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The other day, after an hour or so of hunting for new YA books to read (still sticking to my #bookaday!), I took my book stack out to a bench outside our town’s beautiful library, to read and to wait for the student I was tutoring over the summer. Soon, I had company in the form of a middle school-aged boy, with a book stack of his own. We glanced at each others’ books; he was curious – what’s an old lady doing with kid books? and I was impressed – this kid reads! a lot! So, of course, we did what all people with a pile of just collected books would do…we talked.
I remarked about his selection of books: fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels and a Guinness Book of World Records. “I can tell you like to read!” I said, “and that you are interested in so many different types of things.” He nodded, and then proceeded to explain the why of each book choice. He checked out my collection and asked about each, then, suitably impressed, he used his phone to take a picture (for future ref…he said). I mentioned some of the books I’d read over the summer and named my top three. He listened, and then typed them onto a memo on his phone. I could tell that this was a habit, something he did whenever he heard of an interesting book to read. And I knew I was in the presence of a “wild reader” – Donalyn Miller would have been beaming, too. “How much have you read over the summer?” I asked, “did you have summer reading for school, too?”
From the end of June to now, my wild reader had read “close to 23 books – but, some books like the “World Records” I only read the parts I want to.” How about summer reading for school? “We had free choice,” he said, “read three and make an index card of stuff for just one…easy! I was done in, like, a week!” I wanted to ask about the assignment, but his mom pulled up to the curb and he was off.
Whatever else was in his summer agenda, this boy had managed to read a lot.
But, the student I was tutoring had a different story.
For this student, there was an assigned list – four of “the classics” for fiction, and four pre-selected titles for non fiction. There was a long and rather involved assignment for one fiction and one nonfiction “choice”. All of this student’s summer would be spent on reading these two books and completing these assignments. I had passed along some titles in the hopes that he would have a chance to discover “Absolutely Almost” or “Duke”, but I knew that there wouldn’t be the time or the inclination…not after he was done battling through the assigned books.
I have been thinking a lot about this student, because our summer of meeting once a week has become all about the reading assignment. Forget reading other books, writing poetry, or practicing other writing skills he actually really needs to do. The summer reading assignment is just about it in terms of reading and writing. Which brings to mind these words of wisdom that have been much on my mind ever since I heard Kylene Beers say them at the Boothbay Literacy Retreat:
“It’s always and forever going to be hard to create a reader if we don’t, well, let kids read. Period.”
”Rigor without relevance is really hard”
We don’t let kids read when we assign books they don’t want to read. There has to be some choice in summer reading – for isn’t the whole point of summer reading to keep kids reading many books all summer long, as opposed to one book they just “don’t get” all summer long???
These assigned books were really hard: archaic language, unfamiliar historical time frames, hard to figure out plot lines and themes. The assignments are equally hard: what if a student has not been exposed to genre studies in the prior grade, or any kind of literary analysis, so that terms they are supposed to write about (theme, character analysis) are entirely unfamiliar? Both the reading and the assignments are certainly rigorous…but also entirely irrelevant. They become something, in all honesty, just to get done and get out of the way.
There is no wild reading going on for this student, someone who really needed a summer of wild reading… which brings me to something else Kylene said at Boothbay:
“Our lowest level kids need the highest level of engagement and conversation throughout the year, and books to read in the summer .”