Summer Reading Rant

Over the last few weeks, I have been fielding a lot of questions from friends and family regarding summer reading. Many a parent has placed a list of 5-6 preselected books in front of me saying, “Which of these should my child read? Which one will be the least painful? Which one will help us actually enjoy our summer instead of making it erupt into a mass of screaming and fighting parents and children?!”

Ok, maybe those aren’t their exact words. But the look of fear in their eyes says more than their words ever can. And that’s a lot of pressure!

Yet, inevitably, the list that I am handed is dated, frought with “classics”, and BORING!

I do the best I can, pointing out books that the student can probably enjoy, but it’s usually a difficult task. Most of these summer reading lists look like they have not been updated in over a decade. And while I am all for kids reading the classics, like The Secret Garden, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , and Gulliver’s Travels , I am not sure summer reading is the place for them.

Most of the classics require a good deal of scaffolding- the vocabulary is difficult, the situations are usually unfamiliar, and the context of the stories has not always been explained. While these novels can certainly be enjoyed by rising 7th and 8th graders (the lists I usually see them on), without that scaffolding they do not enjoy or even necessarily understand the books! All too often I see students reading the “Great Illustrated Classics” edition of the story, slamming the book shut at the end, and calling it a day. That’s it! They consider themselves well-read and some will even make it to college telling those around them that they have “read all the classics”. Yes, the abridged, illustrated versions! Are we really doing them any service at all by requiring these books as summer reading when students will not get the support that need and might even be turned off to these books for the rest of their lives?

And if the lists don’t consist of 5 classics, they are made up of middle grade or YA novels published 10, 20, 30, maybe even 50 years ago. And the choices are few- maybe 4 books of which the students must choose two. And worst of all, they all seem the same to me! There is no diversity, the books are not high-interest, and heaven forbid we include ANY YA or newer middle grade novels. Not to say that the books on these lists are bad- in fact, it is just the opposite. It seems like someone, somewhere along the line, grabbed a list of award-winning books, looked for a few that were age-appropriate, and then put them on the summer reading list. The problem is that that list hasn’t been updated since then! Most of these books have great literary merit but they don’t always “fit” the reader. In fact, when you only offer 5 books, very few of those will fit the majority of your readers! The problem with only allowing students to choose from older award-winners is that they see these awards as old and stale, not at all relevant to their lives. They don’t even realize that books written this year will be up for the 2009 Newbery or Printz award. In fact, I would venture to guess most students don’t realize those awards are still given out today!

Summer is the time for students to expand their reading horizons. They should be reading all those books they didn’t get to read during school because of their homework, sports, and activities schedules. When we force them to read what we deem to be worthy literature, we all to often force them to hate the books, and by association, hate reading.

This is my plea to administrators, teachers, media specialists, and parents- revamp your summer reading lists! The best decision would be to do away with specific required books while letting students choose their own reading material during the summer. But if this is not a reasonable request, then I beg of you-update those stale summer reading lists! Put together a committee of well-read teachers, students, administrators, and parents. Have them come up with the list. And no list should be stagnant. It should be alive, and it should be allowed to change as the years go by.

Even better? Make up a suggested summer reading list and include the reasons why each particular book was placed on the list. Or just have each teacher from the next grade choose a book and write a quick paragraph explaining why they are recommending that book. This allows rising students to become familiar with each teacher’s personality through their choice of book(s). This will also ensure a varied list. I would be willing to bet you would see classics right alongside newer books, award winners next to beach reads. And the students would see that each teacher values reading in a different way, just like them! Some teachers would recommend fiction, others non-fiction. You would see a variety of genres. And a list like this could easily be updated each year!

Summer reading should not be a time of torture, arguing, and cheating (I’m talking to you, movie-watchers and Sparknotes-readers!). Summer reading should be fun and enjoyable. It should allow students to try new books, read the latest in their favorite series, or try out those great classics. Without any pressure. It shouldn’t be miserable. I firmly believe that miserable summer reading experiences are just one of the reasons we are raising a generation of bookhaters instead of booklovers.

For some of my favorites (and some that I recommended to my classes at the end of the year), check out my Amazon store here.

Summer Adventure Packets

Tonight, I finally finished the summer adventure packets for my kids! It was definitely a labor of love, but I feel like they are finally perfect. Jen Barney shared the packet she uses in her class, and I used Stacey‘s as a mentor/template and then added in my own activities. I can’t wait to see if any of my students take advantage of this….

You see, my students move on to the middle school next year, so they will be responsible for emailing or snail mailing their completed packets to me. That’s a hefty amount of responsibility in the summer! But I have some truly awesome 7th grade survival packs planned, so hopefully someone completes it!

I will also be handing out my list of amazing books, places to get books, and blogs to check out. This is the first year I will be doing this, too. This way,my kids will have a list of books I love and think they will love, even if I can’t booktalk them!

Summer Literacy Packet (6th grade)

Must-reads 2008

Eco-art

Today, after a morning of standardized testing, I took my students outside to create eco-art.  In the tradition of Andy Goldsworthy we created art from the natural materials readily available around our schoolyard.  My kids were so amazing in this project!

After spending a good amount of time wandering the schoolyard, the students broke into small groups.  For the first time all year, there was no whining or fighting over working together.  Students seemed to naturally gravitate towards working alone or with a small group of friends.  They gathered materials together, brainstormed ideas, and even claimed their area without an ounce of anger or annoyance.  They quickly got to work and produced some amazing art.

Tomorrow, I will print out their artwork and we will use the pieces to inspire poetry and prose.  The words they write will then be combined with the photos before becoming a book on Shutterfly.  Through the Voices…From the Land project, we will share our book with another school and will receive one from another school.  We are very excited!

Poetry

I am sitting here, trying to plan for April. In reading workshop we will be studying the Holocaust and reading Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic.  I began reviewing my great big binder this weekend and I have a rough sketch of my unit.  I plan to spend spring break finalizing my plans and gathering up any more materials that I might need.  I feel confident and this is one of my favorite units to teach. It is also one of the most important, I feel.

In writing workshop, I am planning to study poetry. I have been reading Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard and getting some great ideas.  Right now, I am struggling to find a way to start.  I want to really pull my kids in, start with a bang.  I know that my first lesson can make or break te unit because they have a lot of preconceived notions about poetry.  Thankfully, we do a monthly poetry museum where they bring in a poem of their choice and share it with the class.  But of course, I know they won’t make the connection between that and the genre study on poetry.

I am putting a call out to the educational blogosphere- D=does anyone have a great way to begin a unit on poetry?  Or any recommendations on other professional resources?  My biggest problem is finding something grade appropriate.  A lot of the poetry lessons and resources I find are aimed at K-3.  I am interested in 6-8, if at all possible.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Do you use Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak in the classroom? If so, a teacher in Michigan needs your help! According to Halse Anderson, “This teacher could use some professional support. If you teach SPEAK, can you please leave a note in the comments section for her? Tell her why you use the book. Tell her about your classroom experiences and your professional opinion about the place of the book in the curriculum. Or just give her a pat on the back. If you are a teen, tell her what the book meant to you. “

Head on over to Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog to share your stories and inspiration with this teacher. Speak is an incredibly powerful book and deserves its place in our literary canon. Don’t let it be censored!

A Waste of Time?

I found myself nodding vigorously as I read The Book Whisperer’s latest post this evening.  It feels like I could have written the post myself.  Reading is viewed as a “waste of time” or a free period in too many classrooms.  Very few adults realize that this attitude is what leads students to view reading as a waste of time or something that is only done to please a teacher.

In two weeks, I will be leaving my class with a substitute for four days while I go to Mexico on a fellowship.  This will be the first time I have ever left a class for more than a day.  As I am writing the lesson plans I will leave behind I realized that my workshops are very different than the rote and memorization classes that many other teachers/subs are used to seeing.  I think I will have to leave very detailed notes explaining our daily reading time.  My students know that independent reading time is not the time to talk, work on homework, or do anything else.  But of course, I am sure they will push the limits (as any 6th grader would!) when they have a substitute teacher for the week and their regular teacher is in another country!  The note will explain that the students should read every single day.  I wish I could request that the sub also reads, to continue the modeling I do on most days, but I fear that the sub will be hesitant to do this.

Why would a sub be hesitant to sit and read for 25 minutes?  It’s not that I believe the sub would not want to read- in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  I think any substitute teacher would be afraid to do so because what if another teacher or administrator walked in and saw them just reading?  That sub would look like they were ignoring the students and not doing their job.  That is awful!  Reading should never be looked down upon as just a waste of time!  And what would that tell my students?  That reading is not a real, academic venture.  That it is something used to quiet them down and pass the time.   Not in my classroom!

In our classroom, my students and I love to read.  They beg to read.  They groan when I tell them that we need to move on and they have to put their books away.  They beg to read more of our current read-aloud, promising to make up the classwork at home.  They run to the library daily, trying to get new books or sequels.  They talk about books and make recommendations to each other.  They loan books to their classmates.  They write their letter-essays enthusiastically and want them back ASAP so that they can write back to me.  I love it!  Every classroom should be as enthusiastic about reading as mine.   (Not bragging there, just stating that all classrooms should make reading a vital and integral part of their day).

When did reading become a waste of time?  In my opinion, it happened when NCLB made testing more important than learning.  But then again, looking back on my own education, we were rarely given the time to just read.  For some reason, reading isn’t viewed as learning.  Yet I teach mini-lesson after mini-lesson that focuses on the type of thinking we do while reading.  I focus my read-alouds on thinking through my own  thinking, out loud.  I know many other teachers who do the same thing.  Yet we get strange looks and whispers because instead of spending those 20 minutes listening to a teacher lecture, my students are in the reading zone.  They are each in their own space, in their own head, living the lives of their characters.  How is this not learning?!!

Great Posts Around the Blogosphere

-Check out the Learning in the Great Outdoors Carnival over at Alone on a Limb! There are some great links to all sorts of classroom and child-related outdoor learning activities. I am about to go exploring right now. :)

-Get yourself over to the Cybils blog and look for the latest shortlists! I am surprised to see that I have only read one novel on the YA shortlist, but it’s one of my favorites of the year (The Wednesday War). I also have read about half the non-fiction titles and some of the graphic novels (a new genre for me this year) are already on my wishlist. :)

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