The Gift of Summer Reading

There has been no shortage of discussion on the topic of summer reading, but as ’tis the season, here’s another piece! As the end of the year approaches and a flurry of school events come and go, it seems to be the library-mission related topic that is most visible and most on the minds of school community members at the moment.

This will be our third year of using a student-driven summer reading model first inspired by a presentation from a fellow independent school librarian at our state affiliate organization conference several years ago. I know many schools have been approaching summer reading in similar ways and each school whose summer reading process I’ve taken note of “does” summer reading a little differently to fit their own school mission and reading community. I’ve learned a few things about summer reading at our school over the last two years and I’m sure I have more to learn this year as things come together.

To sum up our method: starting in the winter, I recruit Summer Reading Leaders (SRLs) from the ranks of returning students in grades 9-11 (rising sophomores-seniors). I make announcements, send out visually appealing emails, and speak face-to-face with students.

Together we select a book for each of them to put forth as an Upper School summer reading option. Some of these students know a book they’d like to share immediately, others need suggestions to choose from or a little re-direction. Once the list is final, the rest of the students rising to grades 9-12 fill out a Google form asking for their top three favorites from the list. I arrange the students into reading groups based on these preferences. Nearly everyone is assigned to their first choice reading group.

When we return to school, a one-hour Summer Reading Group session is built into the orientation/pre-season sports days. The SRLs are in charge of leading discussions, or, for the more ambitious, activities during this time.

I am always thrilled to see which students might volunteer to be SRLs and to see positive responses from those who are so happy to be asked. I am often tickled by their book choices, too.

The benefits of this approach:

  • More choice means more student buy-in and excitement around summer reading. The peer-chosen factor is a big one here.
  • We start the year on a positive note around reading. The idea is that everyone is reading something of their choice which ideally they also enjoyed.
  • Through their choices, I get to know the students better as readers; especially those who don’t read for pleasure as much or new students who need to be welcomed into the library.
  • When a SRL needs help choosing a book, I get a chance to promote something that deserves more readers, or else provide overlap with Reading Olympics or the PA Young Readers Choice Award.

Of course there are also The Challenges

  • When it comes to recruiting SRLs, it’s easy to think first of the students you know to be voracious readers. However, other students want to be involved too. They might just need to be asked. They are likely to bring great additions to the list. (I aim for enough SRLs to have reading groups of about ten students and to provide enough diversity in the book options.) 
  • Relatedly, balancing the list takes careful consideration, as Christina Pommer posted a few years ago. The list has to appeal to many different reading preferences.
  • There are some students who don’t read the summer reading book. I survey the students anonymously after the groups meet, with one of the questions being “Did you read the book?” Most have either responded “Yes” or “I read most of it.”

Lessons learned

  • Last year we had a couple of repeated books from the year before led by new SRLs. I was happy that I still had the previous year’s reading group rosters, as some students wanted to sign up for the book they had already read the previous year. While I was pleased they had enjoyed it so much the first time, I could refer to the old roster and assign them to their second choice.
  • Keep Admissions informed of the process. Make book selection easy and friendly for new students. Seeing their book choices come in during the summer is a great entry to getting to know them before the year starts.
  • It may be that the students who initially resist assigned Summer Reading will make great SRLs because it’s the SRLs who have the most choice in their Summer Reading selection. 
  • Check that the books are easily available; internationally, if applicable. A book fair can really help with this, or hold a book downloading help session before the end of the year.

Through most of the school year, I worry that Upper School students generally don’t seem to be reading for pleasure very much. Though we put together physical and virtual book displays, promote new and seasonal titles through email and social media, set up pop-up libraries in different spots around campus, participate in Reading Olympics and book talk for classes and clubs, often it seems that this dynamic collection of super-awesome books is going unnoticed, spines in near-perfect condition with nary a stamp on the date due slip. I wonder whether I am promoting the collection enough, or selecting and purchasing books the students want to read. Maybe students are just not interested in reading library books, preferring to watch TV shows or read on Wattpad when their hearts and minds need a story.

While these are important things to evaluate, I often forget about the simple and real factor of time. Like many of us, our busy college-prepping students just don’t have that much time during the school year to curl up with a good book that they love. Some make the time, but it’s hard to do. When a break rolls around, I am delighted by the reading that is all of a sudden part of the imagery of “how I will spend my summer vacation.” That’s when many students are ready to have a book put in their hands. When given the chance and an enticing array of  choices many will welcome summer reading as the gift a good book is.

There are a lot of great summer reading ideas to be found on the AISL wiki, listserv, and other places. I’d love to see a comprehensive database of different summer reading approaches in our schools, so we can see others’ ideas and lessons learned. Anyone with me? 

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