As an adult, I cherish the quiet moments I have to sit down and actually read something. One of my favorite feelings in the world is to find myself in a book where I feel fully involved in. If a character dies and I don’t cry, I honestly feel a little cheated (unless we’re talking about the Song of Ice and Fire novels, which don’t even give you a second to mourn because, holy crap, there’s insanity going on over here too!).
But I am grown up. Reading is not a chore; it is a choice. It isn’t something on my to-do list. I don’t have to finish Chapter 12 in the next four hours and then write a short response on it. If I miss a detail… so what? There’s no multiple choice or essay question looming in my future.
With all that in mind, I don’t enjoy assigning reading homework. It creates the feeling of “work” or, even worse, punishment. Last year I allowed the students to pick a book of their choice and then they had to write a detailed response dealing with things like conflict, character development, and questions they still had. They were even allowed their choice in response (a favorite was creating an alternative ending). What I discovered at first is that the kids who liked to read… read. The kids who didn’t? Well, they didn’t do the assignment. Shocker, right?
That all changed when I infused my classroom library with books picked up from a public library book sale. The books were 50 cents per paperback so I could really stock up without having my husband give me a stern look. I was able to pick up Twilight, Percy Jackson, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Harry Potter. I also picked up ones that looked cool based on the cover (yeah, I know, you don’t have to say anything). I even picked up ones that would seem a little racy for a sixth grader (oh. my. god. It actually admits that some people use drugs!!!). Over the next few days, I gushed about them, and they eventually got checked out.
Infusing new books into my library got new readers. The kids who always read would gladly read from the District’s suggested reading books. The kids who didn’t want to read? Well, they were enticed by the word ‘damn’ being included. I needed to have ‘cool’ books for them to pick from.
That’s what is wrong with the summer reading lists that schools put out every year. Just glancing through my county’s reading list, I see that Hatchet by Gary Paulson is still on the reading list. I know some people really, really loved that book. I know. But trust me, I had more sixth-graders return it back to me after a few chapters with a “Sorry Ms. B.” James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dalh, House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. They’re good books. I had to read them when I was in middle school. Ten years ago.
The mind of a preteen is completely different than it was ten years ago when I read the books. My books had to compete against the sixth playthrough of Link’s Awaking and a dial-up modem router. The modern student has grown up in a world where things are fast and entertaining. They have instant gratification. Sitting down for hours to read a book that they have no relationship to (say… The Yearling, for example) isn’t something that they’ll want to do.
Districts need to update their reading lists. Teachers need to find books that students will enjoy AND learn from. That is how you create a life long reader out of someone who (used to) flub the reading assignments.