Jumping the Gun on Summer Reading?

It’s almost spring break, and so my mind is turning towards….what….summer reading???

Orion reads The Hobbit

I’m betting that my students would be shocked to learn that my internal goal involves having the framework set by spring break. This informal list lets me, or other teachers, read any books that have been recommended but that are unfamiliar to us.  I’m sure the students have never thought about the magic behind the curtain of a well-produced list. Instead, selections are unveiled at a fast-paced assembly on the final day of school when teachers each have a minute to whimsically “pitch” their books to the students.

Since upper schools operate all sorts of summer reading programs, here’s some background on ours. We have one community book that all high schoolers read. Discussion takes place in advisory and focuses more on personal growth than on literary merit. All students must also read a book of their choosing from a list of 12-15 teacher-sponsored books. Some AP courses also require course-specific summer reading, although that’s decided by the individual teacher. Finally, the division directors each sponsor a professional book for the faculty to discuss the week before school starts. In a practical sense, this means that all teachers read at least three books over the summer, and all students read at least two. Short comprehension quizzes, mainly multiple choice, are given in the discussion groups, and summer reading is a requirement that is marked on student report cards.

This has been a series of compromises, most notably the quizzes. I have mixed feelings, which now lean slightly towards supporting them. I’m curious to hear your thoughts below. For years, we had some students who did not complete summer reading. Every year, a few of these students would brag to their friends about getting away with not reading. Even worse, they’d tease their friends for wasting their time reading. (Mind you, we’re talking numbers you can count on one hand…) Thus, administrators added the summer reading completion component to report cards. However, teachers leading book discussions felt that they could not always tell solely from participation whether a student read or not. They didn’t want to send kids in the direction of the principal simply for being quiet. The rules for quizzes are simple.

No trick questions. No sneaky answers. If a student read the book on the beach in May, he should pass the quiz in school in August.

 Here are three sample questions from our most recent community book, The Hobbit.

 Who is the leader of the dwarves?

A.  Thorin Oakenshield           B.  Gloin Erebo           C. Bombur Esgaroth                D. Dori Sindarin

 What is Bilbo’s stated role on the quest?

A. Burglar                    B. Musician                 C. Archivist                             D. Bait

 Throughout his travels, what does Bilbo say he most misses about home?

A. His food                              B. His parties                  C.  His wife                           D. His radio

 All justification aside, I hate testing students on summer reading. I think that basic comprehension tests undermine the complexity of reading, and they imply that students are completing an assignment for a grade. At this point, however, students expect the quizzes at the beginning of their discussions. Many teachers will finish with a free response question that they’ll use to begin the discussion. Since our threshold for passing is 6 out of 10, students who have read are generally not too anxious about the process. Looking at the examples above, if you’ve read The Hobbit in the past 10 years, I hope you’re at least two for three.

I’ve run the statistical data for the sponsored books. (For example, almost one third of the students read nonfiction texts, no matter how many are offered.  Or English teachers sponsoring classics get higher readership than Math or Science teachers doing so.) Because we know how students think, we prominently note the page count of each option. Past “shortest books” have included C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, books that provide excellent fodder for discussion and are in no way easy reads. I am confident in my ability to juggle a variety of sponsored texts each year into one list that will support English Language learners, Physics buffs, and Harry Potter fans. The community book takes more thought. The criteria as explained to me include:

Lowry Park Zoo Field Trip
  • Interesting for boys and girls as old as 19
  • Appropriate for boys and girls as young as 13
  • Something students wouldn’t be embarrassed to read on vacation, on an airplane or in a coffeeshop.
  • Something we can justify to parents who might question its legitimacy
  • Available in paperback and on the iPad
  • Around 200 pages

Writing that out makes me a little amazed that we’ve founds some excellent choices that meet the criteria. Here are some quick reflections from the last five years’ books:


PB2009Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – The students were more skeptical than the teachers of Ender’s young leadership, though a fair number picked up Ender’s Shadow in the fall.

2010Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – Students refused to admit they liked it. The intensity of their emotional response to Charlie and Algernon’s plight showed that they connected with the story.

2011Zoo Story by Thomas French – This book focuses on the management of a zoo about an hour north of us at the turn of the twenty-first century. Most students were more interested in the sections about animals than those about humans. They loved visiting the animals in person on a fall trip to the zoo.

2012The Princess Bride by William Goldman – We required them to watch the movie and read the book, which led to some fabulous discussions on adaptation. The book is a hilarious satire, though that sadly went over the heads of many of our less adept readers.

2013The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – More people read more thoroughly when it’s a book that’s well below their reading level, but some people who encounter unfamiliar fantasy vocabulary don’t give fantasy books a shot. Also, you can tell if someone’s just watched the movie.

 Moral of the story: You can’t please everyone all the time.

Books don't have to be read in English
Books don’t have to be read in English

Top surprise hits in the sponsored book area were: Twelve Mighty Orphans by Jim Dent (thank you to whoever on the AISL listserv told me about that book last year when I was soliciting suggestions) Pure by Juliana Baggott, The Pregnancy Project by Gaby Rodriguez, The Cardturner by Louis Sachar and Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy Frost. Let me know if you want annotations and reviews for any of these books, or, alternately, books that didn’t go over as well.

Continue the conversation below. What have you done to improve your school’s summer reading program? What books have most resonated with the students?


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