Thoughts on Summer Reading Lists

Paul Hankins posted a link on Facebook to an article called “How to Choose Summer Reading for Students” published in today’s New York Times with the headline SOME BOOKS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.  Paul’s ideas and the article itself made me think about the summer reading assignment I handed out for this summer.

I’m teaching Honors Sophomore Seminar for the first time this fall and before me four other teachers have taught the class and made it their own.  From what I’ve gathered, past summer reading assignments have included Of Mice and Men and a reading packet and/or a test upon return, The Count of Monte Cristo and a reading packet and/or a test upon return, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and a reading packet and/or a test upon return.  I’m pretty sure essays were written at the beginning of the year too.  I’m not bashing or judging those assignments because I know they were assigned with good intentions, even if that’s not my style.  I understand the importance of the classics, but I decided to go about my summer homework assignment a little differently.  I have a blog page devoted to my summer assignment just in case my students lose their homework folder, but the short version of the assignment is that I asked them to read three books this summer.  They’ve been asked to read three novels from the Michael L. Printz list: one award winner and two honor books or two award winners and one honor book.

Right now I have 52 kids signed up (two sections of the class).  I’ve had about half of those students already this past school year, so many of them are acquainted with my teaching style and my love of reading.  I can hope that all 52 of my students will be reading to their heart’s content this summer, but I know many of them won’t be.  And if I were to hand them something like The Red Badge of Courage?  Yeah, some would read and love that book.  Many would look it up on Sparknotes to pretend they read it.  I don’t think any of the Printz books are on Sparknotes, but that’s not why I chose those novels.  I chose that list because it’s a good starting point when requiring YA for homework (in my opinion).  It’s a list of books qualified as “literary excellence” and having read many of them, I tend to agree.  I also chose that list of reading because the novels suit a variety of reading interests and levels; they’re also current.  I considered giving them a list of great books to read including non-fiction, graphic novels, fiction, etc, but even that list is objective.  I wanted to have a specific focus to their assignment while reading, hopefully, books they’ll enjoy since they’re choosing them from that list.  I didn’t design this summer homework assignment to instill a sense of fear in my students about how tough this class is going to be or to give them something to be held accountable for.  The purpose for their reading is to think critically about what they’re expected to read as college bound students.  The majority of our high school English curriculum involves reading classics.  With this in mind, I presented them with the challenge to read these Printz novels and think about the novels included on the college bound reading list.  Did I ask them to write an essay this summer? Yes.  And I know that some will agree with me for having them write an essay and others will disagree.  I’m having them write an essay to support the books they read being added to the college bound reading list or to oppose the books they read being added to the college bound reading list.  My reasons behind having them write the essay (which is due the second day of school) this summer is that we’ll be able to begin the year focusing on revision and learning to view writing as a process that, really, never ends.

Will their summer reading be relevant throughout the school year?  Yes.  I plan on creating an independent unit where the students will be required to read a book from the college bound reading list and reflecting back on their summer essays.  Plus, I know we’ll be reading independently throughout the entire year.  SSR isn’t just for freshmen (most of the 10th-12th grade classrooms don’t offer SSR).  My sophomores next year will be reading novels of their choice during SSR all year.

So writing this whole long post began because of that article I referenced.  Do I agree with it?  In short, no.  I don’t want to assign classics over the summer because like I already said, they’ll most likely go to Sparknotes and because I’d rather read the classics with my students.  I want the chance to discuss the classics openly with my students.  I understand the author’s idea that students can read those texts without worrying about questions and pressure from the teacher, but I also understand my role as the teacher and helping my students become better learners and readers.  I don’t agree with her claim that our higher readers will only increase their vocabulary by reading the classics.  I’ve read the classics all through high school and college and I’m still increasing my vocabulary when I’m reading YA.  If she’s worried about her students needing to build a better understanding of the world, I’d recommend she read Sold and Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick.  There’s also Ruta Sepetys’ beautiful debut novel Between Shades of Grey giving readers insight to a piece of world history barely covered in history classes or known about at all.  I could go on and on, but considering the length of this post I won’t.

Summer reading is apparently more of a touchy subject than I first thought.  Next June I’ll reflect on the year and maybe I’ll change my summer reading assignment.  Right now, however, I’m still happy with what I assigned because I know my administrators and what they expect and more importantly, I know my students.  I know many of my 52 students will need a starting place in the world of YA because I know many of them aren’t as acquainted with it as I’d like them to be.  I guess we’ll see how it went over in a couple months.

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