Finding Balance

Death To (Assigned) Summer Reading! Long Live Summer Reading!

The books he loves the most are ones teachers are unlikely to assign.

The books he loves the most are ones teachers are unlikely to assign.

Alexander Nazaryan’s article Trust Me, Assigning Summer Reading Is Totally Pointless has set off a rather passionate discussion about summer reading among book-lovers and library-types. I’ve been baffled to see Nazaryan’s article characterized as anti-summer reading. I found the opposite in the article. I think the way to encourage summer reading, and the love of reading in general, is to get students excited about the reading choices they have over the summer and to “lay off” assigning summer reading (which just reinforces that reading is a chore we must make kids do). School and public librarians can work with teachers like Nazaryan to help kids find the connections that inspire the intrinsic motivation not just to read, but to become readers for life.

I feel kinship with Nazaryan, a self-described “overlord of a 9th grade classroom.” I began my professional life as a 9th grade English Teacher, sailing with my students through The Odyssey, bleating through Animal Farm, and questioning Pip’s grasp on reality through Great Expectations. I saw students make tender connections with Scout and Atticus, become incensed over the treatment of Thomas Black Bull, and realize with disgust what fools Romeo and Juliet were. I was honest with my classes about what I loved and didn’t love from our reading list, and I talked to them about how I knew the stuff I didn’t love was still “good.” And, (I hope) I taught them to articulate why they did or did not connect with the books that were assigned to us. I tried to model good and realistic reader behavior by letting my sometimes hesitant readers know that it was okay to not like something right away. I encouraged them to keep reading by describing to them how sometimes a book would get better than you thought it would be, and you’d feel like someone just handed you the best gift in the world. And, how sometimes you just didn’t make a connection and that was okay, too. If that happened, students were expected to describe what they didn’t like using the terms and concepts we were discovering about how stories are put together and developed. Then we would use that knowledge to seek out books they could love, books that would make reading enjoyable for them.

For ten months of the year, we make decisions for students that constitute a large portion of their reading choices. Certain titles are best-suited to illustrate a particular theme, story arc, literary device, or story-telling element in different grade-level curriculum. Those best-suited books aren’t always the ones that speak to a student’s soul, though. Sometimes, with assigned reading, making a connection takes great effort and collaborative exploration. We need to ensure our kids have the skills, support, and time to make enough of their own reading choices that they experience that connection without any effort at all. We shouldn’t rob them of the beauty and excitement of a discovery of their own because we are worried they won’t have read Into the Wild by their sophomore year. Any book that speaks to a person has value, and those school reading assignments will get easier once students have had the opportunity to find pleasure in reading books of their own choosing. I had to remind myself that I believed that quite often when my son was in second grade and went through his Captain Underpants phase.

Enter the library. My son’s second grade teacher did not allow Captain Underpants on her reading list. (The Captain has yet to be recognized by the literati as the soulful protagonist he really is.) A librarian introduced my son to the Captain and something magical happened. My son–who we read to regularly since he was a fetus, who is being raised surrounded by books of all kinds, and who found reading on his own a painful chore–realized that reading could be fun. Awesome, unadulterated, belly-laughing fun. Neither his book-loving family or his enthusiastic teacher lit that reader’s spark in him–a ridiculously rude book he chose with the help of a caring and in-tune librarian did.

Librarians and summer reading programs have an important role to play in offering all readers choice, opportunity, and recommendations that will keep them reading through the summer months. School librarians and teachers from all grade levels can collaborate with their public librarians to ensure a smooth transition between teacher-assigned reading and summer reading choices. I wish I had realized that as a 9th Grade English Teacher. When I later switched gears to teaching preschool, I worked with the local public librarian to visit the classroom, and for our classes to visit the library. The librarian and I also worked together to sign up families for library cards, and to have them start the library’s summer reading program before the school year even ended.

Instead of relying on assigned summer reading, let’s help kids use their freedom in the summer months to find the books that will hook them on reading for life–the books that will comfort them, challenge them, inspire them, make them laugh and cry, and bring them back for more. Take the summer off and read what you want, Mr. Nazaryan, the librarians will take it from here.
Nazaryan, A. (June 13, 2013). Trust Me, Assigning Summer Reading is Totally Pointless. The Atlantic Wire.

If you’d like to read more about collaborating librarians, check out Library Partnerships: Making Connections Between School and Public Libraries. (click for the link for more information and to find it at a library near you!)

1 reply »