Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why Did You Make Us Do That?

The angst and annoyance is thick in the air this time of year. “Why did you make us read books over the summer?” the students complain. Enough already.

Every year, as we start school, I wonder if requiring students to read books over the summer really works as it should. I see students struggling during the first days to quickly read the assignments ahead of the tests that come on the second, third, fourth days of classes. Do they really get anything out of such lightning speed reading? Then I see the teachers, freshly arrived in their newly painted classrooms, already facing stacks of student papers to grade. My colleagues do not give tests until at least the end of the first week. I, however, have four sets of essays to grade by the third day of school. How effective is running through a book in just a day or two of class? What books could we select that students would be motivated to read on their own, yet also be considered important works for college preparation? Wouldn’t it be better to just draw the line between vacation and the new school year, begin with a book on day one of school, and teach it as we do with all the other books in the curriculum?

I hate the idea of students being assigned reading over the summer. To me, reading in the summer should be strictly for a person’s own enjoyment. I want to follow my own whims and desires with summer reading; I want to pursue my own course. That is me, the English teacher. I also do not want to “throw away” a book on a summer assignment with only one or two days of class time to discuss it followed by a test. The books I pick for my students to read are deep and important. They require study, discussion, the need to wrestle with the ideas in a classroom. To give a book one class period and a test seems superficial and ridiculous.

In my perfect world, students would read voraciously on their own over the summer holiday. They would read trashy beach books, romances, mysteries, celebrity biographies, and even some classic tomes that their friends recommended to them. We would all come back in the fall ready to work on the course curriculum having read what we wanted to read all summer.

Yeah, wake up and smell the coffee.

Teenagers inhabit a culture that is moving further and further away from reading for enjoyment. My students are likely to read something on the Internet, but without an assignment, few would pick up a book. And I teach honors courses.

In the elementary grades, kids seem more into reading. If nothing else, the Harry Potter phenomenon proved this. Here were students hefting books that weighed the equivalent of a cinderblock and poring over them for twenty-four, thirty-six, or whatever hours it took to finish reading. There was a thrill and passion for Rowling’s words that educators do not see very often. And the same thing happened with the Twilight series. This reading led kids to look for similar books, and the wave was in motion.

High school kids fail to fully catch the wave. Many of my students are passionate about Potter and the rest, but on the whole, I did not see the fiery splash of reading turn into a raging inferno. Those who love reading continued to love reading post-Potter. Those that liked that series, slipped away after the end pages to email and Facebook, and maybe, when the new Potter or Twilight came out, they might consider returning, unless they had grown out of the mania by then.

I know that most high school kids will not read on their own during the summer. I have students who come back in the fall and ask to be excused from the summer reading assignment because they were on vacation somewhere. “What?” I ask them. “Did you have no leisure time on the holiday? You took a flight. What did you do all those hours in the plane? Couldn’t you have read? What about on the beach?”

They were watching movies on their DVD player on the plane. They were swimming at the beach. And they were too busy running around to sit still and give attention to a book.

These same kids, in a few short years will be moaning about low SAT scores and rejection letters from colleges and universities. Their parents will be blaming teachers and the school for the poor performance of their children. I give 120 percent every day for 180 school days year after year. I strong-arm and cajole students into reading novels, poems, plays, short stories and nonfiction every day in the classroom and at home each night.

I also assign them books to read over the summer. Quit your crying, children. If you were doing what you should—reading fun books that you enjoy over the summer—the assignment would not be necessary.

Remember, I hate this too, but for far different reasons. I do not want to rush through important works of literature. I do not want to consign great writers to a chore to be accomplished. And I really could not care less what you do over the summer, as long as you are safe. Summer is my time for reading, writing, thinking, and reflection.

But you leave me no other choice. Until my students are well-read and prepared for college, until they are driven to read through self-motivation, unless books become preferred entertainment over computer games and surfing the Internet, I will not relent. Summer reading will continue to be assigned. It is not the best method, it is not a preferable teaching strategy, and it might even be the worst thing teachers could do to students’ view of literature, but it is the only choice we have to keep kids reading over the summer.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I had the feeling of saying "Amen." after reading this blog entry. Sadly, it is an ideal world.

---Vatche

Paul L. Martin said...

I had you explain your comment to me today, Vatche, and I am still not sure I understand exactly what you mean. But thanks for posting a comment.

Paul L. Martin

Anonymous said...

Please don't believe that the vocal minority of the students speak for the silent majority. Many students still DO read, and I've discovered some of my favorite books through summer reading. They were books I had passed by in the library many times, but never even glanced at.

The first science fiction novel that I read was Fahrenheit 451, which was assigned to me one summer. I can't tell you what a whirlwind of change it brought to my life, and it was thanks to an English teacher who decided to make us read it. So don't despair, forcing kids to read over the summer is a good thing!

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you for your comment. I am a firm believer in the need for teachers to act as guides for students. As Socrates discovered, people do not like to be pushed and prodded to think. And since reading is concentrated thinking and reflecting, sometimes students must be given the directive.

But, as I wrote in the most recent post, students should also be encouraged to read for enjoyment. Therefore, I really try hard to select books that students will enjoy for summer reading. Hopefully, they will be inspired to pick up the habit of reading for fun and relaxation.

Thanks again,
Paul L. Martin