Summer reading lists don’t have to be more crime and punishment. Here are a few ways to heighten the anticipation and generate some interest for a high school summer book list. This is the first of a three-part blog installment, Summer Suite: Read, Write, and Listen.
Years ago, when I taught AP Lit for seniors, I would send down my summer reading assignment to the 11th grade teachers to distribute to the brave souls who had signed up for my course. The reading list was designed to do one thing: cull the herd. The student who didn’t slavishly commit to my massive summer reading project (Crime and Punishment and Jude the Obscure- go!) wouldn’t be up to the grueling rigor of the British canon in the fall, so let’ssave them (and me) the heart ache and reject them before day one.
Thankfully, my pedagogy has evolved.
But still—right around this time of year—I get the hankering to put together a good old list of books my students should read. Of course, there’s always that kid who is begging for it. (“What should I be reading now?” Donald says, hopping from one foot to the next, his eyes glittering.) But for most students, a reading list seems like a tedious to-do list designed by possibly the dreariest person they know– their teacher. The minute a teacher hands a summer reading list to a student and makes it an assignment, with weekly reading log entries, it’s almost guaranteed the assignment will be perfunctorily finished in a rush on the last weekend of the summer.
Even though reading lists smack of a certain Hirschian elitism, they have proven to be a perennial favorite online feature. Sites such as Good Reads, where readers can build their own virtual bookshelves, and LibraryThing, which bills itself as the world’s largest bookclub, and Olmenta, which is clean and easy and connects directly to Amazon, are widely popular. And each year, about this time, celebrities share their summer book lists. Bill Gates, in fact, shared his list on his blog recently.
Here are a few ways I’ve learned to design summer reading lists to avoid dreariness and up the wow-factor to encourage summer reading for fluency and fun.
- Allow other students (preferably upperclassmen) to design reading lists: I teach at a mid-size high school. Each year I have my seniors compile a list of books they have fallen in love with during the past year. They write short blurbs about each book. As a class, we share and compare the lists, ultimately winnowing it down to a solid 25 essentials. The sorting of the lists is a great opportunity to talk about the formation of canons, the parameters of certain lists, and whether market value versus literary merit makes a best seller. And then I hand the list over to the freshmen, who respect it a great deal more when they learn other kids have designed it.
- Create personalized reading lists: I have a collection of about ten lists that cater to a specific kind of reader. After having a kid in class for a couple of months, you can figure out with some accuracy what she likes to read. Starting with a stock list – the dystopian reader, the fantasy reader, the blood-and-guts-in-high-school reader, the quirky Vonnegut reader—I doctor the list with a few current titles I think the student will like, and I present it to her as an end of the year present along with a new composition book or a book bag or some funky book mark I’ve picked up at a conference. When you present this list to a student as a gift that was designed with her likes and dislikes in mind, it doesn’t feel like an obligation to them; it feels like an opportunity.
- Share your own reading list with students. I have a backlog of books I want to read as well as books that I reserve for the beach each year, plus a list of books on teaching I save until I can spend quality time with them. Throughout the year, I yammer on about whatever current book I’m inhaling, and sometimes I’ll give an impromptu book report to my classes. Model the joy of a reading list by posting your own at the beginning of the year and posting your summer list in the week before vacation.
- Abandon the list and just mail books to students. In rural Kentucky where I live, transportation to and from the library or a bookstore can be a problem. In some areas, a BookMobile makes it possible to have a steady diet of good literature all summer long. But teachers can fill that gap as well. CTQ blogger Justin Minkel recently posted about his project to build a home library for each of his students. (Read more about this project at The Home Library Effect) Books can be purchased surprisingly cheap. I try to buy books all year long, stalking yard sales, Goodwill, local library sales, used book stories or even online outlets to find good reads for less than a dollar. This year-long pursuit will pay huge dividends in the summer. Before I leave school in May, I package three or five books and slap an address label on it. If your school won’t pick up the cost, you can mail the books through USPS using Media Mail for a few dollars. The delight in receiving an unexpected package of books is incomparable. Kids never forget it. Summer reading is guaranteed.