Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Summer ends, time to assess the summer reading lists

Back in May, as the summer season was coming to a start I did some writing on summer reading lists. As the summer season comes to an end, and a new school year is about to start, it seems a good time to revisit that and look at some stories to see how things are progressing. Unfortunately, it seems progress has not been that good. Initially I was going to post this to my other blog, but given that I did the writing here in May, it seemed a good idea to use this as a small follow-up, plus reading issues are always relevant to librarians.

First, there is Florida, which seems to be doing its best to limit reading, or simply make it something less than desirable. Allow me to illustrate.

On July 29, 2005, the St. Petersburg Times (FL) reported that there is a statewide effort to intensify reading at the expense of elective classes. As if neglecting their poor students was not bad enough (see below), now they take the fun out of reading. Basically, the tactic used is to add more time for reading classwork at the expense of elective classes like music, vocational education, and Junior ROTC. Here is one example:

"At Pinellas County's Boca Ciega High School, two foreign language teachers and one physical education position were eliminated to make room for a new reading program that targets 800 students. That's almost nine times as many students as last year.

'We're going to overwhelm our students with reading strategies,' Principal John Leanes said of his school's take-no-prisoners approach to literacy."

I don't think we need to argue much about the need to teach foreign languages in our schools, so taking that out, even with the good intention to foster more reading, is simply not the answer. As for physical education, I think the fact that the United States faces a crisis in health in terms of obesity in children speaks for itself as to why eliminating such positions is not a good idea. So, going to war for literacy, while it sounds very noble, and we do want to encourage literacy, is not a good idea if it becomes an unbalanced approach that neglects the making of students as well rounded individuals.

Then, going back to Florida, The Sun-Sentinel for August 1, 2005, reports that many schools only give reading lists to their brightest students. According to the report, "fearing their low-performing students will not buy books or get parental support needed to enforce nightly reading time, most Palm Beach County schools have been mandating summer reading lists only for their best students: those in honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes." This sounds like excuses for tracking, something that should have gone the way of the dinosaur. They claim that parents will be unsupportive and that funds may be lacking. Let's grant that some parents can be unsupportive (not all parents are, shall we say ideal?). And yes, funding can be tight in schools. However, using this as a way to have lower expectations from part of the student population is a cause for concern. These students need reading as much if not more than the bright ones. There is a simple principle in education: expect the best from all your students. You should teach to reach all of them, and if you expect the best, they will often rise to meet the expectations. In this case, by failing to have high expectations for all students, and disguising it as "well, their folks probably don't read anyways or won't buy them books," they are neglecting a segment of their student population, and doing so in a condescending way.

Meanwhile, in Maryland and Virginia, reading scores seem to be stagnant for adolescents, according to The Washington Post for August 1, 2005. Their solution is to shift more efforts in reading to their middle school students.

"New data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, billed as the nation's report card, show that the typical 13-year-old could read no better in the 2003-04 school year than the student's counterpart five years earlier. Nine-year-olds, however, showed significant gains."

This is an effort to fill a gap since reading education has been mostly focused in early childhood or in high school (due to graduation standards and testing). The article goes on to describe some efforts to address this issue of middle schoolers' reading needs. For example,

"Such efforts are intensifying across the state. In February, Virginia sponsored a reading leadership institute for principals, teachers and other educators at middle schools in nine school systems.

In the District, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is pushing for year-round testing to pinpoint struggling students. His efforts seem to focus on the entire school system, not just middle grades."

I think it is important to point out that it is necessary to focus on the entire school system when it comes to reading, not just on some grades or some students. Principal Mark King in Prince George County states, "When the children see that you expect more, they'll try to reach those levels." Maybe someone needs to send his words to those educators in Florida neglecting some of their students.

On a final note, many students are coming back from the summer. Many of them had some form of reading homework or list. I am sure many teachers may want to assign book reports to assess the reading. However, how about some alternatives to the book report instead. For high school level, here is an article which may be of interest. I am not linking since it is behind an archive, but here is the citation:

Mitchell, Diana. "Fifty Alternatives to the Book Report (Teaching Ideas)." English Journal 87.1 (January 1998): 92-95.

The article features a series of alternative writing ideas to respond to reading from creating a childhood for a character to an invitation to a talk show. There are even suggestions for poetry and even music selections, so the article seems to provide something to address the needs of different learners. A good set of teaching ideas.


C. Conway said...

This is a very interesting post. As a literature professor, I am very concerned about education and the lack of interest and experience with reading among college students. It seems like the whole culture nowadays conspires against reading. Maybe it wasn't this way before, when there was less electronic media. I truly don't know.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Thanks for stopping by. It can seem at times that way, like the whole world conspires against reading. I am holding to the hope as long as we have good teachers and librarians, even if it is more a struggle, that we can get the students to read.