Monday, July 30, 2012

Summer Reading - my experience as a parent & some questions

My sons also grew up expecting to read. Reading was the default activity, what you do when there was nothing scheduled. Our home was filled with books but we were still regular customers at the local library. When we traveled they were expected to select a few books (along with the inevitable Legos, etc.) to carry along. What has changed for this generation is that now there is summer homework. Packed with each child’s final report card is a summer homework packet. As dutiful parents we pondered over the messages from our children’s teachers and began the summer by requiring that each child do some work each day. Part of the summer work was a reading log. Since my kids were reading every day, a reading log should by easy, right? Wrong! My kids were often reading “nothing” or “it doesn’t count.” Re-reading the first three Harry Potters because they are getting number four next week is a prime example of “it doesn’t count!” Sometimes it seemed like if a book was read for pleasure, my kids didn’t want it on the log! But we muddled through. By hook or by crook I made sure they went back to school with the required log and homework. A month or so after school began, backpacks would be a disaster and I would do my parental duty and insist that they be dumped out, cleaned and reorganized. There, crumpled in the bottom of the bag would be the dreaded summer homework. It was never handed in or collected. Years passed by and middle school arrived with assigned books on the summer reading list. Now, for the first time ever, I had to beg and harass my children to get them to read. One awful summer, when my oldest son was heading into sixth grade, a young and enthusiastic teacher required the class to read a list of six required books on the topic of “identity formation.” Each one of these serious, artistic, thought provoking books was devastating in its own way. More than half were adult titles on topics that made him feel very uncomfortable. (I allowed him to “swap” two of the adult titles for books on similar topics addressed to his age group.) That summer, I don’t think my son read for pleasure at all. Although it was never again quite that bad, that summer spelled the end of something special. From then on, our summer reading forays to the library or bookstore always had the specter of requirements looming over. My younger son recently came home from college for a short visit. It was reassuring to me to discover that he had bought a thriller to read on the long bus ride from Cleveland. Both he and his brother still choose to read, but not, perhaps, as often or as passionately as one would have predicted from seeing them in elementary school.

We all know how important summer reading is.  Children who read during the summer make progress and return to school as better readers.  Those who don’t read over the summer break are doomed to return to school as less proficient readers than when they left, enlarging the gap between the reading haves and have-nots over every vacation. I have always taken summer reading seriously and spend much of the last spring talking to students and parents about how imperative it is.  But what kind of assignments, requirements, or encouragement will really get kids to really read?  What kind of reading is necessary for students to grow as readers, as learners, and as people?

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