Summer Reading: Exploring Student Choices

When I was a kid, I always kept a novel on my lap during class, hidden (I thought then) from teachers’ eyes. Between math problems and history lessons, I’d sneak-read a few paragraphs. Summer was, for me, a chance to binge on books without interruption or subterfuge. It still is.

As a teacher I’ve purposely overlooked the lap-reading of my book-obsessed students,  though I do insist that they keep up with the actual classwork, as I did when I was on the other side of the desk. Indulging them isn’t an exercise in nostalgia but rather a chance to learn about the genres and authors they treasure, which I then explore during the gloriously free hours of summer vacation. Some works have become part of my teaching strategy; many have given me a connection to students I couldn’t reach in other ways.

Indulging them isn’t an exercise in nostalgia but rather a chance to learn about the genres and authors they treasure, which I then explore during the gloriously free hours of summer vacation.

Alexandra, for example, always seemed aloof and sometimes downright hostile. (I’ve changed student names to protect their privacy.) Her lap-reading was Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Vampires? Not for me, I thought. Lacking anything else to talk about with Alexandra, I read the first book. I never did grasp the appeal of Bella and Edward’s romance, but discussing Twilight with Alexandra allowed me to pierce the facade and get to know a very interesting young woman. Plus, I discovered that I actually enjoy a touch of the supernatural. I began that summer with Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, which took me into the time travel of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Soon I was laughing my way through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Sci-fi and fantasy works earned a spot on my personal reading list and in my classroom library. 

Dan was more open about his extracurricular reading. He showed up at my office one day in April with the sports page of a newspaper. “We made it through another off season,” he declared in delight, “first pitch in half an hour.” Dan knew I loved baseball in general and the Yankees in particular. What he didn’t know was that I also loved sports writing. I lent him Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Park and The Red Smith Reader. Dan’s reaction encouraged me to devote July and August to sportswriting of earlier eras and to create a curriculum unit around these authors.

Amalia was polite but firm when I asked her about the book tucked inside the assigned text. “I did read what you told me to, but I like this one better,” she explained. Her preferred book was Nella Larsen’s Passing, a major work of the Harlem Renaissance. In her AP American History class Amalia had learned about the historical significance of the era; now she wanted literature. That summer I read Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There Is Confusion and Jean Toomer’s Cane; the poetry of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson; and many other novels, stories, and plays. Amalia and I continued our literary exploration during the following academic year. After she graduated, I offered a multidisciplinary elective in the Harlem Renaissance.

This July and August, not a student but a writing project inspires me. I spent the winter reading or rereading works from every genre and time period, selecting great sentences for a book on writing style that W. W. Norton will publish next year. Now I want to delve into other works by some of the writers I encountered. They may make it into my teaching, but even if they don’t, I’ll have had a book on my lap all day, with summerful time to read.

Geraldine Woods has taught every level of English from grade 5 through AP for many decades, most recently at the Horace Mann School in New York City. She’s the author of many nonfiction works, including several textbooks. Her first Norton book, 25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way, will be published next summer.

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