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Published: Saturday, 6/16/2007

School s out, and nobody s reading

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Before Kathy White became the principal of Blessed Sacrament School in Toledo, she taught English at Christ the King School. She said she came to believe that sometimes you have to require things of students if you want them done. Growing up in Findlay, she had a sixth-grade teacher who expected her to read in the summer. And so she read in the summer. But if I hadn t been nudged, I wouldn t be the reader that I ve become.

So one year at Christ the King, with childhood lesson in hand, she gave every student required summer reading. It seemed like an obvious idea. The backlash was so intense, she swore she would never try it again. And it wasn t the kids who complained.

It was the parents.

You d think adults would be happy to see children given a list of books for summer reading.

List? White said.

She d only assigned one book.

So goes the groan-inducing, procrastination-prone, ages-old tradition of assigning reading to youthful layabouts also known as students on summer break. Sisyphus had to push that bolder up a hill and everything. But he had nothing on an English teacher with the task of getting a 15-year-old to pick up The Milagro Beanfield War in July. And though you might use the above anecdote as one more reason to bemoan the state of literacy or the nation s education standards or just the laziness of young people nowadays, understand that summer reading lists and student cooperation have always been more of a tradition of wishful thinking than a reality.

According to a 2002 study by the National Endowment of the Arts, less than 30 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds (the youngest group in the survey) read at least one book a year outside of a class. At Sylvania Northview High School, for instance, Kathy Benya, the English department chairman, said there are plans to have an all-school read of the Homer Hickam memoir October Sky. But during the school year. Assigned summer reading runs into that accountability factor. Every English teacher dreams that every child is reading all summer long, but in reality, we know it is just not happening, she said.

A random survey of area institutions found that the required summer reading list is an endangered species depending, that is, on the school and educational program of the student. The suggested summer reading list, however, is alive and ignored as always, many teachers say. School districts, including Toledo Public Schools, sometimes post a list of summer reading ideas online, but district-wide initiatives are rare. According to Dorothy Batson, director of language arts and reading for TPS, there is a school board-approved list of popular classic novels that gets revised every five or six years, but there is no way of following up on whether children dig into it during the summer months. We encourage them to read off it, but it s never a mandate, she said.

Often it s up to individual schools, and individual teachers, to provide actual lists. In general, if you go to private school, you re more likely to receive a summer reading list; and if you go to public school, unless you re on an honors or advanced-placement track, often you will not see one.

So, if you attend Notre Dame Academy, for instance, and you re entering 11th grade, you are expected to read Cormac McCarthy s All the Pretty Horses.

But if you attend Rogers, a public high school within the Toledo school system, you re not required to read at all. Unless you re in an honors class, in which case you re asked to read The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver if there s any consistency to contemporary summer reading lists it s that, when you do get one, the titles have less in common with the old pantheon of high-school reading (Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, etc.) than with the usual trade paperback table at Barnes & Noble. You re more likely to see Life of Pi and Fast Food Nation than Count of Monte Cristo and The Jungle.

There s something about the phrase assigned reading that makes it sound onerous and heavy, even in college, said Sara Lundquist, chair of the English department at the University of Toledo. But I don t think it s a bad idea for educated people to have some reading in common. And that s why incoming UT freshmen are expected to read Ishmael Beah s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider which received a lot of exposure from The Daily Show and as a featured product at Starbucks.

Incoming sophomores to St. Francis de Sales High School, for instance, are not reading Beowulf but Travel Team, from Mike Lupica, the sports columnist for the New York Daily News. Which is smart, said Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association, a 50-year old reading advocacy organization run by educators.

What s good about using contemporary books is that a student can often enjoy them on their own. I think that s the ideal summer read, a book that does not require a lot of guidance. Remember, there is no one to talk about the book. You don t want to give them a novel so demanding it turns them off. It is summer. I see summer reading lists about as popular as they ve ever been. Meaning, there s not a lot of consistency. At the high end, you have schools that overdo it, and at the low, you have schools that tell kids it s a good idea to read over the summer, but they don t so anything to require it. [A child is] given a list but no help.

Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, is Bowling Green High School, which used to require incoming honors freshman to read half of The Odyssey. But not this year, said Diane Vogtsberger, department chair of language arts. Too many students weren t doing the reading or they had an older brother or sister and they copied. So now, the school has out self-selected lists, again for honors students. But even that depends on the class or teacher.

We don t have uniform summer reading, Vogtsberger said. I think it would be a good idea. But it would take a good administrative initiative because reluctant readers are our general population now , I think. I mean, we have parents who don t think homework is a good idea at all.

Debbie Mills, who runs the English department at Rogers, said she and other TPS English teachers have been tinkering with the idea of a city-wide summer reading list for next year, composed of books tailored to Toledo students. And she may start big. She recently gave undergraduate honors students the dense, 700-page Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I thought kids would drop the class but three added it. They want expectations. I think they are looking for a challenge. I believe that. We don t give them enough credit. But as long as we accept mediocrity, that is what we will get.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.comor 419-724-6117.



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