Read ‘Em or Weep: A Cautionary Tale

summer readingAll over the country grade school, middle school, and high school students are scrambling to finish their summer reading assignments and projects. Some have put off reading a 300-page book to the very last minute and now finishing it in time to complete the assignment seems a daunting task. In the coming week, which is the week before school starts here in Montgomery County, Maryland, I anticipate many emails asking for clarification of the writing assignments and art-based projects for the books I require my rising 7th and 8th graders to read. Of course, the emails will be fraught with typos, grammar errors, and the ever present “texting” language.  After taking a deep breath, I will respond cheerfully to the questions and point them to the detailed instructions for the projects and the rubrics for grading them, which I posted on the school’s website at the start of the summer.
procrastinateWhen these emails begin flooding into my mailbox, I inevitably want to say, “Why did you wait until the last minute to start this?” but I won’t. They most likely have heard it from their parents, or it may already be obvious to them, and if not, this lesson may or may not be learned by them in the future. Some never learn this lesson at all. Well begun is half done, right? aristotleThis famous quote is attributed to Aristotle’s Politics, a work of political philosophy. If ancient Greek philosophy is not your style, how about the 1964 classic Mary Poppins? She also quoted this to her young charges when enticing them to clean up the nursery. For many, however, procrastination rules the day. I must admit, I am guilty of this myself…although never for anything having to do with reading.

At the end of each school year when I go over the summer reading assignments with the soon to be 7th and 8th graders, I always advise them to start their summer reading the very next day. Finals are over, the sun and sand of summer awaits; get those books and start reading, a few pages a day. Summer reading is just that: reading over the summer, the whole summer. alarm clockIt is not meant to be binge reading, condensed into a few days’ time, with the loss of freedom and the promise of scheduled wake-ups and bedtimes looming in the near future.

During the first few days of school each year we always discuss what we each did over the summer. As I teach in an affluent neighborhood, the responses from my students include family vacations abroad or somewhere tropical, weeks at their beach houses, elite sports camps, and swim team practices and meets at their country club pools. My summers growing up were quite different. During my pre-teen and teenage years, my father was self-employed as a soft drink distributor for the 7-Up Bottling Company. Taking a week off was not an option as he would have had to pay someone to take his routes for him for that week. That, combined with the expense of a family vacation for the five of us, simply wasn’t in the cards. So, my early summers were spent at the public library, where I devoured large numbers of books, many of which were read sitting on the cool, 800px-Terrazzo-normalterrazzo floors between the stacks in the fiction or biography sections. Reading about far-away places was my vacation. During high school, my mornings were spent at the local public pool teaching swimming lessons and working as a lifeguard in the afternoons. My first “vacation” was at the end of 8th grade, when my aunt and uncle took me on my first airplane trip to see my cousin graduate from college. We only crossed the state of Louisiana on that short 45-minute airplane ride but I was in heaven. I remember every detail from that trip, including the Plum Nuts Cake I had at the home of my cousin’s roommate. A foodie in the making, I asked Mrs. Ory for the recipe so I could make the cake for my mom when I got home. I still have the 3×5 index card with the recipe on it, and I still make that cake today-it is always a smash hit.

Why is summer reading and other independent reading important? I’m not really asked that by the parents of my students. They know it is important, but somehow, reinforcing that at home is difficult in today’s fast-paced society. sportsSports is part of it. Summer sports camp is required to maintain and improve their skills so they will make the teams in the fall and spring. If they make certain teams, they will be noticed by high school coaches. High school coaches from the private and Catholic schools sometimes have the ability to influence admission decisions. Playing and winning in high school means being noticed by college coaches. And, college coaches can influence not only admission decisions, but offer scholarships as well.

But, what if a student gets injured and can’t play that sport any longer? What if they aren’t really good enough for college sports? During a difficult parent meeting about a 7th grade student who was struggling with reading comprehension and writing in my class during my early years as a teacher, the father of this young boy told me his son would be playing basketball in high school and college, and given his height and prowess at the sport, he didn’t need tutoring or additional support in language arts. In fact, the student himself had told me that he was going to play in the NBA and then be a sports attorney after he retired from professional basketball. I’m not sure how he thought he was going to make it through college and law school if he couldn’t read and understand a short story in a 7th grade textbook. I’ve quietly tracked that student over the years, and I am sad to report that it didn’t actually work out the way the father (or the student) planned it.

summer readingA quick Google search will bring up many studies about the pros of summer reading to combat the “summer slump” and loss of skills as well as the importance of independent reading in the middle school years. In a short two page report, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction stated the following bullet points:

  • Numerous studies have shown that reading over the summer prevents “summer reading loss.”
  • Summer reading loss is cumulative. Children don’t “catch up” in fall because the other children are moving ahead with their skills. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer are two years behind their classmates.
  • Reading 4 or 5 books over the summer can have a significant impact for middle school readers.

weepingSo, in response to the question “Why is there assigned summer reading?” I say, “Read ’em or weep.” In other words, read now or pay later. The statistics are clear.

When selecting the books I assign for summer reading for my students, my goal is one classic and one more contemporary work. My rising 7th graders read Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea and Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a work of realistic fiction, albeit historical to these young pre-teens, set in the 1960’s on Long Island, New York. The protagonist in Schmidt’s book is a 7th grade boy who is left behind on Wednesday afternoons when half of his class is dismissed an hour early to attend religious education at the Catholic church and the other half of his class heads to the temple for Hebrew lessons. Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian in the class and the principal looks down his chart of teachers and their planning periods and assigns Holling to Mrs. Baker, the middle school English teacher, for that hour. As any teacher can imagine, Mrs. Baker is not happy about losing her planning period to be saddled with one student in her room. At first she attempts to make his life miserable by having him clean her classroom. As any normal 7th grade boy will tell you, cleaning the blackboard and erasers is infinitely better than having two periods of English class in the same day! Once Mrs. Baker figures out that Holling is not miserable enough with the cleaning tasks, she assigns him Shakespeare plays to read. shakespeareThat should do it, she thinks, he will be miserable! However, Holling, who is a good-natured young man even though he can’t attribute this to the saints or the Torah, begins to see the deeper meaning of the Shakespeare plays and how he can apply them to his own life, which is complicated by his parents’ lack of involvement in his activities and accomplishments. The Wednesday Wars is a great coming of age novel, with lots of sports, middle school pranks, and early adolescent stirrings mixed in with a very clever introduction to Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

My rising 8th graders read Steinbeck’s classic The Pearl and Agatha Christie’s well known mystery Murder on the Orient Express. As the protagonist in Orient Express is the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the novel is filled with French phrases and utterances. The summer before, these same students will have read The Old Man and the Sea, which takes place in a fishing village near Havana on the coast of Cuba. This novella is filled with Spanish phrases and utterances. This is not by accident. Our school is fortunate to offer two foreign languages: French and Spanish. Students are introduced to both languages in first grade and then in second grade they choose the language program they wish to pursue through middle school where they will have foreign language three days a week. We are also fortunate that the faculty members for both languages are native speakers, which is an enormous benefit to the students in learning proper pronunciation. As a result, many of our students test out of either freshman Spanish or French.

A secondary goal in my choice of literature for their summer reading, as well as during the school year, is to broaden the world view of my students and to help them associate important literature and authors with world events and time periods. Studying the Medieval era in social studies while reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman in literature brings the students to a richer, deeper meaning of this important time period and how it shaped England and the rest of the world. medieval era pyramidBecause we are a Catholic school, it is easy to bring religion into the literature classroom with this award-winning novel which features heavily the importance of the Church and the lives of the saints in the daily life of all classes of people in Medieval England.

My 7th graders have one project each for the two summer reading books: an artsy project for The Old Man and the Sea, a travel brochure for Havana, Cuba; and an essay for The Wednesday Wars. In the first person narrative they are to write about what would be their own Wednesday war, which subject would they hate to have twice a day like the protagonist in the novel. As you might expect, a lot of students choose math as the one subject they would hate to have twice a day each Wednesday. A few say science, although not many given how much they love our science teacher at my school. A few say foreign language, but this is more about the lack of self-confidence they feel in having to deal with either Répétez, s’il vous plait or Puedes repetir eso, por favor in their respective classes.

Only a brave few, however, dare to say literature. That essay is their first introduction to me, as I will be teaching them for the first time. They obviously don’t want to start off on a bad foot with me, so they hide the fact that they secretly hate reading for several weeks into the school year, when I begin to notice a distinct reluctance to read aloud or shoddy work on reading comprehension questions. If only I could “flip the switch” on these students, change their minds about reading, turn them into lifelong readers who enjoy reading for leisure. perfumeIf only I could liquefy and bottle the feelings I had as a middle school student, sprawled on the cool, terrazzo floors of the Port Sulphur Public Library, as I read my way through book after book, constantly learning new words, experiencing new places, meeting new people, tasting new cultures. I would spritz them all with this eau de lisant if only I could.

Source:

Evers, Tony, PhD, State Superintendent. “Why Public Library Summer Reading Programs Are Important.” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.

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Sing It, Alice Cooper!

Alice Cooper's "School's Out for Summer"In the inimitable words of Alice Cooper, “School’s out for summer!” The end of the school year is a glorious thing for students. The countdown begins somewhere mid-4th quarter. Teachers are ready, too, and many post the countdown on their white boards, both as encouragement for their students to hang in there and finish strong, as well as to join in the excitement. However, as any teacher will tell you, the end of the school year is not an easy coast to the finish line. It means making, proctoring, and grading final exams. It means preparing report cards. It means collecting textbooks and class novels. It means completing book orders, class lists for next year, maintenance request orders, and classroom inventories. It means cleaning out and organizing nine months of files and materials. It means packing up what was once a bright, vibrant, and engaging classroom and stripping it down to a dull and boring room with naked bulletin boards, upturned desks, and stacked chairs.

My classroom, end of school year

My classroom, end of school year

I love teaching. I just finished my eighth year of teaching (second career) and I can still unabashedly say I love teaching. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone could do this job if they didn’t love it. It is a lot of work, and I am pretty sure the entire world knows that the pay is not great. I work 7:30 to 7:30 most days, and I spend five to ten hours each weekend on school work. But, there is something about that exchange of ideas, the transfer of knowledge, the unpredictable nature of each day; that I completely love.

For me, teaching literature is like doing a one-man show each and every day in front of a full house, albeit, a captive audience. When that bell rings and my students file in, I close my door, and six times a day it’s show time! Whether it is starting new material, reviewing for a test or quiz, learning new vocabulary, unlocking the vagaries of the comma, doing group work, or rotating through stations for peer teaching, it is all exciting to me and each school day flies by.

7B Literature, "fishing" for vocab words about medieval times

7B Literature, “fishing” for vocab words about medieval times

So you can see that I never look forward to this process of undoing my classroom at the end of the year. Once the last bell rings and the kids are gone for the summer the school changes. It is quiet, too quiet. It is almost as though there has been a death in the family. Hallways are empty and barren. Teachers are on permanent dress-down, coming in to clean and sort in what my mother would have called “car-washing clothes”, which meant any outfit she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public. Without the spirit and energy of the students, a school building is just a building, nothing more.

It’s hard for me to get motivated for these tasks as I don’t feel any sense of urgency. Some teachers fly through this work in a day or less, anxious to get started on their summer vacation. The really diligent ones don’t stop to chat or linger in the hallways. They don’t go out for an extended lunch at a neighborhood eatery. They hole themselves up in their rooms and get the work done as quickly as possible. I am not one of those.

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

As classroom doors close one by one and final goodbyes are shouted by those who have officially signed out, I find myself getting less productive and more distracted. I decide to clean out a desk drawer and find things in it that need to be filed so I open my file cabinet, and once in there, I find things in the file drawer to sort and organize. An hour later, the desk drawer is still agape, with no progress being made there whatsoever, and not much progress has been made in the file drawer either. The busier I am, the more I get done. But, when I am not busy or under some sort of deadline, I can procrastinate with the best of them.

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

Packing everything away–posters, bulletin board strips, knickknacks, religious items from my classroom prayer center, my computers and other tech equipment–always reminds me of putting away leftovers after Thanksgiving dinner. All of that food came out of the refrigerator before it was cooked. Once cooked and half-eaten, it seems as though it just isn’t going to go back in there. Without emptying the closets and reorganizing everything, it seems impossible to stick all of the tech equipment and classroom decorations back in there. But, emptying two closets and starting over takes forever, and soon distraction creeps in and a project that should have taken a few hours expands to fill the whole day. Near the end of the second day, you can guess what happens…pushing and shoving things in wherever they will fit just to get it done and over with. “I’ll sort and organize it in the fall when we come back,” is the inevitable thought process here.

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

Don’t get me wrong: I can’t wait for the end of the school year. As much as anyone else, I look forward to a break from the endless grading required of the middle school language arts teacher. There’s also turning off the alarm clock, a particular favorite of mine. There’s the freedom of deciding at lunchtime what to eat, not having to eat whatever it is that you brought to school with you that day. There’s the luxury of reading for pleasure, not reading educational articles or new novels you are contemplating adding to your curriculum.

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

Being home for summer break means finally getting to clean and organize at home. You teachers know what I mean. There’s that spot where everything gets dumped week after week as you are just barely finishing your lesson plans and grading before falling into bed on Sunday night, and when you spot that area, you think, “Once school ends, I will take care of that.” There are also doctors’ appointments to catch up on and household repairs to schedule. Even if I don’t have big vacation plans for the summer, I still enjoy having lunch out with friends from the corporate world, friends from my past work life that I haven’t seen in a while. I also love spending the day in my kitchen trying out some new recipes. I frequent my local public library and spend hours browsing the stacks, indulging in “beach reads” as well as catching up on the classics. Last summer I taught myself to decoupage and successfully completed several projects. This summer I want to do some sewing and also try my hand at mosaics, an art form that has always fascinated me.

Of course, there will be time for writing, continuing my journey on becoming a writer. This essay on school being out fulfills this week’s requirement in my goal of writing and publishing an essay a week for one year. So far, so good. This is week 24 of the year 2015, and counting this one, I’ve published 26 essays. I am also going to redouble my efforts on a novel that I have been working on intermittently for several years, and I will continue my efforts to get something published.

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

So, tomorrow officially begins my summer break from school. Well, almost. I am taking an online class that I need for renewing my certification so I will be doing school work, but it is only from June 22 to July 2. The rest of July and part of August stretch before me like an endless stream of possibilities. Most importantly, it will be a time to recharge my batteries so I can return to school in the fall full of energy, new ideas, and excitement to begin my ninth year of teaching! School’s out for summer!