The GWT Blog

Summer Reading, Summer Experience, Summer Learning

Posted on July 14, 2011

By Peter Gow, Director of College Counseling and Special Programs, Beaver Country Day School
Peter Gow

One of the annual quandaries facing teachers is the pit of quicksand we call “summer reading.” Do we go “light” and risk either exacerbating students’ summer learning loss or—worse, perhaps—being perceived as soft? Or do we pile it on, operating on the theory that lots of reading will be “good for the students” or that, if they don’t complete all the work, at least some of a lot is better than some of a little? And what about accountability?

There are plenty of creative approaches to getting students to read over their vacations, including incentive programs, book giveaways, and library reading sessions. But lurking in the back of teachers’ minds is the worry that kids won’t do the reading—or, that in forcing kids to read a set list or number of books during what students perceive as their “free” time, they run the risk of actually turning their students off to reading.

It’s a real fear. A couple of years back , and it has become axiomatic that dogmatic teaching, uninspiring texts, digital distractions, and homework-for-homework’s-sake all get in the way of our wish that children might read for pleasure.

I don’t propose a solution here, although I would emphasize that whatever we ask students to do, in class or at home, had better be meaningful in the critical contexts of their lives, present and future, as social, productive, and culturally engaged people. If homework has to matter, then it should matter because it connects authentically with their lives as learners, friends, family members, and—yes—citizens.

Of course, one solution would be to cut back on the long summer break that is , whose summers are unlikely to include the stimulating middle class delights of travel, camp, enrichment programs, or interesting internships, paid or not. Whatever the merits of this idea, a materially different kind of school year seems a long way off.

But I think there may be an approach to the summer “reading” issue that could offer, if not an alternative, but a kind of complement to summer reading lists. While my own school did not pursue this idea after a couple of years’ experimentation, I believe that it could go a long way toward adding an authentic, experiential learning element to students’ summer lives.

In a nutshell, what we offered students was a menu of actual activities they could do toward fulfilling both the ostensible goals of our summer reading program and the broader mission of the school around cultural awareness and civic engagement. The list included suggestions like “Listen to a radio broadcast in the language you study at school” and “Find a grocery store that specializes in the foods of a culture with which you are unfamiliar, and look at the products they are selling; if you are able, take a few home and try them.” Also included were suggestions aimed at having students expand their knowledge of the history, culture, and the natural world—along the lines of “Go to a museum and make notes on things that especially interest you;” “Go to your public library and find a magazine that looks interesting; read through it, looking at the articles and the advertisements;” “Try making a drawing of something in your neighborhood that you like to look at;” or “Find a park that has a walking or hiking trail, and try to identify five kinds of plants or trees.”

Other than keeping a log or ticket stubs or other memorabilia, I’m not sure that this idea requires a great deal of “accountability,” at least not of the “write an essay” variety. The point is in the doing , just having the sort of experience that can add up to an interested life.

A couple of years ago I extended and annotated the defunct school list, and maybe some day I will find a publisher for it. But while I wait for that to happen, I think schools and students could grab onto an opportunity not only to have some fun but also to make explicit connections between real life and real learning.

Any school, or any teacher, should be able to whip up a great list of age- and resource-appropriate suggestions for their students, and it might be fun to see kids on their own studying the offerings of a local South Asian or Central American grocery or trying to decide which exhibit they like best at a local gallery or museum. They might still grumble over having to read The Giver or The Old Man and the Sea , but I like to think this idea harnesses the natural curiosity of children in the service of discovering interests that, as they develop and deepen, can add meaning, purpose, and satisfaction to their lives.


Name: howard gardner

Posted at July 15, 2011 at 01:59:33
Comment: I think that these are great ideas. But they have a certain timelessness to them which might make them less attractive to the current generation. With so many young people 'connected' to one another, and with such an emphasis on group activities, it would pay to give more thought to how young people could work and play together during the suummer on educationally important activities. Just to take one example,say that classmates of a school could decide together on what to read and then exchange critiques-- perhaps inviting a teacher or parents to respond. Howard Gardner

Name: Peter Gow

Posted at July 25, 2011 at 01:32:54
Comment: That's a great point, Dr. Gardner, and if I were updating this list for today I think I would both make a point of the collaborative and interactive opportunities in the existing suggestions and create a separate section of ideas that would really support collaborative enterprise, face-to-face and online. The idea is to ignite interest, and for many students "doing things with my friends" is absolutely a key to making that happen.

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