Summertime Reading: To Compete or Not Compete

This week we have a great post from teacher educator Maureen Barbieri. She has written for the Stenhouse Blog before, reviewing Waiting for Superman and sharing the story of an inspirational writing group After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.

We would love to hear your thoughts on summertime reading. How do you encourage your students to keep reading during the summer months? What has worked for you and what hasn’t?

It happens every year around this time. School children seem more restless wishing that recess, in schools that still have recess, could last a little bit longer.  No doubt about it: summer is coming, and the kids are counting down the days.  Teachers too.  The ones I work with tell me they’re looking forward, more than anything else, to some long stretches of reading time.

Teachers also wonder about their students’ “summer slide,” a common term for the loss of academic progress children have made since September. One of the biggest concerns, of course, is reading proficiency.  Teachers hope against hope that students will maintain the gains they’ve made and start the new school year with sustained passion for reading.  Towards this end, some schools initiate summer challenges.  How many books can each child read over the summer?  How will we recognize the effort?   Who will read the most?

Of course, we wish our children would all be like Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird who says, “Until I feared I would lose it, I did not love to read.  One does not love breathing.” We want our kids to see reading the way Scout does.

In some towns, libraries organize reading initiatives, offering prizes to children who read books.  Where I live, children are asked to keep track of the minutes they spend reading.  Then, if they’ve read a fair amount of time, they’re given a coupon for ice cream cones, pizza, or cups of chowder.  In the fall, at the high school’s first football game, there is a halftime ceremony to applaud their achievement. Students who have participated in the library’s reading program are invited onto the field at halftime for recognition, to the delight of their parents. Other libraries have wall charts, where students’ names are posted and stars given for each book completed.

I have been intrigued by Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, which details several longitudinal studies that indicate human beings’ tendency to be unaffected or even turned off by extrinsic rewards.  What really inspires people, Pink explains, what actually fosters more productivity, is autonomy, the chance to create something at one’s own speed, in one’s own way.  Pay raises or other external carrots often have a negligible effect on workers’ motivation.  I’ve been wondering how his research relates to children’s desire to read.  Shouldn’t children want to read because it’s just about the most satisfying thing in the world to do with one’s mind?   Pink says,  “In environments where extrinsic rewards are most salient, many people work only to the point that triggers the reward –and no further.  So if students get a prize for reading three books, many won’t pick up a fourth.” (page 58)

Teachers I know agree.  “The trouble with giving kids stickers for every book they read,” says one, “is that pretty soon they want two stickers or three, insisting that’s the only way they’ll read.” Exactly what we don’t want to happen.  We can almost hear their reasoning, “If reading is so great, why do I need a bribe?” Teachers want to help students become confident, joyful readers, to see the myriad ways reading can change and enhance our lives, to be able to stretch and roam and celebrate the whole arc of human experience, one book at a time.  A sticker for reading a book?  A star?  A coupon?  Are we crazy?

But sometimes these reading competitions get the kids into the library,” one reading specialist insists.  True, and this is obviously a great thing.  But, as Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn knows, the trip to the library with its implicit invitation to take books home, should be its own reward.  Our library has story hours every week, one for toddlers, and one for older children.  It’s this kind of experience that can entice a child, from earliest days, to know in her bones that there’s nothing in this world as magical as a good story.

One of my University of New Hampshire students argues that rewards like stickers or coupons might be a good way to get a reluctant reader to read.  “If the person who doesn’t like to read just hasn’t found the right book yet,” he says, “then maybe the reward is a way to put the book in his hands and get him to try it.”

Another student who tutors elementary students in reading insists that for struggling readers, lollipops are great inducements.  “At least in the beginning, I have to have that carrot to offer. This doesn’t last long though; once they see how great reading can be, they’re off and running.  Reading a chapter book is something they clamor to do.” Much as I want to stand with Daniel Pink, Scout Finch, and Francie Nolan, my students stop me in my tracks and remind me that all children are different.

A librarian friend describes what goes on in her library.  During the summer, the place is jumping.  Families come often and stay for various events, including magic shows and concerts. There is a sense of community here.  Older students keep track of how many hours they’ve read, and the person who reads the most wins a Kindle.  Younger students win smaller prizes, based also on the number of minutes they’ve read.  One year they all read detective stories, so every reader won mustaches, badges, or dark glasses.  Other years the library has given children coupons for pizzas.

While I’m not a fan of these prizes, I do like the focus on minutes read.  The problem with reading competitions that reward kids for the number of books completed is that they tend to privilege fast readers.  The more books read, the better, right?  For children who already love to read and who read fairly quickly, the competition becomes a game, something fun, another feather in the cap.  But for those who struggle or just prefer to meander through their stories more carefully, savoring every moment, why then the competition will be nothing more than a frustrating distraction or, worse, reinforcement of the notion that they are simply “not good readers.”  We never want a child to feel judged by how fast he or she reads or to have reading be something intimidating.  Slow reading, on the other hand, is more deliberate, more purposeful, more thoughtful, as Tom Newkirk argues in his new book, The Art of Slow Reading: “. . . it has to do with the relationship we have with what we read, with the quality of attention that we bring to our reading, with the investment we are willing to make.” (page 2) Why is it better to read ten books over the summer than to read three or four, reflect on what they mean to us, and hold them in our memories?  Perhaps, as Newkirk suggests, we should all slow down a bit.

When my librarian friend describes the giant white board where kids who check out books write their names, and how proud they are to do that, I am reminded of Frank Smith’s notion of “joining the literacy club.”  Librarians here know their patrons and chat with them about what they’ve read lately, making suggestions about what they might like to try next.  Clearly, in her library, reading is a social enterprise.  This kind of encouragement feels natural and right.  As summer vacation approaches, I’ve heard other good ideas.

At a Maine high school, students going into a sophomore  AP writing class will get together to choose four books to read over the summer, but they won’t write traditional book reports –  what a friend calls “book autopsies” – on these.  Instead, they’ll meet with their new teacher four times in small groups during the summer to discuss the books.

A colleague in Brooklyn describes a similar plan.  Charts are posted in the corridors with book titles in boxes.  Students and teachers sign up to read and agree to meet at appointed times to share their reactions. The key here is, students choose which group to join, based on the book title, and the time and place of the group meeting.

Finally, at one local elementary school, teachers help children choose books to borrow over the summer.  Knowing the kids as well as they do, they’re able to suggest specific books for each student.  They pack these into little canvas bags.  “We lose some books,” the reading specialist tells me, “but it’s worth it.”  Letters are sent home with the books, suggesting other titles the child might like, urging families to make reading a daily ritual during the summer months.

Nothing quite tops the involvement of families.  Recently (April 24, 2012) author Mo Willems was interviewed on NPR, sharing his process of writing books for young children, acknowledging that he always keeps the adult audience in mind.

“I want the parents to be engaged,” he insists.  “I want them to laugh because then it’s cool.  I think that sometimes parents forget that they are the coolest people in the world to kids . .  so if they’re enjoying reading a book, suddenly the kid is going to say, “Wow, reading books is awesome!”

There you have it.  Reading books is awesome.  We know it, and we want our students to know it too.  Better than a sticker, a coupon, or a contest might be some quiet lap time, a chance to meet up with friends for some book talk, or a dinnertime question, “Hey, what did you read today and how did you like it?”

4 comments May 23rd, 2012

Questions & Authors: Easing Into Summer with Great Reads

School is out, or will be soon, for most of the country. This is a great time to get kids hooked on some great summer reads. Teri Lesesne, author of Naked Reading and Making the Match, offers some suggestions that will make for some magical — and educational — summer reading for all kids.

My 16 year old is keeping a countdown clock on her laptop. It is ticking away the last weeks of school. It is not that she does not love school; she does. What she is looking forward to, though, is the luxury of time. That struck such a resonant chord with me. More than anything else, I think my teen looks forward to summer because she becomes “time wealthy.” She can sleep late, certainly. What she most loves about the abundance of time is that she is free to read those books that have been accumulating throughout the school year: the ones not assigned for her English classes. Summertime and the reading is easy, or it should be.

Easy does not mean, however, that books are without rigor. Often, I think, books for young adults tend to be snubbed by some adults who think that they are little more than pablum; nothing nutritious can be gleaned from reading books written specifically for young adults. Perhaps these adults can be forgiven; they must not have read some of the books from the last couple of years that challenge teen readers. That is what great YA literature does: it offers teen readers the chance to explore all sorts of new terrain in terms of issues and topics. What sets these books apart from their adult counterparts, though , is that YA literature is developmentally appropriate for teen readers. For example, how does legislation such as The Patriot Act impact on the lives of teens? Cory Doctorow explores this territory in Little Brother. Doctorow takes readers into the lives of a handful of teens who are arrested following the terrorist bombing of a bridge in San Francisco. he teens are held captive by federal agents until they (the teens) unlock their computers and cell phones and give the agents total access to their accounts and records. One teen, Markus (aka, w1n5t0n), dares to defy his captors for a time. Ultimately, though, he capitulates. The experience makes Markus begin to question authority.The comparison to books such as 1984 is inevitable and valid, too. However, the central character here is a teen, not an adult.

With the recent downturn in the economy, one of the most startling set of statistics concerned the rise in the number of handguns being sold. As people worry about their own survival in tough economic times, sometimes they also fear that someone will come to take what little they have. It is not too big a leap from here to futuristic scenarios where the wealth is in the hands of a few, a few who are corrupt to boot. Suzanne Collins delves into such as future in her proposed trilogy which begins with The Hunger Games and continues with the second book, Catching Fire . Katniss and Peeta must defeat the other players (all of whom are children) in the annual “Hunger Games” in order to survive and win rations which will allow their family members to survive as well. Dystopic views of the future abound in literature for young adults from Lois Lowry’s The Giver to Mary Pearson’s chilling The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Fade to Blue by Sean Beaudoin. For students who might prefer some nonfiction, books such as Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic by John DeGraaf or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On ( Not) Getting By in America. The Hunger Games is one of the books nominated to YALSA’s “Teens Top Ten” list for 2009. To see the other books teens can read and then vote for in the fall, visit the YALSA web site and click on the link to Teens Top Ten. And while you are there, take a look at the winners for “Teens Top Ten” for 2008 (and earlier, too) and see how many of these titles are ones you know and have read. If teens are voting these are their favorites, perhaps we need to know a little something about them, too?

What about offering readers a chance to explore some history through YA books? Often, nonfiction is overlooked for recreational reading. However, there are terrific choices available to teens who want to learn more about a wide variety of subjects. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice provides readers with insight into the role of this teen during the bus boycott in the South of Jim Crow legislation. Ellen Levine’s Freedom’s Children includes a vignette of Claudette Colvin plus dozens of other young people who took part in the Civil Rights Movement. I have been writing lately about the concept of reading ladders, a concept that helps us move readers from one book to the next and from there to another. A reading ladder for this issue might include the picture book A Taste of Colored Water and then progress to the two books about Claudette Colvin and continue on to novels such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 or one of Mildred Taylor’s novel in the Roll of Thunder series or any other novel set during these tumultuous times. Take a small step off to another reading ladder and recommend Gary Schmidt’s Trouble, a book that examines prejudice against Asian-Americans in the 1980s. Or select Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration by Ann Bausum for a look at how immigrants were denied entry into the U.S. across history. Summer reading might just afford teachers the opportunity to construct ladders so that students can experience a story or history in interconnected ways rather than one piece at a time.

How wonderful to be a teen again and see the wealth of time summer offers. I am certain that you, too, have an ever-growing (and more than likely toppling) stack of books to engage you over the summer. Let me add just a handful of titles from the hundreds of YA books published this year already. These books represent the array available in YA literature: books for tweens and younger teens, fiction and nonfiction, reimaginings of familiar stories, and (most of all) accessible enjoyable texts. I discuss these books at my blog. Stop by and see how I am spending those precious extra minutes summer offers.

Some Suggestions for Summer Reading:

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill is a modern day “Faust” set in El Paso. See what happens when the devil comes to collect on a deal made by Bug’s grandfather that involves two souls and a primo Cadillac.

A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story set in contemporary time. Imagine waking from a 200 year nap to discover that your entire world has undergone tremendous changes.

Knucklehead: Tales and Mostly True Stories about Growing up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka. This slice of life autobiography is a quick and incredibly funny read. Scieszka is the US Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for a reason.

Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick follows the life of a soldier wounded in Iraq. As Matt’s memory of his injury return, he faces some tough moral decisions.

Hamlet by John Marsden is a prose variant that contains much of Shakespeare’s characters and plot with a few new twists.

Add comment June 4th, 2009

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