On Assigned Summer Reading

Summer is coming closer here in the Northern hemisphere.  My own children add to our list of things to do every day;  we will play outside, we will swim, we will go to the library. Can we bake cookies?  Can we sleep in?  Can we watch movies?  Will our plants grow?  How will it be to fly on an airplane?  How many friends can I play with?  We will build a fort in our living room and read books together, we will listen to audio books as we take family trips in the car.  We will lead rich reading lives because we choose to, a privilege indeed.

Yet, as summer draws closer, now is also the time that schools start to think of their summer reading plans, or more specifically the required summer reading of the students.  The lists are being made, the books are being dusted off, and in our well-meaning intention we are thinking of all the reading this will inspire.  But will it really?

Somehow, somewhere, we seem to have forgotten that summer vacation, actually means just that; vacation.  Away from teachers, away from our rules, and yes, even away from the homework we sometimes feel like we have the right to assign.    That school is out for most.  That the children have worked all year, following our guidelines, investing in our work, and have therefore now earned the time off.  Even if we know that that time means they may not read, which, yes, I know how damaging that is.

Because the truth is; we have no right to tell children what to do on their time off.  We stretch it when we assign countless hours of homework during the school year but completely step out-of-bounds when it is over the summer.  I know it comes down to us meaning well; we want kids to read over the summer, we want them to come in knowing a shared text.  We want to prevent the summer slide.  We want to get to know them as readers, as writers, as thinkers and so we figure; what is one little book and this assignment really in the grand scheme of summer when the benefits far outweigh the potential negative consequences?  And yet, we forget that not all children have time to read over the summer?  That not all children will be able to read the book assigned?  That not all children have access to a safe place where they can work on homework during their time away from us.

So it is time to re-think this practice.  To really think of the potential damage the assigned summer reading list can do.  Sure, you will have those kids that love it, that read their books diligently and come to class prepared, eager to share and discuss further.  Those are not the kids we worry about when it comes to hating reading.  But the kids that wait until the very last-minute, the kids who fake it, who show up not having read.  Dictated summer reading means that they have just started a brand new year, one that was supposed to be a clean slate, already behind.  They have just started with yet another negative experience that only further cements how pointless reading is, how it is just something you do because the teacher tells you so.  And that matters, because those are the kids we need to somehow show that reading does matter, that being a reader matters. Those are the kids we need to get to trust us so that when we build can’t-wait-to-read lists together, there is actually a fighting chance that they may read a book.

 

So what can we do instead?  How can we potentially inspire summer reading, especially for the kids that already are so behind their reading development?

Just don’t assign it.  I know that seems blunt, and it is.  Really question the practice itself and see if the positives outweigh the negatives.  Find a different way to start the year, such as by doing a short read aloud together.  Give all kids a chance at starting in the same spot, rather than automatically setting some kids up for failure.  Ask the students themselves; would they like to?  If not, what would they like instead?  It may seem simple, but this minor thing is so often overlooked when we plan things for students to do.  For the kids it works for; assign it, for those it doesn’t, don’t.  Why waste our time assigning something we know won’t get done no matter the threats attached to it?

Start the year before.  In room 235D we have already started discussing our summer reading plans.  Not the ones I could make for the kids, but the ones that kids are making.  What will they read?  Where will they read?  How will they find books?  While some kids look at me like I am crazy, the constant repetition makes some of them see the importance of the need to read.  And for those who truly cannot wait to not read over the summer, well, we try other things.

Summer book check out.  The last few years, I have done a lot of book talks before the end of the year.  Rather than shut down our classroom library, I have left it open, encouraging kids to borrow books over the summer.  Our library is familiar, our library is a known entity, and so the books that are being introduced often seem less intimidating than the prospect of going to another library over the summer.  I merely keep a list of books borrowed and then check in with students once school starts again.  The same things goes for the school library; have it open a few days in the summer so that kids can come and book shop.

Summer book clubs.  If you are set on having students read over the summer, how about offering it up as a book club option?  Make your meetings special, read the book together and discuss.  Reach out to those you think will not read, ask the previous year’s teachers for a recommendation and then go out of your own way to show that this matters, because otherwise, why should it matter to students?

Have different accessibility.  Again, if you must assign a book, make sure you have different ways of reading it.  Can kids listen to it?  Can they partner read?  Can they meet and have it read aloud?  Yes, this means work, but it is only fair that if we ask students to work over the summer, then we should too.

Create choice lists.  Why one book?  Why the need for certain classics?  Why not create themed sets such as pairing classics with contemporary books?  Some kids may read the classic, others may read the newer book – think of the discussion that can ensue from NOT having read the very same book.

In the end, our assigned summer reading is really more for the teacher’s sake than the students.  It offers us a place to start, we are already ahead, well into the curriculum on that first day of school, and yet, it offers little in return to the student.  Why not focus our energy on creating amazing reading experiences while we have the students?  Why not tell them that in our classroom they are expected to work hard, to use their time well, to be invested, so that when they leave they can use their time whichever they want.  Why not create reading experiences that actually entices further reading, rather than further dictation of what kids are expected to read?  Perhaps now would be a good time to examine our summer reading practices before the damage is potentially done.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

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5 thoughts on “On Assigned Summer Reading

  1. My husband and I grew up reading hour upon hour every day. We’ve read to our 2 boys since birth and we still bedtime read with our 11 year old- he says we make reading “interesting” but won’t do it himself unless he’s pressed. Our 13 year old finds it all “pointless”- he even resists reading the directions on the video games he loves. He’s actually very attuned to pictures as directions/messages- way more than I. I see the truth in your observations on pressure, guilt and stress. Our visions of what needs to occur have to be amended to fit the reality of our childrens’ beings. Auditory and visual translations of writings are still means to learn, share and explore- the whole point of reading.

  2. I teach 6th grade. Summer reading for the incoming students consists choices: read a novel, a nonfiction book, a magazine, a newspaper (or online news source), and a menu. Number of pages, reading level – doesn’t matter. We share what we read in the beginning of the new school year.

  3. I couldn’t agree more, and the argument could not be better made when you said students who are supposed to start with a clean slate, start the year already behind if they don’t complete their assigned reading. I like the idea of allowing students to borrow from classroom library if they desire. Another one I’ve heard is schools willing to open their library one afternoon a week over the summer to allow students the opportunity to come in, be read to, and borrow books.

  4. As a principal librarian I’ve been experimenting with a ‘need a book take a book’ library space AND even if you have 8 books out (cringe 😜) I still let students get a new book for the week! Love the summer reading ideas!

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