Slice of Life: Reading Choices

The endless expanse of days to read and reflect and write are tightening up.

Once school starts my reading time will be curtailed.

I remember when I decided to go into teaching one of my biggest concerns was the disturbance of my reading life. I was fearful that my adult reading would disintegrate into kid lit.

I had no clue.

I was correct about my adult reading life. It withered. And I mourn the loss from time to time.  But there are aspects of my current reading life that have changed me in profound ways. The more I learn how to teach a reader or a writer to read like a writer, the more I discover about my reading and writing life.  Now it seems obvious, but at the beginning of my teaching journey, I had no idea. Discovering how reading and writing works is a passion I pursue willingly and at personal cost because it fascinates me.

I reflect on this because of a dinner conversation.

My high schooler was “asked” to read two books over the summer, Hamlet and Siddartha. My teacher self had to ask, what if you were given choice in this rather than being assigned a text.

She assured me she preferred the assigned books and would probably not have read any book over the summer if she had a choice. After some inquiry, her bottom line was that there would be no accountability for choice so she would not do it. With assigned books, there would be a discussion and a test. If it were a choice, she could just say she read a book.

I sat there. Taken aback. I had felt bad for her being assigned a text such as Hamlet without any instruction. But come to find out work that is assigned is in her comfort zone. Being required to do something with a test connected to it, motivated her.

“High school is not like elementary school,” she said. “It’s about points and tests. How can a teacher give you a grade without a test?”

My daughter is but one student on her journey. The lack of reading and choice disturbs me. The lack of instruction with a text like Hamlet shocks me. But what gets to me at my core is the training of students to be motivated by a grade. I realize that is our educational culture that reflects our society to some degree.

This accepted matter of fact way school goes worries me.

When I think back to my high school days, I was just like my daughter. I was assigned books. I didn’t read unless I was asked to. My reading life came to me after formal schooling. That’s when I embraced choice and became a reader and a learner. That was my path. I believe/hope this will happen for her as well. She is much more than just a grade and can do so much more than the assignment.

But this stance in education this treatment reading and learning worries me. An environment that only asks our students, especially high school students, to do as assigned to pass a test worries me. Does choice and active learning only exist in elementary school? Is this “do the assignment and take a test” the way of secondary education? Or is this just my slice of life?


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers Blog for this community of readers, writers, and learners. Read more slices here.

21 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Reading Choices

  1. I share your concern. The only time my high school daughter read books of choice one summer was because I made it a requirement for her to obtain a smart phone. She read more books that summer than she had in years, and she enjoyed it. High school reading lists are important, but without also fostering a love of reading broadly, there is no lifelong readership being nurtured. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lori,
      It’s comforting to read you thoughts. When I think about it, my mom had the same trouble. We are readers, but our teens (generally) don’t want to do this. It gives me hope for her personally. I just wonder about kiddos who don’t have reading support at home. How does it go for them?

  2. I, too, share this concern! I’m in training with teachers from around my county and a few are struggling with PBL (project based learning) because how will parents know if they’ve learned it? What about the report card? How will we test it? I cringed. I understand that we, as teachers, are under lots of pressure, but I’m troubled by the idea that the only way one will demonstrate that they know something is through a test! Sigh…I want changes more quickly! I feel like they will come, but it’s soooo slow!!

    • That testing issue is a big one. I hope the PBL movement continues and we can show the “results” that all want. Accountability measures need to become more attuned to real learning. It’s a tough order!
      Bless you for doing that work! I’m not surprised. What lucky teachers and students to be able to do this work.

  3. This was how it was for my kids; however, they had a wider choice of books to read. Still it was a struggle to pick a book and stick with it. Now they are readers. I do not know what the answer is. We need to instill a love of reading, but I also think they won’t love to read if they never read some classic literature. It’s important to keep re-evaluating what we do ans ask why we do it.

    BTW: Happy Birthday, birthday sister!

    • Thank you, Margaret. To hear your girls are readers doesn’t surprise me at all. But knowing they also faced similar school requirements helps me in some strange way. Hadden’t comment below says something that I do agree with. Kids do need to be exposed to great texts and that does mean required texts. I suppose I just wish there was a push for love of books as they grow. And Happy Birthday! I’ve been thinking of you. Hope you are going to do something for you today!

  4. Julieanne,
    Thinking about the WabtR we did this summer, I feel that a rubric could be used to score my notebook pages and a grade given. Maybe after a class book club discussion, during the first week of school, my peers and I could further complete a rubric based on our discussion.

    I make these suggestions in support of your idea of student choice in their summer reading and as another way for your high schooler to see an assessment could go with her summer assignment.

    I often think “There are many ways of doing things” and I try not to just do it because that is the way it is always been done.

    Just a thought I share with you on your birthday!!!! Enjoy!

    Also, I wonder if this might be the school year where you set a goal to keep your reading life strong even during the school year. I bet you do have 20 minutes a day to devote to your own reading or maybe keep a book tape in the car or download a book to hear while you take a walk. After this summer of strong reading, I bet you can give yourself a birthday gift to keep that reading and writing doing strong into the fall and winter time!!

    This suggestion is my present to you! Enjoy your day and thanks again for helping me so much to grow as a reader this summer! You are a gift to me!

    • Thank you so much Sally for all your thoughts here! You have been such a gift to me, ever since we met at Bank Street Books! What a wonderful way to make a friend, in a bookstore with a book.

      I am so grateful for you and your team looking at a possible way to assess the reading journey of our kiddos with this writing about reading work. We have a group of teachers at school who are going for another round of WabtR so the idea is spreading on the home front. Perhaps we can add to the conversation!

  5. Have you read William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep”? He elaborates on this disturbing phenomenon among our kids. As for assigning Hamlet as a summer read, I am floored.

    • I have not read that Tara. Going to though, thanks! The good news about the Hamlet assignment: it became a bit of a family project. We, my daughter, my English Lit son (who is a bit of a Shakespeare nut) and I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, books in hand over five days. I have to say it was a great experience. I was glad my son was there. She’d stop the movie when we can to a confusing part and talk about it. I suppose he got something out of that college education!

  6. I think that in High School and College it is important to be assigned books to read. A liberal arts education should expose a learner to many different ideas and hopefully expand their own choices of reading matter.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughts, Bernadette! I agree with you. Students need to be exposed to important texts. Absolutely! I just worry that this is all students will do. I worry that educators don’t do enough to instill literate ways of life. I love the way you say that it will “expand their own choices.”
      I think in the case of my daughter it will do just that.

  7. I have heard many stories this year where people were not readers at school but grew into readers later. At the same time I have heard stories of people who loved the assigned reading and claim they wouldn’t have read anything otherwise. They have even returned to the same titles later in life. Personally I like having choice.

    • I wish there was more longitudinal work done with our students to see how they grow. That would be instructive! Choice with instruction on specific literature would be a good step. The work in secondary makes strong reading work (and I mean love of reading work) all the more important at the elementary level.

  8. My high school shifted from assigning summer reading to giving us 30 choices (of which we had to pick two) before my junior year of high school. We were assessed by participating in book clubs with the teacher who read the same book. It changed my views of summer reading. Suddenly, it was something I wanted to do because I had choice. (But remember, I was the kind of reader who needed instruction to comprehend a text when I was in middle and high school.)

    • I too was a reader who needed instruction. I think there are very few who aren’t. You were lucky to have such a progressive school. I wish I had had that. I would have become a reader much earlier!

  9. I was never given books or a list for required summer reading. I read all summer long, but then I’ve always loved reading. It was during high school I went through the James Michner books. The fatter the book, the more I loved it. Too many high school teachers are still teaching the way they were taught. Slowly choice is creeping into some classes.

    • You were a reader early on. I’m afraid it will come to my daughter a bit later. We all take our own paths. I just wish there was guidance and support for those who need it!

  10. As an ELA high school teacher and a lover of reading, I fought against standardizing summer reading but it was hard because most teachers are not writer and they are not readers in their present lives so it’s much easier to assign reading. UGH!!! Frustrating! The advocacy mission continues, right?

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