Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Summer Reading Lists: Get Psyched!

Ah, summer. Three long months to conveniently forget what was just learned in the previous nine months of school, lounge in the sun, waste loads of time, and just relax and go kind of brain dead.

But wait: there's the summer reading list! Back in my days, in the 1980s, I had huge reading lists to tackle before school recommenced. I'm talking multiple-page lists. Lists of at least 30 books, and I am not lying.

I went to a really good school (thank you Mom and Dad. I didn't particularly appreciate it at the time, but in retrospect, I realize it was far better than most of what I see today, and doubtless, the school was good for me). So yes, I read the 30 recommended/required books over the course of the summer. Reading Ethan Frome lying down in the back of our Volkswagen, driving home from Nova Scotia, straining to keep reading despire the fading light...there's a memory from when I was 12. Honest. On that same two-week vacation, I probably read six or seven books.

I didn't just read the 30 books I was told to read, however. I read more than that. I also always participated in a summer reading contest that my library had. There were about a dozen of us diehard readers, who week by week moved our nametags up in the stacks, until (before the high school reading lists took over) we hit the coveted 100 Book mark. Reading was cool, and again, I'm not lying.

I told my kids about this the other day while we were visiting the library. They were stunned. My kids usually have about five books on their summer reading lists.

I typically assigned about five books, as well, for my high school students to read in preparation for English. That is, I did until I was forced (commanded) to cut it way down. To one book. I protested vehemently. One book for one class is just not going to cut it, in my opinion, and in some other teachers' opinions. We all got the list back up to three, but that was the best we could do.

The list had been effectively dumbed-down, and I can't really fathom the reason why.

Summer reading nowadays apparently feels like teacher-inflicted torture to kids. I would think parents would be pleased to have their kids reading as much as possible over the summers, but I guess it's hard for parents to play task-master at this time of year.

Of course, a student's summer reading should--ideally--not become homework for parents, too, though I do recommend reading what your kids read, so you can talk about it, so you can show you aren't just talking the talk ("Read!") but walking the walk...willingly.

In my tutoring work, which I am doing right now, I help kids with their assigned reading, and already I am seeing the pained expressions that accompany the reading of summer books. Kids may have one book to read for English, one for Social Studies, and then, perhaps, one other school-wide book (e.g., everyone in the school reads it so they can have assemblies about it).

I tell my tutees to not drag out their reading, lest they forget what they just read. I tell them to be active readers, to take tons of notes, to jot down questions, to copy profound quotes. I tell them to stick to a schedule. Read every day, for at least half an hour, preferably an hour. Finish a novel every two weeks (in a perfect world, I would say: finish a novel every three or four days).

Get the summer reading done in a month's time, tops. Fill a notebook with thoughts and ideas and questions. Bring the notebook in to school and impress the teacher right away. Think not in terms of plot (what happened), which any fool can fake by reading the SparkNotes, but rather in terms of language, tone, and theme. Think about how language was used in the books you read, how that language made you feel and what it made you consider, or re-consider.

That's what's important. That's why we read.

Now, having said that, it is not enough, in my opinion, to just do the summer reading. No, the summer reading desperately needs supplementation.

My private students tell me they want to become stronger spellers and writers. That all comes back to reading. The more you read, the more you will absorb--painlessly, naturally--how language was meant to be used and written. Good spellers are good readers. They have seen the words so many times they just know how to spell without even having to struggle or think about it.

But back to the supplemental reading--a news magazine a week should be read by all students, all people. I like NEWSWEEK. The layout is easy to deal with; the language is sophisticated; the content is important. I want all of my students to read at least one magazine a week in addition to their other reading.

With ten weeks or so left of this summer, there's no reason why a student/kid (I mean high schoolers, mostly) can't enjoy at least five or six novels. I personally could read up to five novels a week, but that's just me. I do read faster than most other people, and I love to read. Punishment for me is NOT having a book to read.

The more kids read, the more they will love to read. Encourage wider and more consistent reading. Spoil your kids by bringing home the hot new titles from the library. Give them a bookstore gift card. Take them to the library once or twice a week (that's what I do).

The summer is for fun--and for me, fun is reading. Even if summer just means relaxing to you, why not relax with a book? The beach was made for reading. Porches with lazily swirling ceiling fans are also perfect places to read.

This summer, create your own personal or family book club. Who can read the most? Who can get the most out of what they read? Who can share the most exciting books with everyone else?

Happy Reading--and please, feel free to share lists of books you've read this summer to help give others ideas about what to read. I will do the same.


  1. People who communicate well are taken a lot more seriously than people who don't, even if the people who don't communicate well have better ideas. Students should understand that early. Reading is what makes the biggest difference in people's communication skills.

    In fiction, I recently read and recommend "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout (loved it, although it did sag down a bit at the end) and "The Song is You" by Arthur Phillips (some people strongly dislike this book, but I found it well written and original - it's about a man who is facing a personal crisis and becomes the virtual mentor of a much younger, up-and-coming female singer).

    In addition, I really loved "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes and "The Lotus Eaters" by Tatjana Soli (despite its slow start), but those are huge books the mere sight of which will probably fill many students with terror. Both consider the Vietnam War from different angles. ("Matterhorn", depicting American soldiers during the Vietnam War, has some tough scenes and a lot of the f-word in dialogue. Probably not school-list material, but incredibly powerful. Great backstory on the author too.)

    In nonfiction, I could not put down "Highest Duty" by Charles (Sully) Sullenberger (the pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson and has, as it turns out, an inspiring life story), "Indivisible by Four" by Arnold Steinhardt (about the Guarneri String Quartet, which he was a part of) and "Nothing to Fear" by Adam Cohen (about FDR's team of advisers and his first 100 days as President).

    Among those, I would select "Olive Kitteridge" and "Nothing to Fear" or "Highest Duty" for teenagers to read.

  2. A list of the must read before college titles would be great! How about it?

  3. Thanks for the recommendations, Aurelie!

    My mother was reading "Olive" so I will try that one, for sure. And the Sullenberger books sounds perfect for belated Father's Day (and I would read it too, of course).

    Student--let me deal with swim team this a.m. and later on I will put together my Don't Leave High School Without Reading These list. I am heartened that you want to see it!

  4. Here is a super-rushed preliminary list

    The Great Gatsby
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Love in the Time of Cholera
    The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
    The Fountainhead
    Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (all smart kids know these well)
    The Catcher in the Rye
    The Stories of John Cheever
    The stories of Raymond Carver
    Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (kids must understand satire)
    The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
    Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

    Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (about fighting poverty in Haiti--very important and compelling)
    Girlbomb by Janice Erlbaum (about growing up underprivileged)
    Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenrich (about the working poor)
    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (everyone will have read this great, great YA novel)
    The Road by Cormac McCarthy (wonderful example of dystopia and a good intro to McCarthy's writing style)
    The Kite Runner
    The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

    See my more complete list under Feb postings, I think.

    Recommendations welcome! This is a skeleton list.



  5. I just read about your falling out at school. I am sorry that the school and parents reacted in the manner that they did. Did you get another teaching job? I just graduated and am having a hard time finding a job. But you have expierience, so hopefully you found something. God Bless, Brandi

  6. Hi Brandi (I clicked on your name).

    I am not working at the moment, besides working on my own writing projects, though I am applying where I can. I am hopeful that my book projects will take off soon.

    I am taking some classes at night, as well. I do tutor a bit and I think that will pick up at the end of the summer. My speciality is teaching students how to write their college application essays, and I did not have the chance to cover that before I left my school.

    I did not need any certifications to teach in a private school, and so i don't have them. I may take the exams this summer, but I am still mulling it over. I have also heard about the great cutbacks in teaching jobs that are happening everywhere lately. PA and NJ have been majorly hit--I think I read that 600,000 teacher jobs were cut. It's appalling.

    Hang in there--you might try a private school just to get started. Also, try tutoring. I don't care much for the services because they take about half of your hourly rate, but it may be the only way to get started unless you can do word-of-mouth self promotion. Also, the Kaplans and the Sylvans and their ilk--it is teaching and it is good experience.

    Thanks for writing.



  7. I'm sorry. I know this is supposed to be a great collection of short stories, as it's recognized well, but the shorts are boring. I think I might have just picked this one up at the wrong time. I'm going through this thing, where I don't really like fiction in the third person. I'm finding the third person narrative to be irritating, corny, trite. The leaves did this, and the sun did this to the building. It's trite. It's exhausted. We all don't have very much time these days, and save for the awful reason to just stop and smell the shitty roses, I really am finding that fiction has to say something; come out with it already. I'm impatient. I'll try it again in a month.

  8. Hi @Rolodexter. At first, I was confused by your comment, but then I followed the link to your blog. Good on you for the book reviews.

    I have not read Elizabeth Strout's OLIVE KITTREDGE (to which you are ostensibly referrring). I have heard conflicting reviews--but the people who love it really seem to love it. I will give it a try, myself, pretty soon.

    Right now, I am reading Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" because one of my students needs to read this, too, for school.