A few months ago, I was talking with my middle school students about something, and I became quite animated. If my memory is correct, I was suggesting they pay more attention to current events. Anyway, at the end of our primarily one-sided discussion, I apologized to them for “getting on my soapbox.” One of them asked, “what’s a soapbox?” We went on to have one of those impromptu lessons that turned out to be quite fun. I explained the origin of the terms “soapbox,” and the students thought of examples when they’ve heard their teachers and parents make soapbox-type of speeches.
I’m back at it again today. Because my son is in high school, I have the opportunity to look not only at his summer reading list, but also those of his friends who go to other schools. I just don’t get it. My nephew’s required book, for example, is Huckleberry Finn. My nephew is 15-years-old and a less than enthusiastic reader now. My guess is that by the end of the summer, the needle gauging his interest in reading will not have moved in the direction his teachers expect. Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite books. It deserves to be read by every high school student – but not at 15 and not independently, without the benefit of class time to discuss and explain this rich and complex story. Of course, there are students who are ready for this kind of independent reading experience, but the great majority of 15-year-olds are not. My nephew’s summer reading choices should include books that speak to his life experience and engage him enough to want to read more fluently and more often. What about reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian over the sumer and Huckleberry Finn during the school year with a teacher?
Yesterday I looked at another high school list which gave the students a selection of books from which to choose. I was absolutely confused by the choices. There was not one book on the list that would engage a typical 15-year-old student. I know there are sophisticated readers who will appreciate Lord of the Flies, but Golding’s book is on a list for incoming 9th grade students. I work with 8th grade students all year, and out of twenty of them, there might be two for whom Lord of the Flies is good independent summer reading.
There are so many good books for teenagers that will engage and inspire them. I don’t understand the rush to include books over the summer that are better appreciated with the guidance of a teacher and the discussion of classmates. What about replacing Lord of the Flies with Terry Pratchett’s Nation which addresses many of the same themes in a more accessible way?
When I read about the decline in the numbers of teenagers who read for pleasure, I sometimes wonder if their summer reading requirements have something to do with that. It seems to me that offering students a list of books for summer reading that will help them understand themselves and their world will lead to stronger readers in September, readers ready to discuss Huck and Jim and Ralph and Piggy.