Monday, July 28, 2014

How Teachers Create Summer Reading Assignments and Why We Assign Them

When you are a teacher, everyone has an opinion on what you do and how you do it.  Since most people have gone through traditional tertiary education, most people consider themselves an expert on the teaching profession . . . and they are not shy about sharing their views of your profession, the content you teach, and “what kids really need to learn.”  Unsurprisingly, most of these observations are way off the mark and misread some of the hallmarks of American education.  One topic that frequently triggers a screed is summer assignments. 

Summer assignments are a staple of Advanced Placement English, and in some cases History, classes.  Typically students are given a reading selection and a written assignment that is related to that reading: often study questions, an essay, or a double entry journal.  These assignments are often reviled by students and parents alike: students hate school work edging into their summer and parents baulk at having to (in some cases) buy a book and have their family vacation plans interrupted by a huge homework assignment. 

On behalf of teachers, let me say it now: We get it.  Yes, we know summer assignments are a bummer and that they can put a cramp in your plans and your checkbook.  However, we have several good reasons for why we give summer assignments. 

So, here me out, here. 

Why do teachers give out summer assignments?

Research has shown that students lose between two to three months worth of academic knowledge during their summer vacation.  In essence, when kids start the new school year, they’ve lost most of what they have learned since March.  One of the ways that teachers can help their students avoid this “summer brain drain” is to give their incoming students an extended assignment to complete over their vacation. 

In some Honors and Advanced Placement classes summer assignments are a program requirement; if the course is offered at a school site, the national body that oversees these programs requires that a summer assignment be given.  Often, the assignments students are given is content that they can cover independently and that would otherwise be cut from the curriculum due to time constraints.  For instance, in AP US History, students are often made to read the first section of their textbook (usually the age of exploration through the colonial era) and complete a series of study questions based on that reading.  In this instance, there wouldn’t be enough time to cover all the content they need to know for the AP exam if that section were also discussed in class.  Similarly, in AP English Literature teachers often assign longer, easier to read novels that frequently show up on the AP test but, again because of time constraints, they wouldn’t be able to cover during the school year because of their length.  Jane Eyre is a good example of this principle. 

Also, some small learning communities and academic academies require these assignments to increase their program’s rigor and to keep their students school-minded while they are on vacation.

So, as you can see, teachers don’t give their incoming students summer assignments for kicks or to “ruin” their vacation.  Really, if we’ve given a summer assignment, we have good reason for it.

How do teachers come up with the summer assignments for their classes?

When we write summer assignments, teachers first look for reading selections and assignments that students can easily complete on their own.  We also look for texts and assignment types that can be complete in small chunks over a two month period.  In the past, I have given students novels that have connected thematically with the content of their course (e.g., The Grapes of Wrath for a course on American Literature) and a double entry journal that they can complete as they read. 

Now that the Common Core standards are going into effect, I have assigned non-fiction texts that are interesting and easy to read.  Also, I have assigned my students a compare and contrast essay that has them look at two different views of the subject of their reading.  From a teacher’s point of view, a compare and contrast essay is easier to grade. Furthermore, Common Core’s focus on nonfiction texts and critical thinking is served well by high interest works and the critical-by-design compare and contrast essay.  Meets the standards? Check!  Easier to grade? Check!

Teachers also know that our students probably complete their summer assignments in the two weeks before school starts . . . even though we hope our kids take more time with their work.  As such, our assignments are usually constructed with that cold hard fact in mind.  Let’s be honest: when worst comes to worst, you could very easily read a book and write a short paper on it in, oh . . . three days.

As controversial as they may be, summer assignments are a necessary evil and, in many cases, are created with kids’ quirks in mind.

What have your experiences with summer assignments been like?
Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

I’ve never been a huge fan of mystery novels.  As a kid, I never read the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew series because by the time I was at the “right age” for the books, they were below my reading level.  Over the years, I have read the occasional Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, or Colin Dexter mystery, but I have never felt particularly engaged by or committed to a mystery series.  Until now. 

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first novel in the Canadian author’s Flavia de Luce series.  It is 1950 and Flavia de Luce is an eleven year old girl who lives in a centuries old mansion in the English countryside with her widower father and two older sisters.  Precocious Flavia has a passion for poisons and dreams of a career in chemistry. 

One afternoon, a dead bird with a stamp on its beak is found on her family’s doorstep.  This eerie find becomes all the more sinister when, the next morning, Flavia finds a dying man in the cucumber patch.  The man enigmatically utters his last words in Flavia’s face.  Soon, her father is accused of the man’s murder and it is up to plucky Flavia to exonerate her father and find the real killer. 

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie has a similar cadence to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries but with added humor, scientific know-how, and sass.  Flavia de Luce is the little girl we all wish we could have been and she is all the more readable for this quality.

As yet, there are six books in the Flavia de Luce series and I am anxious to work my way through them all.  I may have checked the entire series out of the library.  No regrets!

Have you read the Falvia de Luce series?  What are your thoughts?
Monday, July 21, 2014

BookTube-A-Thon Wrap Up Or, How I Reading Challenges Always Come Up at the Worst Times

If you were ‘round these parts last week, you’ll remember that I set a half-hearted BookTube-A-Thon TBR.  In my TBR post, I hedged my bets and made it clear that I knew I probably wouldn’t make much headway on my TBR; naturally, I lived up (or down, actually) to my expectations.  The only book I managed to complete was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which I was two-thirds of the way through by the time the reading challenge began.  I did, however, begin reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, which is an engrossing but not rollicking read.  As of today I am forty-two pages into the novel.

My latest TBR failure hasn’t put me off reading lists or reading challenges, though.  I’m a competitive, goal-oriented person by nature and these kinds of personal benchmarks as a strong motivator for me . . . even when my motivation is decidedly lacking.  However, this latest read got me thinking about the nature of these group reading challenges. Perhaps these types of literary sprints are best left to the young’ns.  Hear me out:

It’s hard to devote nine hours a day of focused reading when you have a job and responsibilities to home and family.  Free time is luxury good that is in short supply when you get older.  I’m sorry, I can’t participate in a reading sprint when, you know, I am at work helping nontraditional students format their term papers.  Soz, folks.

Also, has anyone else noticed that a majority of the people on BookTube who post about their epic week of five novel readin’ have usually read Young Adult novels?  Don’t get me wrong, I love YA lit more fervently today than I did when I was a teenager, but reading a YA novel is easier than reading literary fiction.  I’m not saying that literary fiction is better than YA, but you have to read literary fiction differently, slowly, in order to fully grasp the content.  So, really, forty-odd pages of Siri Hustvedt isn’t the same as forty-pages of John Green.  Sorry, it’s not. 

What would a literary fiction reading challenge look like?  What would the parameters be?
Sunday, July 20, 2014

What I am Looking Forward to This Week #8

It is that time again, when I reflect on those things and those events that I am most excited about in the coming week.  Now that we are on vacation time, prepare yourself people for a pretty lightweight week.

Monday July 21

I’m not going to sugarcoat it; I am really looking forward to the BookTube-A-Thon being over.  Yet again, I didn’t get as much read as I would have liked.  Perhaps these types of challenges are best left to people who don’t have, you know, work or bills and stuff.  Whenever I set a reading goal, it seems that life manages to get in the way.  But, you, I am not going to stop making reading goals.  I’m a literary masochist, what can I say?

Tuesday July 22

On Tuesday, I plan to start getting caught up on some of the research reading that I let fall by the wayside during the school year.  I have a small file box of material that I am going to prioritize and start tackling the first part of the week.  Sure, this isn’t the most scintillating reading I’ll do his summer, but it will be feel good to not have this hanging over my head.

Wednesday July 23

One of the more challenging tasks ahead of me this week is to take the mounds of books that are stacked on my floor and transfer them to my book closet (yes I have an entire book closet . . . ) and my TBR shelves.  Also, I need to find a discreet place to put my library books so they aren’t an eyesore in the middle of my room.  Some people have first world problems, I have first grade problems.  The struggle is real, guys.

Thursday July 24

Once I have my books in order, I need to tackle the last remaining pile of moving crap that is settled in the corner of my room.   Yes, I know I moved more than six months ago.  Don’t judge me people. 

Friday July 25

By the end of the week, with the bulk of my cleaning behind me, I plan to get ahead on some of the writing associated with my research project. I need to complete my project in the next few months so my open schedule is productive goldmine. 

Saturday July 26

Starting in the 2014-2015 school year, the controversial Common Core standards go into effect.  Even though I have only had to make small changes to my instructional approach, the new standards, at least at this early juncture, means that teachers have to be more mindful in their planning.  As such, the administration at my school has placed a hard and fast August 25 deadline for teachers to turn in their completed first unit plans for all of their classes.  I’ve already started working on the first unit for my Junior English classes and I would like to have that unit completed my Saturday.

Sunday July 27

Along those lines, I’d like to finish with the unit plan for my Senior English class by next Sunday.

Yes, I know this isn’t the most interesting of weeks, but I have high hopes for what I will be able to get accomplished.  A new week is a new start, after all! 

What are your plans for this week?
Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Depression Post #5: Summertime Sadness

For teachers, summer is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, you are happy to be done with the school year and glad to finally have a chance to recharge.  However, on the other hand, summer can be anti-climactic.  When you spend ten months of the year mono-focused on your job and invest sixty-plus hours a week into your work, the sudden abundance of time can be just as unnerving as being crazy busy.

Almost ever summer for the past eight years, I have moped around my house, bored to tears and directionless.  Last summer, I didn't suffer with this summer malaise because, well, I was learning to walk again; it's nary impossible to get existential when you're trying to get that bipedal locomotion thing down, y'know.  This summer, save for a few hormonal bouts, I've managed to avoid most of the Summertime Sadness because, like last summer, I've kept busy.  

This year, I have spent the past four weeks working part-time hours at the local community college where I am employed as an adjunct librarian.  I really love working in the library and I have found that working with a college population is not all that different from working with a high school population.  It's been a lot of fun.  These shifts have given structure to my day and have given me great professional satisfaction as well as some extra pocket money.  

Thursday will be my last day in the library until mid-August when the library opens up again for the fall semester and I have been doing a lot of  thinking about what I am going to be doing during the remaining five weeks of my summer vacation.  One of the primary things I will be doing will be to buckle down and complete some large chunks of a writing/research project I am working on.  I want to get a majority of this project in the can before the end of August.  Another project I need to work on is to complete some initial planning for the start of the next school year and finish a close re-read of the texts I assigned as summer reading to my students.  During my time off, I also need to give my room a thorough clean and do some redecorating; as sad as it sounds in the six months I have lived in my new place, I haven't done a stitch of decorating.  Lastly, I do plan on doing some minor traveling to places in state I haven't seen and, should our dates align, I hope to visit my dad, too.  So, we'll see where I end up going what I am able to get up to.

What do you do to keep the Summertime Sadness at bay?  What have you done this summer?