Watkins Mill puts new twist on summer reading
Teachers' choice program brings students, faculty closer together
Every fall, it seems, Watkins Mill High School's English teachers are met with the same realization when school starts back up: Kids just don't like summer reading.
At least one-third of students returning for the 2008-2009 school year didn't read the preceding summer's books, which included "Catcher in the Rye," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Stranger" and "A Farewell to Arms," said English resource teacher Wendy Farmer. Reading a book can seem like a different language for students used to the teenage dialect of text-messaging and chatting online.
"It's always an uphill battle," Farmer said. "… When they have to actually read a book, well, kids are impatient and wrestling with [written] text takes time."
So as the 1,800 students head into another summer, the Gaithersburg school is taking a novel approach: More than 100 teachers and staff each chose a book to read this summer. Students then chose one of those books. When classes resume, they will discuss the book with classmates, led by the staff member.
Hopefully, it will set a new tone when school reconvenes, Farmer said.
"If you start the year off on the wrong foot with the kids, in a butting-heads situation, you end up trying to swim upstream to get their grade back up," she said. "So we at least remove that barrier and the kids don't end up seeing the first three weeks of English as being this big failure."
And because summer reading counts for about one-tenth of the first marking period, Farmer said, starting with a zero can pull a student's grade-point average below a 2.0, making them ineligible for sports, clubs and other extracurricular activities.
Music teacher and choir director Lisa Itkin sees that problem trickle down to the inevitable crop of students every fall who cannot try out for the school play.
"And, of course, our sports teams would do a lot better if some of our amazingly talented athletes could actually play," said Itkin, who last week bought her copy of "The Soloist" — hoping to draw students in by feeding off the hype surrounding the upcoming movie starring actors Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.
Principal Kevin Hobbs, who will read "The Kite Runner," knows that some students skip summer reading no matter the gimmick. So when students break up by book one Friday in the fall to share their reading experience, those who didn't read will hear a motivational speaker, Hobbs said, and maybe read the school's code of conduct.
The 100 reading choices created some buzz as students flocked to "Angels and Demons," "Gangleader for a Day" and "Flags of Our Fathers" — and with vampires all the rage with teens these days, "Twilight."
"I'm fielding e-mails about summer reading. That's unheard of," Farmer said. "For the kids to actually step up and write an e-mail about a book is just incredible. And some of them are asking their teachers if they can read more than one."
A key to that is the variety, said Farmer, who chose "For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf: A Choreopoem" — but some of students' curiosity also comes from doing something more personal.
"It's a window into the teacher's character, absolutely," said English composition assistant Jay Hepner, who will blog as he and students read "One-Hundred Years of Solitude," Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fantastical tale that defined "magical realism." Among those who will join him are Colombian twin sisters and a pair of ESOL students who will read it first in its original Spanish.
English teacher David Sampselle chose "E=MC2, A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation" in part to help "demystify" hard science.
He expects that when they meet for that hour next fall, it will bring a new element to the teacher-student dynamic.
"We'll be able better to just talk to the kids on a personal level," Sampselle said. "I hope it shows the kids that a teacher isn't just somebody stuck or restricted to their subject area; that they have interests. It will more than just make us human; some of them think we're robots."
Teachers at Watkins Mill High School have each chosen a book to read this summer. Students, in turn, picked their summer reading from that list. See a listing at www.wmhsreads.org.