Thursday, April 24, 2008

Summer Reading

It's funny what different connotations those words "Summer Reading" have to different people. At this point in my semester (10 school days, counting exams), I am so covered up in student essays that any pleasure reading feels like cheating. I live for the day I can get up, start my coffee, water the plants and grab the newspaper, then curl up with a book for as long as I choose

I never understood parents who objected to summer reading requirements for their children. I fought that fight for years at South Caldwell, and they have finally incorporated a "Big Read" book about a pig. I don't think it's Tolstoy--or even E.B. White--but at least some reading will happen. I doubt there's even a Sparknotes on Good, Good Pig.

My first experience with summer reading occurred the summer I learned I had been hired for my first full-time teaching job in the fall. Because the school was small, I would be teaching grades ten, eleven, and twelve. The school's summer reading program gave students a list from which to choose at each grade level--six or seven books--and the students were required to read two by the beginning of the school year.

I had always been a reader, but the list included several I had not read--at least not recently--so I undertook a crash course in classic (or potentially classic) literature in a relatively short time. I loved it. I finally read Watership Down, still one of my all-time favorite books. My friend Rita had been encouraging me to read it for years. I had even gone with my husband Dick to the movie (I think I told him it was a war movie to get him to go. I didn't mention the rabbits.) What has always struck me about the book is the characterization. Adams developed each rabbit so individually that they became more real to me than the human characters in many novels. To this day, I can see a rabbit on someone's lawn and tell if it's Fiver or Hazel or Blueberry.

I also read Night (again) and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Since reading those two, I often use them as contrasts. When I discuss universal attitudes reflected in books' themes, I point to these books as examples of surviving by keeping one's head down and avoiding attention, making the most of every opportunity. In contrast, I point to some of Leon Uris' novels, particularly Trinity, in which the characters are fighting against what they consider a wrong, knowing they most likely will not survive to see success or completion but that if they don't take action, the world will never improve for those who come after.

Other summer reading that year included The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Profiles in Courage, My Antonia, The Good Earth (a book every adult should re-read. It's not the same book you read in high school. Actually, you are not the same reader you were in high school. If I thought a little longer, I am sure I could remember more of the books I read. What I do remember is how rich the experience felt. I took some of the books on vacation with me that year. I would become so engrossed with a story, I'd have to get up in the middle of the night and read in the bathroom, so the light wouldn't disturb my family.


Amber O said...

What I remember more than summer required reading is Final Exam reading in college. I would sometimes go an entire quarter and not manage to squeeze in a single pleasure read, but come finals time, I would break out my stacks or head to the library. I figured by that time I either knew my engineering stuff or I didn't and that my mind would be best sharpened by reading for a couple days straight instead of cramming.

Now, of course, there are no more finals and summer has been just another season for many years. But vacation, in whatever season it falls, is still the best time to read. My friends always mock me for the stacks I bring with. I read while they ski or tan, and after a couple of days, my brain is all wrapped up in the stories instead of wrapped around whatever work and trouble I left at home.

Have I told you I do so enjoy your blog?

Cerrillos Sandy said...

I'm with Amber as far as reading your blog is concerned. In fact, I panicked a few minutes ago when I thought I had lost your blog address and was going to have to ask you to send it.

Well, dear cousin, I, too, used to assign Summer Reading in AP and Dual Enrollment classes. Of course, I could always tell who had read and who hadn't. Those who did actually enjoyed the assignments. Those who didn't just lost out, as far as I was concerned. I never did agonize over their not reading.

Just wanted to tell you about a neat assignment I discovered one summer when I was evaluating contest essays for some Florida contest. I could tell what the assignment had been just by reading the essay . . . or maybe reading the essay just gave me the idea (whoa . . . could I have made up an assignment myself??). Anyway, my assignment was called My Reading Autobiography. You can probably derive the "rules" just from the title.

Students were to think back as far as they could to get together their remembrances of reading . . . from their parents' reading to them, to learning to read, to favorite books/stories from elementary, middle, and high school. You won't be surprised to learn that somewhere in middle school many of them lost their desire to read on their own because of what teachers did to their precious books. Their essays caused me to change some of my tactics in teaching literature.

Just wanted to tell you about this assignment because I think you'd enjoy reading Reading Autobiographies just as much as I did. In fact, if I could have had nothing but these extremely long, very, very interesting papers, plus other great assignments that I pilfered from others and added my own touches to, I'd still be in the classroom.

Right now, I'm in the New Orleans Airport waiting to fly home to The Land of Enchantment. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with our family. Just wish you had been there! I'll include you in the email that I write, complete with pictures.

susanv said...

My favorite "summer reading" reading assigned by you: The Good Earth, The Once and Future King, Watership Down, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, Pride and Prejudice, and A Separate Peace.

Love the blog and I've only read through April so far!