Nerdy parents get no summer reading help

The first couple of weeks after school ends each year, there is a certain amount of child laziness that is acceptable. After all, kids work hard throughout the academic year and deserve a bit of carefree unstructured time to rest their busy little minds.

Much as my kids would prefer otherwise, though, this is not an all-access pass to a summer devoid of any brain-related activities. So, in the interest of keeping their burgeoning intellects in some sort of learning shape, I ask them to spend some time reading each day. To see their reaction, you would think I was administering a punishment that runs afoul of the Geneva Conventions.

Their claim is that I am the only one who imposes this harsh and unreasonable sentence on her children. Ridiculous, I thought, assuming that schools require students to at least make an attempt at remaining literate over the summer. My childhood excitement at summer’s arrival was always tempered a little bit by the lengthy reading list that went home with yearbooks. And while I was a mildly put out by the imposition on my time, it was nice to have some brain-oriented structure to my summer – though I am admitting this for the first time, decades later.

I assumed that summer reading lists were still part of the standard year-end paperwork packet and that perhaps my kids’ lists just got “lost.” As it turns out, though, they received no such list and if one exists for Durango School District 9-R students or those who attend the area’s charter schools, it is neither emphasized nor easy to find. It is disappointing for a couple of reasons.

First, as a parent trying to encourage reading and pursuits of the mind, it’s nice to have a little backing from the schools. Without a required reading regimen, or even a list of recommendations among which students must choose a certain number to complete before school begins, my kids are partly warranted in their claims of injustice and oppression. But they are missing the larger point and the opportunities for insight, conversation and, God forbid, learning. The reading lists I suffered through as a kid – and are still in use by the schools I attended – had a tiered requirement of one common book all students must read, two from which students must choose one, and then a lengthy and wide-ranging list of options for a third book. Incoming 2013-2014 sixth-graders at my alma mater must read Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, can choose between Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief and 1,001 Arabian Nights by Geraldine McCaughrean, and then select a third book on their own, with a list of resources to help. This provides a mix of reading that is neither onerous nor insignificant.

This model of summer reading protocol meant that I was forced to read books that I might not otherwise have chosen. Despite any grumbling I might have done at the time, it was summer reading obligations that introduced me to authors who have shaped my thinking since. John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins were all summer discoveries; teachers knew better than to assign Faulkner.

My kids seem to have been sent forth with the sentiment that reading would be a great and virtuous thing for them to do this summer, but that there will be plenty of time for that when school resumes in August. Both are true, but why not be a little more clear? Kids: Read some books this summer.

And why not assign one that all students are expected to read? Or, aim higher and offer a district-wide book club. Fort Lewis College has such a program, known as the common reading experience, wherein students, faculty, staff and any interested members of the community read a chosen book and a series of related events provide a forum for discussing further exploring its themes. This year’s selection is Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, by Kristen Iversen. Cincinnati, Denver, Austin, Texas, Philadelphia and Chicago are among the many cities that have such programs. The selections range in level, but many are appropriate for a wide array of readers from middle school to adulthood. How convenient for schools looking to make a summer reading assignment.

Durango is ripe for such a program, and the FLC common reading experience could serve as an excellent springboard. At the very least, it can provide backup for parents begging, ordering and cajoling their children to please crack a book during the summer. Better than that, though, a community reading program might open many eyes – of children and adults – to new ideas, writers and interests.

Perhaps such a program is a bit ambitious or overreaching, but it is worth exploring. More important is the institutional reinforcement of reading’s value, during and after the school year. Bossy parents like me need some cover in insisting that reading is good for kids and that some day they will thank me for the opportunity to spend their dog days with a book in their faces. Durango-area schools could help a lady out by being a bit more rigorous with their summer reading requirements.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.

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