I admire Elizabeth Egan and think she raises great points in her recent Washington Post article, “Stop Killing the Magic of Books With Required Summer Reading.” But I don’t think that requiring students to read during the months that fall between the school years kills the magic of books.
Yes, having to read a 600 page work of non-fiction over the summer and submit annotations when school resumes may do a lot to dispel a text’s magic (see article). However, reading a long work while annotating usually augments that book’s magic. In fact, without annotating a long text, it can be really hard to remember important details or chart narrative forks in the road. And there is no doubt that reading for a long time only to remember nothing substantive about it is disenchanting, to say the least.
Still, it’s true that many students find summer reading assignments to be a chore. I know this from experience as an English teacher and as an administrator in charge of interdisciplinary and whole-school summer reading. Through talking with students and listening to their feedback, I learned more about what makes them dislike summer reading: first, having little if any choice; second, feeling pressure to annotate, which for most of them is not associated with pleasure reading; and third, being tested in September on something they may not have engaged with recently. So, instead of giving them a list of assigned books, why not give them a list of recommended books and ask them to pick some. Tell them that they should annotate, but don’t check to see that they did. And most importantly, in September, ask them to reflect on their learning as a result of the reading rather than test them on too many details. If the assigned reading is really important to the subsequent course, leave time to reread and review it together as a class. There is no better way to conjure some early school-year magic.
In the end, there is no book so magical that it can’t be read independently on a train, plane, mountain top or sandy beach. There is also no power in a required reading assignment to shut off a child’s love of, or need for, a good and well-told story. The magic in books is not so easily dispersed, and spells for creating the right conditions for their magic are not so hard to create.
See photo for my summer reading books. I probably won’t get to read them all, but with the right alchemy, I’ll get close.