Why do we turn avid, lifelong readers into used-to-be-readers?

Pride and Prejudice…Really?!

What do these books have in common?

If you guessed, they are required summer reading for a high school class, you’d be right.

My son has always been an avid reader. Almost before he could sit up by himself he would hold board books and look through the pages. Bathtimes were a mix of bubble sound effects and asking about strings of foam tub letters, “But what does this say?” GJECJVNAP

“Well, this part,” <NAP> “says nap.”

One Christmas morning at Grandma’s…Grandma loves Christmas more than any holiday. It’s BIG at her house…as we all sat around the tree, cozy in pajamas, watching someone else opening a package and patiently waiting our turn for the next gift, Daniel stood up. There were still mounds of gifts brightly wrapped. The big black trash bags of crumpled paper were only half full. Without saying a word, my three year old son walked out of the room, down the hall to the bedroom he’d slept in the night before. After he’d been gone a couple of minutes I tiptoed down the hall to check on him. There he was, crisscross applesauce on the carpet with a book in his lap. Ten minutes later he came back to the hooplah around the tree.

When he was in first grade I still enforced a laying down quiet time, as much for my own sanity as anything. At five he didn’t want to sleep, but his three year old brother wasn’t getting a choice in the matter. So I piled a stack of books on Daniel’s bed and explained that he could either sleep, or read a book. Entirely up to him. But he was going to spend the next hour on his bed whichever he chose. He decided to read. And not long after that he realized that he could finish an entire Magic Treehouse book in a single nap time. That was when he realized he was a Reader.

Ever since then reading has been a pleasure, something he chose to do often. The habit of nap time quickly passed, but he read anywhere and everywhere. He gobbled entire series: all of the Percy Jackson books, including the Demigod Diaries and other accompanying volumes and everything else Rick Riordan has written, the entire Eragon series, and on and on. He read hundreds and hundreds of pages a week.

He has a taste for fantasy. It’s something we share.

Reading has been a joy, an escape, who he is.

Until…

 

These were the required books for last summer. Not only did he have to read and keep two column notes, he had to write two essays.

The one on the left, he called “That Cancer Book.” It took him weeks to finish. And in all that time he didn’t read anything else. It was a battle. By the time he got to the other book, he stopped talking about it altogether.

Never before had he been a reluctant reader, even when the class novel in 8th grade took, literally, half the year. He finished the book twice in the first two days and simply went on to other books. But the summer reading last year all but ruined him.

Finals begin today. He’ll be free from school reading by the middle of next week.

Except…

 

Here’s his Honors English II Summer Reading Assignment.

pride and prejudice

Please. Tell me how this book respects 97% of the boys who will be in that class. Tell me how it respects any of the readers. Yes. I enjoyed Jane Austin, in college, as someone who also enjoyed historical fiction, long ago, and England in particular. So much so, I chose to study there. But why, of all the books available for young adults, is this the one that every fourteen year old MUST read?

 

I’ve been reading (by choice!) Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. This passage jumped out and bit me last night.

To rethink relevance, to seriously reconsider who is in charge of determining relevance–us or them–means shaking the foundation of a lot of teachers. As one high school AP literature teacher told us, “You simply cannot expect that I would ever, ever give up teaching Heart of Darkness. That is unthinkable.” Well, yes we would.

“You simply cannot expect that I would ever, ever give up teaching Pride and Prejudice,” declared some teacher my son is destined to be placed with for an entire year. “That is unthinkable.”

Punctuate it how you will.

 

Choice matters to all readers, regardless of age. As teachers who know our students well as people, we can help to guide or influence students’ book choices. But here’s the thing. For a summer reading assignment, we don’t know a single relevant thing about the readers the assignment will be given to. We haven’t even met them yet. How could we possibly know that this is the one, right, imperative, end all and be all book for them?

So why do we insist on imposing our own tastes and judgments on strangers? Why do we turn avid, lifelong readers into used-to-be-readers?

I’m begging you. Give me my son back.

Advertisements

One thought on “Why do we turn avid, lifelong readers into used-to-be-readers?

  1. Katie, this is such a brave and honest post. It never ceases to amaze me how this (our) type of thinking (the importance of student choice) puts some of us in the minority. Your line, “Tell me how it respects any of the readers” really resonates. You also mention that summer reading is assigned without knowing any of the readers coming into the school/class. Your experience with your son illustrates the real impact of “required reading”, which, in my opinion, is a relic of America’s educational past that secondary schools can’t seem to let go. I’m sorry for what happened to your son; I hope the damage is not permanent. You have my word as a reading professional that I will continue to fight against this “one-size-fits-all” pedagogy. For whatever that’s worth.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s