Summer reading, and thinking about an introduction to essays

Updated at: 11:35 AM.
Under Category: Diary
The FGS English department assigns summer reading to our students, on the theory that reading a couple of books will keep their brains alive during the summer months. (Many of them read quite a lot, of course, so this is about those who would prefer not to open any book covers between June and September.) We've usually required one book for the course they're going into in the fall (it's been The Count of Monte Cristo for the 9th-graders for ages; recently we switched to The Kite Runner for the sophomores; as of last year, it's The Crucible and Fences for the juniors; and The Picture of Dorian Gray for the seniors), and then they choose a couple of books off a long list of recommendations that are geared to their age level. It works pretty well. (Last year we dropped the number of free-choice books to one since the head of school added a "community read" book, an experience that had its pluses and minuses. But I digress.)

For my AP Comp class, however, I get a completely free hand about the summer reading requirement. The first year I just had students read Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw as their required book and then had them read two free-choice books, but last year I went a little crazy and required Gladwell, plus Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, plus the Old Testament part of Timothy Beal's Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories that Everyone Needs to Know. Based on my experience of the first year in the course, I was trying to send a message that AP Comp is serious business -- hence a lot of reading -- and I also wanted them to wrap their heads around nonfiction as the dominant genre of the course, which of course makes it different from any other English class they've ever had. But piling on the work was not the way to do either of those things. This year I'm aiming to hit somewhere in between the past two summers but still accomplish both of those goals.

And I suddenly realized yesterday that I have to make up my mind in the next three weeks what I want students to read this summer. Yikes! This deadline has been completely off my radar, which means that I now have some hustling around to do. (Gee, how fortunate that these three weeks should happen to coincide almost exactly with the last three weeks of the term. Aargh, stupid trimester system!) So here are my current thoughts, and I'd certainly love any brilliant ideas you may have (or, heck, not brilliant ideas are welcome too!):

* I love the Timothy Beal book, and a modicum of biblical literacy is sort of becoming this extra goal I have for my AP Comp class, since there's nowhere else in the curriculum that they're going to get it right now. But I assigned way more to them than they could really take in -- since, after all, all of these stories are completely new to most of them! -- so I think this year I'll require them to read just Genesis during the summer, and then we'll read other parts of the book during the school year (as I did this year, having them read Beal's excerpts of the gospel of Matthew before they read Frederick Douglass, for example -- it made a world of difference in their understanding of his narrative! And, as I did last year, I'm going to do a week on the Exodus story and its rhetoric in later speeches.)

* Many of the students weren't wild about The Professor and the Madman, so I won't be requiring that. But what I might do -- something that many AP Comp teachers do -- is give them a list of book-length nonfiction (maybe mostly narrative nonfiction?) and have them choose one to read. So I could include The Professor and the Madman but also add other well-respected nonfiction, memoirs, etc. and let them decide what appeals to them most. (Please give me your top nominations in the comments -- it would be so helpful to know what nonfiction you all have found most interesting in recent years!)

* I really like Gladwell's essay collection -- he's definitely at his best in the short essay, I think, rather than the full-length book -- but I wonder if there's something better I could be using to give students an introduction to the essay, which is essentially a new genre for most of them? I want a collection that includes essays other than (although perhaps including) personal essays -- pieces in which an author is grappling with ideas in an intelligent way. But I also want essays that students who have never seriously read essays before could read on their own during the summer and not feel that their vacation was being ruined because it's all too hard! One possibility is to go with the annual Best American Essays collection, which would probably be fun for me as well since it would be a new collection every summer. The 2011 collection was edited by Edwidge Danticat and has great reviews on Amazon, and of course this would be exposure to several different essayists. I also thought about giving them some master of the craft, like George Orwell, and having them read only specific essays, with the expectation that we'd read other of the essays during the school year. Or maybe I should go with some au courant essayist? I'll confess I haven't read anything by either Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith, but maybe something along those lines would work well?

* Plus, the head of school is still on her "community read" kick, so we'll all be reading one of the novels that she's choosing. The top three current possibilities include not one but two novels set in Nazi-occupied Europe, so I'm not expecting a lot of kicks and giggles from whichever book she chooses. But all of this is out of my hands.

As I look at these four bullet points, I realize that this isn't actually looking like less than last summer. But if I drop WAY back on the biblical material they read and I give them a lot of choice in their full-length nonfiction book, I think I'm still making the summer options less onerous, and hopefully more fun.

Although, in many ways, I just don't need this task right now, there is definitely something to be said for planning for the future as a way to distract myself from the huge amounts amounts of grading that are my lot in the next couple of weeks. It's a form of productive procrastination that reminds me that, despite all of the mistakes that I've made and will continue to make this year, there's a shiny brand-new year waiting out there on the horizon. It's like the thrill of a new notebook in curriculum form.

I'll look forward to hearing any suggestions you have -- for either essays or nonfiction books -- and I'll definitely tell you all what I finally decide!

Summer reading, and thinking about an introduction to essays
, was posted by: , Friday, February 10, 2012, at 11:35 AM under category Diary and permalink Id 4.1.
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