Summer Reads: Independent Schools

July 3, 2013 § Leave a comment


The arrival of deep summer finds many teachers truly unwinding after a long school year.
For me, that means a chance to make a dent in the pile of books that inevitably accumulates through a mix of aspiration and good intention during the months where much energy flows towards work.

We have the same aims for our students, as independent reading quickly cultivates other admirable habits of mind such as curiosity, empathy, and even grit (it requires some serious follow-through to eschew the lazy temptations of summer long enough to read something cover-to-cover).

While I am a proponent of sending our students off to the summer with a fat stack of texts that might reasonably spark some new interest, or offer a unique angle of vision on the coursework that lies ahead of them, I am aware that others would have students unburdened by long reading lists (one parent at our school woefully recounted the experience of buying four additional books — course specific assignments — to crown the three we require as a baseline).  Summer reading cannot be undertaken with the independent or carefree spirit which we aspire to cultivate — the argument goes — if it is compulsory.  Some would have students free to assemble their own stacks, or free of summer reading completely — after nine hard months of school, time out from the intellectual enterprise keeps them balanced and sane.

I hear the counterarguments, but feel that our duty as educators to support our students’ developing media and cultural literacy outweighs the impulse to simply “let them be.”  When done well, summer reading galvanizes further discussion, incites new curiosities, and brings community together in conversation around a shared set of questions and ideas.    Instead of starting from scratch each September, our campuses (physical and virtual) can be vibrant centers for ideas year-round.   The rich classroom thread picked up in week one of the school year can be traced back to July or August’s interaction with a text. 

I have written a companion post, arriving soon, to outline what’s on this educator’s book list for the summer, but I also thought it might be worth having a look around the world of local independent schools for lists of books (required and otherwise) that students will be reading.  Perhaps there is a title here that you’ll want to put on the radar of your favorite high schooler, or even pick up yourself!

 On Campus

At our school, we’re exploring the theme of digital citizenship next year.  On this topic, students will be reading alumnus M.T. Anderson’s Feed.  As every student takes English each year, we also have a tradition of choosing a department read, this year, it is poet Taylor Mali’s What Learning Leaves

Finally, each student participates in a “book group” sponsored by a faculty member; my offering this summer is Bill McKibben’s bracing nonfiction look at the new realities of climate change and the promise of new resilience, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  I hemmed and hawed about this decision, considering a fiction work like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or a classic like Fahrenheit 451 (an emerging tradition at school is the “big book” challenge, where students step up with a teacher to tackle a monster of a classic — last year, Bleak House, this year Crime and Punishment).  Ultimately, it seemed that to spark a new curiosity and new learning, McKibben’s readable, literary nonfiction would make a good choice. 

Independent School Lists

Here are a few selections and links to book lists from around the ISL (my school’s league) and beyond (those that I could find anyway).   Explore a bit, and you’ll find rich resources beyond the required texts in the form of recommendations from faculty members.  There’s a lifetime of summer reading on offer.

In no particular order …

In my travels, I discovered what I consider to be a fairly enlightened approach to summer reading in support of curricular objectives at The Hotchkiss School (All School Read: Where the Wild Things Are).  In choosing reading for the entire school, and a variety of media at each form level, Hotchkiss’s philosophy blends many of the school approaches listed above.

The entire community reads an approachable and familiar text, presumably with the intent to see it with new eyes as the year begins.  Beyond the all-school text, form-level selections are organized by theme, guided by essential questions, and comprised of work in various genres.  Students with the inclination, curiosity and time to read more broadly can find recommendations from their favorite teachers and mentors.  An even deeper, multi-genre dive is possible through their English department’s “Other Recommended Titles.” 

How does summer reading operate at your school?   What’s on the list?   Are students required to read common texts, or are titles chosen at the grade or course level?  How do faculty members encourage students to read beyond the list, and are there formal platforms for students and faculty to share recommendations?

Finally, what is the lived experience of the classroom teacher and discussion group leader in the fall: passionate discussions, or rings of sheepish students who have ducked the reading?   


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