A quick primer- American independent schools have a long history asking, or requiring, students to read a book, two, or a few over the summer in preparation for the coming year.
My boarding school assigned us a fixed reading list of five, or so, books distributed through subject areas- a few novels, a book connected to history, and a book connected to science.
I’ll be the first to admit that the summer reading didn’t always get done. What do most 15-17 year olds gravitate toward during the summer? Imagine all the reasons on your own and compound them.
I promise even before video games and the Internet summer reading wasn’t high on the “to do” list of high school students. Then, toss in the fact that the goal for the reading wasn’t always clear. Enrichment? Keeping an active mind? Preparation for the coming year? A test, or paper, on the reading?
But, we all know that students need to read. Which is why I find myself heartened by a current discussion going on in the pages of The New York Times.
In an OpEd piece titled “Some Books Are More Equal Than Others,” Claire Needell Hollander addresses the same issues that I had with my summer reading circa 1982.
“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?”(NYT)
Needle proposes nonfiction as the solution.
“I propose focusing on accessible nonfiction guaranteed to increase world and verbal knowledge.
…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.
…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…” (NYT)
Needleman speaks to me.
I’m a nonfiction reader by nature and much prefer examining the real world to the imagined. Years ago I was interviewed for an article seeking summer reading advice as the summer began. I suggested read anything with my default text being The New York Times.
Students can learn equally from nonfiction and fiction. The trick is to gain an attachment to one- or any form of thoughtful reading- so that one’s mind continues to grow; thinking skills develop and stay honed; and that one gains an appreciation for reading, period.
Reading fiction or nonfiction isn’t a zero sum game. To apply a line from composer/conductor Peter Schickele, “If it sounds good, it is good.”
If it’s written well and challenges your mind, read it.