“Summer Reading” There Has To Be A Better Way

It’s about now when conscientious parents start remembering their children’s summer reading. For kids who aren’t natural-born readers, one of summer’s recurring themes is a rising crescendo of denial, delaying tactics, strong words, good intentions, bribes, and fevered and painful late-August days spent turning pages not for the experience of a good book but to get parents off their backs and to avoid the consequences of a job undone when faced with the probability of a gotcha essay on the first day of school.


Summer reading, for a whole lotta households, is kind of a nightmare. For every kid who holes up in a hammock or library and breezes through twenty books in a summer, there are a dozen for whom the vacation book list is just one more form of what Kelly Gallagher, in her book of the same name, calls “readicide.”


Readicide is a good book, but if you’re like me you need some pepping up in the summer, not another case study in how we’re messing up kids’ lives. (This is part of the reason that I now go two or three days without clicking on the little Silver Bird that loads my Twitter feed: Why does everyone who goes to a conference in the summer have to tweet every keynoter’s most grim one-liners about the dreadful state of teaching, at least in other people’s classrooms? We get it, we get it — we’re the choir here, and we don’t need so much preachin’ to. But that’s another issue for another time.)


So, what do we do about summer reading? Well, probably not much. Like dress codes, summer reading is one of those faculty meeting topics that provoke lots of gassy heat, and not much light. A few schools have done away with it altogether, more have upped the “accountability” ante, but I think most just put on a brave face, mouth the right platitudes, and pretend it works — whatever that even means.


But about ten years ago one of those hot, gassy meetings at our school generated an idea. As an academic administrator in those days I took the notion home, fleshed it out (with the help of my teacher spouse and my kids), and within a couple of weeks we had a “Summer Experience List” ready to send home.  Experiential learning! Instead of books to read, this was a big menu of (hopefully) thought-provoking, mission-related activities that kids, maybe even with their parents, could do: go to a restaurant representing a culture with which you are unfamiliar; go for a 10-mile bike ride (wearing a helmet, of course!); visit a museum; research a local problem that bugs you and write a letter to a local official or newspaper suggesting a course of action; learn a new sport! You get the idea. There were no mandates, no required number to complete — just suggested things to do.   For a few years we handed these out, and the usual conscientious families appreciated the idea. Maybe more did, but I don’t think we ever really asked. Anyhow, we don’t do this any more.


More’s the pity, I think. Whether it’s Wuthering Heights or birdwatching, isn’t what we want from “summer work” to help kids find things that interest them? Don’t we know that, like those natural-born readers, kids with the capacity to explore the world and to transform mere curiosity into real interest and then real engagement are the ones who will find success in school and in life? Doesn’t a “Summer Experience List” offer as much and maybe more in this area as the old summer reading list, without the risk of committing readicide? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to validate the idea that experiencing nature and culture is a powerful way not only to learn but to build active engagement with the world?   I’ve been fooling around with this idea for a while, and maybe some day I’ll find a publisher for the expanded, book-length, annotated version that’s taking up space on my hard drive.


But in the meantime, I kind of wish that all those anxious parents and soon-to-be-dread-filled kids could look at a list that offered things like “Find a local park or preserve with a hiking trail, and take a hike; take a photo of something you see that’s interesting” instead of just mandating a trip to Barnes & Noble for the purpose of turning a few more kids off to the joys of a good book.

Peter Gow

Peter Gow

Associate Director at Independent Curriculum Group

Peter Gow has been an independent school teacher and administrator for a very long time. He is the author of THE INTENTIONAL TEACHER (Avocus, 2009), AN ADMIRABLE FACULTY (NAIS, 2005), and the forthcoming WHAT IS A SCHOOL? (PublishGreen, in press). He is also coauthor (with Helen Cheney) of NAIS's MESSAGING AND BRANDING: A HOW-TO GUIDE (2010). He currently works at Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts, and he blogs at www.NotYourFathersSchool.org. He did once work, incidentally, at his father's school.