Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer Reading: the Monkey on Your Back

First things first: I love summer reading! I loved doing the reading (and in complete seriousness here, I used to have lists of 30 books to read in summer. I am not lying. This was specifically for 7th grade!) when I was in school.

I still "do the reading" to help my students. I still love it. Last summer I read Autobiography of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This summer, it's All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. (I don't have to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon since I taught it for five years.)

As a high school teacher, I also loved to assign reading over the summer. I tried to assign four or five books, if I could, just to up the quota of books my students would actually read before graduation--after which point I could not control their reading in any way-- but then a school administrator cut the list so harshly I actually gasped.

The admin declared, "Redbook magazine had a piece on not making kids read too much." 

What?! Redbook magazine is a mommy magazine. Mommies are burdened when their kids have summer reading assignments (more on this later). There's an obvious bias going on, I think.

But why not read over the summer? As I say to students all the time, "What else do you honestly have to do? You can't find time to read in the 90 days of free time you have? There aren't 20-40 minutes a day when you might pick up a book? You'd enjoy reading. I promise you. Just try it..."

I now tutor all the time, and my summers are filled with sessions of helping my tutees get their reading done, understand what they've read, articulate the themes of the books assigned, take intelligent notes, and write reports. 

It's a universal rule (at least in my life) that students I tutor will look at me with palpable fear and anxiety  in our first session when I ask the dreaded question, " you have any summer reading? Let's talk about that."

Almost inevitably, I was hired to help by the student's mother (moms end up bearing much of the brunt of taskmasters, and most moms I know seem to have their own summers ruined by the need to constantly nag their kids, "Did you read today?").  The student may initially believe--as we all do, I am sure--that he or she "doesn't need" a tutor, that he or she will get the reading done just fine all alone.

But then we start to discuss the books. I scribble a schedule of reading to help the student stay on task and get it over with in a reasonable amount of time (I say no more than two weeks to finish a book. Why? I have many reasons, but foremost is my belief in "not dragging this thing out").

Once we get the books read, the student can finally shake off that monkey on his or her back. The student can finally relax. And the student also feels confident that the books were fully understood. (The books were also, in the end, appreciated, but that's another issue.)

It is in our one-on-one discussions of the literature assigned that I really start to see these students get it. Their eyes--one dead and full of dread--now literally light up. When I coach them in how to connect the themes of a novel they've just read to their own life and to life in general, they--all of a sudden, and maybe for the first time (but I hope not!)--see why people read.

We read in order to understand more about what it means to be human.

My primary question to my students after any reading is, "What do you think this book has to teach us about being alive?"

That is the only question we really need to ask, I think, after reading. With that one question, we can easily see what the point was. We can immediately see a list of relevant and resonant themes. We can better appreciate our own existence and our own journeys. We can feel gratitude to the writer for so delicately weaving a tapestry of description and emotion and meaning. 

In short, if we ask that question, we will get it. And once we get it, we will only want to read more.

So, my question to students, teachers and parents is: don't you love summer reading yet? 

Do you get it?

Read one more book and then put it down and ask yourself, "What do I understand now about life that I didn't before?" Within 10 minutes, it will be obvious...and you'll find yourself reaching for another book.

A final note: I was telling one of my students that we could have more productive and lively discussions about literature if he would read more of the book before we talked. (It is hard to discuss literature in tiny pieces). It wasn't that he hadn't read enough (we were just getting started); this was just one of my hints for "getting more out of school."

As I explained, "Sometimes, it is hard to see the forest for the trees."

Yes, I then explained this cliched metaphor to my student. But he brightened after I did. "I just remembered something," he said. "The best students in my classes, the ones who always aced all the reading tests, they always read the entire book before we started talking about it in class."

"That's exactly what I mean," I said.

"They always got, like 98s," said my student thoughtfully. A switch had flipped. There was another reward attached to reading!

He picked up his book with renewed energy.

"Four chapters a day," I reminded him. "More or less--depending on the length of the chapters. And budget your time. If you're going to a concert and you won't be around to read one day, then you read more the day before. Stay on schedule. You have three more books to read this month, but you can do it."

"I like these books," my student remarked, running a hand tenderly over their shiny covers.

"I knew you would," I said.


  1. I'm definitely with you on this. I love to read, and summer is the time I can really get into a few books. I've read two this summer so far: Volunteer Slavery by Jill Nelson and The Nanny Diaries (can't remember the authors, but as I didn't really care for it, I'm not worried). Right now I'm reading White is a State of Mind by Melba Pattillo Beals which so far is excellent.

    I like your question - what does this book teach us about being alive. Hopefully we do learn or feel something from what we read and absorb. Even from The Nanny Diaries learned somethng. I learned I wouldn't like to see people treated the way Mr. and Mrs. X treat Nan - and their son; and I hope I don't treat others that way.

  2. Any reading is worthwhile. Seriously, ANY reading. I also think that we learn as much from books we didn't love as from those that really spoke to us. For one thing, unpleasant reading can help us to articulate why (or why we don't) find something worthwhile, useful, appealing, etc.

    Thanks for reading this!