Summertime, and the Reading Is Easy.
Dear Dr. Louis,
Our district is considering summer reading. What is your opinion?
One answer: the best of times; the worst of times. I say that because summer reading and any outside reading requirement can be a wonderful experience for the students; but, if it is not planned well, it can be a nightmare not only for students, but also for teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents.
- Reading is just not done at school; it can be done on the beach!
- Summer reading promotes reading year-round.
- If the whole family gets involved, it provides an opportunity for families to read together during the summer.
- Commitment and time management are part of an advanced course; summer reading sets that bar early on regarding the level of rigor expected from the course.
- Because time management is an important component of college readiness, summer reading prepares students for college-level time management skills -- pacing vs. procrastination.
- Summer is supposed to be fun! (Well, isn't reading fun? -- I'm just saying, that's what you're going to hear.)
- Students wait until the last minute or do not read at all, and they start the year frustrated and in a slump.
- Students who matriculate into a school during the first week or the beginning of the school year are already behind in their reading and performance.
- If the reading and/or project is too difficult or not planned well, everyone will start the year discouraged.
Some of my favorite College Board® presenters and my own highly respected mentors say, "No," to summer reading. Other College Board presenters® and mentors of mine say, "Yes, summer reading is a staple of our curriculum, and we love it." I respect both opinions. In some schools at which I taught, we required it. At others, we didn't. The students survived and excelled in both cases. I think that summer reading can be a very valuable requirement if done right. To do it right, however (so that it does not end up being a logistical and academic nightmare), requires a great amount of effort by an English department working together to align curriculum, goals, and expectations. The most successful summer reading includes all or most of the following items:
- Meet with school administrators and gain approval regarding the summer reading program and any related reading lists, letters, forms, and documents (remember, parents will call the administrator first if a problem arises, and you want him/her to know and support your requirement);
- Meet with your department and create a summer reading packet for students at each grade level that is cohesive and unified -- in other words, the entire department should sign-off on each grade level's requirement so that the summer reading appears grade-level appropriate, aligned, and equitable. Observe the progression of skills from one grade to another -- introduce, develop, master;
- Decide either to 1) waive the summer reading requirement for students who enroll after school begins; 2) provide those students with a separate, less demanding or less extensive assignment; or 3) provide those students with ample time to read and to catch up; and
- Provide extra packets for counselors to disseminate as students enroll during the summer.
- Summer Reading Process and Packet
- Before Summer Break Begins
- Give students a document with two parts: 1) a parent and student awareness letter and cut-away form that is signed by both parent and student affirming the student's participation and submitted to the current year's grade level teacher before the student leaves for summer break; 2) a list of all grade level selections so that parents see that summer reading is a school-wide program; and
- Hand each student a packet and require a signature (receipt) when a student receives his/her packet (this packet receipt can be on paper or digital);
- The Packet
- Provide information about the book: title, author, image shot of the book cover, ISBN, number of pages, pacing guide, price, e-book availability, focused skills (e.g., Watership Down, 7th graders focus on main idea, archetype, imagery, setting, figures of speech);
- Create a plan for students who might have a different edition of the book at home or whose family is unable to afford to purchase the book;
- Provide an alternative title or titles for each grade level (in case a parent is uncomfortable with diction in the text or the subject matter -- e.g., The Things They Carried -- Alternative Title = All Quiet on the Western Front);
- Provide a reading guide or pacing plan (e.g., if a book is 250 pages, and the students have 10 weeks; then, they should read 25 pages per week or 5 pages per day with Saturday and Sunday off. This reading guide helps students and their parents to manage their time more efficiently);
- Provide clear expectations:
- If you are asking the students to read a book in preparation for a test to be given at the beginning of the school year and if you have no other projects or assignments in addition to the reading --
- Provide writing prompts, guiding questions, and/or a study guide;
- Provide a model of a dialectical journal entry or how to annotate in the book based on the prompts (in our program, the Jane Schaffer® Writing Program [JSWP], we teach students how to annotate in red and green);
- Through the dialectical journal, introduce Style Analysis;
- Administer a test at the beginning of the school year:
- Multiple-choice; and/or
- Timed writing
- Let students select from a group of prompts on the test and write on one of them. Give students the prompts in the packet and tell them they should expect to see at least one of them on the test; and
- If you are expecting embedded quotations in their timed writing, have an open-book timed writing test.
- If you are asking students to complete a project in addition to the reading --
- Consider how and when students will submit it;
- Consider format: digital? analog (hard copies)? both?;
- Add Expository writing lessons if the project has a nonfiction piece to it; and
- Provide the due date and your late policy.
- If you are giving students a writing assignment in addition to the reading, be sure that students understand your policy about plagiarism and cheating.
- Provide prompt(s) -- I like to work with teachers in my same grade level and create several prompts. Then, I ask students to select one of the prompts in the first 25-30 pages of their reading (I explain more about this in this week's webinar entitled Summertime, and the Reading Is Easy). In fact, around the same time you give the students the summer reading information and packet, you could allow time for sustained silent reading and get them interested in the story before they leave!;
- Provide a dialectical journal or annotation activity;
- Have the students submit their work online through a writing program, such as jswponline.com or our google docs templates;
- Provide a rubric;
- Provide the process for completion (for JSWP, we have graphic organizers that would be submitted) and the due date; and
- Tell students to submit all of their work with the final draft. You must see the process to avoid plagiarism or cheating.
- Post flyers on the entrance doors of all campuses and on the counselors' doors during the summer, reminding students about their summer reading;
- Post "Summer Reading Requirement" on the outdoor marquee and/or on banners along the walls;
- Create a brief school and community press release (this form of communication gives parents and summer employers a heads up and reminds adults and students that learning never stops); and
- Post the requirements on the school/district website.
So, to answer your question, I appreciate summer reading and, along with my department, have assigned it to my students for many years. I've also been amenable to decisions by teachers or administrators who are against it. But if you are going to have summer reading,
- Do NOT assign a book EVER that you have not read;
- Do NOT select a novel or drama that will turn off students to reading because they cannot understand it;
- Do NOT assign a book that needs your expertise in guiding the students' understanding of its importance (e.g., The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite texts to teach to 11th grade students. Because it is racially sensitive, however, it demands a teacher's guidance and expertise);
- Do NOT select a book that is so difficult that it should be reserved for later in the school year when students have gained more maturity and have learned about your expectations;
- DO make the assignment meaningful. Worksheets are not meaningful;
- DO put yourself in the shoes of the student and the parent. Ask yourself, "Is this assignment furthering my students' lives or just giving them busy work?"; and
- DO choose a book that is going to make the students enjoy reading. And, as an added bonus, pair it with a couple of recommended films with the same theme(s) or setting/mood for archetypes found in the book and suggest family movie nights. If you make summer reading interesting and fun, then the parents will enjoy it; and who knows, the students might gain and enhance their love for reading!
Keep writing (and reading)! And register for how to teach summer reading or any outside reading requirement. Two opportunities this summer: Wednesday, May 13, or Wednesday, July 15 webinar, Summertime and the Reading Is Easy, which includes more ideas and handouts!