Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Beware the Pitfalls of Summer Reading

I'm an avid reader, and when I was little, I'd ride my bike down to the library bookmobile at the start of June and sign up for the summer reading program. Each week I'd read book after book, make the pilgrimage and watch my goal chart fill up with stars.

And then it would happen. Life became swimming in the pool. Playing with friends. Going to camp. Days were longer, certainly, but somehow I never found time to read all those books. Year after year I never reached whatever magical milestone the library set as the end goal. Somehow, every summer, I became sidetracked.

Oddly enough, this happened with my kids as well. We'd sign up, and my younger daughter, who devours Japanese manga series like cookies, became like me. She'd never get a full chart even though the library clocked her reading by minutes read, not the number of books read. Who knows what happened. Maybe she got lost in enjoying her books and simply forgot to fill out the paperwork.  Perhaps the prizes weren't that exciting—not worth the bother. Maybe life got in the way. Whatever happened, it just did. No one stopped reading—we just stopped participating.

That's the trouble with summer reading. While summer reading programs have the best of intentions, even avid readers often fall by the wayside. It's something we teachers should be thinking about before we send our kids on vacation with a required reading list. How can we make reading relevant? How can we keep kids reading without it being torture? How can we not make them hate us when they return in the fall?

Before we go any further, let me tell you I'm not opposed to summer reading. My kids and I will devour books over the summer. Yet we read because we like to read. We enjoy it. And with the exception of my daughter's AP English teacher (who requires one specific book), no one is telling us what to read or when and how to read it.

When an author writes he has a purpose: to entertain, to inform, to persuade, or to describe. When a reader reads, he too has a purpose. This purpose depends on the reader's expectations. Is the reader reading for enjoyment? Or is he reading because he has a goal in mind, a prize he can achieve or information he must know? Or is the reader reading because someone told him he must and if not he's a failure?

Required summer reading is often at cross-purposes with reader expectations. If the expectation is that summer is to be enjoyed as a break from learning, or as a time when students can relax and refresh, then requiring students to read certain pieces puts them back into that mindset that reading is a work activity, not a pleasure activity.

Library reading programs at least let the participant read whatever he or she wants. School reading programs hand the student a list filled with classics, or even worse, the course requires that all students read one assigned book. While reading only one book may not sound bad, where my daughter goes to school this required reading is accompanied by an MLA-format essay that is due the first day of school. No essay and the student is bounced from the honors program. The AP Literature and Composition class summer book was once Pride and Prejudice. Let me tell you how much the senior boys enjoyed reading that.  Many just slopped together an essay the night before school using Cliff Notes.

So again, we must ask ourselves, why are we doing this?  And does what they read matter or is it important simply that they read? And really, will it hurt them if they don't read? Even Michael Phelps took some time off from his intense swim practices after the Beijing Olympics.

The day I wrote this column the College Board sent me its parent email, the "May/June 2011 For Parents of Sophomores." First up in the issue—summer reading. The sidebar said "101 Great Books" and listed such classics as Native Son, Beloved, Madame Bovary, and Waiting for Godot. Then there was a link to a list of the rest of them marked "101 books for the college bound." The list comprises of nothing but classics, and while no one will debate that the books on the list are fantastic, we must be realistic.

For most students, reading classic literature equals work. These books were popular literature in the time period when they were published, but now we read them because they hold some higher, Holy Grail purpose. Somehow reading them supposedly makes us better, more enlightened, seemingly more educated.

Yet for nine months students have had the pressure of seven or eight classes a day. Now we tell them that they aren't educated enough to choose their own books, and that they must read more, do more. I know of schools that require their students to read a certain number of books from the College Board list. By doing this, though, the idea of reading for fun or pleasure gets lost. The premise instead becomes "if you don't read these books than you won't get into that selective college" or that "you'll fail those Advanced Placement tests."

Let's face it, English majors love classic literature. They eat reading lists up. But what percent of the school population will become an English major? Are we short changing the rest of our students by telling them they must read one thing instead of letting them go enjoy the latest Stephen King, David Baldacci or Nora Roberts? Is there a reason popular fiction or even literary works published in the last five years to ten years are somehow inferior? That's a slap to every author out there publishing today. The craft of a novel and the research that go into its creation have not diminished because we now have the internet.

Again, I'm not telling you that summer reading is a terrible thing or that it should be abolished. But what is bad is when students find that summer reading is now one more hoop they must jump through. Reading becomes a chore. Rather than setting their own reading goals, rather than being allowed to experience the joy of reading mass market, pop culture, and rather than being able to immerse themselves in nonfiction or biographies, we are telling students there is only one path, one way to go. We set up elitism, which gives the impression that if you don't conform, you are inferior. We deny opportunity and joy to our students when we do this. There are only 24 hours in a day. Summer time is not infinite. If what students must read takes up too much time or burns them out, many will fill those remaining summer hours with other, more important or enjoyable things. Reading becomes secondary.

Ultimately the goal of any reading program is to develop lifelong readers who can go beyond basic comprehension of the material. Reading is reading. My younger daughter hates to read novels but loves manga. To me that's still reading. She's into a book. It matters not that it isn't a classic. Her reading fluency in all areas has improved dramatically since she started devouring those books. So as we develop our summer reading program, let's not forget that summer and reading are also supposed to be enjoyable. We want them reading and thinking that reading is a grand adventure. Will it matter if one summer they read something cool or fun instead of Beowulf? There has to be a way to find balance.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.