All over the country grade school, middle school, and high school students are scrambling to finish their summer reading assignments and projects. Some have put off reading a 300-page book to the very last minute and now finishing it in time to complete the assignment seems a daunting task. In the coming week, which is the week before school starts here in Montgomery County, Maryland, I anticipate many emails asking for clarification of the writing assignments and art-based projects for the books I require my rising 7th and 8th graders to read. Of course, the emails will be fraught with typos, grammar errors, and the ever present “texting” language. After taking a deep breath, I will respond cheerfully to the questions and point them to the detailed instructions for the projects and the rubrics for grading them, which I posted on the school’s website at the start of the summer.
When these emails begin flooding into my mailbox, I inevitably want to say, “Why did you wait until the last minute to start this?” but I won’t. They most likely have heard it from their parents, or it may already be obvious to them, and if not, this lesson may or may not be learned by them in the future. Some never learn this lesson at all. Well begun is half done, right? This famous quote is attributed to Aristotle’s Politics, a work of political philosophy. If ancient Greek philosophy is not your style, how about the 1964 classic Mary Poppins? She also quoted this to her young charges when enticing them to clean up the nursery. For many, however, procrastination rules the day. I must admit, I am guilty of this myself…although never for anything having to do with reading.
At the end of each school year when I go over the summer reading assignments with the soon to be 7th and 8th graders, I always advise them to start their summer reading the very next day. Finals are over, the sun and sand of summer awaits; get those books and start reading, a few pages a day. Summer reading is just that: reading over the summer, the whole summer. It is not meant to be binge reading, condensed into a few days’ time, with the loss of freedom and the promise of scheduled wake-ups and bedtimes looming in the near future.
During the first few days of school each year we always discuss what we each did over the summer. As I teach in an affluent neighborhood, the responses from my students include family vacations abroad or somewhere tropical, weeks at their beach houses, elite sports camps, and swim team practices and meets at their country club pools. My summers growing up were quite different. During my pre-teen and teenage years, my father was self-employed as a soft drink distributor for the 7-Up Bottling Company. Taking a week off was not an option as he would have had to pay someone to take his routes for him for that week. That, combined with the expense of a family vacation for the five of us, simply wasn’t in the cards. So, my early summers were spent at the public library, where I devoured large numbers of books, many of which were read sitting on the cool, terrazzo floors between the stacks in the fiction or biography sections. Reading about far-away places was my vacation. During high school, my mornings were spent at the local public pool teaching swimming lessons and working as a lifeguard in the afternoons. My first “vacation” was at the end of 8th grade, when my aunt and uncle took me on my first airplane trip to see my cousin graduate from college. We only crossed the state of Louisiana on that short 45-minute airplane ride but I was in heaven. I remember every detail from that trip, including the Plum Nuts Cake I had at the home of my cousin’s roommate. A foodie in the making, I asked Mrs. Ory for the recipe so I could make the cake for my mom when I got home. I still have the 3×5 index card with the recipe on it, and I still make that cake today-it is always a smash hit.
Why is summer reading and other independent reading important? I’m not really asked that by the parents of my students. They know it is important, but somehow, reinforcing that at home is difficult in today’s fast-paced society. Sports is part of it. Summer sports camp is required to maintain and improve their skills so they will make the teams in the fall and spring. If they make certain teams, they will be noticed by high school coaches. High school coaches from the private and Catholic schools sometimes have the ability to influence admission decisions. Playing and winning in high school means being noticed by college coaches. And, college coaches can influence not only admission decisions, but offer scholarships as well.
But, what if a student gets injured and can’t play that sport any longer? What if they aren’t really good enough for college sports? During a difficult parent meeting about a 7th grade student who was struggling with reading comprehension and writing in my class during my early years as a teacher, the father of this young boy told me his son would be playing basketball in high school and college, and given his height and prowess at the sport, he didn’t need tutoring or additional support in language arts. In fact, the student himself had told me that he was going to play in the NBA and then be a sports attorney after he retired from professional basketball. I’m not sure how he thought he was going to make it through college and law school if he couldn’t read and understand a short story in a 7th grade textbook. I’ve quietly tracked that student over the years, and I am sad to report that it didn’t actually work out the way the father (or the student) planned it.
A quick Google search will bring up many studies about the pros of summer reading to combat the “summer slump” and loss of skills as well as the importance of independent reading in the middle school years. In a short two page report, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction stated the following bullet points:
- Numerous studies have shown that reading over the summer prevents “summer reading loss.”
- Summer reading loss is cumulative. Children don’t “catch up” in fall because the other children are moving ahead with their skills. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer are two years behind their classmates.
- Reading 4 or 5 books over the summer can have a significant impact for middle school readers.
So, in response to the question “Why is there assigned summer reading?” I say, “Read ’em or weep.” In other words, read now or pay later. The statistics are clear.
When selecting the books I assign for summer reading for my students, my goal is one classic and one more contemporary work. My rising 7th graders read Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea and Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a work of realistic fiction, albeit historical to these young pre-teens, set in the 1960’s on Long Island, New York. The protagonist in Schmidt’s book is a 7th grade boy who is left behind on Wednesday afternoons when half of his class is dismissed an hour early to attend religious education at the Catholic church and the other half of his class heads to the temple for Hebrew lessons. Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian in the class and the principal looks down his chart of teachers and their planning periods and assigns Holling to Mrs. Baker, the middle school English teacher, for that hour. As any teacher can imagine, Mrs. Baker is not happy about losing her planning period to be saddled with one student in her room. At first she attempts to make his life miserable by having him clean her classroom. As any normal 7th grade boy will tell you, cleaning the blackboard and erasers is infinitely better than having two periods of English class in the same day! Once Mrs. Baker figures out that Holling is not miserable enough with the cleaning tasks, she assigns him Shakespeare plays to read. That should do it, she thinks, he will be miserable! However, Holling, who is a good-natured young man even though he can’t attribute this to the saints or the Torah, begins to see the deeper meaning of the Shakespeare plays and how he can apply them to his own life, which is complicated by his parents’ lack of involvement in his activities and accomplishments. The Wednesday Wars is a great coming of age novel, with lots of sports, middle school pranks, and early adolescent stirrings mixed in with a very clever introduction to Shakespeare’s most popular plays.
My rising 8th graders read Steinbeck’s classic The Pearl and Agatha Christie’s well known mystery Murder on the Orient Express. As the protagonist in Orient Express is the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the novel is filled with French phrases and utterances. The summer before, these same students will have read The Old Man and the Sea, which takes place in a fishing village near Havana on the coast of Cuba. This novella is filled with Spanish phrases and utterances. This is not by accident. Our school is fortunate to offer two foreign languages: French and Spanish. Students are introduced to both languages in first grade and then in second grade they choose the language program they wish to pursue through middle school where they will have foreign language three days a week. We are also fortunate that the faculty members for both languages are native speakers, which is an enormous benefit to the students in learning proper pronunciation. As a result, many of our students test out of either freshman Spanish or French.
A secondary goal in my choice of literature for their summer reading, as well as during the school year, is to broaden the world view of my students and to help them associate important literature and authors with world events and time periods. Studying the Medieval era in social studies while reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman in literature brings the students to a richer, deeper meaning of this important time period and how it shaped England and the rest of the world. Because we are a Catholic school, it is easy to bring religion into the literature classroom with this award-winning novel which features heavily the importance of the Church and the lives of the saints in the daily life of all classes of people in Medieval England.
My 7th graders have one project each for the two summer reading books: an artsy project for The Old Man and the Sea, a travel brochure for Havana, Cuba; and an essay for The Wednesday Wars. In the first person narrative they are to write about what would be their own Wednesday war, which subject would they hate to have twice a day like the protagonist in the novel. As you might expect, a lot of students choose math as the one subject they would hate to have twice a day each Wednesday. A few say science, although not many given how much they love our science teacher at my school. A few say foreign language, but this is more about the lack of self-confidence they feel in having to deal with either Répétez, s’il vous plait or Puedes repetir eso, por favor in their respective classes.
Only a brave few, however, dare to say literature. That essay is their first introduction to me, as I will be teaching them for the first time. They obviously don’t want to start off on a bad foot with me, so they hide the fact that they secretly hate reading for several weeks into the school year, when I begin to notice a distinct reluctance to read aloud or shoddy work on reading comprehension questions. If only I could “flip the switch” on these students, change their minds about reading, turn them into lifelong readers who enjoy reading for leisure. If only I could liquefy and bottle the feelings I had as a middle school student, sprawled on the cool, terrazzo floors of the Port Sulphur Public Library, as I read my way through book after book, constantly learning new words, experiencing new places, meeting new people, tasting new cultures. I would spritz them all with this eau de lisant if only I could.
Evers, Tony, PhD, State Superintendent. “Why Public Library Summer Reading Programs Are Important.” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.