Five of the most common problems and five solutions that just might change the summer reading conversation at your school
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In the first decade of my teaching career, I think the number one most hotly debated issue every year was SUMMER READING. When I was new, everyone seemed so opinionated and fired up, so my tendency was to crawl into my little shell and stay quiet.
Then, something changed. I gained more experience. I learned about the lives of my students. And I finally began to see how important a summer reading program was for my students -- especially my minority and low-income students. Suddenly, I started to feel the fire, too. The “summer slide” is a powerful force that knocks students off track who were making progress. Students struggling with literacy all school year fall further behind during the summer months when the “faucet” (an analogy described by the Brookings Institute) is turned off. We NEED to do something, but in high school, we face a plethora of challenges.
For this article, I interviewed teachers on social media and drew from my experiences at two different districts. Here are the problems I found and some solutions that I propose. I’d love to hear your feedback and additional suggestions because we are in this together!
1. THE KIDS DON’T READ.
This one needs no explanation. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all heard the excuses. We know they’re faking it. We know they’re using every website on planet earth to pretend they read. We know some won’t even use Sparknotes to fake it -- they’re straight up refusing.
First of all, maybe it’s time to start reconsidering what constitutes a summer reading program. Must it always be novels? Research shows that while reading is a critical component to preventing summer slide, in the bigger picture, it's’ really about literacy and exposure to language in many contexts. Maybe we need to think bigger than a summer reading list and develop a program that encourages students to encounter and explore other kinds of literacy, too:
If you’re committed to a reading list, consider expanding the list to include popular nonfiction.
If you have requirements, try adding optional additions or accompaniments. For example, if you have students reading Fahrenheit 451 over the summer, pair it with the podcast Limetown. If the kids skip reading the bigger reading assignment and just do the smaller one, at least they’ll have exposure to the genre and something to talk about in August!
Try thinking of summer reading as a PROGRAM rather than an ASSIGNMENT. I like to share summer slide statistics with my students and give them a BINGO sheet to attempt to complete over the summer. I have them bring the sheet back to me at the start of the school year for some silly (free or inexpensive) prize and we talk about their summer vacations. We’ve also used hashtags to stay in touch over social media, such as #stopsummerslide.
Come to terms with the fact that some kids aren’t going to read. They’re just not. What we CAN control, however, is the program and the HYPE. If we keep our expectations high, praise and get excited about the kids who are into it, most kids will join in. But yes, some won’t. And that’s okay. Plan a day for teachers to go visit future students and talk about the books. Create Snapchat book trailers. Build a summer reading energy that can’t be missed!
Don’t throw everything out the window because you know some of the kids don’t read. Check out #3 for more on the fakers and nonreaders...
2. PAYING FOR (OR MAKING KIDS BUY) THE BOOKS.
This one is uncomfortable and difficult. What to do? Expecting all kids to purchase the book can seem unfair in some contexts, but in others, it sets an academic expectation. But, then, there’s no money in the budget to send every kid home with a book. But we’re still going to expect them all to read (so many emojis could go here…) Then we have the kids who want to get library books and audiobooks: English teachers panic because HOW ARE THEY GOING TO ANNOTATE?!
A: Decide how much you really care about annotating. And as you think about that, be honest with yourself: even though it’s “best practice”, which of your kids is taking a highlighter and pen AND their book on vacation? Probably not your struggling readers -- and if we’re honest again, that’s really who needs this reading experience the most. If you can eliminate the annotation barrier, there’s one less thing standing between a reluctant reader and summer reading. This also opens up several options for FREE BOOKS.
Audible: The first book on Audible is free!
Project Gutenberg: 58,000 ebook titles for free, yo!
B: If you really DO care about annotating, consider making a colorful, bound annotation journal. When the annotating or reading reflection takes place in a separate booklet, no post-its are required and a library book is a-okay.
C: Create a list or allow students as much choice as possible. Encourage them to find hand-me-down or cheaply purchased books from thrift stores. The Goodwill in our area always has a huge selection of paperbacks for .50 each, but you’ll need an open mind when it comes to approving titles that kids find.
D: If your school can find a small budget for books, try to create a list your team can stick to for a few years. This ensures that there will be books every year and you’ll only have to replace a handful at a time
3. CHOOSING THE BOOK(S).
Do we do one book one school? Books that connect to the start of the next year of English? Total free choice? Easy or rigorous? Choosing books can have English departments at a standstill. I’m going to offer a solution that I like, but that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of merit to other choices!
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably already guessed my solution: it’s all about the ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS! I think the best bet for any department, the best way to offer balance between choice and focus, “beach-reads” and rigor, is to harness the power of the Essential Question. Create a list of books (as short or long as you like!) that all respond to an Essential Question. You could have one question as a whole department and the same list for all grade levels OR each level could come up with their own Essential Question and their own list. There are a lot of reasons why I like this option, but here are a few just to start:
A strong Essential Question creates an umbrella. For example, imagine an English department decided that the summer reading Essential Question would be: At what point is it critical to speak up in the face of injustice? Here’s what the reading list could look like, and I don’t know about you, but this list looks pretty exciting to me:
A strong Essential Question offers choice, but also offers a focal point for assessment. Now that all students are on on a quest to answer the same question across a variety of texts, the stage is set beautifully for thoughtful assessments such as socratic seminar, one pagers, gallery walks, screencast videos, and other digital media. So, instead of feeling the pressure to scaffold the reading list, teachers can simply scaffold the difficulty of the assessment given in the fall. Continuing with the example given above, an AP course could as some tough questions in a socratic seminar, whereas a freshman course might do some work with characterization or plot diagramming to help them arrive at an answer for the Essential Question.
4. SUMMER READING ASSESSMENTS START THE SEMESTER OFF WITH BAD GRADES.
For a while, I remember teachers (myself included!) giving ridiculously hard multiple choice quizzes on the summer reading. I guess we thought that we could shame and punish the kids for not reading over the summer and send a message that the class was going to be tough and they better start reading...but, I also don’t really remember that working. The consistent problem is that if we assign summer reading, we have to assess it. And if students are perpetually NOT doing the reading, then their first assessment grade will be in the toilet. And no one likes starting the year with half of their students failing…
I’m takin’ it back to Essential Question based assessment, or, at least, project based assessment. When students are assigned a project and asked to use a text to respond to a question, it’s no longer a “gotcha” kind of assessment. Here are some ways to help make it work:
Give the assignment before students leave for the summer. If all classes are coming back to create a digital media project, let them know! Knowing that they’ll be expected to produce something creative might light a fire under a few of them that weren’t really planning on reading in the first place.
Assign projects that take several days to complete in class. Hint, hint: this gives the non-summer readers a few extra days to knock out a good chunk of the book without you *technically* knowing. If the book is read June 4th or during the first three days of school, does that really matter to you? No, because they finally read something!
Choose projects where you can assess more than just their reading comprehension. If a student didn’t read but still participated actively in a socratic seminar discussion, his grade might not be an “A”, but it also won’t be an “F”. Projects, discussions, and other types of creative assessment give students a chance to showcase their thoughts on the Essential Question which will help them connect to their classmates, your course, and keep them in an acceptable grade range. I usually offer them five choices in assessment types and then grade them all on one rubric that focuses on theme, big ideas, and the essential question.
5. COORDINATING LOGISTICS BETWEEN COLLEAGUES AND DEPARTMENTS.
There are always students moving between levels or between schools that somehow arrive to class in the fall and have (or claim to have) no idea what was supposed to be happening over the summer. I taught at a school with a huge ESL program for a long time, and it was always difficult to get the right reading list to the right teacher for the right student graduating into a specific course level.
See Solution #3 & #4 - an Essential Question based *suggested* list makes it easy for kids to hop in, prepared or not, to the assessment by simply drawing from their reading background from other classes. If, in fact, the student did actually move to the district during the first week of school, no problem! Hop into this assignment and tell us what you think about standing up in the face of injustice. When assessments are Essential Question based instead of plot based, you’ll give yourselves a bit more flexibility in this area.
I hope some of these solutions are helpful at your next department meeting as you attempt to tackle the monstrous responsibility of summer reading. Whether you’re working on it as a team or solo, know that your work is important. Making reading fun, exciting, and AVAILABLE to kids all year round is an important extension of our work in the classroom. Keep up the great work and let me know what else you’re doing that’s WORKING!