Thursday, May 16, 2013

Summer Reading programs?

At my school, we provide each grade level of students a list of books and ask them to choose and read one book from the list.  Our summer reading list looks like this for 2013:

All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn
Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Legend by Marie Lu
Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor
Shug by Jenny Han

This is for incoming 7th graders.  We typically announce the list to students in the last few weeks of school, and we visit classes to promote the books and encourage students to read over the summer.  (I did a survey about this a few years back, and I found that other than the obvious factors - like access to the books - the single biggest predictor of whether a kid read over the summer or not was if a teacher encouraged him/her to do so.  These talks make a big difference.)

We put a lot of thought into this over the years, and I think that our students benefit from the narrow list of choices that (hopefully) includes at least one reasonably appropriate book for them. We try to diversify the list so that virtually every reading niche can be filled.  For example, Shug is kind of a "girl" book.  It's a realistic fiction novel about a young woman who is in love with her (male) neighbor and former best friend, and who deals with the awkward realization that he might not like her in that way, but still want to be her friend.  Legend is either a "nerd" book or a "boy" book, depending on how you spin it.  It has a lot of sci-fi action (and some romance - don't tell the boys).  We also try to level the books appropriately.  All the Lovely Bad Ones is a 670 Lexile or about a 5th grade reading level.  It's also less than 200 pages long.  Legend is slightly higher-level in terms of text complexity, but the subject is more difficult to comprehend and requires more abstract thinking (dystopian future).  It's also 330 pages.  Mockingbird is deceptively simple: it's told from the perspective of a girl with spectrum disorder, and requires a lot of careful, inferential reading to understand events through her distorted filter.  It can be a difficult (but rewarding) read.

My son's district sends a list of state award nominations and asks students to choose and read a book from these lists.  There are many more choices, but it would be more difficult for teachers to keep up with such a long list, and almost as difficult to connect these books to some kind of classroom learning once summer is over.  I think that would be less useful for us.  Our area high school has a single title that is "required" summer reading for incoming freshmen.  This allows for a series of assignments or classroom activities connected to this book, and I'm sure that the high school knows and teaches the book very well, when everyone is asked to read the same thing.  But it also reduces the opportunity to differentiate (or let students self-differentiate), and it allows for less engagement and "buy-in," since the students are all being forced to read the same thing without regard to interest.  (And what if they've already read the book?)

So, I think the program should reflect the purpose.  Our ostensible purpose is to have kids continue reading over the summer to reduce losses in fluency and/or reading comprehension.  Over the years, most of the reading teachers in the building have developed other ways to employ the summer reading, from "book talks" to the class, to creating products about these books, to mini "book groups" around the selected summer reading book, to "book trailers."  I typically prefer to use summer reading books to dive right into teaching effective collaboration and discussion, group work procedures at the beginning of the year, and as a way to informally assess interest and reading level early in the year, before much of the initial testing data is available.

Finally, I also have to admit that I really enjoy "shopping" for summer reading titles, and I've been known to make wild suggestions to throw out the whole list and start over.  We experiment a lot, and we often pull titles from the Rebecca Caudill list for our summer reading.  Most of the titles on our list came from the Caudill nominations at some point or other, a list that I am again trying to read in its entirety.  I am getting ready to discuss the books with 6th graders tomorrow - let's hope it goes well!  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Prodigy review

I heard about LEGEND, Lu's first book in this series, through Twitter, and I checked for it in my library.  It was checked out.  To me, that's a good sign.  That means that someone wanted to read it.  And my library is not always a hotbed of zealous readers.

I checked again in a few weeks, and it was still out.  It took me quite a while to get my hands on a copy of LEGEND, and I was pretty excited about finally getting a chance to read it.  The original didn't disappoint.  Lu's first book focused on two intriguing characters, Day and June, as they moved through a dark, complicated, and interesting world. I enjoyed it a lot, and I recently convinced the other teachers at my school to add LEGEND to our summer reading list.  (I hope our kids like it as much as I did!)

Enter PRODIGY.  I borrowed it from a co-worker and plowed through it in four days, despite a busy schedule.  I was concerned about the typical "sophomore slump" that we sometimes see in a series like this.  For example, I was not entirely pleased with CATCHING FIRE, the follow-up to HUNGER GAMES.  I wholeheartedly enjoyed CHAMBER OF SECRETS, the second Harry Potter book, but I struggled with the second movie.  It often seems like the second book in a series like this tries too hard to reproduce the successful elements of the first, instead of trying to tell its own story.

In PRODIGY, June and Day have escaped LA together and are limping into Las Vegas, now a major military outpost.  They meet up with the Patriots leader, Razor, and quickly decide to join the Patriots (since they have no other choice and Day is desperately in need of medical attention).  June is sent on  a mission to infiltrate the Elector's inner circle and help bring about his assassination, and Day will be sent to pull the trigger.  Things start to get complicated from there, and there are enough turns and twists to make this plot interesting without getting ridiculous.

There are a lot of things that I like about this book that have to do with the plot near the end.  I don't want to spoil anything, but I have to say that I enjoyed the airplane ride near the end, and I enjoyed some of the late twists.  I also think that the bulk of the surprises were well-planned and convincing.  The right kind of surprise, in my mind, is one that sneaks up on you, but doesn't come out of nowhere.  Where the ground has been prepared with prior details.  (Speaking of Harry Potter, the most obnoxious example of this kind of BAD surprise comes at the end of the GOBLET OF FIRE, where Harry faces Voldemort in a duel and survives because of priori incantatem, a completely new and bizarre product of having two wands face each other that have the same kind of core.  Such a frustratingly fake and convenient solution to the problem of saving Harry.)  All of the surprises in this book were well-planned and convincing.

I also have to say that I liked that the book finished in under 400 pages.  That's getting more and more rare in fantasy/sci fi.  (DIVERGENT is 576, GONE is 592, I AM NUMBER FOUR is 448, CITY OF BONES is 512, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES is 592, and so on.)  Readers of these genres like dense, complex stories full of description, twists and turns, and that sort of thing, but I think we also like to be able to finish a book in a reasonable amount of time, so that we don't forget the beginning or have to return the book to the library.  (Those of us who still do paper, physical books also don't like lugging 800-page tomes around en masse.)

PRODIGY isn't perfect.  I felt like the last chapter was a little hollow and melodramatic, a little too much.  I like that it's shorter than many books of its type, but there are some places where more would be better.  June's mission with the Elector seems to go quickly, and could have perhaps been drawn out more.  That section of the book doesn't seem to be too detailed at all, really, including Day's work with the Patriots without June.

But it's pretty close to an ideal sci-fi YA read.  I think it's easily as good as DIVERGENT and INSURGENT, and Lu has a good feel for balancing action and suspense.  Her characters are cool, with video-game-ish abilities, without feeling ridiculous or implausible.  And the conflict is so palpable that it makes the whole book engaging and feverish.  (My pet theory on this is the importance of a really evil antagonist.  A powerful, evil bad guy really makes a novel.  If the bad guy isn't scary, it's hard to convey a sense of conflict in a novel like this.)

So, if you haven't already, check out PRODIGY.  And LEGEND.  And watch for the third book - it will probably be worth reading, too.