Letter sent home with Jeff Greenwald, 11, on the last day of school

Ugh, fine. Just ask James what the book was about.

Dear Student,

Congratulations on a wonderful year! I had such a great time having you in my sixth grade reading class. Here is your summer reading assignment. It must be completed by the first day of seventh grade.

– Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

That’s it. One book. It’s not even a very long one. Do you think you can handle that?

Just in case there are any complaints from parents that the book is hard to track down–even though I am including a school-issued copy with this letter–I’m opening up the assignment a bit. You can read any book at all.

Just anything. Comic books count. You know what? I’ll even count magazines. If you pick up a pamphlet in a doctor or dentist’s office, that counts. Backs of cereal boxes count. You don’t even have to read the whole back of the box, just most of it.

Read a sentence, okay? Read one letter of the alphabet, even. Seriously. This letter counts as a book. Did you even read this letter?

Yours,

Mrs. Chanales

Analysis:

Summer reading has been the bane of children’s existence since it was invented. Reggie “Saint” Thomas Aquinas first assigned his students a long tract to read on their vacation, with the idea they would write a paper showing they had done so. Of course, most of the middle-aged monks had no intention of ever completing the assignment, leading to the first ever publication of SparkNotes: the Bible. A young monk named Giacomo Prandelli took the assignment one step further, handing in a paper that argued Aquinas was a “huge douche for giving this totally lame BS assignment” (it sounds better in the original Latin).

Today, American schoolchildren carry on this holy tradition by waiting until the last week of vacation, then looking up “book report Crime Punishment Great Gatsby comparison” on Google. To counter, teachers have begun assigning more obscure books (a 4th grade teacher in Missouri assigned her incoming class “A la Reserche du Temps Perdus” in its original French). The arms race is escalated by parents who “unable to find” the book in question, even though the internet exists. Beleaguered school officials then resort to simply trying to get kids to read anything to prevent them coming back in the Fall a grade level behind where they started last year.

President George Bush and his wife Laura spearheaded a number of reading campaigns, but conservatives struck most traditional literature from the reading lists. As a result, between 2002 and 2006 the Federal government officially recommended only that kids read “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Littlest Gipper: A Boy and his Reagan,” about a child whose dog contains the reincarnated spirit of Ronald Reagan.

Do you also hate reading? Do you think letters would be great if someone just acted them out for you? Why not come out to the Magnet Theater tonight (6/19) for “The History of the Letter, the Show”? Come see how the Romans advanced letter writing to and from lions, the first Valentine’s Day card, and why it may be a good idea to avoid opening suspicious letters from 18th Century monarchs. That’s the Magnet Theater, 254 West 29th Street, 7PM.

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