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In Defense of Summer Reading

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

I got quite a charge out of your column on summer reading [June 7 and 21] and one reader's concern about the assignment being too minimalist. I can't say I disagree with her, but as the author of the motion that put the policy on the books in Fairfax County 11 years ago, I remember how massively controversial the proposal was back in the day.

I made the motion in February or March 1996, noting, "Our kids are growing up watching 'Beavis and Butthead' instead of reading 'Treasure Island' " (a pretty pithy quote that made it into The Washington Post but would have today's generation shaking their heads and wondering who Beavis and Butthead are). The president of the County Council of PTAs instantly criticized the idea as "ineffectual" and a "cosmetic publicity stunt," although he offered no better solution beyond getting kids to read more during the school year. The president-elect of the International Reading Association attacked summer reading in an "Education Week" story because, "Whenever I'm forced to do something, my attitude toward it becomes increasingly negative."

It wasn't until May that the motion finally passed, earning me the declared undying enmity of my three sons. The effect, however, was relatively dramatic: Three weeks into the summer, we found our local library cleaned out of the books on the list. We learned later in the year that the public library system had to reallocate $50,000 to purchase more of the books that were on the list. And a tiny blow for lifetime (yes, this includes summer) learning took place.

Chris Braunlich

Former member,

Fairfax County School Board

Dear Extra Credit:

I am appalled by what I read in your column [June 7]: multiple lame rationalizations for lack of a summer reading list. Surely by this measure, the local school systems are not all that they are cracked up to be?

There is absolutely no excuse for not having a summer reading list. The list serves as a reminder that reading is required. (And it should be -- there is no substitute for practicing reading.)

Students can choose from the list; they do not have to be required to read specific books. For kids who are struggling, or have difficulty finding books that they enjoy, the list can make them aware of choices that they otherwise would not know about. In fact, the kids who struggle the most are probably most in need of a list because they are not familiar with different genres, authors, etc. Their parents may not be able to help with choices, either. When children find a book that they love, a life-altering experience can occur. Shame on these schools for no reading list.

Kathy O'Neill

Bethesda

Dear Extra Credit:

Talk about how short human memory can be!

How many of us can stand up and declare that during our public school days we were subjected to a summer curriculum of any sort?

I was blessed with a father who had the foresight to invite me to the breakfast table every morning to read the newspaper with him, a mother who tirelessly took us to the library two or three times a week when we ran out of our 10 allowed books for each checkout, and the thoughtfulness of parents who set a bedtime but not a sleep time -- allowing us to read into the wee hours.

When school districts are setting out to create summer literacy curricula, where is the talk of integrating family literacy programs, cross-public institution partnerships with the library or parks and recreation system, and educating families on how to sustain academic habits over the summer?

If the Fairfax School Board and families are concerned about "summer loss," then why has Fairfax stopped opening year-round schools? Many of its own have shown that the year-round model benefits and enhances the educational experience of students and their families.

It also wouldn't hurt the public library to expand the "One Book, One Community" program to include a selection accessible to younger residents or for the school system to promote this year's selection with older readers!

Alana Groshong

Loudoun County

I interpret these letters to mean we are not arguing over whether students should read over the summer, but how we should make that happen.

This argument -- like many others in public education -- seems to break down over our views of human nature. Do we need a little goading, perhaps the threat of lost points on our English grade, to do the right thing? Or is it better to set up schools so rich in opportunities for learning that we follow our better natures without any summer reading requirement?

I think Braunlich and O'Neill are right that the push makes good sense. I didn't want to go into the Army either, but I am glad I did.

And Groshong is right to point out that creating a structure and atmosphere in which reading can thrive is also smart.

Now that summer is nearing an end, I welcome suggestions on how we can inspire young people to read for pleasure the rest of the year.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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