Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kale or Ice Cream: Choice and Summer Reading

My husband is an amazing cook. There are days I believe he could conjure a sauce out of dirt and rocks. He bakes bread: rye bread, wheat bread, sunflower bread. He's been known to brew beer, roast green coffee beans, pit smoke whole hogs.

Last week he made us patty melts on home-made rye bread just out of the oven. He sauted peppers, onions and mushrooms until they were just sweetened up in the pan. He topped the pressed beef patties with swiss cheese. Dropped the sauted vegetables on top then buttered the rye bread and grilled the sandwiches . Somehow that sandwich tasted better than one I would have made for myself. 

It's not often the same with books though, is it? When we pick books for students they often are not sweeter than the books students would have chosen for themselves. 

Last week Karen Terlecky wrote about a reader being slowed by a book she chose from four titles offered for summer reading.  Karen likened that struggle to a truck, engine screaming, crawling uphill on the interstate. Slow, the trucks struggle, but without their uphill climb where would consumers be?
We need those trucks to keep moving just like we need to vegetables for our health.

There are reading assignments that are slow like that uphill climb and if I switch the metaphor and think diet, those assignments are broccoli and kale. Good for me, but not my first choice.

I like kale, now. I used to think it was a bitter decoration. Now, I juice it, chop it, mix it into breads. I like kale now, but it took years of vegetable conditioning to develop the taste for it. Even though I like it, I don't want to eat it in every salad or with every meal. It's good, but let's be honest, it's not ice cream or popcorn.  As with any comparison, there are limits to my food analogy, but the obesity epidemic (and my own "summer slide" toward too many chips and Popsicles) seems very real evidence for balance. 

I must balance making healthy food choices with my love of chips and ice cream. If I am going to be healthy and or take off some of the stress weight I put on last spring, I've got to balance doing what I want to do (read and nap) and doing what I have to do (eat well and exercise). From a health and nutritional stance, this makes sense.

It was the kale salad at the Wicked Spoon buffet in Las Vegas that changed my
mind about eating greens. English teacher friends and I ate there during NCTE 2012. 

But it does not always make sense for readers. Yes, as an adult I have to read things that I absolutely do not find pleasure in (income taxes, credit card documents, legislation that impacts educators). If I am to be an informed citizen I must read about issues of community concern. I've got to read the manual to my car to trouble shoot issues with the air conditioner. I have to read all of the beginning of the year papers that my son brings home from school.  I have to read ingredient labels on soaps and cosmetics to avoid a chemical allergen. At work, I have to read about our teacher evaluation model. Not fun, such reading. It is, however, necessary. 

When we give students bounded choices or no choice at all in what they read for summer reading,  what's our purpose? Why do we limit readers to one book or one out of four? If my purpose is to keep students reading during the summer months then I can see where I need to leave title options wide open. Let them eat cake so to speak. Some students do not get that treat though.

Some high school students  must read particular titles. Do they really have to do that during the summer?  International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement students have required reading lists. College freshmen have required reading too. Locally, one year at Rollins College all incoming freshmen had to read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Several colleges, such as Smith, and others, continue  a one book one college required reading experience for incoming freshmen. Why? What beliefs do we share that says such common experiences are valuable, important even? 

My answer to that question is grade-level or age dependent. At some point in a students' academic lives, students must be able to read assigned works.  Even my child will have to read textbook chapters or discipline-specific content. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, repairmen, contractors, even dental hygienists, computer programmers, stylists or graphic designers do not get to their degree or certification through selective reading. They get there by completing requirements and becoming credentialed. 

When I think about bounded choice--giving students several titles from which to choose--I liken that to getting students to eat a little bit of kale in their pre-dinner salad. Students may not be as invested in a book they are directed to read. I am okay with that for high school students. I do not believe we  need to limit or constrain choices for younger readers though. Is that ageist?  No, it's practical. 

The common reading experience and constrained choice is a means to prepare students for the reading demands they will face in colleges and careers. But that preparation need not begin in the summer months. I keep thinking about purpose.  Did the classic choice assignment meet my purpose? How many students chose classics that are also films? What might that suggest?

I need to revise the choice portion of my summer reading.  I need students choice to be wide-open not constrained to a cannon they may not be prepared to read. That lesson in meeting reading demands  is likely best taught when I can work with students side-by-side, not during the summer months. 


  1. I had read the title of your post when it popped up on my Facebook feed, but I chose not to read it in its entirety until I finished my post for today. Like you, I do believe we have to introduce the "kale" to our students - they need to know how to read certain types of text. I just don't believe they should do it without teacher assistance and guidance which is exactly what you say in your last paragraph.
    Great minds think alike! :)
    My post today:

  2. Our posts today are a bit Ying and Yang! I honestly didn't see yours until I toggled over to link to mine! Simply, knowing how best to serve students' reading lives is extremely difficult. Each one needs a different direction. Some will read the classics during the summer; others won't.

    Do those colleges that require summer reading really think all read the book? Of course not. We both know teachers who didn't read the required reading in their literature classes. They're the same ones who decry any assigned reading for any students, which, of course, is ridiculous.

    Love the list of required reading for adults. I'm delegating the reading of my new stove's manual to my husband!

  3. I must always just get my thoughts clear on what to write late in the day. But here it is. Thanks for inviting me to be part of this!

  4. I really enjoyed having that common book experience to start a new year. That's really why I would assign a title. They'll have a whole school year of assignments to prepare them for college and career, but I do think it's nice to have an academic connection right from the beginning, whether that connections comes from cake or kale.

    Sorry, I'm out of town, so I might not post until next week. I have limited access to unrestricted internet.