Thursday, June 30, 2016

Summer Reading: Think Like an English Teacher

It has begun: Summer reading...and, for me, summer tutoring.

I have lots of new clients right now, all of whom are juggling their summer reading demands with other summer activity schedules such as work, sports, camp, trips, etc.

Their summer reading books, I am happy to see, are not the same-old, same-old fare, but include lots of world lit, and contemporary lit, and balanced mixes of fiction and non-fiction. (It always makes me happy to see teachers revising their book lists, keeping current, and branching out--while helping their students do the same.)

My job is to help my students stay on track, and learn how to read more effectively (and, perhaps, read more quickly) and to remember what they've read, taking useful notes.

But the most important thing I do as a summertime tutor is to help my students learn how to think like an English teacher. That is, I try to teach my clients how to anticipate what their regular English teacher will want to hear and read from them about their summer reading.

English teachers, I explain, what to know what students were left with after reading their assigned book(s). What did students think about and learn during and after reading? This question applies to both content (themes, historical and current connections) and to the author's writing style.

Whenever we read--as I've said before and will likely say again and again--we should ask ourselves, what is this book saying about human nature, about how people lived, and/or still live? 

I'm really asking, what fundamental truths can readers consider and grasp after reading a certain book?

ALSO--if we're thinking like an English teacher, here--we must ask ourselves, how do these books COMPARE? 

All students should expect some essays to write just as soon as school reconvenes in the fall. What will the essays be on? Summer reading, of course--either the books separately, or compared to one another.

To get ready for the early fall writing/testing onslaught, students should:

  • Keep notes on major themes in the books they read. 
  • Notice how characters complement each other (protagonists and antagonists). What does each character (if we're talking fiction) want, and why?
  • Pay attention to time period and setting.  This can have an important connection to the theme.
  • Do some light research, as well: Google the questions you are being asked to answer, but don't just copy some Yahoo Answers response; read a variety of sources, both lit crit and reader blogs or reviews, and synthesize to create your own, more meaningful and nuanced answer.
  • Conduct some quick outside research (I emphasize "light" and/or "quick" so as not to scare kids off; I also model how easy and fast it is for me to do this sort of research, thus teaching my clients how to do it themselves next time), This can also go a long, long way to helping refresh students' memories in the late summer or early fall; plus, this research is also a great way to come up with interesting, meaningful points for discussion at the point when students are discussing or writing about summer reading assignments.  
  • Note questions that came to mind while reading. Contributing questions to a class and explaining how s/he found the answer (whether in the book itself, or through outside searches) models intellectual curiosity, and is a great way to participate in and energize literature discussions.

Teachers (especially English teachers--but also History teachers) LOVE when students can contribute serious, insightful comments in class.

What better way to make a great first impression on your new teacher than to raise your hand and have something interesting to say that both helps the teacher conduct a lively class and helps your fellow students understand another layer, another reason why we read?

Summer reading should first be enjoyable, however. Read just to read, I tell my clients.

Then, we'll go back and we'll get the answers to the list of questions you were given. Or, we'll prepare for deeper thinking and future writing assignments.

Anything we truly want to understand needs to be read more than once, of course.

Happy summer reading!


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