Welcome to Teaching Feminism, a series about equality in the classroom. Teaching feminism is about so much more than teaching girls. We need to teach all of our students to respect everyone, no matter what. Teaching feminism talks about just that. Have your own story about these issues? Share it here.
It’s no secret that students lose information over the summer months if they are not keeping up with their studies during their time off. There are conflicting reports about how much information is lost, and it does differ between children with families of different socioeconomic statuses, but on average, students are estimated to lose about one month of grade-level equivalency over the summer months they are out of school. To combat this, many schools have instituted summer reading programs where students are expected to read over the summer and come back to an assignment on their reading in their English classes. While summer reading programs and incentives are great for students to ensure they are reading, there is a lot of disagreement about how it should be done. Should summer reading lists have classic books that students should read for school, or should they be fun reads just to keep kids engaged? What audience should the books target, boys or girls? The issues summer reading books raise are endless.
As a high school English teacher, I know how important summer reading can be. When students come back after several months of not reading, it can be a struggle for the first month of school to get them back where they were supposed to be at the end of the last school year. However, I’ve seen many summer reading programs that try to get kids to read books they should be reading while class is in session. These books include heavy reads and classics. While it may be tempting to get kids to read “important” books over the summer, especially since time is limited during class, these books can be extremely difficult for students to understand. This is where kids need discussion, reading guides, and teacher help in order to fully understand what they are reading.
When students get overwhelmed or feel that they are attempting something that is too difficult for them, they often shut down and decide not to continue. This can be detrimental in many ways. First, they won’t read the book and won’t be prepared when school starts. Second, it can turn them off to reading and English class all together. If they believe that all the reading they do for class will be difficult and “boring,” they probably won’t look forward to reading for class at all, and may not even do it.
The never-ending debate that follows, then, is what books to pick for the summer reading program. Young adult books, especially, tend to be either clearly written with a boy audience or a girl audience in mind, so this usually includes some kind of debate about which gender to target. It’s no secret that boys lag behind girls when it comes to reading.
Many teachers and parents believe that we should select books that boys will be interested in because girls will read them no matter what. While I do believe this is true, it is dangerous to keep pushing male-oriented books on our young female students. Girls are already so overwhelmed with all of the classics written by (and for) dead, white men. They encounter important heros in literature such as Guy Montag, Holden Caulfield, and Jay Gatsby to name a few. They also encounter their helpless and often short-lived female counterparts who generally serve to inspire or otherwise drive the male hero of the story with no true agency themselves. While these books are important for students to read, if we don’t counter the images of women we show young female students in literature, we risk sending the message that women aren’t good for much besides inspiring men.
What’s a teacher or parent to do, then? When it comes to reading, I am a firm believer of options. We have libraries and bookstores with shelves upon shelves of books in the world. Why not let students choose for themselves? Narrow the overwhelming set of choices down for them, of course, but give them a comprehensive list made up of classics and young adult page-turners, with books that will appeal to boys and girls. Let them pick, and I guarantee you will not be able to pry the books from their fingers.
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