whitman), Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (ties to 1984) are just a few such titles. I’m sure others can add to this list.
When I was in high school, I had to read books like that too during summer. One year I was traveling and I just couldn’t read any of the books assigned. (I had read most previous summers). They just didn’t interest me. So I didn’t read any books. I admitted to my teacher at the start of the year that I didn’t read any so I wouldn’t be able to complete the essay that was assigned. I think he was so surprised by my honesty that it didn’t end up impacting my grade. I didn’t want to fake an essay by reading sparknotes and waste everyone’s time.
Do you have suggestions to encourage summer reading? I was thinking of having them set their goals and their reading book list. I use your 40 book challenge, which has inspired many students. Do you have a similar summer book challenge?
I learned early in my school years that I didn’t like assigned reading. In fact I only read about three of the titles that were assigned to me in the course of my education. In fact, I don’t join book clubs because I hate assigned reading. Why? I want to read only what I want to read. I hate the fact that I have to use “close reading” and that the books have been reassigned lexile ratings. What a sixth and seventh grader had to read this year, my fifth graders have to read next year. My fifth graders, mostly second language learners, can’t even read what they are expected this year, but as a class and with me working hard to encourage them, they read 1100 books this school year. When I tell them it is SSR time they cheer. Now I only had about 5 of the 34 students in my class that regularly read before this year. I sure hope that they will still care about reading as they get older.
“Reading belongs to readers, not to teachers.” That’s one of the most brilliant statements I’ve heard in a long time! That applies all the way down to very young readers who are just learning how to get lost in a book.
Thanks, Donalyn, for one more deposit into the ‘Words to Live By’ account!
I agree. My 10th grader has to read and annotate Of Mice and Men as well as a choice book-like myself he is a reader but when faced with essays etc…a book loses value. In my classroom I work all year to build a love of reading-mix in shared novels sparingly to their choice reading in hopes thag when summer comes, they will continue plowing through their must read list.
If we never let them choose WHAT to read they will never CHOOSE to read!
I wonder why the idea of dissecting a book is anathema to reading? It sounds as if you will do that very thing at the dinner table, only without an annotated text in front of you. I taught English honors and AP for 15 years. Our summer reading required only one book and some years, also one play. I found that especially with some of the texts, students enjoyed the opportunity to tear them up….often that meant expressing all the ways they thought the author had gone wrong or what about the story was ridiculous or difficult for them to relate to. The truth is, AP tests require knowledge of a variety of genres and time periods. If students choose to take these courses there is going to be “forced” reading. The way to change the nature of the course is to change the test. There are many ways for students to illustrate strong analytical skills without reading a prescribed list of books. I do also believe there is value in looking at a novel closely to see how it works. I do not do this with all the books I read, but I started a book club specifically because I missed having someone with whom to discuss what I am reading, people who very often make me look at a novel differently than I would have on my own. Cannot students also benefit from looking at the tools authors use to create the timeless stories and draw us to them? Is it not valuable for them to engage in discussion of what they loved and did not about particular works? So many of these comments make it sound as if a close look at the books we read ruins them, when it might in fact help us to understand and appreciate them on many levels.
Rebecca, thank you for saying this. As an AP Lit teacher for five years, I agree with you unequivocally and enthusiastically! I think that those who protest summer reading do not understand AP Lit. Above you can see the criticism that it is a giant test prep course. I am so thankful that in our high school this is not the case! I have helped many students learn how to be deeper, more analytical thinkers through literary analysis, and I think you have also. Thanks again for speaking to the “unpopular” viewpoint!
The important issue here is that the analysis and dissection discussions to which you refer are inherently within a group. Summer reading is not in class with the teacher (with whom the students are not yet acquainted) leading the way, and is therefore solitary. There is a time and a place for vigorous debate about literature. There should be space allowed for choice and reading for pleasure without the expectation that readers want or desire to analyze a book to death. Were it only so that everyone was enamored with reading for pleasure that we had to encourage them NOT to do it. When readers really love what they choose to read, it is much easier to foster discussion and debate, and it serves to enrich the reading experience when their thoughts and perceptions are shared with others.
This was a well-timed read for me. As I am planning to convert my mini-van into a bookmobile for (1st and 2nd grade) students who may not have access to books this summer, I have been debating making bookbags or letting them choose. Choice. It’s so important- it will take longer- and it means I have to load up more “stuff”. It’s more hassle- but it will be worth it.
I think summer reading lists are a little cheeky. While I enjoy suggestions and recommendations, I would be quite put out to be told what to read in the summer.
Thanks for giving us a peek into the conversations you had with your daughter. They’re really important for all of us to hear. I understand your rationale and wish more schools bought into what you’re talking about.
I went to the same school from 6th – 12th grades. For the first five years, there was required summer reading. It was the pits. I hated doing it. (See my Nerdy Book Club post on my reading life and you’ll remember that I wasn’t in love with reading ’til 10th grade.) The summer before 11th grade my school changed the way they assigned summer reading. There was still one core book everyone had to read for their grade level. BUT, we got to pick from 30+ other books as our second summer reading book. There were books from every genre and from a variety of reading levels. When we returned to school in the fall we were put into a one-time book club with the teacher whose book we selected to read. (We didn’t know which teacher had which book when we received the list in June.) We were given one hour to just talk about the book. It wasn’t a reading comprehension test… it was a discussion. I guess it was effective (and people did the reading) since the following year we got to pick both of the summer reading books we’d do and participated in two book club type of discussions when we returned in September. I remember loving summer reading those years. Too bad more schools couldn’t leave the classics for the school year (when readers can be supported) and give a lot more choice in the summertime.
Great post Donalyn. I share your opinion on this. When something as enjoyable as a book is required, it can suck all the fun out of reading if not handled well. Maybe the teacher could change the word “required” to “suggested” for the future. He/she could include a quick recommendation from previous years’ students for each title. Heck, make a list of books that were banned at one time. Farenheit 451 would fall under this category. It might snare even the most reluctant of readers.
I couldn’t wait to read for pleasure after completing my BA in English many decades ago, and I know I would never have majored in English, nor gotten a master’s in library science if I had been compelled to read certain books during the summer, and then create some big report/paper to turn in on the first day of school. Which is what a lot of kids have to do these days. I never made my kids do the “required” reading during summer, either. Pretty much the teacher knew that the kids didn’t do it, and would give them two weeks to do the first book anyway. Nor did I overtly censor their reading choices as they grew up. I let them read what they wanted. My son is now a college senior and remains a voracious reader. My daughter, because of her brain wiring, does not gravitate toward the printed word. At least I don’t have to feel guilty that I killed her love of reading. I really am sick and tired of watching reading get destroyed by this kind of shenanigans – social media and TV viewing hold enough power over the kids, why fuel the fire in this way? Let ’em read whatever they want, and then let them tell us about their choices in a coherent and intelligent way- we all might pick up some more titles for our reading lists with that method.
It’s a complicated issue… like everything else. Great post!
I have to admit, I really resent this post. Not because of the rant against summer required reading: Those assignments can be poorly designed, absolutely. It angers me because, once again, it turns English into a second-tier, subjective discipline. Should AP Chem teachers ask their students to watch Bill Nye as an assignment? Is School House Rock enough for Honors American Gov’t? You don’t like quadratic equations? Okay — let’s do proofs instead. You’d never hear that from other disciplines. Yet we turn reading into something that kids must “love” — or they won’t do it. “Kids have to be able to relate to the books.” Fact is — they have to be able to read complex texts independently. They have to work through the hard stuff. And they don’t have to like it.
It’ll be a shame when they reach college (or the workplace) and have to read in advance and understand on their own. You don’t like the reading? It doesn’t engage you? Too bad.
As an AP Lit teacher, I have simplified my readings significantly over the past decade. Even my summer assignments are now very light without any analysis attached. Why? Because students no longer have the self-discipline to read and think on their own. Ten years ago my students amazed me with their insights. Now I get mostly personal opinion without critical thinking. I ask them to understand plot, characters, conflict. Some struggle even with that. I tell them we’ll work through the thematic stuff — symbolism, motif, rhetoric, together. But we have to have the whole book read first to see how everything fits. They Sparknote. Sorry — I’m not seeing that as a flaw in the readings. That’s a lack of discipline, pure and simple.
“It’s not rigor if they’re not reading it.” True — but reading Hunger Games 10 times doesn’t prepare them for the complex reading ahead, either. All the research has shown that reading levels of books in school have declined by about two grade levels. Letting students choose their reading can work, as long as it’s within parameters. But teachers have to help them through the tough books — we are “master readers” and need to apprentice them into the craft.
Kids don’t fall in love with a subject because it’s easy. They don’t fall in love with it because it relates to them. It’s the rigor that engages. Not all kids will love reading, anymore than all kids will love calculus or medieval history. That’s okay. We have to stop taking it personally.
Thank you. I agree completely.
As an author, mother of teens, and therapist at a local high school working with teens with learning disabilities, I agree with your observations on so very many levels. I finally told my son NOT to sign up for AP English his senior year. He chose Shakespeare instead and finally started reading for pleasure again.
I agree that a choice is important if we want children to think of themselves as readers. Colleges do the same thing to students as high schools. My son’s freshman year they studied Slaughterhouse Five to death since Kurt Vonnegut went to Iowa. They only perspective that was “correct” was the one the professor and TA agreed with. Studying books to death only leads to less, not more reading.
My 5th graders select their own books, and we confer about them. Love the 40 book goal you have for your students. We use it too. This year we averaged 37 books per student!
Your “Golden Gate Bridge” answer to conferring has helped me too.
I had many students ask me for summer reading suggestions. I gave them some books to look at but the choice was theirs, and that makes all the difference.
Thanks for continuing to inspire all of us!
I agree. Reading should be a joy. Not a drudgery.
When I was going through school, I was an avid reader and writer. The right book can change anyone’s life for the better. It can create excitement about subjects that students weren’t interested in before. Encouraging kids to pick out the books they think they’ll like the most is a great idea.
As a student, I routinely read all the school English books the summer before (I had an older brother one grade ahead, so I knew what to read). It was great reading the book just to read it, and then I could reread it with the class later and do all the analyzing and stuff. It probably saved a lot of books from being destroyed for me. If a book was genuinely too old for me, such as Crime and Punishment, then I gave up during the summer. Not surprisingly, those are the books I still haven’t reread as an adult. I do wonder if I’d like Moby Dick if I tried it now…
The books you listed all look like good choices for a high school freshman though, books that are easily read and understood, and have themes that would interest her. I’m baffled why you wouldn’t want her to read them early — does she hate rereading? I see that she thought it was insane — does your whole family avoid rereading or just her friends? Why even keep books around the house if you aren’t going to reread them? I’d give her the family copies that she can’t mark up to read during the summer.
I do wish I’d had more classes with open reading, rather than class books, but pre-reading was a great compromise for me. Was I doing it wrong?
Beth, I don’t think any strategy a reader chooses for herself is “wrong.” The question for me is how did you come to know this about your own readerly life? Pre-reading and rereading worked (works?) for you, and your own (probably extensive) experiences with reading taught you that about yourself. In my experience, though, that kind of self-knowledge and metacognition about reading comes from, well, YOUR reading, not reading you compiled with because you were asked to do it. Donalyn’s daughter is a crazy-brilliant and avid reader: she is just privileging her own reading over someone else’s version of it.
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In my experience, the assigned reading lists often come from school or district administration, not the teachers themselves.
I rarely get any say in the summer reading assignments of my students, but I’m required to collect them day 1 and grade them. I become a hated teacher before I even have a chance to prove to my students (and their parents) that I’m an avid reader myself and I take great pride in matching students with books they’ll (individually) love.
I’m late to the conversation, reserving comment until the end to see what the temperature of the conversation would look like. It looks like a mix of those who have had negative experiences with summer reading without long-term connection and those who may have to implement some sort of summer reading invitation to introduce the focus of an upcoming course. I teach an AP English Language and Composition course in my school. There is no pre-AP course. As the course is also dual credit, I will see some 90 (no. . .that is NOT a typo) students enrolled into this dual credit course this fall. And I welcome them all. But I also wanted to introduce some of these students to the type of reading they will be doing in the next year. And we read “I Know Why The Caged Bird Cannot Read” (an excellent essay in response to the question of why we might read certain books in a class that is not college prep, but college).
I think the difference, however, in my approach–or invitation–is that I try to select a book that the students would not have seen before or perhaps see ever as it might not appear upon a reading list or an exam. I tend to choose what I call a “life book.” One year, it was THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN.” One year is Daniel H. Pink’s A WHOLE NEW MIND. This year, I have selected Csikzentmihaly’s FINDING FLOW.
In how many texts that we see as professionals are the ideas of MC presented or alluded to within the body of larger ideas? This is one reason I choose this book. Another reason is that MC hits all of the rhetorical modes in the presentation of his ideas which I like to feature as we begin discussing the book in the fall. And all year long. See. . .many of my students–with the encouage of her their parents–take every dual credit course we have to offer. Sometimes a student might be taking 5 dual credit courses (full-time student status with all of the distractions of this thing we call high school and adolescence). I think the ideas of FINDING FLOW are just what they need as a starting point and as a reference point as we go through the year. Plus, having the book under our belts as we enter into the classroom discussions allow us to use the paragraphs and passages as sample mentor texts for the rhetorical modes that MC employs (“Let’s see how MC backs up to DEFINE this term for the reader.” “Look at the exemplification MC employs here to edify his point.”)
What my students in the AP course are invited to do all summmer long are to box and record words they might have had difficulty with while they have read. They can ask questions of the text and bring these questions with them on the first day of the course. All of this goes well into our first discussions, to have questions coming in vs. having questions posed to the students. I can see and assess reading through the nature of the questions being asked as the students are coming in as I get a chance to see what they have wrestled with before I ask them to wrestle with anything I might have for them by way of accountability.
This was just my take. I agree with my friend, Donalyn and her post. This is her heart and I read it loud and clear. What we know best is what is best for our particular room and our particular students within our particular community. Here, one size might not fit all. But approach can always be tailored to meet the needs of all of these readers.
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All controversy aside for the moment, one way to avoid nagging and at least get the task done without completely torturing students is to read the books together, even taking turnsreading aloud at the dinner table or in place of an hour of screen time. I recently read an article on how a person’s comprehension level is higher when read to.
My daughter’s sophomore honors summer reading…Grapes of Wrath. Sophomores, reading G of W without the benefit of class discussions, concerns me. I want my children to want to read…don’t think this selection will help my cause.
The issue that has gone unaddressed is that of accountability. My administration and the parents at my independent school expect the students to be held accountable for what they read. I’ve managed to whittle it down to two “assigned” books, both chosen from different lists and to reduce the close reading assignment for one book and an index card-sized reader response for the other. A third book is assigned by the history department, again a choice from a generous list, and students have to do the index card for that, too. I’d love to hear from other teachers and/or parents about the accountability question.
I have been to B&N 2 or 3 times this summer, and my experience in the children’s section has been disheartening to the point that I came home and had a “what are we going to do…?” conversation with my husband. Being pregnant, I like to bring home kid scenarios to him, and we decide how we would handle the matter. I explained to him how while at B&N searching for books this summer, I’m noticing there 1 or 2 kids laying on the stage reading, and there are parents coming in with kids having a conversation that goes something like:
– P: You didn’t even bring the list? C: No, I know which one I’m getting off of the list.
– (Parent & child looking at a list) P: Which one are you getting today? C: Al Capone Does My… P: What’s the cover look like so I can help yo find it? C: I don’t know she showed us like 3 versions. I’ll just find it. P: Well, tell me what one of the covers looks like.
– (Parent & child looking at list) P: Which of these are you getting? C: I don’t know. I need to look at them. P:Well you have to read all of them. Just get one and let’s go.
I could go on & on. Same type of conversation. One after the other. The sad part is I watch the scenarios, and I see that the kids get the book from the list and leave. They don’t get a self chosen book to go with it, so even though the list got them to B&N, kids still aren’t choosing their own books and the list is not facilitating a love of reading.
I don’t know what my husband and I will do when our son brings home The Summer Reading List someday. My husband’s arguement was that they will be assigned text in college, so they may as well prepare for that, and mine was similar to what Donalyn told Sarah. Maybe the Nerdies voice will be heard, and Summer Reading List will be banned by then!
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Donalyn- We are presenting at IRA on the book we co-authored, “No More Summer Reading Loss” for the Not This But That series. Can we use some of this? It’s so great!
I am an EFL specialist who co-teaches with the mainstream ELA teacher. I finally convinced the ELA teacher to allow students to choose their own book for the next novel reading. What a difference! We had parents telling us that they were surprised to see their child reading a book in their free time. The students were engaged so much more in their discussions of the novel. I even caught students reading during their other subject classes and teachers telling them to put their books away. Choice is important and it does make a difference.
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I just came across your blog about summer reading. As an AP teacher, I still agree with you. I think summers should be for kids to do their own reading. That’s certainly what I do for MYSELF. My former school district wouldn’t let us NOT adding summer reading, so I finally settled for a lit of 100 books, and the students got to choose which one they wanted to read. I didn’t bother with a test or assignment. The students who were going to read would choose a book. The students who weren’t going to read didn’t choose a book. Advanced classes are for those students willing to put in the extra effort to be successful. Forcing summer reading neither enhances a love for literature nor guarantees an unmotivated student will suddenly find motivation. Thank you for sharing!