While at an out-of-state library summer, I happened to overhear a conversation between a woman and a librarian. The woman, having entered the library at the same time as I had with his tween-aged son, immediately headed to the help desk while I noticed the son disperse in the direction of the video games. Dangling a yellow paper in front of the librarian as if it were a germ-infested Kleenex, the woman announced, "So my son's school is making him read a summer reading book. Since the summer is pretty much over, I thought we'd come get the book." The librarian briefly examined the paper and explained that the boy could read any book from the list of award-winning titles. With that, she and the mother headed to section of the library that housed the books for tweens, selected the book, and checked out. While scanning the book, the woman admitted something absolutely appalling to the librarian. If you are a huge Richard Allington fan, I suggest you cover your ears now, as this will be worse than nails on a chalkboard. Don't say I didn't warn you. Picture it in slow motion. My jaw dropping. The words sounding warped and dangerous: "I'll have to read the whole thing out loud to him. He won't understand any of it otherwise." The librarian smiled a knowing smile, and the woman walked away, book under her arm. During the entire process, the young man remained in the video game section, shuffling his feet from side to side, looking bored. When the pair departed a few minutes later, the boy had no idea what book had been selected for him as he had not been even remotely involved in any part of the process.
This situation upset me for several reasons. To begin, it was pretty evident that the mother was only taking her son to the library because the school was "making" him read something this summer, and time was dwindling. The literacy geek in me wanted to follow her out in the parking lot, shouting out all of the statistics about the summer slide and what happens to kids' vocabulary and comprehension skills when they don't exercise their minds for three months. Of course, not knowing the history of this family, I could have been dead wrong. For all I knew, the boy could have been a voracious reader who was just having an off day. But my gut really said otherwise. My non-reader radar was going all sorts of crazy, and I have yet to meet an avid reader who can actually enter a library and not, at the very least, run their hands along the pages of even one book.
What bugged me even more about this situation, however, was the fact that two grown adults never even thought to ask the boy what he might enjoy reading. The librarian could have given this young man a quick tour of some of the great books on the list, pointing out the exciting parts and sharing quick tidbits that might make the summer reading assignment a bit more exciting and a little less torturous. This got me thinking about all the potential opportunities we will have this fall in our classrooms to motivate a non-reader. Maybe it will be when we take our students to the learning center for a formal book chat of the latest and greatest things in YA literature and nonfiction. Maybe it will be the quick two minutes we spend sharing something we ourselves have just read that is really great. Maybe it will be setting up a blog on edmodo or using goodreads as a tool where students can talk about the books they are reading with their peers. Or maybe--and this is a really huge maybe-- it will happen when we give students the freedom of choice over what they can read. I don't know about you, but any time I am required to read a book, even if it is the best book I've read in eons, I end up enjoying the reading experience a little less than if I had self-selected the book from a sea of other amazing possibilities of my own free will. The power of choice in classrooms is huge. I am a firm believer in it and truly think that if we let go and give up more of the freedom to our students, motivation will increase and behavioral issues will dissipate. Which, of course, translates to more learning.
And finally, I cannot end this little tirade without addressing the mind-numbing comment made by the woman in the library: "I'll have to read the whole thing out loud to him. He won't understand any of it otherwise." The one book that this young man was going to read this summer now will no longer be read by him. It will be read to him. In its entirety. Now, I am a huge advocate of the read-aloud. I think that if used correctly, read-alouds serve a very important role in a balanced-litearcy classroom. But to read a book from cover to cover to an older reader? As I mentioned earlier, this is the stuff that, rightfully so, makes Allington nuts. Students, especially those who struggle, need to be able to spend time with text on their own, feeling their way through it, self-monitoring along the way. If we constantly do it all for them, are we helping or enabling them? A dozen or so terrible cliches are floating through my brain right now, but I will spare you. I do commend this woman for caring enough to complete the assignment with her son. Truth be told, the kids who are worse off will not even be making that single trip to the library this summer and have never been read to as toddlers, let alone as tweens. But when we start working with our new groups of students this fall, I hope we all take time to remember this story and never, ever work harder than our students.