A Modest Reading Proposal

Georgia is considering a 25 book per year reading requirement for students. You have to register to read day-old and older articles on the AJC now. Sorry. They didn’t used to require that. But it is free and relatively painless.

This proposal is known as the Habits of Reading Standard. First of all, I would like to say that I agree with the reasoning. Students who read more will learn more. They will have larger vocabularies. They will perform better than non-readers on tests (which is all anyone really seems to care about, anyway). But I agree with teacher Lisa Boyd, who says the idea is vague. What is a book?

No, I’m not being facetious. Two suggested titles from the 10th grade are Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon at 912 pages and Albert Camus’s The Stranger at 144 pages. Are both counted as one book? The student who read The Mists of Avalon probably wouldn’t think that was fair, and neither do I. My personal proposal would be that a “book” would be 200 pages. Thus, the person who read Mists will have read over four books out the 25 required, whereas the student who read The Stranger would have to read 66 more pages of another book to equal one book. In other words, students would need to read 5000 pages — 25 200-page “books.”

The other change I would make would be to dump the idea of having a suggested reading list and let the teachers decide what to do about that. Personally, I would (and have, in the past) allow students to choose any novel they want to read, provided their parents give them permission. I never had a student try to read erotica or anything really violent. Many times, they tackled classics (in order to impress or because they just wanted to). Sometimes they got to read newer books with literary merit, like my former student who read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I’ll bet that book isn’t on the suggested reading list. By the same token, should books with “literary merit” only be on a suggested reading list? I don’t think so. Students will want to read those 25 books when we give them some choices, and the minute we tell them the books they choose aren’t good enough literature, we’re sending them the message that reading isn’t supposed to be about your own interests or what you consider fun. We’re telling them that only “boring,” English-teacher approved books are appropriate. Non-readers will remain non-readers.

A third amendment I’d make is to allow students to count any required reading they already do as part of the 25 books. Thus, any novels they read in English class count toward the 25. If they have to read Silent Spring for science, that counts. I don’t think it would be the sole responsibility of the English teacher to enforce it either. Students should keep track of their reading in a log. Then, they should produce a project for a select number of books (perhaps one per semester or even one per year). Who would grade it? As an English teacher, I wouldn’t mind being responsible for that. It would be considered a very major grade. Deciding not to do it would not be an option should the student wish to pass. Alternatively, the projects could be graded in the same manner as voluntary entries into things like science fairs — by a panel of educators who volunteer to do it, rating the projects with some easy-to-use rubric. Would failing the project mean failing a grade? I don’t know. Something to think about, I guess.

In other news, I caught two BookCrossing books today: the aforementioned Ya-Ya Sisterhood and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, both of which have been on my to-read list for a long time.