By Lydie Raschka
I was going to rail against summer reading homework. I thought I’d complain about the school’s tentacle-like reach into our homes. The way assignments spoil the free-form pace of summer, leaving little wiggle room for boredom, the space in which new ideas flourish.
Assigning books is a far cry from my childhood summer reading days, when I’d crawl into the apple tree with a box of thin mints and Little Women until my mother made me climb down to set the table for dinner.
Yet I can’t, in all honesty, rail against schools that give summer reading homework until I come to terms with my own long-armed reach into my son’s summer reading list. Not long ago I read How to Get Your Child to Love Reading while preparing to teach a course on reading to elementary school teachers. The author, Esme Raji Codell, says it’s important to continue to read aloud to your upper elementary and even middle school child because, she says, it’s the age when reading falls off, especially for boys.
So, tapping into a now abandoned, family ritual-and heeding Codell’s advice-we read aloud, in Michigan, while on vacation with my parents. My soon-to-be 8th grader was assigned Of Mice and Men and then given a short list from which to choose two more books, one fiction, one non-fiction. He polished off John Steinbeck’s six-chapter masterpiece easily on his own, but the only palatable fiction choice he could find on the list was Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, a book heavy on setting, as it turns out, with little
plot to carry him through. This is the book we decided to read out loud. Would it be cheating? I hesitated. I knew Codell wouldn’t think so, not for the two “choice” books anyway, so we went ahead.
My mother and I loved the whole cozy family reading experience. We loved the spiritual melancholy of place and theme, as two Franciscan priests wound their way through the southwestern frontier in the middle of the 19th century. We loved the descriptions of French onion soup, lovingly prepared, not to mention the moral quandaries of the priesthood. Reading a chapter a day was bringing us closer together as a family, we thought, until it became clear that for the 13-year-old in our midst-practicing his front flips over the back of the couch-it was only a means to an end. “The thing about reading aloud,” he said grimly, “is you have no choice but to keep going.”
His non-fiction choice was Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. Back in New York we read one chapter every morning over breakfast. Because there are only three in our immediate family it was pretty easy to make this happen. Concurrently, I was reading The Call of Stories, by Robert Coles, and felt a prick of conscience when I read his introduction, in which he describes how he confronted his father about reading Dickens aloud to his mother in the living room, the location where he and his brother wanted to listen to the radio. Pushing my misgivings aside, we forged ahead with the incredible story of Ernest Shackleton’s ordeal in the Antarctic. How he sets sail with a party of 27 men for the South Atlantic, hoping to cross the Antarctic continent overland, on foot. They get trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea. The ship is crushed and sinks. Day after day we returned to the icy sea-ignoring the occasional sighs of resignation from our teenage son. Chapter after chapter we persevered, experiencing frostbitten toes and the slaughter of beloved dogs.
I’ll never forget our reading of Endurance. There are wonderful maxims in the book, which I know I’ll carry with me into the fall as we face diminishing evening light and hectic days. “Delegate and lay out clear responsibilities” is one. “Maintain your rituals when under stress” is another. And one of my favorites: “If you must split up the party, establish a base camp.”
But what did my son take away from the whole read-aloud expedition? “It was OK, except for the ‘But then… But then…’” he said, in exasperation, referring to the relentless hardship the men went through, facing yet another horror just when it seemed they were out of the woods. Death Comes to the Archbishop, on the other hand, was “so boring,” that, without help, he maintains he “would have stopped reading unless you made me.”
Heeding Robert Coles’ long-ago plea to his parents, we won’t subject our son to family read-alouds next summer. Instead, I’ll get my own reading list and relive those bygone summer reading days.
Lydie Raschka is a Montessori teacher trainer and freelance writer who lives on the Upper West Side.
NO ROOM TO LEARN:
SPACE IS RUNNING OUT IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS-WHAT IS THE CITY’S PLAN FOR THE FUTURE?
Children swarmed out of P.S. 290 Manhattan New School on the sunny afternoon of Sept. 8, shaded by scaffolding only feet above parents’ heads.
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“A year,” her son’s classmate chimes in.
The project currently underway concerns windows-but many wish it would add classrooms instead. [Read More]
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