If You Think Boys Don’t Like To Read, Think Again

By BOB BIRES

I didn’t do a thing for my summer reading group this year. Sure, I read the book on my own, but I didn’t do what the leader of a summer reading group normally does—I didn’t make up a quiz, I didn’t plan out a discussion, I didn’t grade the quizzes, I didn’t ask questions or try to fill lulls in the classroom conversation.

I didn’t have to.

Two seniors, Jay Peters and Mark Taylor, formed the book group and took on all of the responsibilities of running it. They are part of a growing trend at McCallie—seniors, and occasionally juniors, who volunteer to take charge of a book group, right down to choosing the book. This year, students led nearly half of the 38 different book groups in the Upper School.

Our book was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, a terrific story of betrayal and revenge, a wonderful examination of early 19th century French culture, an amazing portrayal of a complex, conflicted hero. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this book, but depending on whether a student got ahold of an abridged or unabridged version, we’re talking about a book between the size of a shoebox and a car battery, between 1100 or 1500 pages. A tome.

The boys used the book and its story to grapple with a number of moral questions—how effective is seeking revenge as a way of responding to mistreatment? Is it right to spend your whole life and vast amounts of your fortune on an obsession? How long should someone wait for a fiancée who has disappeared before remarrying? What about forgiveness? Is revenge evil? Can a man focused on it so long love again?

People sometimes like to suggest that today’s students don’t like to read. I beg to differ, at least here at McCallie. Our summer reading numbers are strong, especially since we offer a wide variety of choices with the twin goals of challenging and interesting teenaged boys. It’s even easier to meet those goals when the boys are choosing the books.All but two students in this book group of 17-18 finished the book and passed the thorough quiz.

I didn’t hear any student complain about the length of the book. I didn’t hear anyone complain that a book this long should have counted as three books, instead of two.

And not only do these boys like to read books, but they also like to talk about them. I was fascinated by the discussion that I tried my best to stay out of. The boys used the book and its story to grapple with a number of moral questions—how effective is seeking revenge as a way of responding to mistreatment? Is it right to spend your whole life and vast amounts of your fortune on an obsession? How long should someone wait for a fiancée who has disappeared before remarrying? What about forgiveness? Is revenge evil? Can a man focused on it so long love again?

In short, boys picked a long, challenging book they wanted to read. Boys actually read the book (the recent movie did come up, but only as a good, but different story that did not begin to capture the novel). Boys ran and participated in the discussion. I did almost nothing, but observe.

I’ve heard that Walt Whitman once said that “the goal of the teacher is to become obsolete.” After this Summer Reading group, I’m pretty sure I know what he was talking about.

Bob Bires is the Dean of Student Life and an English teacher at McCallie School.

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