Monday, May 08, 2006

It's Almost Summer Reading Time

When I was little, I loved this time of year. School was almost over. We were registered for Red Cross swimming lessons at our neighborhood pool. But best of all, our local public library was prepping for the "Summer Reading Program".

The Parkside Branch of the San Francisco Public Library was our library. It was literally two blocks away from our house and we haunted it's shelves at least a couple of times a week during the school year. When school was out, we were at the library almost daily!

Parkside had one of those children librarians who go down in memory as truly a librarian for the children. She knew us all by name and what books we liked and didn't like. She steered us to broaden our horizons into non-fiction, poetry or drama. Miss K. was THE children's librarian to whom I compare all others -- probably unfairly as none can measure up to my memories of Miss K.

When the Summer Reading program started, she would gather all the children around and explain the program. We had to read ten, reading level-appropriate books and write a short report on each. If we liked, we could do a project related to the book and if it was good enough, she would display the project in the Library through September. A chart with all our names neatly written was posted in a prominent area of the Children's Section -- a gold star placed as she approved our book and the subsequent report.

She had to "vet" every book before we could apply it to our goal of ten books. She would gently ask someone "didn't you already read this one?" She would lovingly remark, "don't you want to try a book from this older section. You're reading so well now." She would guide us to the non-fiction section and point out Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" or Heyerdahl's "Kon-Tiki" in lieu of the latest paperback or mystery story. She worked hard to expand our horizons -- both reading level and genre.

Miss K. must have read EVERY book in that Children's Library. When you brought her your report or project, she would quiz you a bit on the book. If she thought you might not have read the whole thing carefully, she'd send you back and you wouldn't get a gold star that day. This was a crushing, humiliating event, but only happened once to most of us. She was too sharp to let us skimp on reading.

Our final reward for a summer of reading? We received a certificate at a special awards party that Miss K. sponsored the last day before school. We had cake and cookies and other treats; but nothing was as special as getting that certificate from Miss K. with a warm handshake and a pat on the back for reading so well.

Today, I don't find children's librarians like Miss K. Libraries are too busy, all librarians are generalists and there is no longer a person set aside just for the children. The summer reading programs have suffered greatly because of this. Now, all the reading programs I see are filled with games, movies and prizes that have gotten away from the point of the programs -- READING! Any kind of reading qualifies (including audio books) but all you have to do is write down the name and author and you get a check for that book. There is no vetting of titles, reading level or even proof of having read the book. Instead of encouraging reading, libraries feel the need to bribe the children to come and "hang out" at the libary during the summer.

So what do I do? I devise my own summer reading program for my kids. Last year, we had just finished a pioneer unit, ending with the California Gold Rush. Using the Gold Rush as our theme, I made posters with a pot of gold in each and hung them prominently in our dining room. Each time String Bean or Lego-Maniac read a book and completed a project, we pasted a gold star in their pot with the name of the book.

I encouraged them to get books from different parts of the Children's area. Art books, poetry, science stories and geography books all had their stars in my children's pots along with series books and just fun reads. At the end of the summer, we had a pot full of gold stars, binders full of reports and projects and a memory of reading our way through the summer.

Now I need to go devise this year's summer reading program to get my kids reading!

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