When I announced to my three classes during the second week of June that they would be responsible for reading two books over the course of the summer, a riot nearly ensued. Amidst the cacophony of groans, deep sighs, and loud complaints, I was the recipient of a populist anger not seen since the Grinch was around stealing Christmas. In fact, I was charged with a similar crime: stealing summer and forcing my students into the no-fun zone of intellectual hard labor.
With summer reading assignments of my own a less-than-distant memory, I chose the two books with empathy to the agony my students would surely endure if assigned a pair of less than captivating novels. Thus, I was genuinely excited about my choices of “Copper Sun” by Sharon Draper and “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, and assumed my students would be as well, which paved the way for either a huge letdown or an epic battle of wills. I presented the novels to my students with great fanfare and as I responded, first calmly, to the barrage of attacks with statistics on summer learning loss and the importance to prepare for high school, I lost my cool when a student defiantly declared that I could not make him read in the first place and that he could choose not to read at all. A battle of wills was at hand.
As I hurled threats towards him of serious academic consequences such as failing the summer reading test and hurting his chances at a good grade, I was most frustrated by the truth in his statement. I really could not force him or any other student to read. As a teacher that strongly cares for his students, thinking that their minds going to waste over the next two months was agonizing for me. That was the real reason behind assigning summer reading in the first place — to prevent the learning loss that typically afflicts low-income students during the summer time because of limited exposure to activities, resources, and experiences that would provide academic stimulation. I feared all the progress we made over the course of the year would evaporate as quickly as water spilled on burning pavement during a hot summer day. I had witnessed this phenomenon before with this same group of students as they returned to school after the previous summer. Those that participated in an enrichment program I offered at my school were adequately prepared for the rigors and expectations of seventh grade, while those that languished by the poolside or in front of the television returned mentally sluggish and in poor condition to begin the yearlong academic marathon that would follow.
Although I may have suffered an initial defeat in the war of summer reading, I would not be overcome by my students’ intransigence. Thus I responded with the adroitness of a decorated general, who despite his defeat immediately planned a vigorous counteroffensive to ensure victory. So, with a very hurt and sad expression on my face, I declared amidst intermittent, deep, chest heaving sighs that the choice was up to them and a failure to read would only hurt their chances at success later in life. We went on with that day’s instruction and as the weeks went by I continued to subtly push the idea by reading the first chapter of each book and by facilitating a registration for library cards. After reading one of those first chapters, I looked up at my students and saw none of them complaining or rolling their eyes. Instead they all had their heads tilted down and their eyes glued to the first page of the second chapter.
As uncool as reading might seem to a seventh grader, the opportunity to abandon a reality that might include pain, anger, sadness, or any other emotion, while escaping into the realm of the imagination is something in which everyone can indulge. Kids in low-income communities do not dislike reading any more or any less than their more affluent counterparts. In my mind, the underlying difference centers on access to books that would attract the interest of kids with a perspective and experience that does not include white picket fences, hiking trips to the Berkshires, or dinners at fancy restaurants. The experience of my students is one that includes gunshots in broad daylight, drug sales on the corner, and police sirens that due to their frequency have nearly been relegated to background noise. With access to the right books, kids can develop a love for reading that will eventually evolve into a diverse taste for a variety of literary genres. And once this happens, the true power of reading to expose, enlighten, and empower individuals to believe in the possibility of something more will come to bear.
Empowerment and exposure are the key variables in this equation. If kids are exposed and empowered while reading a book, while traveling, or while serving their community, they will be better equipped to face the obstacles and challenges they are sure to encounter throughout life. Nothing is more powerful than knowing something is possible, and for kids that grow up sheltered by the repressive veil of poverty, books, travel, and service can demonstrate that change and progress can be achieved.
On the second to last day of school, I distributed the two required readings for the summer. Although complaints by some students were even louder than before, I continued to pass out the books. The next day, though, which was the last day of school, one girl, a struggling reader, approached me and said, “I am already on chapter two.” Another student shared that he read 70 pages the previous night. Another student stayed up until 1 a.m. and finished the entire book. Now she was requesting the second part in the trilogy. I was happy to oblige.
Creighton Davis teaches at a middle school in the South Bronx. He is a co-founder of Serving While Achieving Greatness, Inc., an organization that aims to provide leadership training to high-potential students.
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