Making Summer Reading Relevant

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Summer reading.

For as long as I can remember–as a student, as a parent, and as a teacher– summer reading has remained a mysterious entity. In theory, the value of summer reading is clear.  It makes sense that kids should be reading over the long summer break: it slows summer slide, it presents the challenge to take on a text independently, it offers topics that kids might not otherwise explore.  A kid can read at her own pace and can discuss what she reads with her family. Educational studies support summer reading.

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But like most things in life, theory doesn’t always sync with reality. Kids often wait until the last possible minute to actually do the reading. Then it is rushed and becomes far less meaningful than it could be. Parents  sometimes end up having to nag their children to get to the reading, so instead of those rich conversations, summer reading becomes a source of family contention. Teachers frequently do not know what to do with the reading kids have been asked to do while out of the classroom and it ends up–at best– an add-on to existing instruction, a tacit game of Make Believe: kids pretend they have carefully read the assigned texts and teachers pretend to believe the kids. Then everyone moves on.

But there are ways to make this reading relevant.

First, the texts must be explicitly embedded in curriculum, chosen for the value added to instruction. They must be simultaneously challenging and accessible, no easy feat. Finding the right readings demands attention to curriculum design. The texts then become the first unit of study, seamless entities of the year that is to unfold.  On this note, I would also limit the assigned texts to one for middle school students, two to high school kids.

Second, teachers have to be willing to devote more than passing acknowledgement of the texts. Again, this is no simple task given the increasingly complex instructional demands teacher face annually.But with the right text and well-designed exercises, summer reading can support Common Core state standards.  This means allowing for two to three weeks of meaningful activities that can be vehicles to introduce/review themes of the year. This is why choosing texts becomes so important. If the assigned reading is going to be a lead-in, an organic element of instruction, then the time involved is productive. This also means that at some point every student will need his/her own copy of the text.  In a middle school English classroom, if treated as a unit of study, summer reading can take kids back to the five basic literary elements: plot, setting, conflict, character and theme. Summer reading can allow chances to explicitly apply reading comprehension tools and activities: graphic organizers, annotation and close reading, word attack skills. With the right text, summer reading is the threshold into the academic year.

Finally, and I know I will get hate mail about this part, teachers must be prepared for the fact that kids may not have read the texts or that if they did read, they didn’t necessarily “get it.” This is reality.  So it is important to create instructional activities that will give these kids a chance to catch up. When kids can read or re-read without fear of penalty, everyone gets off to a positive start. Activities that call for basic plot recaps can support all readers. Graphic organizers focused on conflict and character serve a similar purpose. The unit can culminate in Common Core style short and extended responses that provide base line writing samples to start the year.

It is true that when kids see that their work is valued they are more likely to respect the assignments.  This might be one way to validate summer reading. It is also a way for teachers to make productive use of this work.

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

If asked to pinpoint our decision to try yoga, it would have to be when we just happened upon a couple of mats on sale for an impossibly low price at Kohls. A blue one for Dom, purple for me. We were in need of some stretching and structured exercise. Suddenly, two random, very fine looking mats had appeared in our path. Call it fate. Call it destiny. 

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It isn’t that we didn’t believe yoga was real work. We did, which is why we decided to give it a go. We talked about it for a month, then another month. The mats, still in the Kohls bag, still in the car, waited patiently. Finally, we googled yoga in Westchester, ready to pull the trigger.

Who knew there were so many different names for yoga? Or so many places to “practice” it? Web sites all whispered persuasively: peace, fitness, flexibility. We focused on those sites that repeated the mantra “Practitioners of all levels welcome.”  Each beckoned seductively through gentle color schemes, special introductory offers, free parking.

What’s a newbie to do?

“Check the reviews,” Dom suggested.

“OK, here is one,” I said with authority. It was close enough to home and the class schedule offered lots of options. Every review was positive: clean studio, friendly staff, private showers and even a little yoga shop where practitioners of all levels could purchase the necessary accessories of the discipline. What more could we ask for? Giddy, we unfurled the blue and purple mats and, as the site instructed, found a couple of colorful beach towels.

And when we showed up at our first yoga experience, a ninety minute Birkram class, we were sure we were on our way to inner peace and new found strength. What we didn’t know? So much.

The parking was free as promised.

As promised, every single person associated with the studio was nice, from the barefooted boy who gave us the senior discount even before we asked to the woman who would orchestrate our torture.

And though I never got to check it out, there was, as promised, a little shop of yoga, too.

The first clue that we were out of our league was the dress–or rather the lack of dress–of our fellow practitioners. A shirtless man with a German accent smiled so broadly that I almost didn’t notice he was wearing nothing more than a black Speedo. Sports bras and minimal spandex shorts, clothing that looked more like underwear than yoga wear. In gym gear, we were woefully overdressed.

It was when we opened the double doors to the studio, though, that we should have sprinted for the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts. One hundred and seven degrees. 40% humidity. If we accepted the sale on mats as our reason to give yoga a chance, we missed the equally obvious message that maybe Bikram wasn’t the yoga we were meant to practice.

But they say you see what you want to see and what we saw was downward dog, lotus flowers. The heat aside, I think we still believed we could fight the good fight. The first couple of activities were sort-of, kind of, do-able. But this was the tease, the baby stuff, a warm up for our descent into the fire and rain of hot yoga hell.

Instead of finding inner peace, my mind wandered and I wondered how many people passed out during a single ninety minute session or how many threw up. I tried to focus. But the challenge to grab a sweaty left ankle with an equally sweaty right hand was too much for me. I could see the clock in the mirror. I might have confessed to any number of sins or crimes if I thought that would make the clock read 5:30.

Then it was over. We didn’t puke or faint. On some level, there was temporary euphoria at having survived, at having passed this cosmic test of endurance. But I knew I would not set foot again in a hot yoga studio.

The lesson? Do your homework. Master the basics. Don’t quit.

Tomorrow, we return to yoga. When we open our mats, we hope to feel the burn, but not the heat.