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.