Monday, May 16, 2011

Outfoxing the Summer Reading List Blues

Summer is just around the corner. How do I know? Because at least once an hour, the TV reminds me that summer won't be worth living unless I drop a size or two; or a National Tutoring Chain assures me my child's brain will turn into a blank slate over the summer. (I especially like the commercial with equations and words tumbling out of the ears of some hapless kid.)
    For those of you who don't watch as much TV as I do (guilty, guilty, guilty), the first sign of summer might be The Summer Reading List. I say might because I usually find my daughter's Summer Reading List crumpled under the couch about mid-July. If your child springs forth on the last day of school, waving the SRL and demanding to go to the library right now...which is the kind of kid I might want to skip on down to the Writer's Workout.
     Although I was willing to read what the school district thought every third grader should read, I usually lost my enthusiasm by book two or three. I am an omnivorous reader, and always have been. Yet, somehow, the Literary Poobahs in Curriculum Development managed to come up with twenty of the dullest books available for the grade level; Newbery winners, biographies about Important Men (always men, never women) and "classics" of dubious value. But I had to read at least one all the way through, because the first assignment on the first day of school (after the "What-I-Did-On-My-Summer-Vacation" essay) would be a book report on one of the summer list books. Not once did any teacher ask if I liked the book. The point was that words passed before my eyes at some point of those three months.
     In my child's school district, book reports have gone the way of the Walkman. Reading is "encouraged" by taking computerized multiple choice tests on Certain Books Approved by the Company Who Sells the Test Software. Certain books are assigned so many points. (I will save my opinion of this sort of thing for another day and rant, but I will tell you that I couldn't pass the test on Yankee Girl...and I wrote the book!)
    In short, up until high school, the emphasis is on plot, characters and the odd nitpicky fact. No one ever asked if we liked the book, or not until, my sophomore English teacher. That was a real loser of a year as far as required reading: Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables (before Broadway ditched all the boring parts and added some great music).  Where other teachers acted personally insulted when we didn't froth with delight over Evangeline or The Scarlet Letter, Miss Strain cared.  We didn't have to like a book or a character, but we better have a reason why. "Just 'cause" or "It's dumb" were not acceptable reasons. Without telling us, she introduced us to the concept of critical reading.
     Many, many years pass. I become a librarian. I read constantly, almost unconsciously. I taught myself to speed read in college, so I blew through dozens of books a month. When I finished, I sometimes had the feeling I had just wasted my time. Other books, I loved so much I had to force myself to slow down and savor every word. Yet, all the time I recommended books to readers (or not), I could not tell you why I did or did not like a book. I assumed that if I didn't like a book, it must be my fault, that I just didn't get it. After all, this writer had a book published, and I didn't.
    Many years pass and I finally get the guts to enter an MFA in Writing for Children program.  Almost the first thing we newbies are told is that we will be doing a lot of reading. . .and critiquing.  Criticism of the educational variety was something that had not crossed my mind since my days in Miss Strain's class.
    "To be a writer, you have to learn to read like a writer," we were told.
    Uh-oh.  No more reading for entertainment or points or book reports. We were to read, thoughtfully, mindful of what did or did not ring true for us as a reader.  While it was hard for me to slow down, I was allowed the freedom to dislike a book. I was allowed to listen to those little voices that told me that this character wouldn't speak like this, or that a boy wouldn't act that way. One of the most consistent "little voices" were the ones that said that although a book was set in contemporary times, the characters talked and thought a lot like I did at that age, forty years ago.
      I am sometimes asked "Doesn't that ruin reading for you?" No. For one thing, I don't read every book that way.  But learning to read and write critically taught me more about writing than anything else I learned in the program.   Francine Prose has an excellent book on the subject (for adults), How to Read Like a Writer.

    Writer's Workout

      Everybody is a critic, although at my house, my daughter's critiquing skills are most evident at the dinner table.  Her first spoken sentence was "This is too spicy," (she somehow learned this was an acceptable way of saying "yuck.") It has remained her staple "no thank you," even if she is offered oatmeal.

      Keeping a critic's journal is a nice break from the usual observational journal, or those "writing prompt journals. Ideally, it would be great to tie the critic essay to a book, but I have had students critique everything from graphic novels to video games to movies to books on tape/CD. I make it a point to not use the word "journal"(smacks of school) or "diary" (implies you are about to dig into their secret souls).

I think anything you can get a student to do that involves reading/writing during the summer is nothing less than a miracle. However, I do have a few guidelines (I never use the world "rules.")

1. The student can critique any medium they want (although it is best to avoid critiquing the efforts of family members, although a restaurant meal is fair game.) And it's best to start the process as a conversation. (This exercise will probably not work for anyone over fourteen when students' vocabulary shrinks to single syllables. A group discussion might work better...depending on the kind of student you have.)

2. The writer is allowed to say that something stinks, is stupid, is awesome, bites (whatever is acceptable language in your family/class/group). However, the generality then has to be broken down into specificities.  For instance--the special effects were awesome. Then encourage the writer a bit more: What was awesome about the special effects? Were they real or computer generated or could you tell? The hamburger was awful...was it too greasy, too drippy, didn't taste like a hamburger? What did it taste like?

3.  At some point, you convince your student that his opinion was so well thought out, why doesn't he write it down in this notebook?

4. I especially like to have students read a book, then see the movie version and have them compare the two.  It doesn't work the other way around....the idea is to have the student form his own mental version of the book before seeing the movie. I have found that in almost every instance the student prefers the book version if it is read first. (This apparently doesn't apply to the Twilight Series. However, my students could go on forever as to why The Lightening Thief, the book, was so much better than the movie.) Again, make sure the comparisons are specific. Did the movie leave out your favorite character or scene? Why do you think the screenwriter did this?

5. For those long car trips, turn off the DVD player for a change (if you have one) and put on a book on tape.  My daughter is dyslexic and was always frustrated at the huge gap between what she could actually read and what she could understand. This is how we "read" Harry Potter, The Narnia Chronicles, Holes, Hoot and almost everything Beverly Cleary ever wrote.  (My personal and unasked for opinion is that Neal Patrick Harris and Stockard Channing made the best Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby, ever)  Even my husband, who is not a big reader, enjoyed listening. Some of these can be compared to the movie version, but some (like Henry Huggins) should be heard just for the fun of it.

Remember fun? Summer? Nothing is more fun than having adults ask for and listen to your opinion. Then, as a former teaching colleague used to say "you have to 'fox' the kids into learning."

Happy "foxing"
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

P.S. from Carmela: Don't forget that the deadline to enter our Blogiversary Critique Giveaway is 11 pm (CST) Tuesday, May 17, 2011. That's tomorrow! Don't miss your chance to win a critique from one of the TeachingAuthors. See our Blogiversary post for details.


Carmela Martino said...

I love the idea of having students keep a critique notebook where they can critique a variety of things. Thanks for sharing this, MA.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Terrific post, MA. One thing that struck me was that your husband isn't much of a reader. I'm seeing a pattern of readers who marry not-very-enthusiastic readers among my friends and relatives...just as night owls seems to marry morning birds and clutterbugs tend to marry tidy people. Anyone else notice the eats-books-for-breakfast reader marrying the reluctant or turned-off or slow reader?

Carmela Martino said...

My husband reads lots of newspapers and magazines, but doesn't read fiction. So I guess I fall into that category, too, April. :-)