I read with interest your column on summer reading in MCPS (July 15). My daughter will be entering the sixth grade in the fall and has been busy reading. My question is, who chooses these books?
So far, she has read "The Dead Man in Indian Creek" by Mary Downing Hahn, a story about a murder and a mother who fills dolls' heads with cocaine. The next book, "The Pinballs" by Betsy Cromer Byars, begins by describing a boy whose father runs over the child's legs with the car, sending him into foster care.
If I want to fill my child's head with trash, I can turn on the TV. Am I so hopelessly old-fashioned as to think that children's books should be inspiring and uplifting?
I'm glad you asked this question, because I, too, was wondering who chooses the books. So I went right to the source, the coordinator of English and language arts for secondary schools for Montgomery County schools, Charlotte Boucher.
When I read your letter to her, she defended both the books you named as being very well regarded, but she said your complaint--that the books are not uplifting enough--is a very common one. Her answer was: "We are not moved to write by wanting to uplift but to describe conflict. Conflict is often not inspiring and uplifting." The main point she wanted to make, however, is that there is plenty of choice in any of the reading lists, and "if you don't like a title, we'll give you a new one." Hardly ever are children required to read a particular book, she said, which means that parents can exercise their judgment about what they think is appropriate.
To answer your question about how the books for the summer reading lists are chosen, she said that each middle and high school English Department compiles its own list. The list is sent to Boucher, who examines it to ensure that all the books have been "approved."
Approval means that at least seven teachers and Boucher attest to its appropriateness for teachers to assign to students. This list has been developed for years as the source of reading assignments during the year. Books that are not approved are not supposed to be assigned. To appeal a book's approval, a parent can write to Boucher at 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, Md. 20850, explaining the objections. That triggers an appeal process, at the end of which the book is either retained on the approved list or removed. Either decision has to be ratified by the associate superintendent for curriculum.
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is an example of a book that was retained after an appeal. One of the books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House on the Prairie" series was removed after a protest.
If you want to see the county's list of approved books, you can go to your school's library and call it up on the computer. Here's the catch, though: Not all of the list was entered into the computer database, just books that have been published in the last couple of decades. Books from before then appear sporadically, but only because some alert teacher noticed that it was missing and checked the original card file. Boucher herself, when she was a middle school teacher, found that Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"--a book she had been teaching for years--didn't appear on the approved book list because it hadn't been typed in. She got that one added, but no one has gone back in any systematic way to ensure that the approved list is complete.
Sherwood High School was the first to require summer reading. The English Department began it four years ago, and it has refined the program each year, according to the English resource teacher, James Kennedy. Each September, the teachers meet to discuss how well the summer program worked, and in February, parents, teachers, students and local librarians are invited to a meeting to suggest particular books or kinds of books that should be on the list or to advocate taking a particular book off the list. That means that the school community as a whole has a lot of discussion about books and reading, Kennedy said.
"The reason we got into this is that students who don't use their minds during the summer actually regress," Kennedy said. "We want to reinforce reading as a lifetime favorite activity and lifetime recreation."
The success of Sherwood and a few other schools that followed is what prompted the county to begin to require summer reading two years ago for middle and high school students.
I'm very glad they are doing it, but I have a couple of beefs with the summer reading lists that I have seen. First, there is very little guidance about whether the books are among those that any educated person should read at some point or just fun summer reading. Either kind of book is fine to read during the summer, as far as I'm concerned, but kids ought to know that there is a difference. And if the book is depressing there really ought to be a hint to the kids and parents.
My second beef is that novels completely dominate the lists. I would like to see science, history and other nonfiction titles added, along with guidance about what would best fit into the curriculum for the following year. Biographies are a wonderful way to set the stage for further learning.
For example, it would be nice if kids were encouraged to read a biography of Marie Curie in the summer before they studied chemistry, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass before studying the Civil War, a biography of Galileo or Copernicus before astronomy, a biography of Crazy Horse before studying westward expansion, and so on.
Boucher said that for the most part, nonfiction is not on the approved list, which means the school system would have to begin compiling a whole new list if it were to expand the approval process into nonfiction. However, both Boucher and the coordinator for social studies for middle and high schools have discussed this question and may work something out for future reading lists.
Information on the Web
Many Montgomery County schools have included summer reading requirements on their school Web sites, which can be accessed through MCPS Online at www.mcps.k12. md.us/schools/.
As access to the Internet grows, I believe we will find that communication between schools and the community, between teachers and parents, can be enhanced significantly through the increased use of Web sites and e-mail.
Social studies teacher and Web page contact
Magruder High School
At your suggestion I wandered around some looking for reading lists on school Web pages, and I found that those Web pages are pretty uneven. Some schools, like yours, have extensive information, including reading lists; others have little more than their address and the picture of the principal posted. I think you're right that eventually Web pages and e-mail will be a powerful communication tool for parents and teachers, but right now they're still spotty.
By the way, public school families that cannot afford a computer should check with their children's schools. Some have a program of lending donated computers to students and their families. Some schools even have training sessions to get you started on how to use the computers. This is a resource you shouldn't miss out on.
Learning Is the Point
In your response to my letter proposing a senior zero hour that would allow some seniors in high school to choose to begin school later in the day (July 15), you implied that I am not concerned with student learning. As a high school teacher, improved student performance is my biggest concern. I didn't mention it because I thought it was understood by all as the reason MCPS is trying to figure out how to push back high school starting time.
A kid who can't stay awake during a concert, a sunrise, or a first-period English class, will only learn that he needs more sleep. Preaching that it's free, and gosh darn it, he'd better wake up and show some appreciation, is an excellent way to ensure that he won't. A no-credit first-period extra hour of sleep would teach seniors that there are a few reasonable people willing to make a small compromise in order to accommodate their needs. It would enable kids to improve performance in their other classes, and it would be free.
Since I took what may have been an unfair dig at you last time, I'm giving you the last word on this topic.
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