Patrick Higgins, Jr.

Posts Tagged ‘summerreading’

Not the Drop-Off!

In curriculum on April 13, 2012 at 10:17 am

Bob: Hey, you’re doing pretty well for a first-timer.
Marlin: Well, you can’t hold on to them forever, can you?
Bill: You know I had a tough time when my oldest went out to the drop off.
Marlin: They’ve just got to grow up som – THE DROP OFF? THEY’RE GOING TO THE DROP OFF? WHAT ARE YOU, INSANE? WHY DON’T WE FRY THEM UP NOW AND SERVE THEM WITH CHIPS?

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve talked to teachers and students about what it is about reading that they love, hate, and, in some cases, run away from kicking and screaming.  Today during my session at the Pennsylvania State Librarians Association Annual Conference, we talked about this idea:

What are the reasons we begin to see students’ interest in school, especially reading, wane by the time they graduate high school?  Is it a natural disinclination towards school attributable to youth culture across time?  Are there other factors that contribute to this?  Does this happen everywhere?

The group in the session was incredible–from sharing their ideas about what the aim of summer reading (and reading instruction in general) is, to their willingness to share resources and provide examples of what they do with their students and staff, they were spot on, and made my presentation much richer.

So I asked them the question above, and they created this list:

  • We need better choices for our students
  • When students have jobs, sports, other activities, the time needed to read is a factor
  • When students are awash in reading for other academic pursuits, there’s no time for reading for leisure
  • it’s so not cool to read if you are a guy
  • we are competing for attention with other media
  • the responsibilities placed upon children who live below the poverty line.
  • lack of reading advocates and “cheerleaders” in their lives.
  • Our definition of what we consider “good reading” is too narrow, and we discourage students from reading things that appeal to them (newspapers, comic books, magazines)
  • The need to find books for students that they want to read (9th grade and up)

What can you add to this list?

Making Reading Viral

In leadership, learning on April 15, 2011 at 7:16 pm

“When we read a good book, the first thing we do is talk about it to our friends, and then we end up giving it to them and they read it, and so on and so forth. I mean, look at Twilight.”

This is a loose paraphrasing of a line from a conversation that occurred last Monday among the middle school teachers in my district. The purpose of the meeting? An all-hands on deck chat about summer reading.

It’s almost Sisyphean. Every year I spend a good deal of time hemming and hawing over whether or not it’s worth doing and whether or not we are doing it right. I’ve come to realize that whether you assign it or not, you will always anger 50% of the school community.

With that realization comes some clarity. If we know that no one will be completely happy, we can focus on doing what we think is right.

The first step in that process is always to ask the staff. Yvette McNeal, our middle school principal, and I got everyone together in the media center during their lunch last Monday to gauge their feeling on summer reading. What should it look like? Should we be assessing? What was the point of it anyway?

The feedback was fantastic from all directions. Teachers discussing their issues with the summer reading from their own children’s school; their concern with the students who read too early in the summer as well as those who read the night before; their feeling that reading, reading anything, was extremely important for kids to do over the two months they are gone.

That last statement is where we began. Let’s ask them to read something. Anything.

And then let’s go back to the beginning of this post and look at the meaning behind that quote: reading is, and always be, a social endeavor. It’s driven by what we share, and a book’s life is determined by how many people buzz about it.

So this is what we decided to do:

  • Require reading, but give complete freedom in choosing what it consists of.
  • Show the community that we are passionate advocates of reading by doing it ourselves.
  • Making the act of reading and sharing publicly visible.
  • Making any “work” the students do in regards to the book an act that will promote what they read to the community.

The first premise we started with is that of course we care about the reading students will do for us and with us, but we really care about the reading they will do in twenty or thirty years. We need to start them thinking about reading as a lifelong endeavor (thanks to Maria Clayton for that one). We will require them to read something over the summer in grades 5-8, but that something is up to them. Our media specialist is fast at work right now building suggested book and magazine lists for each grade level, but students have complete freedom to read anything else they want to.

We then began thinking about how we can show the community that this matters to us in visible ways. Taking a page from the work Ryan Bretag has been doing with his I.D.E.A., we began thinking about how books are shared. That’s where the quote came in. If we read something we love, the first thing we do is run and tell someone “Oh my god, you have to read this book–when I’m finished.” That’s what we want. We want viral reading. We saw it with Hunger Games. We saw it with Twilight, and before that with Harry Potter.

We built a school-wide reading site (sorry for not linking yet–we’re not ready for prime time) where teachers, students, and administrators are going to be featuring one title from each grade level list as the “buzz book,” a title that we will all read as a grade level. That “buzz book” will become the centerpiece of weekly blog posts by teachers, students, and administrators throughout the summer. Alongside that, we’ll also be featuring “staff picks” and “student picks” in the sidebars of the blog so that the community can lean on one another for recommendations. There was also talk of a rating system for the titles as they are read.

Lastly, the dreaded summer reading assignment that awaits each student when they return to school. Rather than have them slog through an essay on a book they may or may not have liked, we decided to use their assignment as another recommendation engine. Students will create book advertisements, book trailers, and flyers for the books or magazines they read over the summer. Each of these will be placed strategically throughout the school, space permitting, and used as part of regular book displays by our media specialists. Additionally, we’ll be collecting data from the students in September to see what the hottest 5th/6th/7th/8th grade title was, and then promoting that as well.

It’s the First Big Plan, and I am excited to see where it takes us.

Already Talking Summer Reading…

In curriculum on April 5, 2011 at 8:48 am

*Update: Take the poll if you are interested in this topic!

No, not for my own edification.

The topic of summer reading/summer assignments is ramping up in my district, and with it thoughts on either side of the spectrum are piling up.  Some are steadfast in their belief that there should be structured, rigorous work done over the summer that students should be held accountable for when they walk in the doors in September.  This group, in my experience believes that the only way to combat summer brain-drain is through structured summer assignments and summer reading.  These beliefs fly in the face of the other side of this coin: those that believe the goal of summer reading should be to ignite and engage the students in reading that is unstructured, self-selected and fun.

I Love to Read, By Carlos Porto

Personally, I believe that, especially at the middle school level where students really begin checking out of reading for pleasure, we need to create structures that hook kids into reading, not scare them into it.  Now, in thinking this, I realize that is fairly “pie in the sky–” it’s one of those ideas that sounds great but loses all efficacy in the implementation.  It sounds great in theory, but what does it look like in practice?

So I am thinking about what we might do to create systems whereby students are excited to read on their own time, and one thing keeps popping up in my mind as a remnant of watching “The Social Network” over the weekend: community and exclusivity.  We want to know what the people we like are doing, and if the people we like are reading a particular book, we might want to know what they think of it.  With that in mind, I started brainstorming any decent idea I had about summer reading.  What I have so far is below:

  • Piloting an idea with a grade level before we go big.  Meaning that if we come up with something that is pretty out there in terms of allowing kids to choose and not holding them to the traditional accountability standards we have (quiz, essay, book report, project, etc.) we try it with a grade level this summer and see what the feedback from parents is.
  • The Hunger Games idea: I think our media specialist was onto something when she stated that when the Hunger Games series was freely available to large percentages of the kids (she purchased one-hundred copies via a grant), they read it because their friends were reading it.  Can we replicate that kind of social pressure around a book or series of books?
  • Choice with discussion groups: One of our teachers is doing something interesting with her kids using an online discussion board that is private to her kids (via Google Groups).  If we allow students to choose between several titles and assigned each title its own discussion group, we could create communities around each of the books over the summer.  Monitoring would be an issue.
  • Huge list of choices per grade and community promotions.  Ask local businesses to offer discounts to students or families who show up with their summer reading books (one from the list).
  • Figure out ways to create community around books the Barnes & Noble Way.  Staff picks, student-created book trailers filmed or read over the announcements, advertisements and posters around the school for summer-reading books.
  • One Book, One Town.  Everyone reads the same book in all grades (this may be tougher in Middle School where reading and maturity levels vary a bit more in grades 5-8 than in the high school).  In addition to reading the same book, we provide avenues for discussion groups to form at local businesses, the park, the library, etc. as well as online forums and groups.  The reading could culminate in a speaker series or at least a guest speaker who is an expert in an aspect of the chosen book.

I’m doing my best to gather input here for a meeting with all middle school language arts teachers on April 11th where we’ll run through this and see where they want to go.  If you or your school district does something meaningful with summer reading or summer assignments, I’d love to hear it.

What is Summer Reading?

In ascd, curriculum on May 13, 2009 at 9:27 am

summer-reading-533

It’s coming to that time of the year for school districts around the world where we begin assigning our summer reading to our students.  In the next few weeks, PTO’s and other fund-raising groups will be competing with one another to raise money through the sale of every district’s summer book lists.

Concurrently, students and teachers are pondering the merits of the titles on the lists.  Students are wondering if there are Spark Notes or a movie for the books in question, and teachers are wondering which of the titles they have chosen, if any,  will resonate with students.

I am wondering about the reasons behind summer reading.

My office receives more calls about summer reading than we do about just about any other topic within curriculum, including honors placements.  Surprisingly, half of the calls are complaints about the fact we actually assign summer reading (students need a break), and the other half of the calls are just the opposite: that we don’t assign enough (sharpen the saw).  How do you win?

For some reason, summer reading has become the bane of my existence in that I can’t determine its role in our curriculum.  In looking at it, I see it as playing one of two roles:

  • Addendum to the curriculum, meaning that these are books within your curriculum that you cannot get to during the year, but are necessary to the successful completion of the course.  This is truly only applicable in courses where the curriculum is external to the school district, as in AP or IB.
  • Demonstrating to students that reading is not solely an academic endeavor, but a lifelong skill.  This model is not to prevalent in our schools today, but exists in communities that show the value of reading through their actions.

I’ve been looking at various models of summer reading, and I’ve asked the question several places, and what I’ve come up with is that in order for summer reading not to fall back on the drudgery associated with it, both from the students standpoint of reading (or Spark-Noting) the books, or the teachers who spend time assessing the work of the students in the first weeks of September.  I don’t know which is worse: having to write a paper about a book that meant nothing to you, or having to read a paper from a student about a book that obviously meant nothing to them.   What’s the solution?  I’ll present two that I liked from the many responses I got out there.  The first is employs the use of social media, the second, not so much.

As I said above, I asked this question of several people, both on Twitter and on the English Companion Ning, and the responses I got were insightful.  Kristin Hokanson gave me this bit of transition, which matched my thinking very closely:

summer reading2Her first post, which is the bottom image, shows how I view the traditional summer reading process, but the second one shows how her district is toying with the idea that there has to be something more to what the students do with the text; we have to allow them to read together.  In his Wall Street Journal piece from a few weeks ago, writer Steven Johnson describes that the future of reading will involve us reading together and having discussion write on the pages of the texts that are on our e-book readers, so that at any given moment I can discuss with colleagues, or look for discussions that others have had right on the very page I am reading.  Distracting, perhaps, but as an alternate assignment for some sub-groups of students it may work.  Seriously, if I had the ability to take time out and get some clarification while slogging through Jane Eyre as a sophomore, I would have jumped all over it.  That book nearly destroyed my desire to read.  Thank goodness for Holden Caulfield, who arrived swiftly in September.

Others, too, are turning to social media to help them facilitate discussion around summer reading as it’s happening, and leveraging the technology to make the assignments richer.  The English faculty at Fredericksburg Academy have all spoken up about their use of social media with their summer reading as a means to increase engagement.

Late last night, I received this from Candace Follis in response to some prompting:

summer reading3

and it changed some things.  Should summer reading include summer writing, and should that writing be in such a form that it builds communications skills around the text?  Can you have informed dialogue around why a novel is not in your top five?  Simply, can we tell a student that if they don’t like the book, they need to illuminate for us in some capacity why they didn’t love the book?  I am sure several hundred thousand English teachers have done this, but I like how Candace phrased it; it changes the way I see what we ask students to do in the summer.

Lastly, Dana Huff is really the impetus behind this thought stream, and her description of their program is below.  If you look back at some of the posts I wrote during the ASCD Conference this year, you’ll see that I hovered around one idea specifically: modeling expert thinking.  Dana’s school, The Weber School, includes an element in their September evaluation of summer reading that I feel does just that:

Students in grades 10-12 have the opportunity to read books selected for study by faculty members. Students will select which novel they will study prior to the end of second semester the previous year. During the first week of school, students will participate in seminar discussions led by faculty based on these selections. Students will be evaluated by faculty, and these evaluations will be part of the students’ grades for English during the first semester. Faculty members may request that students complete pre-discussion activities. Our goals are to encourage students to become life-long readers who read critically, insightfully, and enjoyably, to give our faculty and staff an opportunity to model the behavior of life-long readers, to familiarize our students with authors and literary works that include a range of genres and universal themes transcending time and place, and to challenge our students to grow, to reach, to stretch, and to broaden their experience of what it means to be human.

In the next few days, I’ll be posting about what we plan on doing here in our district, and appealing to all anyone who has ideas about making it work well.  Whatever we decide to do on the assessment side of summer reading, if we decide to do anything at all, I am going to use Brian Smith‘s post as my guiding principle:

summer reading1
“summer-reading-533.jpg.” Online Image. New York Times. August 7, 2008. May 13, 2009 <http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/07/recommended-reading/&gt;.

SparkNotes and the Desire to Read: Mutually Exclusive?

In curriculum, pedagogy on January 13, 2009 at 10:15 am

This post is the transcript of the notes I posted to our English Department Group page.  I thought I’d make them public here as some of our discussion might spark some conversation elsewhere.

This month’s meeting had a dual focus:

  • Resource Sharing
  • Summer Reading Discussion

We began the meeting by discussing the following passage:

“I am a second year teacher who teaches at a high school where the
SparkNotes epidemic is in full force. In fact, I had students in a
college prep class gloat over the fact that they hadn’t read a single book all year and were passing (barely, mind you).

We all know the list: SparkNotes, Cliff notes, BookRags, Pink Monkey,
etc. etc.; and for some, like myself, it’s difficult to imagine not
reading the book and simply relying on a website as a primary source.
(After all, you don’t get that lovely used book smell. Aahh.) Ugh, but
it’s happening…a lot.

I’ve talked to my collegues about this, and we’ve griped about it
together. I’m very creative with my lesson plans and want to teach
heavier concepts, but it’s extremely difficult when

no one
is reading. One teacher told me she purposely goes on these websites to
create her quizzes based on information not mentioned in the plot
summaries and character analysis. It sounds a bit malicious, but what
else is there to do?

Does anyone have a suggestion how to combat SparkNotes? Or do I throw
in the towel whenever I assign a bit of reading that contains more than
fifty pages?”


The purpose behind this was two-fold.  Obviously the piece generated discussion amongst the group regarding how we work with this, and how to find the holes in the SparkNotes summaries that students read.  Several of you discussed how you read the SparkNotes summaries and use them to create you assessments.  Doing so enables you to focus on details and elements not included in a pat summary.

Questions that came up (both during the meeting and in my head after):

  • Do we take the role of “gotcha” with our assessments?  If so, what affect does that have on students desire to read?
  • What other sites are out there for them to use? (Schmoop, BookRags)
  • If we don’t acknowledge the use of it and use it as a tool for ourselves as well, will it become abused?

The second purpose of reading this passage was to give an example of the type of discussion that is occurring at a social networking site created by English teacher Jim Burke called The English Companion.  The site has over a thousand members from around the world, most of them English teachers.  The amount of sharing of resources and ideas that is occurring there is truly phenomenal.  I find myself reading and commenting often.  Learning as we know it is changing rapidly, and our ability to find sources of dialogue about these changes is crucial to our understanding of it.

The second article we shared was an editorial from the Washington Post by Nancy Schnog titled “We are Teaching Books that Don’t Stack Up.” The article originally ran in August, but I wanted to tie it into our discussion on summer reading.  Schnog argues that as much as our desire as teachers of literature is to engage our students in the thrills we have all found in literature and the requisite critical analysis of it, we might be doing them a disservice.  Jamie pointed out that she remembers being a student and wanting to just read a passage without having to dissect every nuance and literary symbol.  Schnog also spoke about the timing of literature and the genres offered to students at their various age levels.  She spoke about students reading Catcher in the Rye as Juniors rather than as 8th graders because of how they could relate to it on a completely different level.  When we speak about summer reading, we often include similar ideas: is this book going to engage the boys?  is this title going to pull in reluctant readers.

If our goal is to push students to read for enjoyment, are we accomplishing that?  If that isn’t the goal of summer reading, what is?  Andrew brought up a point at the end of the meeting regarding what we can ask students to read and what we can ask them to respond like.  His reading, he stated, has become focused on editorial and opinion pieces over the last year, and looking at the summer reading list, Angela asks her students to keep dialectic journals while reading a self-selected group of editorials from either the New York Times or the Washington Post.  What if we asked our students to do this at every level?  Due to the participatory nature of politics and news at the moment, this might work to engage them in reading for pleasure.

Book Club Choices for the Summer

In curriculum, education, reflection on June 8, 2008 at 9:35 pm

A few weeks back, I pitched the idea of a summer professional book club to the administrators in our district.  Knowing that schedules are hectic and people like to travel in the summer, myself included, I didn’t expect too much of a response.  All of the building leadership is headed to BLC this summer, and we thought it might be a great idea to begin getting ourselves on the same page.  Surprisingly, and thankfully, most did and we solicited some advice for some summer reading material from the twitterverse at large. 

I put out a survey to the group with a list of titles and asked them to rate them according to preference.  Here is the original list:

When the dust settled after the survey, the group chose one clearly above the rest, and two others tied for second.  Moral Leadership will be our summer reading choice for the group, with A Whole New Mind and Failure is not an Option as stand-ins.  I’d like to thank the twitterverse, and especially Bill Ferriter and Chris Lehman for their suggestions, as the ones you recommended were all high on the choice list. 

Now, for the really serious question: format?  How do you successfully run a book discussion with administrators?  If anyone has done something like this, please chime in with some suggestions.  I would like to make it loose, but still have some group accountability.

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