Both of our daughters are avid readers. They read when they don’t have to. They know what it’s like to get lost in pages, stay up too late absorbed in a book, and be a fangirl for an author or series.
This summer they have read a lot of books. Our high school-age daughter went through the Mortal Instruments series for the second time, as well as The Fault in Our Stars, and some dabbling in Sarah Dessen. Our daughter who is starting middle school read some American Girl books, Hoot, The Magic Thief, some Lemony Snicket books, and re-read some favorite Harry Potter books.
She also read and enjoyed Jordan Sonnenblick’s Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. That last one was required by her school. A couple of her friends’ moms organized a book club to discuss it, and they all had a nice time talking about the book and eating pie. Jordan Sonnenblick will visit their school next fall, so there is likely to be some good follow-up on that book, although the summer reading and the school visit are more than two months apart.
Her school also required her to read Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee. She doesn’t want to read it. She says it doesn’t sound interesting. I read it and found it sort of lackluster. Spinelli’s Stargirl was much better. My guess is that Maniac Magee was chosen by her school because it theoretically appeals to boys. So, with six days left before the school year starts, she has to read a book that she doesn’t want to read.
Back to our high school daughter. Her summer reading requirement is to read either Marie Lu’s Legend or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. An objective test will be given over those books in the early days of the school year. Luckily, she read and loved Legend a year or so ago, so she just needs to freshen up that one. Because she is in an honors class, she is also required to read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. She will also have another test over this book. After she finished Things Fall Apart yesterday, I asked her to rate it. She gave it 1.5 out of 5 stars. Now it’s on to the other required summer reading title for her honors class: Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. For the Hosseini book, she has to write responses—no plot summary, please—to at least six of the eleven questions sent out by mail a few weeks ago from the teacher she hasn’t met yet. For those of you keeping track, students in that honors class are required to read three books assessed by six extended response answers to be completed before the first day of class, followed by two objective tests.
This is not how to develop young readers, and their father is not amused.
I have to wonder: What is the purpose of these assignments? Some possibilities:
1. To encourage reading over the summer? A worthy goal, no doubt about it, but my kids accomplished it without the required titles and assignments.
2. To provide a common text to begin the school year? Maybe there is some merit to this, but does the middle school class need two common titles, and the high school need three common titles? What can they possibly do with these multiple titles? And what about the kids who don’t read the required titles? Are they two or three titles behind everyone else for the rest of the year? Many teachers fudge this and give kids several days (or weeks) to finish their “summer” reading before any kind of academic penalties are applied. I guess that’s one way to reach the common text goal.
3. To encourage a love of reading? Fail and double-fail. My kids were excited about the books they chose to read on their own, and yes, Grace enjoyed the Jordan Sonnenblick book. But if encouraging a love of reading was a goal for the educators who designed these assignments, they missed the target. It wasn’t exactly counter-productive for my kids, but it also didn’t accomplish the goal.
4. To force compliance? OK. That happened, or it will have happened by the time they go off to school next week.
Let’s go through those possible purposes again with an eye toward how to make them realistic and valuable.
1. To encourage reading over the summer. Encouraging is different from requiring. True fact: When you require something, you destroy any intrinsic motivation that might be attached to it. Encouragement requires a softer touch, but it can be done.
2. To provide a common text to begin the school year. If a book is important enough for everyone to read, it should be saved for the beginning of the school year. Kids who read the required title in June will land in our classrooms differently than those who read it in late August. They both fulfilled the requirement, but the June reader is at a disadvantage over the August reader who might not have read anything else all summer. If you truly want a common text, it needs to be done during the school year. And those fudgers who give extra time to the kids who didn’t read all summer are simultaneously slapping the faces of those who fulfilled the assignment.
3. To encourage a love of reading. A love of reading derives from choice. We can help students grow as readers by modeling and recommending, but again, those are different from requiring. When we require certain titles and those awful assignments, we are not encouraging a love of reading. Requiring specific titles over the summer encourages the perspective that reading is nothing more than homework that will end after graduation.
4. To force compliance. Very few real-world reading experiences are based on compliance. Too many school-based reading experiences are based on compliance.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the school where I work has a summer reading requirement for all students. The requirements vary from class to class depending on the teachers making the decisions for each class. All classes have free choice, except for Advanced Placement classes and American Studies. All students are expected to read between one and three books over the summer and somehow report on their experience within the first few days of school.
This year I will have sophomores who fulfilled their requirement to read three books over the summer and seniors who were required to read one book over the summer. They will all write very public blog posts about their reading within the first few days of the new school year.
Schools tend to make decisions about their summer reading requirements in April and May. I hope schools will re-visit those decisions in September or October and question whether or not they met their goals, and whether and how to re-shape their approaches next summer.