Lit Hot American Summer
This summer, my Theory of Knowledge students will read two independent books in preparation for the second semester of the course. Down the hall, my colleague Hattie (you know her from her fantastic blog posts!), will be handing out her lists for AP summer reading as well. These are all students who excel at school–reading a couple extra books over the summer might elicit some grumbling, but for most of them it really just means setting aside a couple of Nicholas Sparks titles in favor of some Toni Morrison or Ishmael.
Meanwhile, for my Co-Departmental English students who made great gains all year reading graphic novels and expanding their ability to work with grade-level texts; for my English 11 students who have signed up for 12th Grade English next fall; for my incoming class of English 11 students–for all of these students, there are no assigned summer readings.
Why is that, exactly?
There is robust research showing that this damages at-risk learners. It’s so robust, in fact, that the effect has earned a nickname: “The Summer Slide.” The estimate is that students lose the equivalent of one full month of instruction by not engaging in regular reading over the summer.
And that’s just an instructional measure. Imagine how much ground is lost when we cut kids loose for summer, having just begun to foster a love of reading in them.
If You Can’t Make ‘em . . . Make ‘em WANT to
The problem is, most of us have perhaps a couple weeks left, so getting administrative approval for a mandatory summer reading program for all students just isn’t going to happen this year.
But here’s what I’m thinking: Most of us can’t create something all kids must do, but we certainly have time to create opportunities that might encourage kids to read on their own over the summer. Towards that ambitious goal I humbly submit a few imperfect solutions.
The Comic Book Flood
If you tried the graphic novel approach to struggling readers, this could be your best option for those same readers. Amazon has a $5.99 a month Netflix-style subscription program that allows digital access to thousands of back issues of popular comic book titles. The first 30 days are free–your graphic novel enthusiasts could absorb an endlessly graphic summer for only 12 bucks!
Most of our kids are going to spend a good chunk of the summer at the movies. And when they get home from the latest summer blockbuster, they’re going to play video games or watch TV. You can shake your head (and your cane) at these young whippersnappers and their bad habits–or you can embrace these habits and use them to get your kids reading.
Challenge your incoming students (a quick letter home or an email blast) to get some pop-culture criticism under their belts. One starting place is the website Metacritic, which compiles professional critics’ reviews of films, TV shows, video games, and music.
Metacritic is a far cry from books, but in terms of minutes spent reading, vocabulary absorbed, etc., it’s leaps and bounds ahead of their default option of doing “not anything.” Imagine if every student entered your room in the fall having read five or six critical reviews of pop culture. Sounds like your first writing assessment just created itself!
I would imagine that for some students, summer reading simply doesn’t occur as an option. You can create a Google Classroom page or some other blog site that would email recommendations each week for great summer reads (articles would work as well as books!). You can also create another shared space where the students are encouraged to talk to each other about what they’re reading.
Any sort of sharing is good. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, this seems like just the sort of goofy, non-invasive reading encouragement that would get some reluctant readers on board. Sell it as a fun thing–create your own hashtag and get the kids to try and make it “go viral.”
Next Year’s Big Thing
There’s no reason our average-to-low level readers should “take the summer off” from reading when the expectation for our highest achievers is that they’ll spend the summer engaged with text. That is immoral on its face. This summer, consider taking some small aim at the problem with the time you have left.
But start thinking now about next summer, too. Perhaps you can push for that change in your department’s policy. In an age of increasing accountability, I’d imagine administrators would be more than open to a conversation that would improve the performance of the school’s lowest-performing populations.
Hollywood is already teasing the Big Summer Movies of 2017. Is it really too early to start a conversation about how we can better serve our students next year?
Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School. This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.