Fighting summer reading loss: Get books in student’s hands

Last year, I wrote a blog post titled “You Can’t Compensate for Not Reading,” and it turned out to be one of the most widely discussed pieces I’ve written. I’ve been handing out summer reading assignments all week, so the topic of independent reading has again been very much on my mind.

Every summer, my Southeast D.C. charter school requires rising 10th-12th grade students to read at least two books. In every class, there is audible grumbling when the assignment packet comes out, despite my step-by-step explanation of their ability to choose their books and the rationale behind the assignment. For a critical mass of students, the abstract idea of reading books in their free time feels like an unpleasant obligation— another homework assignment.

And then they see their options and everything changes.

My school has a grant-subsidized “lending library,” a medium-sized shelf stocked with new books purchased from Amazon by the other English teachers and me. When the students visit the lending library to pick their independent reading books, most have trouble walking away with just one.

It’s kind of amazing to watch students with books in their hands. One boy who quietly sucked his teeth when I gave out the assignment packet found himself wracked with indecision over whether to pick The Stranger by Camus or Cornel West’s Race Matters. (He went with West.) Two girls agreed with enthusiasm to borrow different Alice Sebold novels and then switch with each other. One aspiring hip-hopper who flirted with academic failure all year was visibly overjoyed to snare a copy of Tupac Shakur’s The Rose that Grew From Concrete.

Some other popular titles: Angry Black White Boy by Adam Mansbach, Go Ask Alice by Anonymous, Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family by Mara Shalhoup, Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson, Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy, anything by Eric Jerome Dickey, E. Lynn Harris, James Patterson, Walter Mosley, or George Pelecanos.

Matching kids with good books is the vital first step. Too many homes have too few books in them, so schools must pick up the slack. The First Book Marketplace, an organization that provides deeply discounted books to schools, is doing important work in this regard, and got a boost last month with a write-up in The New York Times. First Book’s model is great, although their choices for young adults tilt more towards Ambrose Bierce than Angry Black White Boy.

Many libraries offer great summer reading programs, although schools have an advantage since the students are already physically there, and the book-picking experience can be a shared one. It’s a valuable thing for a student to see his peers get energized about books and to get recommendations from his teacher— someone who knows him.

Sadly, though, in our age of budget cuts and layoffs, funds for summer books is probably last on schools’ priority lists. The whole situation is tragic.

Academic gains during the school year are hard-won. It’s distressing when that forward progress is erased by students’ putting their brains in a reading-free parking lot all summer long. Young people will read if they get their hands on the right books. They will continue to backslide and we will continue to wring our hands if they don’t.

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