Once again the girls have come home with their letters from the school talking about the grade-wide book that was chosen for required summer reading along with a catalog of titles to choose from to fill out the remaining minimum requirement of five books.
The problem: summer reading is not required by the school district’s curriculum, much less the state’s.
But that’s not how the letter reads, it’s not how the teachers present it to the kids, and it’s not how the kids see it. To them it is an annual requirement that threatens to impose homework upon their summers. Few parents question this requirement, and whenever the need for summer reading is questioned in general the response almost assuredly is that without it there would be an educational “slide” as kids reading muscles atrophied over the course of twelve weeks.
The problem: if summer reading is that necessary to prevent serious backsliding, why aren’t schools in session year-round?
Much like the requirement itself, there is an illusion presented to children in giving them book lists to choose elective titles from. For the better readers the lists are compiled of books they have either already read, or are beneath their reading level and thus less interesting; for the weaker readers the lists serve as an exercise in calculation, a question of combing the list to find the shortest books that require the least amount of commitment and effort. That either of these options somehow prevents a slipping in ability is never addressed in the documentation for summer reading.
The problem: is this really the sort of message we want kids to take away about reading, that it comes from a list that, in its attempt to be all-inclusive, actually leaves little room for kids to get excited?
I wonder at times if summer reading isn’t designed to make parents feel better about their children’s education, a way for schools to look like they’re being proactive in helping kids learn and excel and be better prepared for the following school year, and has nothing to do with kids. Unlike during the school year, when texts are discussed and analyzed in class, there are usually nominal reports attached to summer reading. For the required grade-wide book, those students who haven’t read it in advance find it is discussed during the first week of school where there are opportunities to “get caught up” and cram-read it then. They are not punished for failing the one thing “required” of them and they are quickly brought up to speed with the rest of the class. Never have I heard of a student who had problems or was held back during a school year for failing to do his or her summer reading.
The solution: stop telling kids they are required to do anything for the summer – repeatedly.
You can view this as a “trick” if you want to, but if you want a surefire way to get kids to do something tell them pointedly not to do it. Forbid sixth graders from reading YA books over the summer, especially specific titles, and watch the libraries have a run on those books as kids scramble to find out why. Granted, the titles would need to be choice titles with rewards for the curious, but the word of mouth would do what no summer reading list could.
Another solution: if going cold turkey proves too radical, stop assigning titles and instead assign kids to explore and read as many genres as possible.
I would much rather kids explore the types of books they don’t normally get in school, if for no other reason than to show them that there are books without ALA medallions on them. I think kids are smart enough to know what interests them and aren’t given enough credit to choose interesting titles without having their reading lives micro-managed.
As for the older kids we don’t really teach sci-fi or mysteries or horror in the schools, but does that mean they shouldn’t know they’re out there? In the days before summer reading – yes, they existed, I lived through them and survived – we used to read Stephen King and Jackie Collins and Frank Herbert on our own. I found Raymond Chandler and went on tear reading all the Marlowe I could. I read a few of Fleming’s Bond books as well. If I were a teen today I think I’d spend a summer reading Elmore Leonard.
Yet another solution: assign summer reading that requires the reader to take action.
Yesterday on the Guys Lit Wire blog I suggested Hoyle’s Rules for Games as a perfect summer reading book for boys. With that book, a deck of cards, maybe some dice, a kid could have a pretty good time filling in all the empty hours of a summer learning dozens of new ways to learn strategy and tactics. Logic and luck have plenty of lessons to teach, and there’s the added bonus of the book providing lessons in following rules and directions. And gambling.
But it could just as well have been a book on filmmaking. Or a book on science-based projects, or on website design, or any how-to book on any subject. I would much rather see a kid spend a summer mastering model rocketry, from design to execution complete with a notebook documenting their triumphs and experiments, then see them plow through a meaningless list of titles, selecting the four least-offensive on offer with nothing gained in the experience.
The ultimate problem: summer reading smacks of lazy education.
Like busywork, summer reading’s potential rests in the individual, and far too often it is presented as just another hurdle in an education system that looks to teach kids to achieve artificial goals rather than learn strategies for real and critical thinking. Reading for pleasure, yes, that’s good, but assigning pleasure reading turns it into a passive activity – one kids repeatedly call boring. Again, kids are smart enough to see that summer reading is another thing to get through and they approach it with that same lackluster approach they take to a mundane worksheet. It isn’t a question of assigning activities to the reading but finding a way to make the activity of reading as something desirable, something to pursue.
Required summer reading kills both the summer and reading. With all the recent hoopla over kids being over programmed and not having enough unstructured time to explore themselves and the world around them, I’m not convinced there are any real benefits in assigned summer reading.