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?

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