April 19

You Have Chosen Wisely by Michael Guevara

Remember this classic movie moment?

With the bulk of the school year now fading into remember-whens, thoughts have turned to that most glorious of time for students and teachers—summer!

In my office, we are frenetically gearing up for all the professional development we will offer teachers throughout the summer, and in classrooms and department meetings around the country, teachers are gathering to decide on summer reading assignments.

Walk into any bookstore and you can see the evidence of what summer reading has become: An opportunity for students to spend their days free from classroom restrictions confined to the daze of classics—the canon. It’s almost as if the summer reading deities reached a collective decision centered around the idea that if you couldn’t fit it in during the school year, make ‘em read it in the summer.

But we know this doesn’t work out any better during the summer than it does in the school year. I’m sure Sparky and Cliff do just as well in June and July as they do during the nine months of school. They actually probably get a really big push in mid to late August when kids and parents realize the start of a new school year is imminent and they have done more summering than summer reading.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Last summer, after his second year in college, my oldest son didn’t have compulsory summer reading. He got to read what he wanted to read, and, by the end of the summer, he had everyone in the family reading the book he started off the summer with: Seconds, a graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley. He had, of course, loved the Scott Pilgrim series by O’Malley, so it didn’t surprise me that he sought something from an author he loved (more on this later).

scott pilgrim's precious little life

After my oldest finished reading the book, my middle son, who did have a summer reading assignment (though they call it a common read when you get to college) quickly broke-up with his common read, devoured Seconds, and insisted that I needed to read it too. When I asked him what he liked about the book, he mused for the briefest of moments before announcing: “I like the juxtaposition of the seriousness of the situations the characters are dealing with compared to the silliness of how they deal with those situations.”

I started reading right away.

How refreshing it felt for them to read what they wanted to read after the past seven years of assigned summer reading.

And here’s why it matters.

We know the education gap comes not from what happens when kids are in the classroom but from when they are not in the classroom—summer. Kids of lower socioeconomic status have little access to books and often have no positive reading role models in their lives. Gains they experience during the school year are lost because they spend no meaningful time with texts in the summer.

In the community where my school district is located on the far South side of San Antonio, the closest grocery store is 12 miles away, there is no bookstore, and elementary school students are not allowed to check out books overnight from their school libraries. One boy I met, a sophomore, hasn’t been able to check out books since the eighth grade because he lost a book and hasn’t been able to pay the fine to replace it. Believe me, I’m working on changing these things.

But it isn’t just kids from communities with limited access to reading materials who aren’t reading. One of my youngest son’s friends, a kid who lives in a house that makes me question my life choices and buy lottery tickets every time I drop off my son there, admitted to me the that he just doesn’t enjoy reading, that he’d rather watch the movie of a book than have to create the images himself.

So if we have kids with limited access to books not reading and kids with limited desire for books not reading, why do we keep insisting that kids read the books we think they need to read on their vacations with our summer reading lists?

When students have choice, they end up finding authors they like, and they return to those authors again and again. My oldest son has a thing for O’Malley. The middle one has a book shrine to T.A. Barron, and the youngest pre-orders everything Rick Riordan puts on a page. For me, it’s Michael Chabon.

And I have nothing against classics. Imagine the power of a classic when a student choses that classic. My all-time favorite book from high school was Les Miserables followed by The Mayor of Casterbridge. But other kids hated those books just as I hated Jude the Obscure. I also hated Frankenstein even though I managed to get an 86 on the test without ever having read a page. To this day, I continue to recommend Les Mis and Mayor and scoff at Jude.

As you consider summer reading, consider choice. Consider book talks and recommendations. Consider opportunities to discuss books rather than miring kids down in projects to prove they read. Forego that test on the first day where you assess a student’s ability to match wits with you on a book you have read 20 times to their one, unassisted semi-reading of it.

Rather than a table in the middle of the bookstore set aside for summer reading, let’s make the entire store the summer reading table. Let’s let kids choose and watch them grow as readers all year long.

Michael M. Guevara is Coordinator of English Language Arts and Reading in Southside ISD in San Antonio, TX. He is in the process of editing his first novel and coming to terms with having his youngest child begin high school in the fall.