I have not written a blog post in quite a while. Well, actually, I haven’t finished a blog post in a while. The end of basketball season, which finished with a loss in our conference championship game and us narrowly missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth, was quite busy, and once I got out of the habit, writing was always the thing that got pushed to the back burner. For my loyal readers, all two or three of you, I apologize for being away for so long.
Recently I’ve been reading an online discussion about summer reading for students, and I thought I’d use this post to add my perspective on this topic.
Our school does not mandate any kind of summer reading. I do think it is important for kids to keep reading over the summer, though, so I do everything I can to increase the likelihood that students will keep reading once the school year ends.
During the school year, my students always choose their own books. I work with them to set goals throughout the year in several areas, and this includes their book choices and how much they read. Each time we hit an extended break in the school year—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break—students create individual reading plans, which vary quite a bit from student-to-student. At the end of the school year, we do this too: I work with each student to create a plan for the reading he or she will do during the summer. These are then shared with parents so they can encourage them to keep reading. If students don’t complete them, there’s no penalty. I’ll talk to students when I see them next fall to see how things went, what their favorite books were, and things like that, but there’s nothing for them to fill out, nothing they need to do to prove that they’ve read.
In addition, I encourage students to take books home with them for the summer. This happens in two ways. First, I let students check books out of my classroom library for the summer. I know some people might be afraid that books won’t come back, but in several years of doing this, I’ve only had one book disappear, so this has not been a problem. Second, I have a couple cupboards in my room that I fill with books I’ve taken off my shelves each year. Some are books that I’ve replaced with newer copies, others are ones I just didn’t have room for anymore, and in some cases I get extra copies of books at library bag sales that will go straight into the cupboard for the end of the year. Then, during the last week, I set out all the ones I have accumulated and allow students to take whatever they want.
Another thing we do is create summer book groups. In a couple weeks, students who are interested will come in at lunch, and we’ll work together to choose books that we’ll read and discuss during the summer. Students can participate in as many of them as they want. My only rule is that we have to choose books I haven’t read yet. We usually choose 2-4 titles each summer. Last year we read York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby and The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer Nielsen.
If we as a school ever do institute required summer reading, I hope that it will look similar to this, teachers working with students to create individualized plans for the summer. Since my students choose their books during the school year, obviously I am in favor of choice during the summer. But if your school has assigned books during the school year, I think choice is even more important for the summer. For nine months, students are told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it over and over again. That shouldn’t carry over to the summer too: we need to protect this time by giving them choice in what they read.
In addition, I would fight against any kind of busy work associated with summer reading. Reading is enough. However, if something else had to be attached, I’d have them write a review for our class book review blog, post their reactions on an online class discussion, or just send me an email during the summer to let me know what they’re reading and their reactions to the book(s).
Finally, I would argue against incentives, the kinds of extrinsic rewards that tell students reading isn’t enough by itself, that it’s only worth doing if there’s a pizza party at the end. A big part of my job is to help kids experience the rich rewards of getting lost in a great book. While I’m not going to claim I’m successful with every student, a vast majority of students do experience this during their time in seventh grade and don’t need a prize to motivate them (which is part of the reason I’ve changed so much about how students are assessed in my class). They want to read because the books are just that good.
In the end, the groundwork for summer reading is laid during the school year. Being successful at reaching students, at helping them to find that first great book and then the next one after that, all of that is the key to setting up summer reading. And if a few kids don’t read a whole lot during the summer, I’m actually ok with that. Most of them finish more books during seventh grade than they’ve ever read before, some probably more this year than they have in all the prior grades combined. So if a few of them need a bit of break, that’s ok. I know they’ll get back at it when the next school year rolls around.