Thinking About Summer Reading

See what others had to say about summer reading at Lee Ann Spillane's blog.

See what others had to say about summer reading at Lee Ann Spillane’s blog.


Over the last couple of summers, I have spent a great deal of time agonizing over summer reading assignments. Our district requires them for honors students – and since I teach two grades of honors, I need to craft two separate assignments. Since Teenage Me always viewed summer as a time of freedom – the freedom to stay up late and to sleep in, the freedom to not have school and homework monopolizing your time, and – most importantly – the freedom to read whatever the heck I wanted to read without guilt.

A few years ago I decided to incorporate an open-ended invitation to read in addition to the two books they were required to read. All they needed to do was read and make a list of titles they’d read to turn it in on the first day of school.  This made Teenage Me feel better about Teacher Me – that I was giving them choice and freedom and opportunity to read for their own enjoyment. I imagined the well-worn paths that led to and from the public library like the trails I used to leave.

So far I get a tremendous insight into my students” reading lives by checking out their lists. Who reads a lot – and who reads very little? Who doesn’t read much at all? Who is stuck on reading the same books over and over and over? What sorts of titles do they seem to enjoy? No one feels threatened that they haven’t read enough because I haven’t imposed rules on how much to read or what to read or how to read or any of that. It gives me a starting off point for students I may not have meet with yet.

With the assigned summer readings, I try to be careful not to burden my readers with so much that thye cannot possibly enjoy what they have read. My freshmen read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 this summer. (We have read Of Mice and Men and The Pull of Gravity over the summer in the past. I decided to save those for during the school year instead.) Their prime objective was to write a brief paper explaining which scene from each of the books was the most important – setting us up for the opportunity to debate in class with those as our preparation.

My seniors were able to choose from a list of classic and contemporary British authors, with the freedom to choose which of their works they’d like to read. Instead of writing about their books ahead of time, they were told to come prepared with notes on their novels to prepare us for discussion and analysis of the works within the time period they were written.

None of the assignments really should take massive amounts of time – nor should they seem intrusive to the reading experience. Because anything that makes reading a book purely an exercise in finding the answers to the packet is torture.  Two of my summer campers this year were assigned to read A Separate Peace. Along with the book, they got a lengthy packet of vocabulary, comprehension questions, and charts to fill out. At the end of each chapter, the girls would put their books down and finish page after page of paperwork before they could move on to the next chapter. It was soul-sucking to watch as they told me over and over again how awful the book was – even though they clearly hadn’t gotten far enough in to really know what was going on not could they fall into the world of the novel when they were looking for whatever information their teacher felt was most important. The burden of the busy-work killed any potential love for the novel itself.

All I could hope was that the teacher was going to actually go through all of that work and read it, appreciate the time and energy those girls put into the assignments…even if, ultimately, they could not find a way to divorce the frustration with the paperwork and the experience of reading the book, even if it was at a bit of a disadvantage strictly from being a “hafta book.”

My heart ached.

I don’t think that any teacher sets out to kill a love of reading – during the school year or over summer vacation – but I know from experience and from reading Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and from watching posts of former students and parents and librarians and fellow teachers in my social media streams that this happens, that we plan to send them off to read the Great Works over the summer with the hopes that they will fall in love with reading – only to find that it did the exact opposite.

I also don’t claim to have this all sorted out. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel like I do. It’s the beauty of teaching – once you recognize that there is always more to learn, you see opportunities to change your thinking and planning and teaching everywhere.

This is where I’m starting right now. Lee Ann Spillane has invited me along to reflect on various aspects of summer reading over the next few weeks – and I’m looking forward to posting with her weekly. Feel free to join us and offer your insight on the topic. If you’re too squeamish to blog yourself, feel free to leave comments on Lee Ann’s page with your thoughts.


6 thoughts on “Thinking About Summer Reading

  1. I really like the idea of asking for a list of titles read. Nonthreatening, but lets you get to know the students. It is so interesting that we often require summer reading of only honors and AP students – the ones who are most likely to read over the summer anyway.

    • I don’t know. I think that I have honors students who are just as likely to be “too busy” to read or not necessarily interested in books. They are often the kids who are hyper scheduled and very goal oriented — so reading for fun has not necessarily been at the top of their to-do list for a while. They are busy, but I realize that early on in the year and help them find time to be edge readers and that there ought to be some balance between their work and fun.

  2. I love the teen age you and the teacher you and how you describe how one informs the other. And I love the no risk reading list. I’m going to have to borrow that one. I appreciate your thoughts on the differences students’ lists reveal and how those lists, simple as they seem, have depths that you plumb for reading histories. The assigned classic titles made me wonder if we aren’t doing enough (isn’t that how it often is when we reflect on practice?). Thank you for sharing your thinking, Cindy. I hope you’ll continue with the series.

    • Borrow away! The lists are interesting places to start getting to know my students.
      There are a couple of reasons I assign classic titles: the practical reason is that I can get most everyone copies (this year I didn’t have enough for everyone – I have a record breaking 31 kids in my 9th grade honors class!) to borrow. Other reasons are that I love those books. We’ll talk about utopias and dystopias and debate and argue about the books (which they rarely see as applicable to their own lives until after our discussions) – meaning we can dive right in with some high end conversation at the beginning of the year. But you can dive in with some high end discussion over any common read. I will say that I get emails over the summer with questions about the books — there is a struggle with these two titles in particular. They almost always come in with the attitude that they hated one or both because they are irrelevant. (That ends up being a GREAT discussion!)

  3. We all need a teenage me to balance out the teacher me. Even now, I remember the details of my high school experience. I did not have required summer reading, but that was during the dark days of disco, circa 1977,

    • I didn’t have any summer reading that was required – and that was in the early nineties. The summer reading assignment seems to serve as a gate-keeping device rather than a means of encouraging summer reading: those who aren’t willing to do it choose not to take honors courses. (Or those who are unable to do it choose not to take honors courses…)
      I decided that when I fail to keep Teenage Me in mind when making decisions (as well as current students and Future Teenage Son), then I think I need to rethink why I’m in teaching.

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