The Nearly Painless Summer AssignmentMay 21, 2017
Summer. It is close enough I can smell the hotdogs, chlorine, and fresh cut grass. Ok, that smell might be coming from the neighbor’s house. They aren’t teachers spending Saturday morning grading papers, but I digress.
As we are approaching the end of the 2016-2017 school year, I’m vaguely thinking about what the next school year will hold. What worked this year? What did not? What can I do now to set up the next year for success?
Now, I am not planning for August in May. I simply cannot think about starting this all over again until I’ve had at least two weeks of uninterrupted recovery time (also known as my hibernation period of summer vacation). But, I can rethink one important aspect of my year: Summer Reading.
Oh, summer reading. The kids cringe when we pass it out, I cringe when I think about the piles of work that will then wait for me on day two.
Summer reading is a hot topic. What purpose does it serve? What purpose should it serve? Is it meaningful? What does research show?
After polling our students, reading up on the summer reading discussion, conferring with administration, and working together within our department, my teacher buddy Sarah Ferry and I have redone our summer assignment. And, I’m not dreading it in August.
Summer Reading Research
Thanks to @MrsFerryHHS and her techy know-how, we surveyed about fifty honors seniors on their opinions regarding summer assignments. Surprisingly, though they wanted less work, they had pretty common opinions about why we assign them:
Their views of the assignments themselves, however, showed a different story:
Personally, I think summer reading is absolutely important, especially for those who would identify as “nonreaders”. Continuing reading keeps students’ brains engaged. On the other hand, there are justifiable arguments to the contrary. Should students be allowed to just “check out” over the summer? How much of the work are the students actually doing? Does it encourage students to read, or does it keep them from reading what they want? This series of articles from the New York Times a few years ago offered some perspective. This article from Teach Argument was also very helpful in our discussion.
- The summer slump is real. Various studies indicate a decrease in reading achievement over the summer. This is most significant in already low achieving students and those from low income backgrounds because of the lack of access to those reading materials
- Summer assignments can prepare students for skills that will be needed in the school year.
- Summer assignments may introduce students to texts that they would not necessarily interact with on their own.
- Procrastination. We all know that a good number of our kids wait until the last minute to do assignments. Summer Reading is no exception. So, is it meaningful if they are cramming the whole thing into the last week of vacation?
- Is work done without the teacher’s assistance building skills, or is it busy work?
Based on my reading on the topic, summer assignments tend to fall into a few categories:
- Work intended to jumpstart the curriculum: All students are assigned the same text that will act as the first text discussed in class. In my AP course, the purpose is very different than in my sophomore class. We do work that will prepare for the skills needed throughout the year, and it is effective in getting my students used to the terms and skills they will need in the year.
- Work intended to encourage reading: Providing students with higher interest novels, often giving a choice from a variety of texts. This is intended to expose students to new books and hopefully provide them with a story that they enjoy. This is what our sophomore assignment used to be.
- Work intended to be a “gatekeeper” for a class: Summer assignments often distinguish an honors class from one that is not. The thought behind this is well intended. If students are not willing to do the summer work, we worry that they will similarly not keep up with work throughout the school year. However, if our assignment is intended purely to keep kids “out” of our class, we need to reconsider its purpose.
So, how to we make summer reading work for the teacher and for our students? This is our idea:
You can access the entire document here.
The only assignment our students will do with their novel is to choose and analyze five quotes. No bells and whistles creative project like previous assignments we’ve used. Rather, we are going to use this independent reading in the first weeks of the school year. Students will share their book in the form of a book talk when we return. We will also use their choice book to jumpstart our discussion of important skills like archetypes, themes, and characters.
Why we like this:
Our students get to read what they are already interested in. We are providing them with a short list of interesting titles, but we want them to have choice in their reading. As we know from research a la Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, students form positive attributions towards reading more through independent reading than reading that is forced and “worksheeted” to death.
We are providing them with a list of possible topics:
Why we like this:
Again, students will be reading things they already find interesting. They will go deep into topics, into the rabbit holes that we rarely have time to encounter during the school year. Hopefully they will find new interests through this reading. Regardless, this will encourage them to read widely and will inform them about current events. This will set them up for the skills that we will use throughout the school year, like analyzing bias and argument. Additionally, the writing they will be doing is manageable and based on real world writing.
We hope to engage our colleagues in other departments with this reading as well. Students reading up on new science research would be able to talk with their science teachers, those interested in art and culture may chat with their art teacher. We want to foster a culture of readers, and that doesn’t always mean that we are reading fiction.
I’m excited about this assignment (as is my administrator, which is icing on the cake). Summer reading has been stressful for me and for my students in my last five years of teaching, but I truly think that this one is going to work well.
It is my hope that we will encourage our students to be curious and to think deeply. Isn’t that the purpose of education?
What are your thoughts on summer reading? What ideas have worked for you? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all five years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. She a not a hipster, but adamantly proclaims that she liked coloring books before they were cool. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.