By Sara DeMartino

Institute for Learning

As the parent of a rising 9th grader and as a former high school English teacher, I was pumped for my child’s open house this past week. I love high schools. I love that they encompass the promise of the future. I love that they smell like musty books. My 9th-grade students were my favorite. I could watch them grow from shy new kids wandering the halls to confident budding activists and intellectuals – the future of our community. I loved to learn about them throughout the year, talking to them about their interests, and reading about them in their journals. I would use what students taught me about themselves to point them towards books that would inspire and challenge their thinking and spark curiosity. This was reading I asked them to do independently and then share their experiences with the class through a project of their choice. I love books and I wanted to help my students discover the books that would inspire them to be readers, which in turn would impact their reading and writing proficiency.

So, you can imagine how excited I was when my daughter, Maria, and I wandered into the English wing at the high school. The pithy posters with Shakespearean insults and the classroom libraries filled with well-worn books with broken spines took me right back to my own classroom. I prided myself on the selection of books students could check out and the frequency with which students would show up during lunch or before school looking for something to read.

As we meandered through the English classrooms, we saw it. A small sign screaming with big bold print “9th GRADERS LOOK HERE!” with a QR code and a shortlist. The summer reading list. And I had to school my reaction real fast – A Tale of Two Cities and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Not the engaging summer reads that I could see building students’ love of reading.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s instructional value to having kids read Dickens and Shakespeare (although I’d love us to move further and further away from the old white man cannon). But independently? Over the summer? That’s an easy no.

How would kids who have never been exposed to Shakespearean language deal with untangling English that resembles a foreign language on their own? What context do students bring to Dickens when they haven’t studied the French Revolution? What happens to students who are still in the process of learning English? The answer is that like most eager students, they will open the books, they will give it a try, they will get frustrated, they will get discouraged, and then they will find something better to do with their time during the summer (and so would I).

Just because mom and dad had to read it, doesn’t mean that their children need that same experience.

As you prepare your summer reading lists, remember that summer reading should be an opportunity to help your students K-12 build a love of reading. Summer reading is not a time to get students caught up on literature you may not have had the opportunity to teach – especially after the madness and stress of the 2020-2021 school year. It’s also not the time to continue a tradition – just because mom and dad had to read it, doesn’t mean that their children need that same experience (equality does not equal equity). As educators, we use summer reading to help prevent some of the “summer slide” that kids experience once the last bell of the school year rings. When schools mandate required titles, they send the message that students are incapable of making good choices with literature and are not capable of being independent learners. However, we can prevent that slide and still keep students engaged in building their reading muscles by asking them to read one relevant and engaging text selected by a panel of educators and students, allowing the class to have a shared reading experience, and one text that students self-select.

A district’s goal for summer reading should be to help students continue to build their independent reading skills and to foster a love of reading. Students who take up summer reading typically have access to compelling books and choice in what they read (Shin & Krashen, 2008). To achieve a reading program with books that engage students, student voice should be central to summer reading lists – after all, if you really want to know what students want to read, what better way than talking to them about it? Consider creating a panel that is comprised of teachers, students, and the school librarian to discuss choices for summer reading in an open and safe environment. The discussion with students should not simply ask, “Hey, what do you want to read?” But should be a conversation with students about what they are interested in and what they want to know more about. Ask students about their previous experiences with summer reading and when it has gone well and when it has been a bad experience. And then yes, ask them which books they really love and would recommend to their friends and why.

The best way to find out what students are interested in reading is to ask them! Let them help create the summer reading list. Try a student-wide survey to collect potential titles.

Working from students’ comments, begin to dig into current young adult and contemporary literature (The ALA Printz Award list is a great place to start). Select one text that is relevant to what the student panel shared and that would be engaging for students to read, and then compile a list of novels that students can select additional readings from. Share your lists with students, get their feedback and ask them about ways they think they should share what they’ve learned from completing the summer reading once they are back in school in the fall. As you compile your lists, keep in mind the diverse learners that you have in your classroom. Consider their cultural and linguistic backgrounds as well as their areas of interest. Consider adding some less traditional readings – graphic novels or digital texts, for example The Boat by Matt Huynh. Be sure to include novels available in the languages spoken by your students, this is especially important for those who are still developing English language proficiency. Look for novels that have high quality translations too.

Centering students in the decision making about what they read during their free time in the summer has led to both increased student participation in summer reading and teacher satisfaction with the summer reading program (Lu, 2009). Liberating our students from the traditional confines of required summer reading takes some work, but if we begin to trust in our students and their abilities to take ownership of their learning, we’ll find that rather than having to dread the work required over the summer, students may begin to embrace using their free time to read a good book.

Lu, Y. L. (2009). Engaging students with summer reading: An assessment of a collaborative high school summer reading program. Journal of education for library and information science, 90-106. Shin, F. H., & Krashen, S. D. (2008). Summer reading: Program and evidence. Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.