BECAUSE I am a middle school reading enrichment teacher, parents and colleagues often ask my advice about summer assignments. My automatic reply echoes a hit song from the ’70s, “any love is good lovin’.” I tell them blithely that any reading is good reading, while I think to myself, we’ll take whatever we can get.
The data, however, show that my mantra holds true only for the least experienced readers, who attain knowledge every time they read. This age group is fast acquiring verbal knowledge (an increase in word recognition) and world knowledge (an increase in understanding about the world around them), even when they’re reading comic books or relatively simple narratives. For newly fluent readers, usually age 8 or 9, any reading is indeed good reading.
But for students in middle school and high school, reading selection does matter. Students attain more knowledge of both kinds reading Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” than they do reading the “Hunger Games” series. When the protagonist of “Red Badge” reflects on his pride in having “donned blue,” it requires both verbal and world knowledge to comprehend that he is proud of having enlisted as a Union soldier.
While “The Hunger Games” may entrance readers, what does a 13-year-old gain in verbal and world knowledge from the series? A student may encounter a handful of unfamiliar words, while contemplating human dynamics that are cartoonish, with violent revolution serving as the backdrop for teen romance.
Reading literature should be intentional. The problem with much summer reading is that the intention is unclear. Increasingly, students are asked to choose their own summer reading from Web sites like ReadKiddoRead, where the same advanced Real World Fiction category includes “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Flipped,” by Wendelin Van Draanen, which centers on divorce and kissing. Both books can be enjoyed by middle schoolers, but how will the seventh grader determine which one to pick?
The issue is further compounded when summer assignments require students to write about what they read. The problem is that the tasks assigned are at once too open and too circumscribed to be of use. What summer reading needs to be is purposeful. But how do we ensure purposeful independent reading given the low accountability of summer assignments?
Some students will happily read off a recommended-reading list (which should include a companion list of resources to support understanding). They will head to the park with Dickens or Austen under their arms, so long as they can leave the Post-it notes at home. They should be permitted this luxury, to have their teachers treat them as independent learners capable of a first dip into a classic, with no destined-to-be-unread written responses required. Doing this allows the student who chooses tougher books to say, “I didn’t understand half of it.” What better time to allow students to struggle than summer, when no one is calling on them to interpret or explain?
So what should students be asked to do? I propose focusing on accessible nonfiction guaranteed to increase world and verbal knowledge. I recommend the following books. For middle schoolers: “Facing the Lion,” by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton with Herman Viola; “A Long Way Gone,” by Ishmael Beah; and “Iqbal,” by Francesco D’Adamo and Ann Leonori (which is a novel about a real kid). For upper middle school and high school students: “Hiroshima,” by John Hersey; “Night,” by Elie Wiesel; “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser; “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan; “Girls Like Us,” by Rachel Lloyd; and “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” by Katherine Boo.
These nonfiction books provoke students to desire an expanded world knowledge, to consider the flawed moral decision making of the past and the imperiled morality of the future. They all contain high-level vocabulary, but not so much that a typical student might fail to grasp major points.
As we rounded the corner into the tail end of eighth grade, I set out a number of these books for students to choose from for an informal reading class. One student chose to read “Hiroshima” during her last two weeks of school. After a day or so, I checked in with her. Although the eighth grade covered the dropping of the bomb in social studies, I wanted to be certain she could handle the material. I asked, as a casual conversation opener: “It’s pretty disgusting, isn’t it?” She replied, “I feel more sympathy than disgust for these people, Ms. Hollander.”
As the kids say, my bad.
Another student, a struggling reader, chose “A Long Way Gone,” about a child soldier. When I checked in with him, he opened his laptop, pointing out his home country on a map that showed places in which young men, including his father, had been forced into armed service. He reminded me that I cannot always anticipate what a book will say to a reader.
While reading classic literature with students is my passion, I prefer that students explore literature in the summer as a pleasure and return to school curious about the world around them, not weary from having written about books they could not fully understand, or smug from having earned credit for an essay on a book they could have easily comprehended in fourth grade.
Summer assignments should be about why we need to learn and why we need to talk about what we think. We have to move students away from disgust at the unknown, at the horrors visited on other human beings, and toward sympathy. Students who have immersed themselves in real-world problems become excited by current events and history as well as literature. They can make connections between academic areas that are ordinarily divided. They will understand Dickens better for having read “Iqbal,” which tells the story of a boy who is sold into slavery at a carpet factory.
Reading serious nonfiction in the summer is an immersion in the world of necessary ideas. So let’s try that instead of the late August nagging and the relentless complaints from parents about their child’s stubborn refusal to enjoy, say, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” To those parents who wish ardently to re-experience their first literary love, I say, reread it yourself. Perhaps you will recall that the real horrors in that novel happen offstage, to characters who remain peripheral to the narrative. Perhaps your children need to confront some hard truths this summer that will make it easier for them to want to learn about the world.
Claire Needell Hollander is an English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan.