Response to “Some Books Are More Equal Than Others” (NYT 6/24)

I sent this response  to the NYTimes op-ed section, but it wasn’t chosen for publication.  Instead, I will share my thoughts here.

Response to Some Books are More Equal than Others

Like Claire Needell Hollander, I am often asked for summer reading advice.  Because I teach English at the #1-ranked STEM high school in the nation, friends and colleagues often email me for book suggestions for their own middle and high school students. Because I run a relatively well-known blog, I also receive countless emails from parents and teachers across the country who want advice about summer reading assignments.  I am always happy to share with them the summer reading assignment my 9th grade colleagues and I use for our students. For the past two years, my summer reading assignment has been a blend of fiction and nonfiction with a great degree of student choice.  Like Hollander, I believe that it is important for our students to read during the summer, but I know that it is important that they read both fiction and nonfiction.

We know that reading selection does matter, as Hollander points out in her essay.  Students do acquire verbal and world knowledge when reading classic literature like Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage”.  However, many students lack the background knowledge necessary to make the connection between the main character “donning blue” and his enlistment in the Union army.  And this is the problem I have with assigning dense classics as summer reading, rather than as part of a rich English class where students and teachers work alongside one another.

So how do we encourage students to read during the long summer months?  Hollander and I agree that nonfiction is all-too-frequently overlooked when it comes to summer reading assignments and that teachers need to reflect on the intention of their summer reading assignment.  But it is also important that part of that intent is to give students choice in their reading.  It is possible to this, without succumbing to the pressure of choosing a handful of classics for students to read, without support. Students should be encouraged to read fiction and nonfiction during the summer, while looking for the connections between the books they choose, and then making connections to the wider world.

My colleagues and I at HTHS have worked together, across disciplines, to develop the summer reading assignment for our incoming freshmen.  Our students come to us from over fifty towns and must apply for a spot in the 9th grade class. They are high-achievers but their academic backgrounds vary due to the number of middle schools they come from.  Because of this, we know that it is important to provide students with more than a required reading list of a title or two.  We also work together throughout the year as part of an integrated curriculum of Biology, Humanities, and Applications of Software, so we want our list to reflect that.  Our intention is to introduce students to real-world applications of the topics we will cover in class during the upcoming year while focusing on the importance of cross-curricular connections.

There is no written assignment for our summer reading.  Students are asked to read at least one fiction book and one nonfiction book, along with a One Book, One Class selection.  There are no notes, no written tests, and no book reports. Like Hollander, I believe that this only hinders students.  Instead, students are told that they will reflect on their reading throughout the school year, especially as they begin their Free Form Friday project (an initiative based on Google’s 20% Time).  Free Form Friday allows students to create a project centered on a topic of their choice as long as they can show the connection between their topic and our subject areas- Biology, Applications of Software, and Humanities.  This year’s projects included the effects of reading fiction on empathy, fashion and sociobiology, parkour, designing a better cardboard box, and designing and building a 3D scanner for under $60.  The project begins by asking students to draw connections between the books they chose to read over the summer.

Over the summer, students are asked to read Brian Christian’s “The Most Human Human” as part of our One Book, One Class initiative.  Mr. Christian is an alumnus of the school and his book is the ideal composite of cross-curricular connections between math, science, English, history, biology, linguistics, computer science, and much more.  His book inspired more than one Free Form Friday project this year, including a group that wrote the code for their own vocaloid program.  This is what we intended when we chose the book as our all-class read.

Students are also asked to read at least one fiction and one nonfiction book over the summer.  We provide a list of close to thirty titles that cover a variety of topics, genres, authors, and eras.  On the list, we also note which books are our personal favorites, which many students appreciate.  My students are high-achievers, and both they and their parents appreciate the list of suggestions, which cover a wide range of reading levels, from middle grade to adult books.

My colleagues and I hope that students begin to make connections between the books as they read, as the books are deliberately chosen.  For example, last year many students noted the similarities between Rick Yancey’s “The Monstrumologist”  (fiction) and Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (nonfiction).  Both books force the reader to ask themselves if it’s better to sacrifice one for the survival of many.  We frequently discuss the book selections in class, making connections to in-class reading and current events.  There is no right answer, and many times I am surprised and impressed by the ideas my students come up with!

By asking students to choose from books like John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”; Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Catalyst”; Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”; Jarred Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”; Lauren Redniss’ “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout “; and Deborah Heigelman’s “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith”, amongst others, we are pushing students to make connections between the known and the unknown.  We are allowing them to choose the books that work for them, but we are also pushing them to step out of their comfort zone.  Come September, they will understand “Antigone” better for having read Neal Shusterman’s “Unwind” or  Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.  All three books deal with heavy themes that include the sanctity of life.

Where Hollander and I differ is that I see value in students reading popular literature alongside nonfiction.  By reading popular books like “The Hunger Games” alongside nonfiction such as “The Diary of Anne Frank”, students are forced to consider themes like the power of dehumanization to justify inequality.  Then, while reading the newspaper in class, or studying imperialism history, or discussing eugenics in biology, or reading “Things Fall Apart” in English, this theme can be further explored.  Pairing fiction and nonfiction and empowering students to make connections between books will push them to make similar connections between the works they read independently and the classics read in class, or the articles they read in the newspaper, or the textbooks they use in science and history.

Any reading is good reading, as long as we make our intentions clear to students and hold them to a high standard.  Hard truths can be found in nonfiction, as Ms. Hollander points out, but they can also be found in fiction.  It is important for our students to read both in order to grow into critical readers who can comprehend, evaluate, and synthesize all kinds of texts.