Summer Reading by Sarah Mulhern Gross

It’s the first week of summer vacation and I’m pretty confident that my students are reading lots, based on the emails I’ve gotten and the piles of books they borrowed from my classroom library at the end of last week.


Yes, I am a summer reading believer. But really, I’m a book evangelist 365 days per year.  Why should I stop sharing books just because it’s summer? My team and I created a long list of books, in a variety of genres, and we ask our incoming honors freshmen to choose a fiction and nonfiction book to read over the summer, alongside our “One Book, One Class” selection. Three books overall, two of which are choice books. The “One Book, One Class” read is a book related to our mission statement and theme.  I will spend all year book talking, sharing books, and practically forcing them into the hands of students.  Why should I wait until September to begin?


Secondary reading is a tricky, tricky thing. Classics play a huge role in high school English classes and they should. But should they be assigned as the only summer reading selection?


Earlier this week I wandered my local bookstore, piling up way too many books for purchase.  As I browsed the aisles I couldn’t help but stop to look at the binder full of local high school reading lists.


Unfortunately, the summer reading lists for many of the schools around here could serve as a lesson for what not to do.  Take this example:


Tenth graders at a local school in the college prep track had a list that included Divergent, Thirteen Reasons Why, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and a few classics.  Awesome choices all around. Lots of choice for the students. This made me smile.  Students read the book and participated in an online forum discussion at least three times during the summer.


But then I turned to the 10th grade AP list. It was a list, which made me smile. At first.  Then I looked a bit closer.  Twenty books. All classics. All daunting classics.  All great books, of course, but seriously?


Not a single book on the list was published after 1950. Not one. Students have to choose four books from the list and keep a journal with at least 25 entries.  The journal will be collected on the first day of school.


As a teacher of those future AP test-takers, I see a major disconnect here.


Why do we force our most motivated and gifted students to read the most difficult texts alone over the summer, complete with worksheets and journals?


Yes, the students in these courses are often gifted. But why the drudgery?  Of course, there are some students who enjoy the classics and would read them on their own regardless. I teach a few of those students. That’s why I like seeing them listed as choices on summer reading lists.  Choices, mixed in with other books! But there are many students who view a mandated AP summer reading list (or an honors list, or any similar list) as pure torture and, more importantly, a hindrance to the reading they might otherwise do.


A few weeks ago I had a conversation with another Nerdy member about her child’s AP summer reading assignment. Donalyn Miller recently posted about her own daughter’s pre-AP summer assignment.  Both kids are readers but both were dreading the summer assignment, which included taking notes and writing summaries and a test or quiz upon their return to school. I couldn’t blame them!


I understand the magic that an AP or honors class can provide. I was an AP kid (AP biology and environmental science!) I also understand the intense schedule and reading lists given to those teachers. I get that students (or parents) choose to be in an AP or AP track class.  But I can’t support the way summer reading is all too often assigned in those classes. There are plenty of literary works out there that can be referenced on an AP test and interest students. Many AP essays reference more contemporary literature and achieve high scores.


So why can’t high school students choose from a list that includes more modern books?


Why do we give our readers (because most AP track kids are readers already) fewer reading choices? Hand them a summer reading list with The Road, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outliers, The Book Thief, The Chocolate War, The Immortal  Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and classics  instead of one that lists twenty pre-eighteenth century texts.


Yes, AP classes end in a test. I don’t think that all AP classes are just test prep in disguise (though I could write a thesis surrounding my thoughts on the way the AP curriculum is designed).  I’ve seen fabulous AP classes and my students have experienced them.  But despite the fact that the College Board does not provide a prescriptive list of books students must read for AP English classes, most of the summer reading lists across the country are the same. The lists provided on the College Board AP website are descriptive, as they themselves point out. Ranging in genre, they cover the 16th-21st century. The College Board explicitly states that students should be reading texts from that entire range of time. If summer reading is going to be assigned, let’s include modern titles! Give students choice!


Reading whole class novels in high school can provide students with a fabulous, community-building experience.  When it comes to classics, which often need scaffolding, sharing them together can create once-in-a-lifetime experiences for students.  That’s why I support reading those more difficult books together, alongside one another.  Students can support one another, teachers can facilitate discussions, and students become adept at thinking critically about the book.   Annotate together, stop to have discussions and find current events informed by the events in the book.


Yes, the argument is made that students need to be able to read complex texts independently.  Of course!  But as a teacher, I have no idea if students are reading the books I assign them over the summer.  Sure, they might complete an assignment but are they using Sparknotes?  Shmoop?  A recycled assignment they found online?  A simple survey of my students shows that all three of those methods are common in summer reading assignments. So are students really getting anything out those complex books?  Not if they aren’t reading them!


The summer reading list my colleagues and I created, with student input  includes classics, YA, graphic novels, verse novels, modern classics, and bestsellers.  In fact, many of the books fall in more than one of the categories listed.  Each year the list is revised with suggestions from students and teachers.  It’s a living, breathing list.  And those books that the students choose to read?  They aren’t assessed with a quiz or test at the beginning of the year.  We talk about their choices all year long, drawing connections between selections on the list and topics studied during the year.  My honors students sometimes go on to self-study for the AP English exams and do very well.  They do that without didactic summer assignments based on a list of “AP books.”

It’s not an either-or situation.  I’m not advocating throwing out difficult texts and assigning Twilight to the students who are preparing for AP exams and other rigorous courses.  I don’t think that every student will fall in love with the text choices given to them.  But I think when it comes to summer reading assignments, when motivated students are often working, taking enrichment courses, or otherwise very busy, I don’t want to be the weight hanging over their head.  Let them read, let them analyze, but let them do it on their terms.  We have all year to dig deeper and analyze together, individually and as a community.  Books build bridges, but we should to work together to get to the other side of the river.

Sarah Mulhern Gross is an English teacher who lives in New Jersey with her husband, two Australian Shepherds, and cat.  She was born a member of the Nerdy Book Club.  She was “that girl” at her younger siblings’ sporting events with her head in a book.  You know, the antisocial one.  🙂  She has been teaching Freshman World Literature and English IV at a STEM high school in NJ since 2010.  She previously taught sixth grade Language Arts in New Jersey.  Sarah blogs at and can be found on Twitter @thereadingzone.