Slice of Life Tuesday: Of wild readers and summer reading assignments that get in the way of wild reading


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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 .”



19 thoughts on “Slice of Life Tuesday: Of wild readers and summer reading assignments that get in the way of wild reading

  1. How sad for your non-choice reader! You are right, he will never become a reader, let alone a wild reader with this diet of books and no choice in the matter. I wish everyone could be like the wild reader you met.

  2. It was so exciting to hear about the wild reader you met outside the library – it reminded me of one of my students from last year. I was so sad, to hear about the boy you are tutoring and the assignments he has to complete for the summer. I would have hated that and I loved reading. I had a conversation with the lady cutting my hair today about her son who will be repeating 5th grade and hates reading. She’s managed to find something he likes to read – comic books. She’s keeping him supplied and he likes them so much he’ll do chores for them. Yea for her (and him)! Thanks for sharing this slice.

  3. Tara,
    What torture for your tutored student and yourself when it is only about completing the assignment. I would be inclined to find books on tape or an easier version of the same text to “get through” and then try to build in some “Wild” and totally “choice” reading. I remember reading “Gulag Archipaegelo” (sp?). I read book one of three in about two years. . . pages with more footnotes than text – Dark, desperate times in the prisons.

    My only fear is that these texts and tasks are the “prequel” to even more “bothersome” tasks for next year. I doubt that “Wild Reading” is in the cards for this student! Harder, awful, boring texts is not the answer for ANY student – struggling or NOT!

  4. Such different pictures of students. We all want the wild reader and feel such empathy for the other student. I sure hope ALL teachers get the message someday that students need choice!

  5. How sad for your student, but how true. How many of us have been assigned books to read when given the choice to pick our book would have been more worthwhile. What’s wrong with a student reading a book that s/he actually picks out and enjoys?

  6. For my nephew, summer reading was always a chore. His school assigned books that I could not really understand why. He graduated. Perhaps he can now read what he chooses!
    These words from your post will stay with me: “Our lowest level kids need the highest level of engagement and conversation throughout the year, and books to read in the summer .” Engaging my students this coming year will be my first priority! Thank you Tara!

  7. You make such an important point about summer reading. Why can’t we let go of the old model? There is this fear that kids won’t read at all if it isn’t assigned. My gifted program does assign summer reading. We have one required and one choice. Perhaps we should discuss going to two choices and the simple response. I know we would never abandon the summer reading idea, but more choice could definitely be a part of planning. The longer I am a part of this teaching team, the more I learn that I can speak up and be listened to. I have been pushing Donalyn’s books with my colleagues. We will soon all see the light. It just takes time to make changes.

  8. I was talking with two friends about summer reading last night – our own from long ago and our children’s current assignments. I think of my daughter complaining “such little words on so many pages!” Your points are all well made. I believe in choice, and I also believe in summer reading. Thanks for sharing such great ideas – and good quotes, too!

  9. Wow – what a thrilling example of a wild reader and the comparison of your developing reader struggling to even want to pick up a book. You have proven the research correct. Let a reader choose and wild reading occurs. Tell a reader what to read and no reading occurs.

    I’m telling you, we are in dire need of a worldwide READING IN THE WILD intervention! Thanks for sharing Tara.

  10. Compare contrast. It seems the one who needed the freedom the most didn’t get it while the one who might have been less damaged by it got freedom. Cruel fate.

  11. I really enjoyed this thought provoking post. This year my middle son got a summer reading list in the mail. it allows for choice, but I really think he would have read more if he didn’t see it as an assignment (especially over summer). He has been re reading a “Diary of a wimpy kid” book or two, and I am trying to put other options within sight/ reach without discounting his current interest. Sigh.

  12. Pingback: #cyberPD: Chapter 5 to the end | A little of this, a little of that

  13. This post hit me yesterday and I thought about until I had time to get back to commenting today. It’s painful almost to read. That he is a wild reader and has to be tamed for a purposes beyond keeping the kid reading, That’s a tough pill. I completely understand the importance of picking a book apart for specific purposes but in my opinion its best done together with a teacher who can make it worthwhile. Summer time should be about reading and learning about ourselves (kids especially!) as readers.

  14. The post started with such a high note. Meeting and talking to a wild reader is always exciting. I wasn’t ready to the story of the student tortured with complicated books and assignments. I hope he will get a chance to choose books and find the joy in reading.

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