Don’t tell my students, but we’re two days from the start of school and I just finished my last summer reading book for IB English. It’s not that I’ve been lazy— in fact, the only thing I have accomplished this summer is reading books. All my usual ambitious projects— cleaning the attic, weeding through the outgrown baby toys and clothes, painting the fence— remain unfinished. I spent the summer chasing my kids, and reading. Usually I grabbed my chance for focused quiet during naptime and nighttime, but I have also become a master at reading over the sound of screeching or the “Dora” theme song (I figure if I’m going to ignore my kids at least they will see me reading a book, which sort of counteracts the television they’re watching, right?).
I grew up in a household of readers. Downtime on family vacations was spent in separate corners of rented houses, everyone getting lost in their own books, together. As a mother, among the things I frequently feel grateful for (My kids ate a green vegetable today! They are healthy and happy! No one snuck into my bed tonight!) is the fact that my children love books. At four and two, neither of them can read yet, but they each recite their favorite books, word for word, from memory. This is the earliest version of the intimate ways we absorb the books we love.
There’s a lot of research and writing about the effects on young people over the course of a summer spent reading or not reading. The simplified finding is that reading, like many other things, is a practice that students should continually cultivate, both in and out of school. I mean, it doesn’t take a PhD and a research lab to understand this concept: don’t exercise for three months and it will be really hard to run three miles on the first day of soccer practice; don’t practice math or French or reading over a long period of time and…you get the picture. And even more research is being done about the ways that on-line reading is affecting and changing students’ learning. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, was my faculty summer reading book. Much of his research and discussion focuses on the in-depth learning that happens when you read a printed book from cover to cover. Reading an on-line text, he argues, often leads to shallow and distracted learning, largely due to our personal habits when sitting in front of a screen, and to the hyper-links that invite us further and further down the rabbit-hole and away from our original task.
One of the books I re-read this summer is Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I hadn’t read it since high school, and I was thinking about teaching it in my senior IB English class this spring. Now, I last read this book twenty years ago. I could have told you it was a good book; I could even have told you, at the most basic level, what it’s about: a former slave and her ghost baby. But that’s all I remembered. I still had my book from high school, so that’s the copy I began to read. Here’s what happened: as soon as I entered the book, I realized that I did remember it. But not remember it like I could recite the plot to you— not that kind of remember. Remember like a world I had once inhabited; a world that I used to know very well— from a distance it seems fuzzy, but once you step in, you realize, “I’ve been here before.” Morrison’s language— her descriptions of the forest and river and haunted house and the shed where her baby died (Dear God, the shed!)— it all felt like it was mine again. Of course it helped that all my underlining and margin notes and vocabulary definitions were still there (and my notes were good! No wonder I became an English teacher!). I don’t remember the class, I don’t remember the teacher, I don’t remember if I was forced to do all that notation, or if I did it on my own; but I do remember the book. This is what happens when you really read and absorb a book that you love: it becomes a part of you, forever.
I don’t need any amount of published research validating my work as an English teacher. You won’t find ebooks or hyper-linked texts in my classroom. All my students need is a book, a pencil, and an engaged brain. When they read a text from start to finish they learn how to follow a sustained argument or narrative; they learn how to find threads and make connections across 300 pages; they learn syntax and grammar and vocabulary; they learn, with in-depth study, that less truly is more; they learn to quiet their brains in this world that clatters so loudly around us. Not every student loves to read; but every student will learn from reading, whether she likes the books or not. My hope for all of them is that they discover those books— whether in or out of class— that truly catch them; books that they don’t just read, but absorb, as I did, so many years ago with Beloved.
As I walk the long halls of our school, sometimes I catch myself marching in rhythm with my two-year-old daughter Willa’s voice in my head. “Each peach, pear, plum,” she chants. “…I spy Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb in the cupboard, I spy Mother Hubbard. Mother Hubbard on the stairs, I spy…”
I am a grateful mother indeed.
-Shawn Durrett, English Department Chair