Summer Reading – Ready or Not? by Tamara Sakuda
In most parts of the United States, school is out for the summer, and for many middle and high school students, this means the dreaded Summer Reading Assignment! As teachers we all know the significance of independent reading especially over the summer. Stephen Krashen, author of The Power of Reading, concludes that “reading is the most powerful tool available for building vocabulary as well as the ability to read, write, spell, and comprehend.” In addition, my own son’s high school recently posted a chart on the summer reading section of their website — this chart shows the correlation of minutes spent reading and outcomes on standardized tests. As a parent and a teacher, I value this information as it confirms my own beliefs in the power of reading. The problem is that most students do not share these beliefs – especially when siren song of summer calls them to video games, movies, swimming pools, beaches, camp, sleepovers, and the list goes on.
As a high school resource English teacher, I face the challenge of teaching reading skills to my students every day in the classroom and the challenge of getting these students to read independently in the summer is even greater. My students are often adamant in their desire to be non-readers. Who can blame them when each school day they are faced with reading tasks that seem gargantuan because many are still reading at elementary or middle school grade levels. Then there is also the ever-present need for intensive comprehension instruction to prepare students for standardized tests which are given at reading levels the state deems necessary – not at the levels that reflect my students’ reading skills.
This past school year after a summer of Penny Kittle and Jeff Anderson workshops, and then devouring Reading in the Wild, I was determined to find balance between comprehension instruction and free choice independent reading. I started the year with a class novel, Okay for Now – Gary Schmidt’s follow up the delightful Wednesday Wars. Okay for Now follows Doug Swieteck and his family’s move to the small town of Marysville in upstate New York. This is a powerful novel of change and redemption as Doug struggles to cope in the midst of a small town with nosy eyes on his less than functional family. I chose to read this aloud to my students using a common phrase borrowed from Anderson – “What did you notice?” Previously, when I facilitated class novels, we spent time working on annotations for figurative language, specific plot elements, and vocabulary.
In addition to all the annotating, my students often complained that we spent too much time discussing the text and not enough time enjoying the story. This time we started the school year, and our novel study, by spending entire class periods reading aloud together. At the end of each session, students were given the same journal prompt, “What did you notice?” I also wrote an entry in my journal after each session. We shared these as a class at the beginning of our next reading session. At first the students’ entries were stilted and focused on what was happening in the story. But as we progressed through Doug’s story, the entries began to change. Students were noticing description, theme, and elements of Schmidt’s wonderful craft of writing. Students relished their discovery of Doug’s character and were able to make keen insights into Doug’s motives and the motives of other key characters. My fist period class began to show up early to see if we could start reading before the start of the school day, so they could hear more of the story. One day, my most reluctant reader stopped after class and told me, “Mrs. S, I didn’t know books could be like this. Do you think I could learn to be a reader on my own?” I learned a worthwhile lesson; in my push to ensure comprehension skills, I was taking the joy out of brilliant stories. For struggling readers, much like reluctant blind dates, it is important to woo the reader gently with wonderful writing that will stand on its own. My students were smart enough to decipher all the nuances of the book just by listening and having time to reflect on what they heard.
Now fast forward to late April. The school year is winding down, and I am looking for a way to reinforce the reading success from the fall. My goal: try to recapture the joy of reading so that students will embrace their summer reading assignment. (2 free choice novels). This time instead of reading aloud, students were given a free choice novel-reading project. I worked with each student to ensure their novel choice was a book they could read without too much frustration. Much like our class novel, students would be given entire class periods in which to read – no cell phones or music to distract them. We ended each reading session with a discussion or written reflection using Kylene Beere’s sign-posts: Contrasts & Contradictions, Tough Questions, Aha Moments, Words of the Wiser, Again & Again, and Memory Moments. As in the fall, it was slow going at first. Students grumbled that they wanted to listen to their music while reading, it was too hard to read for over 30 minutes, or they did not like reading. I was patient and continued to read my own novel along with them. At the end of each reading session, we reviewed the sign posts, and students were asked to share any they had noticed during that session’s reading. By the third reading session, students were entrenched in their choices and taking ownership of their novel. As our sessions continued, discussions became livelier as students compared characters and actions from their books. As with the class novel, and with the help of the sign-posts, they were digging deeper into their stories and engaging with the characters. One student started crying in class during a particularly hard part of her book, The Fault in Our Stars. The entire class wanted to comfort her, but she said she was, “amazed and happy that words on a page could make her feel so much.” She told me at the end of class she wanted to read more books that helped her learn how to feel.
This brings us to my summer reading assignment: Summer Reading – Ready or Not? This was my challenge to my students. Select two books (novels or non-fiction) to read over the summer. I armed each student with a book list we worked on together and a sign-post bookmark. I shared with my students my choices for the summer, and we set two coffee-house reading dates where we could meet and discuss our progress. My hope is that they remember the reading magic we experienced as a class and accept the challenge, turn off the distractions, and settle in to read and be awed by the wonder of storytelling. In this age of metrics and measurements of reading comprehension skills, I want to be sure my students also know the pleasure of simply reading a book of their choosing.
Tamara Sakuda teaches resource English to 9th-12th grade students. She also is co-teaches English I and English II in the general education setting. She just completed her 7th year in the classroom, and looks forward to many more! She loves her family, reading, lacrosse and Downton Abbey!