It was turning into one of those contentious Department Heads meetings, about twelve years back. The incendiary topic: summer reading.
Such touchy meetings were an annual event in my life as a school administrator, not because people opposed the idea of summer reading—really, who could, completely?—but because of the A-word: accountability. Shouldn’t we require kids to keep a reflective written log that their English teachers could then review and grade on the first day of school, or perhaps there ought to be a mandatory piece of writing done in English class on the first day of school? Maybe there should be a book requirement from every department, with essays or tests on the reading in the first few days of classes? Otherwise, how were we to be certain that our students had actually read these mandatory batch “outside” books? And then there was the other side: Reading is supposed to be fun! Doesn’t mandating all this stuff just suck the joy out of the whole idea of reading for many kids?!
I’m a fan of reading, and when I was a kid I probably did most of my personal reading in the summer. (Even in the Sixties, independent school homework was IMPORTANT and RIGOROUS and killed filled a lot of time; plus, I had a 90-minute commute each way to school.) So the idea of turning reading into a sort of penalty for being a kid on vacation has never really appealed to me.
But then our assistant head Rob Connor (who now heads an extraordinary ICG Partner School, The Christina Seix academy in New Jersey) had a big, hairy, audacious idea. To be sure, it didn’t end the accountability debate, but it utterly re-framed the discussion.
“If the idea here is to help kids expand their horizons,” says he, “why not put together a list of activities, of things kids could do that would give them new experiences? We can keep talking about summer reading, but we know that experiences stick.”
By the next day a couple of us had put together a list of several dozen ideas, including
Families were pleased, though no one jumps for joy when these lists arrive home in the mail, as they used to in those olden days. We heard from kids that they did things; maybe not learn to juggle, but maybe learn to ride a unicycle. Kids’ mental and social palates expanded. Kids found things that interested them and figured out their own activities
Did this idea change the world? Probably not. Did it change kids’ lives or perspectives? Possibly, even in little ways, which was the point. Could we have done with this idea? Absolutely—why not voluntary exhibitions on a special “Smiles of a Summer” night? (Wish we’d thought of that then!) Did students even follow an interest from exploring and doing into the realm of reading more about it? We guess that some of them did, completing the circle.
In time the school moved away from this, and from mandated summer reading other than a grade-level book. The school’s philosophy became one of very soft hands about telling families what to do in any way, which I can respect.
Some years ago, at the suggestion of one of my own children, I compiled my own expanded version of the discontinued school list (with glosses on each entry) into a website, to which I confess I haven’t added much lately. You can also download an un-glossed version of this list, made available through the Independent Curriculum Group, here.
Let us be clear. We like and support the idea that students should read, and we believe to the bottom of our souls that reading is a seminal and essential skill and tool. But summer reading is too often an unexamined practice, something we “do” because we always have. But once we start contemplating the purposes of “summer reading,” the whole idea of what we’d like kids to be doing in their unassigned time expands pretty quickly. The more we can think about offering suggestions of things to do, regardless of our reflexive and often superfluous need for accountability, the more we place students and their own interests and passions at the center of that practice—to make it their practice, not our practice.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)