WASHINGTON –– For the past few months, young people have been hearing the message from school and government officials about eating better and exercising. Now, during the summer months, they also are being advised to pick up a book, or better yet, five.
In early June, first lady Michelle Obama announced a campaign called “Let’s Read. Let’s Move” aimed at getting volunteers to tackle childhood obesity and what educators call “summer learning loss.”
During a June 8 event in Washington to promote this initiative, she said: “We are asking individuals and community organizations, corporations, foundations and government to come together and devote their time and energy to help our kids stay active and healthy – and to keep them learning – all summer long.”
The first lady’s initiative has the support of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who recommends that students read five books during the summer to help them stay on the learning track and minimize the loss of learning that can occur during summer vacation.
Summer reading lists are nothing new to most high schools, and in recent years, they have become commonplace in elementary schools, too, with lists for every grade – including kindergarten. Required reading lists made their way into high schools in the 1960s – back in the pre-Internet, video-game age and when fewer young people spent their summer months attending multiple sessions of specialized camps.
In recent years, these lists have become a little more student-friendly. For example, most schools offer choices for their students instead of just telling them the specific books to read. Many schools have also widened their reading selections beyond the classics to include modern books.
In general, schools don’t seem to want book reports from summer reading either. Instead, they are looking for posters, PowerPoint presentations or school-sponsored online book discussions.
The librarian at St. Michael Catholic School in Houston posted several tips for student readers on the school website. Tips included: taking notes while reading; listening to the book on tape (if the student was having a hard time reading) while following along with the text.
Students also were advised to select a passage that was particularly striking and photocopy it or write it down and be ready to discuss their insights on it. If the book was made into a movie, students were encouraged to watch it and compare the two. They also were urged to think about what they would ask the author, why the book was given its title and what they thought about the characters.
Bishop T.K. Gorman Catholic School, with grades six through 12 in Tyler, Texas, has high hopes for its summer reading program. “The English department envisions summer reading as a means for students to become lifelong readers, develop a love of reading, to draw moral life lessons, to mature as effective independent readers, and to gain experience with a variety of texts,” the website said.
Bergen Catholic High School, a boys school in Oradell, N.J., similarly noted on its website that the school’s faculty members hoped the assigned summer reading would be a “rewarding and enjoyable experience.” They also gave students some practical advice, telling them not to leave their reading until the end of summer. “Enjoy your summer reading!” it added for good measure.
To get students to actually read and then hopefully enjoy it seems to be a major goal of required reading assignments but whether or not that happens probably varies from student to student.
Mary Leonhardt, a high school reading teacher, who has taught at Catholic and public high schools and written several books on encouraging school-age readers, including “Keeping Kids Reading: How to Raise Avid Readers in the Video Age,” told CNS in a previous interview that she is a little leery about assigned reading lists and happy for students to be reading just about anything.
More often than not, she said, when students read even comic books and easy paperbacks, they develop a love for reading that will spill over into more difficult works of literature, but she rarely sees this trend working in reverse. For example, she said, when students tackle books they don’t like, they often get so frustrated and discouraged that they completely miss the point that reading can be fun and end up giving up on it.
Fun books that are popular with teens often raise some parents’ eyebrows – as was the case with the “Harry Potter” series and now the “Twilight” series about vampires.
An article in the June 22 issue of the Catholic Digest, “Should my teen read ‘Twilight’?” points out that the “Twilight” books, in their favor, take on some modern issues that many teens struggle with: “friendship and romance, family dynamics, chastity and pregnancy, questions of self-worth and depression.”
“The way these issues are presented provides positive food for thought,” the article noted. “In other cases, the presentation urges readers to question how and whether teen readers will be able to separate fiction from reality, and whether they will step back far enough from the romance to make discerning judgments about decisions the characters make.”
In other words: Read critically even when reading for fun.