Making summer reading meaningful

Program: An idea developed by the Institute of Notre Dame librarian ensures that students' efforts during vacation are not forgotten.

September 23, 2001|By Joy Green | Joy Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It seems to happen every year: Teachers assign challenging summer reading lists and book reports, and diligent children complete them - only to find that, in the crush of back-to-school activities, these assignments are overlooked.

At the Institute of Notre Dame, a Catholic high school for girls on Aisquith Street in Baltimore, librarian Jim Antal decided that there should be a way to make summer reading fun and to recognize students' efforts.

So on Wednesday, the entire school - including the more than 450 students and all the teachers and administrators - met in small discussion groups for 45 minutes to talk about impressions of books they had read during the summer.

The event turned into a celebration of literacy for a student body that tackled some challenging titles not typically found on a summer reading list.

The morning's activity "could have been longer," said Liz Klosek, 17, of Catonsville. "It was so good that most of the books that the teachers chose weren't classical."

Klosek, who read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, was part of a lively group that discussed characters in the novel as well as religious aspects of the book, which is about the trials of a family of missionaries in Africa during the 1950s. "It was hard for me to relate to the characters," Klosek said, "but ... the author's writing style ... made the book ... enjoyable."

And that, said Antal, is part of the purpose behind the annual push for summer reading.

"I think it's important to promote the idea of reading for enjoyment, especially for fictional books," said Antal, who is beginning his sixth year as librarian.

His idea for the summer reading and discussion grew out of talks with other Catholic-school librarians about how to get students to read more. He created the program last school year and used it as part of the educational program for his school's re-accreditation effort.

To get the ball rolling at the end of the year, teachers picked several books for students of each grade level to read during the summer.

The 19-book list reflected teachers' interests, and leaned toward titles that students might not encounter during the school year.

The eclectic selections ranged from the classic science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, an option for ninth-graders, to the contemporary novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, one book suggested for 11th-graders.

Some students acknowledged that their books affected them.

Sarah Fortier, 14, a ninth-grader from Chase, said she learned a lot from The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, a young-adult classic about peer pressure.

"It taught me lessons like to always stand up for what you believe in and not to let peer pressure take you too far," said Fortier.

"I can't wait for next year, to see what they have for me to choose," she added.

Elizabeth Honaker, who teaches ninth-grade and 10th- grade English, said that for her submission to next year's list, she will choose between two nonfiction titles, both worthy of an adult book group: The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute To His White Mother, by James McBride, and Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, a memoir by Sarah L. and A. Elizabeth Delany, with Amy Hill.

Honaker, who led the discussion group for The Chocolate War, said she is happy about the development of the program. As an English teacher, she was excited that students had had the chance to read an extra book, and impressed by the variety of books from which they could select.

"They could choose their interest level, which is a plus," she said.

She praised the way the Antal set up Wednesday's group discussion. "He was very careful to have a balanced spread of students per teacher," Honaker said.

Students praised the discussion groups. Ann Marie Krainak, 14, a ninth-grader from Eldersburg who read The Chocolate War, said group book discussions were new to her and increased her comprehension of the book.

"I liked it because you saw different points of view, and the stuff I didn't understand I got better understanding of," she said.

Antal said an intensive summer reading activity can have far-reaching benefits: "There's a lot to be said for summer reading and vocabulary development." He believes that students' standardized test scores could be improved by reading more, he said.

Danielle Griffin, 16, of Catonsville, an 11th-grader, read The Poisonwood Bible. She said it "gave her a perspective on what went on back then, and it showed how you should respect people." And she is looking forward to next year.

"I think it's good that every student had to read a book because it builds our intellect," Griffin said.

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