Tag Archives: summer reading program

Some book recommendations for the rising sophomores

Members of our Class of ’19 (rising sophomores) have a summer reading assignment for English to read The Other Wes Moore and write five blog posts about it. Additionally, they must read one other book of their choice from a list of authors/works compiled by the department. The list can be found here. Since the list is long and a little chaotic, I thought I’d give some recommendations.

Each year over Winter Break, I like to read books from the NYTimes “10 Best Books” list. Two books from The 10 Best Books of 2015 that I read over break made it onto the summer reading list: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. I loved both books, but it is the Berlin collection that has really stayed with me. It is long, and since she returns to the same themes often, some of the stories feel repetitive. However, the investment in time is well worth the effort, and any young writer interested in writing short stories in an autobiographical mode should consider picking up that collection. You’ll notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is also on the NYTimes Best of 2015 list. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but the entire faculty is reading it this summer, so stay tuned.

There are a lot of other authors on the list for the rising sophomores that my English department colleagues recommended, and whom I adore and enthusiastically endorse. We put Evelyn Waugh on there. My two favorite books by Waugh are Scoop and A Handful of Dust. Scoop is a satire about the media and journalism, and it is as funny and fresh today as it was when it was written (1938). I taught it one summer about seventeen years ago when I was teaching summer school at Hun, and I’ve often thought about teaching it again. The Modern Library Association put three novels by Waugh on their 100 Best Novels list, the two I mentioned plus the over-hyped Brideshead Revisited. Back at the turn of the millenium, I made a project of trying to read all 100 novels on their (just-published) list, but I only made it through about 80 of them before I gave up. Go ahead, call me a quitter!

A few books that we recommended last summer and the summer before (when the blogging assignment was different and students only had five books to choose from) have reappeared on this year’s list. I strongly recommend Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They are two of the best novels written in the last decade, and rising sophomore bloggers who have written about them over the last few summers have enjoyed them immensely. The Art of Fielding is great if you happen to be a baseball fan, but it is funny and brilliant and can be enjoyed by anyone. Wolf Hall is perfect for readers who enjoy historical fiction. It is set in the England of Henry VIII, and it has spun off an entire industry of TV shows, stage adaptations, etc. Read it! (And then read the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, and get ready for the final book of the trilogy, which is coming soon.)

I was a fantasy and sci-fi fanboy in my younger years, and we put some great options on the list. I’m not particularly a fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but it’s there if you want to go in that direction. (I read the first six books in the series, or something like that, in high school and college, and I admit that peoples’ tastes change over time. I find his work too derivative now.) I’d rather see you get to know the work of Terry Pratchett, who died in 2015, and who is one of the funniest fantasy writers of all time. (The Discworld series is the obvious starting point.) We also put Philip K. Dick on the list, and his writing is so influential, eerie, and intelligent that I would encourage everyone to read him. I guess I would recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a starting point, but I like VALIS, too.

Finally, you’ll see that Raymond Chandler is on the list, and you pretty much have to read Chandler if you want to call yourself a well-read citizen of the planet. Start with The Big Sleep, and then read The Long Goodbye. His detective stories don’t ever quite make sense, but the pleasure is in Chandler’s style, and the atmosphere, and the wonderful narrative voice of his protagonist, Philip Marlowe. High school students often try to write in this genre, so it is a good idea to feed yourself the roots of great detective fiction.

Disagree with my recommendations? Have some recommendations of your own? Leave a comment!



Summer Blogging Assignment, Year 3

For the third summer in row, George School’s rising sophomore class will be blogging about their summer reading assignment for their English classes. The assignment has evolved over time, and this year we are keeping it simple by just doing one “track.” In the past two years, we’ve allowed students to blog synchronously or asynchronously, but the synchronous track never quite lived up to its potential, so everyone is free to post whenever they want this summer. (Students need to have five posts up by Labor Day, which gives a lot of rope to procrastinators, but I have always wanted to protect students who go away to camp for eight weeks and try to stay away from technological distractions.)

Since I was completely out of the classroom this past year, I actually expected the assignment to die, and I’m hugely grateful to my colleagues for keeping it alive. I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year, so I’m back in the saddle as a co-manager for the project. My colleagues decided that every student would read one book in common, plus they would have a choice of a second book. With the AP Language and Composition curriculum orienting us towards non-fiction, the grade-wide text that was chosen is The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. I had read the NYTimes review back when the book was published, and it intrigued me and I wanted to read it, but I never got around to it. So I’m just finishing the book now (having started a month ago; I’m a new dad — give me a break!), and it was clearly an inspired choice. The entire GS community is also reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me this summer, and the two books have a lot in common. We will have some powerful discussions come September!

While the texts are important, the tech is, too. I pitched the department on this summer blogging assignment two years ago because I wanted to help the school move forward in its use of academic technology, and I learned from my #edtechchat and #engchat PLNs that English teachers everywhere were asking their students to blog. I piloted a modest blogging initiative in my own classes, but I realized that we needed to do more school-wide. The beauty of this assignment is that every sophomore begins his or her year with an academic blog that they have made for this purpose, but it can be quickly repurposed by any teacher who wants their students to do some reflective journaling, or post a portfolio online, etc. Now that we are going into Year 3, every student at GS in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade will have an academic blog that any teacher can adopt for assignments in their class. (Okay, new 11th graders won’t, but that is a small population.) We give the 9th graders a year to learn our school’s values and build community offline before asking them to intentionally build community online, and hopefully that leads to respectful digital citizenship.

In past years I’ve used my blog to post links to some great writing by our rising sophomores done specifically for this assignment. Check back in the coming days and weeks!

Gimme Summer Readin’

Year Two of the big summer blogging project begins next Monday. Like last year, all of George Schools’ rising sophomores are required to read a novel (from a short list of options) and a poetry anthology. Then they must blog about their reading. In the spirit of shared intellectual activity and plain old fairness, here’s how my summer reading is going so far.

As soon as exams were over, I began reading Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky. It seems like I’ve been staying in hotels more often in recent years, and I’ve wanted to know more about the industry. Tomsky’s memoir is a funny and fast-paced insider’s view of life as a hotel employee, and I tore through it in a couple of days. Tomsky is a personable narrator for a fellow liberal arts major like me, and he leaves the reader with a lot of practical advice on how to appeal to (and not piss off) a hotel’s staff. How useful was it? Well, I took Tomsky’s advice when I checked into a hotel (that shall remain nameless) in Baltimore this past Friday night. I slipped the desk jockey a $20 “just for you” as I was giving him my credit card and ID, and my wife and I received an incredible upgrade in return. If you like to travel and have ever wondered about hotel work, read the book.

After I finished that, I read Steve Osborne’s The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop. The book received a positive review in The New Yorker, and it sounded like the kind of thing that I would like. (I love old reruns of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.) Osborne’s style is direct and matter of fact, but he is a gifted story-teller, and he makes you feel like you are riding along with him on patrol in NYC in the bad old days before Giuliani was elected and the crime rate plummeted. Although most of the book focuses on Osborne’s early years on the job, the last third of the book has the most heart-wrenching stories. You’ll fight back tears reading about the death of Osborne’s dog, the death of his father (also a cop), and 9/11.

Now I’ve just begun reading On Such a Full Sea by Chang Rae Lee. This dystopian novel was selected by a colleague of mine for the summer blogging project, and it is one of the books the rising sophomores can choose from for the assignment. I need to read all of the options so that I can interact with the students via the Comments section of their blogs, and I don’t want to pretend that I’ve read a book when I haven’t. Last year this same colleague selected Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses, so I had to read that in a hurry. Chang Rae Lee actually came and did an assembly here at George School a couple of years ago, and he read passages from On Such a Full Sea right before it was published. It is interesting for me to read a dystopian novel right now because the last novel I read with my freshmen this spring was Brave New World. Huxley has a better sense of humor than Lee, but I actually find myself more often comparing On Such a Full Sea to William Gibson’s The Peripheral, which I read this winter. I suppose there is a distinction to be made between a “literary” dystopian novel and Gibson’s futuristic sci-fi, but for this reader, Gibson makes the future a whole lot more interesting, believable, and fun, yet he sacrifices none of the cautionary aspect in return. Gibson loves the details of culture — such as music, fashion, brands, retail, technology, transportation — that Lee glosses over or hasn’t fully thought through. I’ll read On Such a Full Sea to completion, but I recommend The Peripheral if you want to read a book set in the near future that will get you thinking.

Redesigning summer reading

I’ve been thinking about a redesign for our summer reading program; at least for my students (perhaps just rising sophomores). For the past several years students have been reading a poetry anthology and then responding to prompts to create a handwritten “journal.” It really comes out feeling more like a giant collection of worksheets, which was not our original intent. It is quite a lot of work, which is okay, but many students leave it till the end of the summer and then try to cram it all in one week before Labor Day. Grading them all in the first week of school while also assigning new work means that the students can’t possibly get as much feedback as they deserve.

My new plan is to ask students to read some number of preselected books and then blog about their reading regularly over the summer. We would create a central website for this project with links to all of the blogs and RSS feeds, too. I and the other teachers would post prompts and comments, recognize extraordinary posts, etc. We could offer a couple of novels and definitely a Shakespeare play. Ideally, we would pace this such that everyone was (remotely) reading more or less the same chapters (acts) at the same time. Maybe the first two weeks of vacation would be for text 1, and so forth.

There are lots of potential problems (besides the obvious pushback from colleagues). Some students travel to places over the summer where their access to the web is restricted or non-existent. I actually think that’s great and don’t want to appear to be frowning on the healthy escape from screens and technology while away at camp, for instance. There are all of the other usual problems with students posting things on the internet. Privacy, appropriateness, web footprint vis-a-vis college applications, etc. I’d like to think that these can all be overcome, however, and that the project would eventually redound positively for the school and our students.

Next step: Write a proposal for department meeting.