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Why mom disliked my summer reading

[This is my Local Living section column for June 17, 2010.]

Some parents don’t like required summer reading, but if you look around this region, you will find the practice imbedded in the culture, unlikely to go away.

Nearly all area school districts have suggested reading lists. Many high schools require some books, particularly if a student is signed up for an Advanced Placement course in the coming school year.

Summer reading also rules the nation. Google counts 173,000 hits for “summer reading requirements” and 247,000 for “summer reading lists.” I found selections as varied as a Charles Colson book required at the Evangelistic Temple School in Tulsa and a Chris Matthews political memoir listed as a must-read at Lynn English High School in Lynn, Mass.

I like that. When I was a child, books were my life. My mother urged me to go outdoors in the summer, but I often ignored her. If the library had a summer reading club, I was a member. If there was a competition to read the most books in a month, I was drooling in anticipation of my victory, although sometimes (my mother, 93, still reminds me of this) I picked ridiculously thin books to inflate my score.

I think even reluctant readers benefit from a summer requirement, particularly if they get to choose the books|.

Reading is a tricky pastime. I would often pick a book with a deadly title just to escape the boredom of some summer camp my mother had sentenced me to and would find, to my surprise, it had a terrific story. That can happen to people forced to read a book. I am fine with strong-arm tactics.

But educators prefer gentler methods of encouraging reading in the summer. This is particularly true in Fauquier County, whose lovely woods and fields make it difficult for many children to sit still and focus on a printed page.

“Summer reading is one of those topics we love to hate,” Eileen Burgwyn, the reading coordinator for Fauquier public schools, said. “Some parents feel that summer reading is a sign that their child’s school is rigorous. Others hate to monitor the reading assignments and resent being summer homework monitors. I remember reading an article in The Post about Fairfax parents who couldn’t find the required titles in their local bookstores and were angry about that.”

Burgwyn wasn’t going to tolerate such nonsense in her county. So she told teachers if they had a required summer reading list, they had to make the books available for students to take home for the summer.

“We don’t want to put students in a situation of not registering for an AP class because they can’t get copies of required summer reading,” Burgwyn said.

Fauquier also has an unusually strict policy about summer writing assignments, which often accompany summer reading assignments. Some teachers want to make sure students read the book, right? That means written evidence.

Burgwyn said teachers may assign summer writing, but “it should not be due on the first day of class. Students should be given several weeks to make that assignment up if, for whatever reason, they were unable to do the work over the summer.”

Another place that disagrees with me about forced summer reading is Yorktown High School in Arlington County. Its guidelines don’t exactly ban the practice but say that faculty members are aware that in summer, students are “often involved in other types of enrichment activities.” I bet my mother wishes she had sent me to that school.

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By Jay Mathews  | June 17, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  loosening the rules, part of the culture, required summer reading, why Jay's mother didn't like him reading  
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Hm. Are there many reports of school districts which support the required summer reading with available teachers? I'll credit DCPS with one year looking at my son's AP English course registration, recommending a specific summer course to prepare him for it, and making the course available. Maybe the blogger knows of schools and systems which contract with teachers or coordinate with the libraries so students need not be entirely on their own. Unsupported, students will further the academic divide among them, as so-called summer-learning loss has shown. A newsworthy article might be that municipal budget cuts this year exaccerbate the divide in maintaining academic readiness. (The stories have already been filed on cut-backs in summer school.)

Posted by: incredulous | June 17, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

very smart idea, incredulous.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 17, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

I read a ton during the summer when I was growing up but the school assignments were hit or miss. I liked "To Kill a Mockingbird", "A Separate Peace", and "Great Expectations". I did not care at all for the Arthur Miller anthology I was assigned for 11th. Senior year was the best since we got to choose from a list of a couple dozen or so classics. I can't remember exactly which I chose since that was also the summer I prepared for the AP Literature exam (my school did not offer the class so I studied on my own) but I do remember my best friend picked "Ethan Frome" and she absolutely hated the ending!

I can understand the reasoning behind assigning books, but I think students will get more out of it if they are given at least somewhat of a choice.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | June 17, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

I agree with CrimsonWife; choice is so critical. After the last day of school my best friend and I would walk two miles to the public library, where we would be allowed to check out six books. I still remember how excited I was on the way home. Summer reading was one of the great joys of my childhood but I think it would have been spoiled if my school had required it.

It's worth noting that there is a very close correlation between academic success and the amount of recreational reading a student does at home.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 17, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Before we even think about assigned summer reading, maybe we should make sure books are available. In high-poverty areas, there is little for children and adolescents to read: There are far fewer bookstores, far fewer books in the home, and public libraries are not as available and not as well-supported (see for example Neuman and Celano's study in the Reading Research Quarterly, 2001).

In fact, making sure there is access to books might be enough. A number of studies show that contrary to popular opinion, when interesting and comprehensible reading material is available, most children and adolescents actually read them.

Posted by: skrashen | June 18, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

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