Controversial Summer Assignment: Read a Book

A move toward required reading lists is prompting protests from parents and students

Summer just isn't what it used to be. First, year-round schools ruined the notion of three uninterrupted months of sun and fun. Now, a trend toward mandatory reading is eating into many students' summer breaks.

In the past few years, public schools - particularly middle and high schools - began requiring summer reading. The traditional voluntary approach is turning into a mandate as educators work to raise standards and improve test scores.

In some cases, schools are testing students on the books they read and counting the results as part of their first-term grades.

Most schools allow students to choose from a list of books and require only one or two selections. Yet many parents and students are not packing books into camp trunks or beach bags without a fuss.

"Some parents are frustrated with our infringing on what they consider to be their children's family time," says Allison Mardis, coordinator of the summer reading program at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga.

Working out a balance

School officials there have made some concessions to parents since the summer program began three years ago. Students still must read one classic book from the school's list and another novel of choice. But the multiple-choice tests and required projects based on their reading are now completed during the first week of school rather than over the summer. The results still count as 10 percent of the semester grade in English, however.

"We sat down with parents and worked out a better balance between consuming the kids' summer and letting them go completely," Ms. Mardis says.

The level of back-and-forth over the issue surprised Mardis. "It conflicts with the other messages that parents are sending us about wanting high standards," she says. "We're being asked to compare ourselves, in terms of test scores and so forth, with private schools."

She tells parents: "If you want us to turn out students who are as likely to be admitted to elite colleges as private-school graduates are, then we have to work together to put more academic rigor into our program."

In fact, most private schools have long traditions of requiring students to read several books each summer. But the public-school culture has just begun to embrace the idea.

At Randolph Junior/Senior High School in Randolph, Mass., all students coming into Grades 7 to 11 are required to read two books. Advanced-level students must read three. Reading journals kept over the summer are graded by English teachers in the fall.

Students choose from about a dozen titles per grade level. "We're looking to enhance the student's background for a particular English course the next fall," says Karen Brodeur, director of humanities at the school. "Some books are by authors whose other works are included in the curriculum, others deal with eras or concepts the students will have in the next school year."

At Central Regional High School in Bayville, N.Y., the voluntary reading list shifted to a one-book requirement for all students last summer. "We're doing it to instill an enjoyment of reading," says Keith Arensman, supervisor of instruction.

But some argue the approach is counterproductive. "The students don't become engaged and read the books with any degree of interest," says John Pikulski, president of the International Reading Association. "Requiring students to read only increases their resistance and negative feelings toward books."

That may be true, says Reba Greer, a curriculum supervisor in Prince William County, Va. But "if you don't make the requirement, then it's not going to be attended to. And it's far too important a venture to leave to chance."

In Prince William County, all 49,000 students get assignments. In kindergarten to second grade, they must read five books. In Grades 3 to 5, students read three books. And Grades 6 to 12 read two books.

"We're making a statement that literacy is a serious venture," Ms. Greer says. "Learning doesn't end when school is over in June and pick back up when school resumes in the fall."

While many of the districts requiring summer reading are small, the 12th-largest school district in the nation began a program last summer. In Fairfax County, Va., students coming into Grades 6 to 12 must read one book over the summer.

Whether or not to test students is left up to the individual schools, says Pat Fege, who coordinates the program. Some schools require traditional book reports or host book discussion groups in the fall. At one school, students created a database of book reviews to help guide further reading.

Intrusion, or too easy a task?

Feedback from parents and students has been mixed. Some resent the intrusion on their children's leisure time and others call the one-book requirement ridiculously low.

With about 10,000 students per grade level, Fairfax County had some problems providing students with access to the books last year. "The public libraries were swamped," Ms. Fege says. "Every one of these books was checked out, and the bookstores didn't have enough time to order extra copies."

The book lists are available on the district's Web page (www.fcps.k12.va.us). This year, students are getting a wide range of choices. Communication with local libraries and bookstores also has been improved.

At Collins Hill High School, more than 95 percent of freshmen and sophomores read the required books last summer. "It's mainly the older kids who have gone through 10 years of a different kind of summer who have been resistant," Mardis says. Only 68 percent of seniors complied with the requirement last year.

It's a slow process but many public schools are determined to redefine the meaning of summer. Notes Ms. Brodeur of Randolph Junior-Senior High School, "As more and more kids get acclimated to the idea that they have to read over the summer, it will become more accepted."

Required Reading In Randolph, Mass.

Students at Randolph Junior/Senior High School must read two to three books. This is a partial list of the choices they have.

Incoming Grade 7:

Let the Circle Be Unbroken - Taylor

Kidnapped - Stevenson

Plain City - Hamilton

Singularity - Sleator

The Crossing - Paulsen

The Dark Is Rising - Cooper

The Face on the Milk Carton - Cooney

The Planet of Junior Brown - Hamilton

Watership Down - Adams

Incoming Grade 8:

Dragonwings - Yep

Scorpions - Myers

The Hobbit - Tolkien

My Brother Sam Is Dead - Collier

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Smith

My Brother, My Sister, and I - Watkins

Anpao - Highwater

Moves Make the Man - Brooks

Dicey's Song - Voight

The House of Seven Gables - Hawthorne

Coyote Waits - Hillerman

Incoming Grade 9:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Angelou

Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom - Paterson

Martian Chronicles - Bradbury

The House on Mango St. - Cisneros

Dune - Herbert

Oliver Twist - Dickens

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Adams

Incoming Grade 10:

Go Tell It on the Mountain - Baldwin

Slaughterhouse 5 - Vonnegut

Native Son - Wright

The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Wilder

Ceremony - Silko

A Raisin in the Sun - Hansberry

The Color Purple - Walker

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Twain

Breathing Lessons - Tyler

Summer of My German Soldier - Greene

The Awakening - Chopin

Warrior Woman: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts - Kingston

Incoming Grade 11:

1984 - Orwell

As I Lay Dying - Faulkner

Catch 22 - Heller

The Firm - Grisham

Turn of the Screw - Miller

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - Stoppard

Obasan - Kogawa

The Mayor of Casterbridge - Hardy

Jane Eyre - Bronte

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter - McCullers

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