Q&A: Required Summer Reading – Yea or Nay?

Today’s post comes from an email I received this week from a fellow English teacher. I am sharing our conversation with her permission and honoring her request to change her name for privacy.

Hi Laura,
I love your blog! I tried your Quarter Trios with my classes last year, and they LOVED it! Because I think you have such a positive, energetic attitude toward teaching and students, I wanted to ask your advice on the hot topic of conversation in my department right now – whether or not to assign summer reading.

In theory, I think it’s important for kids to continue reading and learning over the summer. And as one member of my department argues, kids won’t do it unless it’s required. I’m not so sure, though. Even the best of students are prone to procrastination, especially over the summer. My more idealistic self hopes students use the summer to read books for fun, but does this optimism mean many of our students will go the entire summer without reading anything at all? Do our students deserve to have a summer free of the stress of school and required reading? Or do we do them a disservice by not requiring reading?

I just switched to a new school in a new state, one with notoriously low-performing students. At my old school (in a much higher-performing district and state), the English department was pretty unanimously against summer reading, but I’m still trying to decide what I philosophically believe is best. I teach seniors in a rigorous language and literature course, and I would love to add another book that only summer reading would give us the time to complete. Yet on the other hand, if students stress about it or leave it to the last minute in a rushed, inauthentic way, is it even worth it?

My current department is VERY divided on the issue, so I’m seeking advice/perspective outside our little circle. I would love to hear any thoughts you have on required summer reading.

Thank you,
Eliza Riley

Hi Eliza,
Thanks so much for thinking of me as a resource! I’m honored. I’ve actually faced this same debate at two different campuses where I’ve taught. I hear you and feel both sides of the argument in my bones. The deciding factor always seems to come down to practical/legal issues. I love the aim of inspiring our kids to be intrinsically motivated readers. The reality, though, is that a good number of our students don’t read purely for pleasure, and a summer reading assignment (graded or ungraded) probably isn’t going to be the tool that flips that switch. A teacher who helps them fall in love with books that they personally connect with and gives them the time needed to slide into some pages (hello, SSR Fridays!) is the best solution I’ve found.

In terms of road blocks, my department wanted to assign summer reading, but it was a logistical nightmare. We didn’t have funds to buy enough books to supply a copy to every student and we weren’t legally allowed to require that students supply their own copies. We can’t require specific school supplies or, heck, even that a kid shows up with a pencil. Of course, lots of kids bring their own supplies from our “suggested supply lists,” but our school district’s attorney said the school itself is actually legally bound to supply every sheet of paper, every pencil a kid needs. Because of this requirement, our hands were tied when we couldn’t secure funding to cover the cost of novel sets.

Then, we whittled the policy down to require summer reading only of juniors and seniors who signed up for A.P. classes, with the idea that those students are a much smaller group and they needed the extra time with texts from the A.P. list in order to prepare for the early May tests. Once our school calendar was changed from Sept.-June to late July-May, though, the summer reading requirements were removed because those teachers now have an extra six weeks or so with their classes to prep for the A.P. exams. I wasn’t upset by this change because I never like teaching to a test, A.P. kids are already high-strung enough as it is, and this type of summer reading assignment isn’t designed to support a life-long love of reading. It’s just checking another test-prep box. If we think of books as nourishment, summer books for an honors class are usually meat-and-potatoes, while fun books for personal joy are more like gummy bears and cotton candy. If we hope to raise kids who decide for themselves to set down their phones and pick up a book, they need to be encouraged to include all kinds of books in their literary diets and summer feels like the right time for the sugar rush of a fizzy bestseller.

All of this leads to my conclusion that, standing in your shoes, I would avoid a summer reading requirement for any of my classes. Instead, I’d focus on fun things that’ll encourage teens to read, such as arranging an informal once-a-month book club/read with Ms. Riley hour for interested students at the local library or coffeehouse, start a “Riley’s Reading” YouTube channel focused on YA titles, or just send a mid-summer email blast or two to your class list touting cool resources like the one describe here or here.

Try to keep things light and fun. With students in my classroom and my own two teenagers, I know they’ve learned more from watching how I spend my time and energy than from any assignments or orders I give.

Thanks again for reaching out to me. Glad to be part of the conversation. Hope my two cents are helpful.

Okay, hive mind, what advice would you give to Eliza? Is there a way to make summer reading work? Maybe you have a solution that Eliza and I haven’t yet considered? Leave your ideas, comments, commiserations in the reply box below. And, as always, teach on.

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