From the Classroom: An Approach to Summer Reading that Celebrates Rather Than Assesses Reading
For over a decade I began the school year by administering a multiple choice test to my students on their summer reading. And for over a decade I questioned this practice as I entered dismal test scores. The testing was not reflective of my classroom practices, did not accurately measure whether students actually completed their reading (some adept test-takers could pass after only studying the SparkNotes version of the novel while other less-skilled testers would bomb despite reading and annotating the entire book), and worst of all it only solidified a distaste for reading rather than encouraging the habit of reading.
After many years of questioning this practice, my colleagues and I were finally able to pilot a new approach. While designing our new plan, we kept circling back to the essential question: what is the goal of a summer reading assignment? Keeping in mind that we ultimately want students to use it as an opportunity to continue to build their reading identities and strengthen their independent reading habits, we realized two elements are key: 1. Choice 2. An evaluation method that celebrates (rather than tests) the reading.
Accordingly, we decided on a one course, one theme approach:
Then we worked with our current students – running a March Madness style book competition – to curate a list of suggestions that includes over thirty popular YA titles from a variety of genres.
When teachers introduced the suggested titles to students at the end of last school year, they gave them time to explore the books and encouraged them to look outside the list if they wanted. Rather than just being told to read a certain book and threatened with the promise of a test, students were invited to engage in literacy-building activities and empowered to make their own choices. As a result, every single student left for the summer with at least one book in hand and many left with several.
I could tell our decision to allow for choice paid off when I overheard several students discussing summer reading titles on their own during the first few days of class. I even had two students ask for directions to the library so they could check out the second book in the series they had chosen to read. However, I also knew this enthusiasm could easily be killed with a poorly designed evaluation. Accordingly, we decided to invite students to show off their take-aways by creating and sharing one-pagers.
To prepare students for this evaluation, we spent some time together in class generating a list of common characteristics for coming of age stories. Through group and whole-class discussion, students realized many insightful commonalities – their books dealt with overcoming hardships, experiencing change, growing up, learning important life lessons, making tough decisions, etc. With this scaffold and a few guidelines in place, students were given time to create a one page visual that depicted one of these characteristics in their novel(s). All of this occurred during the first week of class when in past years I had given students time to individually prepare for the reading test by either completing a review or doing their reading. This year that silent and solitary time was replaced by discussion, learning, creating, and community building.
Then, at the end of our second week of school, when students would normally have spent a class period bubbling in scantrons, they instead sat in a long line of parallel chairs and “speed dated” their books. With one-pagers in hand, they each took turns selling their books for two minutes before rotating seats and starting over with a new partner. The room burst into life with discussion and genuine enthusiasm for the books and projects.
Students thoughtfully shared the major themes, character developments, and poignant passages of their books as their classmates attentively listened and asked questions.
None of their conversations were graded, yet everyone fully participated and no one asked the dreaded question: “how many points is this worth?”
Best of all, we enjoyed ourselves. I am not so naive as to believe every single one of my students thoughtfully and fully read their summer reading selections. However, every single one of my students was able to create a visual project for a book and every single one of my students spent time engaged in lively and enjoyable book discussions. Not a single student ended the week with a failing grade or a dejected feeling about themselves as a reader. To top it off, weeks later the summer reading titles remain the most checked out books in both my classroom library and our school library.