Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Of Summer Reading and Classic Literature

One of my daughters will be a freshman in high school and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men is required summer reading. Since school got out, I think that she and her friends have spent more time complaining about this book than reading it!

Julia has given me a number of reasons why she doesn’t like it. The plot doesn’t move fast enough--I debated this with her since Steinbeck packs a whole lot of action into a little more than a hundred pages. She doesn’t relate to the characters--I pointed out the universal themes of friendship, loyalty, and ethical dilemmas. The setting is hard to envision--I have to admit that I don’t know many high school freshmen who have ever seen or imagined a ranch bunkhouse.

I ended up reading a fair amount of the book with Julia. Since I had a couple of her friends captive on a rainy day with not much to do, I got them to even sit through some of the readings. They are argumentative, so I was able to engage them in some debates about who was really responsible for the death of Curley’s wife and whether George was right to shoot Lenny. I challenged them to find the name of Curley’s wife and then had another conversation with them about why Steinbeck did not refer to her by her actual name. (Wouldn’t you know that one of them googled what her name was and came up with all sorts of ideas and comments about why she was “Curley’s wife.”)

Overall, Julia's reactions to Of Mice And Men really supported many of the points of Claire Needell Hollander in an article that appeared in The New York Times, Some Books Are More Equal Than Others. Hollander makes several points in this article; one that has especially impacted me is her point that students should experience classic literature with guidance. She gave suggestions for summer reading that pushed students in a more global or even argumentative direction. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Fast Food Nation, A Long Way Gone, Night, and Hiroshima were some of her selections. 

Hollander writes that "summer assignments should be about why we need to learn and why we need to talk about what we think." Julia is, by nature, an arguer, but I had to concoct the debates and arguments for Of Mice And Men. I think that she would initiate challenges of my grocery lists and menus if she read the first two books on Hollander's list. And she may be inspired to investigate some of the websites that help young people take action about world injustices if she were to read some of the other selections. I’d love to see some of her energy expended in these ways during the summer when she is not so strapped for time!

Because I have been reading Pathways to The Common Core by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman, I have been studying and thinking about the goals of the Common Core and what it means to be ready for college and careers. Reading books that challenge our thinking or provide readers with a sense of other cultures and events seems not only more developmentally appropriate, but also more aligned to what is going on in our schools as educators become more responsible for the goals of the Common Core. So much of the Core emphasizes the importance of developing and supporting arguments and stances. Why not provide students with summer reading opportunities that are more likely to tap into these skills?

Re-reading this post, I sound a little like I am not a proponent of classic literature. I am. To Kill a Mockingbird remains my favorite book. However, most students need guidance with classic literature in order to understand and appreciate it. Of Mice and Men offers phenomenal opportunities for argument and debates about ethical decision making, but I think that most young teenagers would need direction in order to engage in and develop these conversations. I'm not sure that requiring students to read classics during the summer when most students don't have opportunities to ask questions about confusing parts, discuss universal themes and to recognize what makes certain books fall into the "classic" category.

 I'm also wrestling with the implications of Hollander's points for elementary students and what books would be equivalent for younger summer readers. Suggestions are always welcome!


  1. I couldn't agree more. I found this was true of my own teenage reading of classics that were assigned over the summer. I read a ton, but nearly began to hate reading over Great Expectations until my grandfather stopped in and showed me what to look for.