Why Should We Let Kids Choose Their Own Summer Reading?

Why would we not let kids choose their own summer reading material?

The idea that we, as adults, would presume to know what kids want to read while they are out enjoying the freedom from the confines of their schools is absurd to me.

Maybe it is because of my generation.

I never had a summer reading list growing up. Teachers did not preemptively assign work to be done over the summer to ready us for the following year (I am sure some of my peers would have benefited from such an exercise; I know far too many people who have not picked up a novel since high school), but I wonder if it would have made much of a difference. I mean kids who want to read are going to read, right? I always did. In fact, you had to encourage me to do anything else in the summer months. But maybe kids like me are not the ones who need the summer homework.

According to Erin Kelly, a fourth year paediatrics resident at the University of Rochester Medicinal Unit, kids who are not reading during their summer months lose a whole month worth of reading achievement. Children in low-income families, in particular, are at risk. The lack of available resources for these students often leads to what is referred to as The Summer Slide, a dropping off point in academics and a catalyst for poor achievement across academic disciplines in the future.

One way to curb these dismal results is to assign summer reading. Sounds easy enough, maybe to some it even sounds enjoyable. But wait, there is a catch- schools and teachers have been assigning books that they want kids to read, and in return, expect their students to write an essay about them before the fall semester begins.

I am a teacher. I am a student. I am a voracious reader. I think this idea stinks.

Assigning homework, particularly of the expositional variety, is a sure fire way to discourage reading. Summer is a time to get outside, play, get creative and blow off academic steam. Adding books that kids are not excited about does not help.

I think summer reading is a great idea. I wish all kids read, regardless of the season, with as much gusto as I always have. My own son, who is in grade one, could do with some of his mother’s scholarship. He is not a book-nerd like me; and nine times out of ten he would rather play soccer, karate chop his sister, or defeat King Bowser on his 3DS. But even in the summer he does read, and the way I encourage him to pick up a book is by letting him pick it out himself.

Do I wish he were already reading Beverly Cleary novels like I was when I was his age? Sure. Am I going to discourage him from getting to that novella stage by rejecting Star Wars stories and Scooby Doo mystery comics? Absolutely not! The reason he meets his summer reading goal every year is because he gets to choose the books he is destined to spend time with over his precious summer months.

His school also offers a terrific reading program. I guess it is, in its own way, assigned summer reading. But there is an awesome catch: before the summer books are shipped out, the students have to fill out a survey detailing exactly what they like to read. Lo and behold, when the books come in the mail, the kids are excited to see them. The books are unlikely to be filled with tremendous literary merit and there are not any classics. But there are some terrific Garfield cartoons, secret agent super spies, and books about dragons or hockey. That is why my son likes to read in the summer. It’s his time, so the books better have him written all over them.

All kids should have this luxury. The sad truth, however, is that this is not the case. It is the exception, not the rule, and I firmly believe that with this sort of opportunity more children would be eager to read.

What shocks me is that our society is relying on case studies to prove that reading retention improves when children select their own material. Shouldn’t we know this intrinsically?! This is not an academic issue. This is a personal issue. Adults rarely spend their time reading the things they don’t want to. Why should kids?

Let’s let children choose their own books, then when teachers want them to write an essay, that essay will be filled with an analysis worthy of an erudite, literary child; not the ramblings of a kid who would rather be outside as far away from books and academia as possible.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke download (25)

Why I Can’t Afford to be a Book Snob

I can be a snob.

In fact, I guarantee you that I will exude snobbery in the following situations:

  • If you try to be a bigger PInk Floyd fan than me. Not gonna happen, my friend. Let it go.
  • That being said, if you try to be a bigger Pearl Jam fan than me I might disown you. Depending. Maybe.
  • If you try to argue the point of the Oxford comma. I like it, move on.
  • If you presume that I am not a qualified geek because I didn’t read Marvel growing up. Snikt! You got a problem with that, Bub?

But there is one situation in which I will never be a snob, and that is when it comes to books.

I will never be a book snob.

Recently I was engaged in a discussion with a number of avid readers about the merits, or lack thereof, of teaching contemporary novels in high school classrooms. I was shocked to discover that many of my bookish peers were against the inclusion of new material to secondary English syllabi, preferring instead to travel only the well worn paths of canon. After all, they learned the classics and they came out splendidly intelligent. Why change something that has worked for so long?

Because it’s not working. Not really.

I cannot be a book snob because I am a teacher. An English teacher, in fact.

I have been tremendously lucky to teach advanced, academic, and communications English to my secondary students over the last number of years. Together we have plotted with Oberon, travelled to Mordor,  stood on the gallows of Salem, branded ourselves with a scarlet letter, had great expectations, fought an uprising of pigs, partied with Gatsby, deduced with Sherlock, and laid in a tomb with star-crossed lovers. We did the standard syllabus. I threw in some Chaucer, Thoreau, Whitman, and Frost for good measure. And I adore every minute I spend with these characters, authors, and my students. I love teaching these books largely because I have read them and I enjoy reading them again and again. That is, after all, what a lover of books and a lover of the classics does. But those of us who can withstand the bombardment of iambic pentameter and archaic language are few and far between. The truth is that many students today are not resonating or engaging with these texts. The themes, yes. The texts not so much. It is a somber truth.

The trick, as I have learned, is to cater to my students, not to the expectation of what they should be reading because of what I read when I was their age (reading I did largely out of pleasure, not for academia). The majority of them will be reluctant readers. This is a challenge in of itself without trying to shove Shakespeare or Dickens down their throats. But the silver lining is in the word “reluctant”. Reluctant. Not unwilling. Finding the right book for a student, regardless of age or grade, can create a life long learner, an enthusiastic reader, a lover of books.

Many of the books I include in my syllabus, along with the classics, are contemporary. Some are fantasy  novels like Tuck Everlasting and A Wrinkle in Time. Stories that address the concepts of love, change and impermanence. Themes students themselves are struggling to understand in their everyday lives.

We talk about Sartre and the notions of existentialism and then debate whether Dumbledore and the Mirror of Erised are not existential themselves.

We flip heads and tails with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to make more sense of Hamlet when we get to it.

We read comics. Maus, Persepolis, Superman Red Son, An American Born Chinese, because these stories teach us history in a meaningful and visually stunning way that today’s kids get. Man, do they ever GET IT.

We have seen two roads diverge in a wood in Riverdale with Archie Andrews.

We come of age with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

We struggle to make sense of art with The Soloist.

We have mourned the treatment of indigenous peoples with April Raintree. We have read secrets in the The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.

We have followed Elie Wisel into the very darkest Night.

And the students engage. They connect, they feel, and they ask for more books to read.

That’s why we can’t stick to the classics alone. With them only some students will ask for more. The goal is to encourage them all to ask for more. Why close my mind to a book because it is new? Why create a negative reading experience for my students because their preference is contemporary?

I may be a snob sometimes, but I will never be a book snob. I am a teacher, I need to read, to learn, and to relate.

That and I love to read. I love to read everything.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke  @ldchiasson17

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How Comics Saved My Life

Ok, so comics didn’t actually save my life.Keep-Calm-and-Read-Comics-565x800

There were no major catastrophes, no near death experiences, no apocalyptic-this-is-the-end moment of truth. Quite simply, I just felt lonely, and I desperately needed an outlet. Then one day, out of the blue, I serendipitously stumbled upon a call for participants in a new book club- Graphic Novel Book Club.

I thought to myself that it had been years since I really immersed myself in any comics. A year prior I had given a lecture to a Children’s Lit class about the profound story telling, stunning visuals, and intricacies of reading the comic genre. A year before that I revisited Riverdale because my childhood friend, Archie, found himself simultaneously engaged (albeit in different dimensions of reality) to both Betty and Veronica- obviously I needed to see how that one played out. But being immersed in comics was not part of my ordinary, everyday experience.

The first book we read was Maus, by Art Spiegleman. *Disclaimer* If you have never read Maus, and you are one of those critics who see little value in the genre of graphic novels and comics, put your prejudices aside and read it. It is a pulitzer prize winning work of art. READ IT*. As I was saying, Maus not only rekindle a love of reading the comic genre, the book club itself breathed new life into me.

Most people, if not all of us, struggle to accept who we are. No, let me rephrase that, we struggle to understand who we are. I have spent my whole life choosing paths and feigning interests because I am predisposed to be concerned with what others think of me. When I joined this book club, I was surrounded by a (small) group of people who loved what they loved and knew a hell of a lot about what they loved. And what was so amazing was that they aired their love and knowledge openly without concern for what others thought- and I was so envious. After the first meeting I realized I had more in common with these five strangers than most of the friends I had had my whole life, but I was too shy or too scared to embrace who I was.

As the months went by I read more than our reading list; I read books that looked good on the shelves, books that had stellar reviews, titles that were popular, titles that were less so, and with each one, I was enraptured-even with the ones I didn’t like- Ahem, Black Hole. Sorry again, Alex.

But the best part, aside from the hours and hours suspended in disbelief between the pages of a good book, was that I started to love something- passionately. As I got to know my new friends better I realized that I have been geeky all along. For the first time, here were a group of people willing to openly discuss the awesome cultural impact of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,the consequences of (possibly) inventing a flux capacitor, and superheroes- from their internal struggles to their morals and ethics- all things I had loved or dabbled in my whole life, but without much company. All at once I was openly geeky and above all I was completely comfortable and at ease with myself.

It has taken me a long time to realize that it is ok to love what I love. That I can be the academic person I have always been- the avid reader of Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, Tolkien, Austen and Whitman- to the eight year old, whose first crush was on Marty McFly. My youth came flooding back to me in a torrent of comic related memories, an abundance of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and it was here that I found myself. Here I am at home.

So no, comics didn’t technically save my life. Their presence brought me back to myself, pulling me out of a swelling sea of self doubt. But hey, that sounds like being saved to me.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke @ldchiasson17

 

High Literature – the comics addition: Fun Home

James Joyce’s seminal post-modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, has been collecting dust on my bedside table for five years. Occasionally it changes location from under the lamp to the top of the pile, but there it remains, spine un-cracked, pages pristine, metaphors and ambiguities unearthed- unread.

I can hear the guffaws of my peers in the literary community as I type this. That strange comic book reader calls herself an English graduate?! Blasphemy!

I am a fraud.

My entire degree in English literature is a lie because, not only have I not read Ulysses, I don’t really want to.

imageAt least I didn’t, until a comic book changed my mind.

I was late getting around to Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical, Fun Home. In fact, I was late getting around to autobiographical comics, in general. When I did, Fun Home didn’t pull at my inner historian’s curiosity like Maus, nor did it make me want to self-evaluate my own anxieties like Marbles. Like UlyssesFun Home was a book I knew I should read, a contemporary classic (a game-changer in the world of comics), but I was in no hurry to pick it up, and it took me years, collecting dust on the shelf below Joyce.

Now, I guffaw at myself.

 Fun Home just may be the most important comic I have ever read, but not for the connections I made with the characters. I have very little in common with Alison, the young protagonist who comes of age in a home devoid of outwardly affection, who watches her parent’s marriage deteriorate behind a velvet facade, brought up in a house that is both staged for beauty and death. Sure, I cheered for her as she reached her milestones and personal enlightenment, I joined her on her quest for identity, but the connection to the character was not what kept me up reading all night. I was connected, instead, to what sustained her.

Bechdel’s intimate relationship with English literature is enviable and, I would argue,  the crux of her book. This is where she got me. Hook, line and sinker; the way to a literature junkie’s heart (even one that hasn’t read Ulysses) is through reference and allusion. I could not relate to Alison’s plights and conflicts, but I could relate to the way she engaged with books to get her through each major event in her life. Like her, I lost myself to works such as The Importance of Being EarnestThe Taming of the ShrewAn Ideal HusbandThe Wind in the Willows, The Great Gatsby, and poetry by Wallace Stevens. Here was a protagonist, an author, pulled between her love of great literature and her desire to live in a world of comics- such is my plight!!!

I could’t put Fun Home down. In the panels of a graphic memoir I saw my own reflection- someone filled to the brim with literary passion, but someone who did not quite belong. A poet and a comic. An essayist and artist. I may not have seen myself in her story, but there I was front and centre in the medium.

Fun Home has broken barriers across genres, has incited discussion for gender identification and sexual orientation. It has shed light on the secrets between family and the darkness of both life and death. But for me, much more simply, it has validated my love of reading, most especially my love of reading comics.

As my foray with Fun Home came to an end I realized Bechdel likened herself and her father to the two main characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the first time, ever, I had the urge to read Ulysses, not because it belongs in the pantheon of books I am supposed to read, but because the characters suddenly became real to me. Joyce didn’t do this. Alison Bechdel did. Not a seminal novel, a graphic one. But hey, no matter the medium that is what a good book does; it encourages a reader to read on, read more, and read unabashedly. It is time to dust off Ulysses. Fun Home, on the other hand, will never collect dust again.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke    @ldchiasson17