Thursday, March 10, 2011


Franki and Mary Lee are hosting Share A Story at Reading Year today. This post is part of today's theme.

My sons are in high school. I wish they had reading homework. I really do.

I wish a teacher, any teacher, would tell one of my boys that their homework was to sit down with a book and read for 30 minutes every night. I wish teachers would talk to them about great YA authors or titles. I wish my boys would come home with books from the school library, notices about overdue books, or titles that I needed to go buy.

Because as someone who has always been a reader, I know the power of books. I use books to escape. When life is hard, I ignore the dirty house, the mountain of laundry, the pile of papers to be read, and I grab a book. When I want to know or understand something, I grab a book. When I need to know I am not alone, I grab a book.

My high schoolers do not have this solace, or source of information, or escape. They do not have books. Because in high school, my boys do not read for choice. Ever.

Actually, my boys do have reading homework. They have reading homework almost every night. Over the past three years, I have dragged them through that homework- TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (actually one of my all-time favorite books), CATCHER IN THE RYE (or CATCHER OF THE RYE BREAD, as it has come to be known at our house), 1984, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, FAHRENHEIT 451. All considered great literature. I drag my boys through those kicking and screaming. They write the required papers. They do the projects. They take the quizzes. But they are not readers.

Granted, my boys are not the top-performing students at their high school. But I don't think it's any better at that end of the spectrum. Over Christmas vacation, for instance, one of the boys' friends dropped by for a visit. She mentioned she had gotten a Kindle for Christmas. At that point in my life, I was at the peak of "e-book envy." I wanted a Kindle int the worst way. I told K how lucky she was. I told her how badly I wanted an e-reader. I talked to her about all of the cool things my friends were doing with their Kindles. K wrinkled up her nose, "Well maybe," she said. "But I don't really do that much reading. I don't have time for it. I have too much homework."

And it's true. Several nights each week, she comes over to study with my son. Each time, she brings a packet from her English class. They are preparing for the AP test, and each time she comes, she pulls out the dreaded "pink packet." A sheaf of papers, anywhere from five to ten pages long, with hundred and hundred of multiple choice questions. Sometimes she asks me to help. Most of the questions seem like the kinds of things that you learn for a college English exam, then don't think about for twenty five more years.

High school is a tough, tough time. Every day, I watch my boys get out of the car, adjust their baseball caps, and saunter into school. My guys are cool guys, big, good-looking(at least their mama thinks so) football players. They have friends. They are involved at school. Even so, I know high school is unbelievably hard.

There is the regular social stuff- adolescents, with all those raging hormones, all those insecurities, are not always kind, sometimes they are flat out mean. At least once a week, one of my boys comes home and goes to his room, and won't talk. Often, the other one will tell me about something that was said at school, or something that happened at a practice. And I knock on the door. And they tell me to go away.

Then there's all the other stuff that happens- the stuff my kids tell me about- the stuff that takes my breath away, and wakes me up in the night. The drugs that you can buy, right across the street from the campus. Eating disorders. Cyber-bullying. Kids hurting themselves. Kids being hurt. Kids without families to love them.

Hard stuff. Scary stuff. Heartbreaking stuff.

I want the kids I know to have books that they can hang onto. I want my boys to remember Sharon Draper's great series before they get in the car with a drunk driver. I want them to read Walter Dean Myers' MONSTER and know that a single poor decision can change a life. I want to hand K WINTERGIRLS and tell her that her body is wonderful and perfect and she does not need to lose one single pound.

But in high school, reading is only about requirements. It is not about reading for escape or to understand the world. It is not about reading to explore your own passions.

And I wish, just once, it could be. I wish we could have homework that was sitting down with a real book. Just reading.

Like adults do.


Anonymous said...

What an eloquent testimonial, Carol. Can you just "leave" a book somewhere and let them pick it up ... like we did when they were kids?

Unknown said...

I'm glad you posted this. Helping kids become readers is one of my goals. I'm currently teaching middle school, and having a great deal of success turning my reluctant and resistant readers (mostly boys) into readers-even if they still don't think of themselves as readers, they are experiencing reading for fun.

Next year I will be teaching high school. I plan to try to continue many of my current habits- read aloud, independent reading; but I'm not sure how I'm going to balance the have to read with the want to read. I know it will be different.

Happy Birthday Author said...

How sad but true is your second to last paragraph.

My daughter is only 5 but this week for the first time she fought me on homework from Kindergarten. She said, "This is stupid."

I worry about her schooling. I worry about her sitting through stuff that "is stupid". I worry that she will get frustrated with reading class in elementary school. I worry that school is boring.

Your post was fantastic and eye-opening. Thank you so much - from a parent that will soon be in your shoes.

Mary Lee said...

This breaks my heart.

And it makes me realize how ahead of his time and forward thinking my College Prep Language Arts teacher was in high school. We wrote contracts for the work we would complete each grading period. We had CHOICE. And we wound up working ourselves harder than he ever could have. Maybe I didn't have the most "perfect" education, but I had time to read. (And, I guess we can't forget, this was before the era of TESTING.)

S. B. said...

As a middle school teacher, I read to all my students almost evey day, even if it was only for a short time. For my students (and for me), it was the best part of the day. We laughed, cried (The Day No Pigs Would Die), and marveled over stories and novels both well known and obscure. Often I found that students, impatient with the pace of the reading, would get their own copy of the book to find out what happened. Many went on to read other books by the author. Reading was a delight. Did it last for them into high school? I hope so.

I only wish I had continued to read to my own children when they reached middle and high schools.

Tif Sweeney said...

Very, very powerful post Carol! I loved it and cannot agree more.