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'Common readings' connect students, faculty

Susan Notes:

It isn't just because I am a great fan of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals that I love this idea so much. High schools with a penchant for giving summer homework should try this idea: Assign one book that the entire school reads and talks about. Not quiz about but engage in conversation about. Include cafeteria personnel, custodians, bus drivers, and the board of education.

Elementary schools can do it too: Choose one book and ask parents and children to read it. Make copies available for free. At the moment, Kate Dicamillo's achingly beautiful The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane comes to mind. I listened to it on tape, and at one point I was so overcome, I had to pull off to the side of the road. And of course I also had to buy the book and read it. Listening wasn't enough. Schools could make recordings available to families who have difficulty reading English.

Reading a good children's book would be good for a school staff as well as its students and their families. And of course there is a glorious abundance of possibility here.

Beset by a mania for test scores, schools need to get back to what Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, calls the intentional:

"The common readings are a signal to students that this is going to be a very intentional, very engaging first year of college."

Can our public schools offer any less to its students?

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

WORCESTER, Mass. ΓΆ€” When 723 first-year students at the College of the Holy Cross filed into the school's grandest dining hall this week for the annual president's dinner, what they found on the menu was anything but traditional.

Free-range organic chicken and organic cranberries from a local farm provided two of many clues that new students weren't the only ones who over the summer had read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

The school's eight food-service managers also had read it, and they invited students to brainstorm on how to put ideals into practice at mealtime.

"There are going to be a lot more questions coming out about 'Where is our food coming from?' " says Art Korandanis, director of auxiliary services at Holy Cross. "We managers read the book in order to say, 'Look, we want to work with you over the next four years' " when those questions arise.

Timely topics

College campuses are discovering the possibilities that open up when students, faculty and staff make a point to read the same book. In the process, such "common readings" serve a range of purposes, especially for incoming students who are navigating a big transition.

"When students have more active involvement in school, when they have closer relationships with faculty, they're more likely to persist and more likely to graduate," says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "The common readings are a signal to students that this is going to be a very intentional, very engaging first year of college."

In recent years, hundreds of colleges and universities have come to assign common readings for new students to complete over the summer. The readings seldom include classics but instead feature today's hot-selling books on timely topics. Among this year's themes: justice for developing nations, global warming and individuals making a difference in society.

The common-reading convention is proving remarkably adaptable. For example, at New York City's LaGuardia Community College, where two-thirds of the 14,000 students were born outside the USA, readings forge a rare level of connection among commuter students. Ashley York-Kurtz, 21, an administrative assistant who is starting an associate's degree program, read Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and discussed it this summer with fellow students. There she heard from a Trinidadian woman whose family has begun growing more drought-resistant vegetables and from an Indian man who worries about flooding in his ancestral homeland as glaciers melt.

"We live in such an urbanized area that our experience of nature is Coney Island or Central Park," she says. "But these other people came from the Caribbean and from other cities. Just to find out their opinions on global warming was very valuable."

Wider range of exposure

Common readings also are pushing students' comfort zones. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., launched its first common-reading assignment this summer. Students read Life of Pi by Yann Martel, in which the main character draws insights from multiple religions ΓΆ€” a phenomenon that's unfamiliar to many new students who hail largely from small Midwestern towns, says Donna Gustafson, associate dean for student services.

"They haven't been with other students from other cultures as much as, say, a student from California would have been," Gustafson says. "We're trying to help them expand their experiences (and show) them that everything's not as clear as you think it is."

Tie-in events reinforce year-long themes. At the University of Vermont, a screening last weekend of Blood Diamond explored the plight of a child warrior, a topic already on the minds of new students, who have read A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.

At Holy Cross, the common reading caused at least one student to lose her appetite. Selina Carter of Sutton, Mass., says she has stopped eating beef since she learned in Pollan's book about cattle-raising conditions. Other students questioned just how freely the chickens on their plates had been allowed to graze. In his book, Pollan debunks industrial "free range" practices as "a bit of a stretch," since he says chickens get only two weeks of limited outdoor access before slaughter.

Free-range on industrial farms "just means there's a door (chickens) can go out if they want to," says Joseph Volpe, a first-year student from Albany, N.Y. "I don't really see a difference" between industrial free-range and conventional poultry farming.

Students voiced appreciation for the effort behind this year's tie-ins, which include hormone-free milk with meals and reusable bags for carrying out food from dining halls.

Even industrially produced free-range chicken would mark "a step in the right direction," says Matt Mullaney, a first-year student from Livingston, N.J. "It's better than nothing."

— G. Jeffrey MacDonald
USA Today


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