High School English and Summer Reading

I am a teacher of English, and if you are reading this, then you are a literate human being.  What follows is a request I have submitted to my peers, but I would also like the opinions of any regular and irregular readers I may have. 

What was your experience with summer reading when you were in high school?  What kinds of texts did you have to read, and what kind of work did you have to provide your teacher to help prove that you actually read the work? 

Last summer, my students read Tess of the D’urbervilles, Murder in the Cathedral, Becket, and Sonnets from the Portuguese.  In addition to their reading, students produced three 500 word responses to the novel and plays and four 250 word responses to the sonnets.  For those of you maybe not paying attention, that translated into 13 separate responses from each of my 50 students, so at approximately 250 words per page, that means 22 pages times 50. 

This year I want to do something completely different.  Maybe with the same texts.  Here’s where you come in.  This is what I shared with my peers:

I want and need your input.

I don’t know about you, but in some ways, I dread summer reading. I don’t dread re-exploring the texts I ask the students to read at the expense of losing my guilty pleasure beach pulp so much. Nor do I necessarily dread learning what the students think about the texts.

What I dread is the volume of written response that I collect on the first day that I still feel compulsively compelled to respond to in order to defend the scores I give the students. I dread the feeling of starting the school year with an albatross around my neck. Worst of all, I dread the idea of letting the summer reading into my home for fear they will not simply take care of themselves and go away.

I know there’s a better way.

I know to respond to each entry is asinine.

I want to work smarter and enjoy the whole year, not just the day that I get rid of the box of binders (and believe me, I’m not collecting binders EVER again) that have appreciated riding around in the back seat of my car with the windows down on Friday afternoons blissfully unaware that I leave my car unlocked at night in the driveway with the dark hope that somebody will steal them from me and not ask for ransom. Unfortunately, however, I live in a neighborhood with five members of the local Sheriff’s Department, so not many are breaking into my car.

I refuse to live like a Cubs fan anymore and simply long for next year. Then again, maybe I do want to continue living like a Cubs fan so I can celebrate the end of the season as early as, dare I say, August.

Here’s where you come in. I’m thinking about asking my students to read their texts, and respond to blog prompts over the summer on a private blog I create where only my classes and I can participate. Students without easy Internet access will receive an alternative assignment. The problem is, I want the work my students do to be proportionate to what they are asked to do at other levels.

What are your thoughts on this idea of mine?

Most importantly, what is a proportionate number of responses to reading? How many do you do? How many would you like to do? The appeal of this, for me, is to be able to communicate with the students about their progress through the texts, to be able to communicate with them when they have problems, or to communicate at moments in their reading where I can send them to a specific internet site that provides supplemental information that they might not get from SparkNotes.

Thanks for any feedback you can provide.

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5 Responses to “High School English and Summer Reading”

  1. Kathleen Canavan Says:

    I never had assigned summer reading when I was in high school. I never had assigned summer reading at any point during my education, as a matter of fact. I did participate in summer reading programs at the local library when I was in elementary school, but that was completely voluntary on my part. The most I ever had to do to prove I’d read a book was give the librarian a short oral report on what the book was about.

    My daughter gets a list of suggested summer reading from her teachers at the end of each school year, but, again, it’s not mandatory and she’s not required to hand in any written work. So, reading what is expected of your students makes my head spin a little. I’m not saying that as criticism, I’m just surprised to learn today’s students have this much work to complete over the summer. It almost makes me wonder why there’s even a summer break.

    At any rate, I think the idea of having them respond with blog posts is a good one. Before I got to that part of your post, I was already thinking there must be a way to have them respond during the course of the summer so you don’t have to wait until the fall to read their assignments. I don’t know if there’s a time schedule for the reading, meaning I don’t know if there’s a certain order and date by which they must have completed certain texts, but it seems the most logical thing would be to email the students when you’ve posted a new set of questions or essay topics or what have you, and have them respond by a certain date.

    If you want to have a more “real time” experience, perhaps you could introduce a chat element via instant messaging through Gmail, AIM, Facebook, or maybe even Twitter. Same as with the blog, just make it closed to anyone but you and your students. This sort of virtual class discussion might even alleviate the burden of reading so many responses on your part.

    At any rate, good luck with the experiment. I hope it works out and I’m just glad I made it through high school without having to do extra work during the summer. :-)

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Would students be able to read the responses posted by their peers? This could create a plethora of problems. First off, many students are self consious about their work, so they could be very hesitant about posting. Second, some students are lazy, so they may just look at other students posts and use them to write their papers. Third, even if these students happen to not be lazy, they could be still influenced by the other posts, hindering their creativity. Therefore, I believe that either the posts should be blocked until the due date is past. That way, students could look at other peoples thoughts only after they have turned in their own.

  3. Dad Says:

    I think the closest I ever came to assigned summer reading was a list of suggested summer reading. I think I always thought I should do it but never did. Too bad. Later in life when I started developing reading lists for myself, I discovered that my wife had already read at least 1/2 of the list of “best English language novels of the 20th century”. I guess a Catholic education was worth something. Although it may have simply been that she wasn’t as lazy as I was when it came to reading.
    Long before the days of the internet, I discovered ways to avoid reading. I became masterful at skimming, reading selective chapters and just the beginning and end of chapters – enough to write a summary book report – enough to get a C. Then, in 10th grade, I found a book that really turned me on – For Whom the Bell Tolls. I loved this book and , of course, read it all and wrote what I thought was a creative book report. As I recall I wrote it as if I were a character in the novel. Before giving the graded report back to me, my teacher asked me to stay after class. This of course made me nervous. Then, she asked me if the report was my own work. I’ve never been very good at defending myself against false charges and at 15 I was especially timid. I just said “yes”. She said okay and a day later gave me back my paper. I got a B. I am confused to this day. If the work was of such a character to justify an accusation of cheating, doesn’t it seem to warrant an A? I suspect that she didn’t believe me but had no proof and so discounted my grade. It would have been far better for me if she had congratulated me on my creativity and given me an A. It was a time in my life when I could have used some positive reenforcement.

  4. Teacher2 Says:

    I am another English teacher who assigns summer reading and then dreads the massive amount of grading I have thrust upon myself. My students read the book(s) and complete a reading journal. My honors juniors read two books, honors seniors one book (it’s a semester-long, elective course) and my AP Lit seniors read five. Last summer, that meant about 210 journals for me to grade. I too am changing the plan!

    One thing we do in my high school – which helps tremendously – is we have summer due dates. The first title is due about one month after school ends; the second title is due about two weeks before school resumes. We silly English teachers actually come in on those days and collect journals for a couple of hours. (Kids can also mail them in or drop them off early.) (My AP kids had two additional due dates and one due on the first day of class.)

    I love the blog idea. My AP class has a blog that we use during the year, and I find it inspires great discussions from some students who are timid about speaking up in class. (In fact, one of my most brilliant literary minds is so very shy, she hates to talk in class. On the blog, though, she is free to express and discuss and, well, it has added immeasurably to our class!)

    The problem would be that it would in no way prevent cheating, and in fact, make it easier for those lazy bums who are looking for a way out. (I say “bums” most lovingly, of course!) But perhaps with some guidelines and some preventative measures (maybe blocking everyone’s original response until all have posted, then opening it up for discussion??) you could have a great tool here!! Good luck!!

  5. englishwithstyle Says:

    What about the possibility of requiring a response from the student other than a journal or a tyical book report? Something tangentially connected with the book that was read, but not a direct analysis. And, something that wouldn’t require such laborious grading.

    I’m thinking of something like a literary submission, for example. If a student were to respond in brief to the facts of the book (i.e., maybe a 1-page list of chapter summaries) and the “larger” response could be a submission of a creative writing piece to an online or print literary magazine (many are still free submissions). The creative piece can hold requirements such as: it must deal with one of the main themes of the book, it must be written from the POV of the main character, it must be set in the time period of the book, etc.

    This way, you can grade the brief content (i.e. chapter summaries) and grade the submission (which will be shorter) on content and completion. PLUS, the student is using their summer reading to exercise their writing in a “real life” way, instead of in an academic paper that will never be used again.

    Just a thought,
    linda anne.
    HS English Teacher (MI)

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