With the warmth returning and shoots pushing back up through the soil, my mind goes to summer, relaxation, all that I hope to accomplish, and reading. What’s on my list that I haven’t touched yet? What goal do I want to set for myself? If I’m honest, I rarely meet the goal I set. I am a grand planner – I make lists of all I want to do, set up timelines of what should be finished by when, and every summer, without fail, August 1st comes as quite a shock.
I know this is the same for my students. Every year I tell them to not wait until August to begin, and every year, the emails start pouring in around two or so weeks before the new school year begins with questions and issues regarding summer reading assignments. We all wait. We all procrastinate. And that reminder brings me back to the same place every year around this time… what do we do about summer reading?
A wonderful teacher I know, Tricia Ebarvia, wrote a piece recently considering just this topic, and she raised an important question: what is it that we want to accomplish with it? In trying to answer this question, I always start with what I know from when I was in high school. I read books that got us started on the school year – things we would begin with, books to grapple with, books we could learn with. What I know was my teacher never gave us something that didn’t teach us about the world and about our place in it. Books and reading were not a skill-based assessment, as so often they are now, but about a life-based assessment. We spent weeks discussing what Crime and Punishment could teach us about forgiveness, guilt, and punishment. Are there crimes for which there is no repentance? How do we go about forgiving those who have wronged use? Is there room for love in those relationships? Healing? How do we forgive ourselves, above all?
Those were powerful conversations. I often find myself thinking back to those conversations and those two classes (European Literature Honors and AP Literature) to find my way as a teacher. I loved reading so much. From childhood. From as far back as I could remember. Even as a child, books were about forging relationships and managing them, about how to deal with loss or the stress of being a child having made a mistake. But in all of these musings, I remember then that not everyone has the relationship I did with reading. Not everyone has the philosophical debates in their heads the way I do – should Jane have ever ended up with Rochester? Was it weakness or was it forgiveness? Was it love or was it nostalgia? Instead, many of my students struggle with just the words on the page, getting through the plot and characters, never even getting to the point of philosophical debate because they’re struggling to understand just what happened in the novel.
So then if that’s the case, how does summer reading change? With my students who are not avid readers, who are even fearful readers, how can I give them reading to get them started on the class when they struggle to know what happened in the text? When reading itself is a battle all its own? When they struggle to appreciate the words on the page for the beauty I want them to see because they are still trying to understand the literal meaning of the sentence? This is a struggle foreign to me – I loved books, still do, and I loved school. I loved English class. I do not even remember learning to read. I just remember reading. All of my favorite teachers were and are English teachers. I would not have survived middle and high school without two of them in particular.
What do I do? Even a choice book list is daunting. For many students, they have not been reintroduced to books they might enjoy, that aren’t literary canon but instead teenage reality. Some don’t even know there are books written for their age group! When they get a “high interest books” list, many of my students shrug them off without even perusing the titles let alone the descriptions. Giving choice this way doesn’t necessarily encourage readers then either. So now what?
I’ve thought for a bit about the idea of starting summer reading early. Of giving book lists weeks before the end of school, giving book talks with the upcoming teachers, letting students search them on their own. Years ago, I went to a session at NCTE with two teachers from a Montessori school where teachers looped with the students. They each had them for two years and in the last month or two of their last year together, the new teacher came up and started with this new group of students with a month or so to go, got them started on what would come next year. It got me thinking of something like this for summer reading…
I imagine in the library, somehow, we bring down each class of students and have them listen to us talk about each book option, read a high-interest passage from each option, and then talk about it a bit more, perhaps offering anticipation guide-type questions to discuss the themes and ideas in the book. Maybe we even have previous students recorded, talking about how much they liked that book and why. Perhaps, after we go through all of the choices, we let students then walk around like we did back in elementary school, when the Scholastic book days came and the lecture hall was just row upon row of books waiting to be purchased and yearning to be read. Then, in the world in my head, the students get in groups and start reading with a teacher. Popcorn style, if the group chooses, or read-alouds from the teacher to start. Then we split out into comfy chairs or on the floor or in bean bags and just read for 30 minutes. What if we did this for a week? Two weeks? Really get the students started at the end of the year with a book they love and ask them to finish it over the summer? What if, from our modeling, that’s what we ask them to do when they come back? Give a book talk to a small group of peers in the class who read the other books and do what we did – summarize, read, and then talk about it.
It’s a rough idea. It’s a perfect representation of my idealism. It’s what I would love to do if I had all of the time, money, and support in the world. I also know it may not fix every reader by any means. Some say it takes 17 times for something to become a habit… who knows how true that is? None the less – after five days of it – maybe it could feel less stressful for our non-reader students. And then maybe, selfishly, I can start the year without, “I hate reading” tattooed across every forehead. Maybe.