The for­mer chan­cel­lor of D.C. Public Schools on the tyranny of read­ing lists.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MICHELLE RHEE book­world@wash­ Michelle Rhee, the for­mer chan­cel­lor of D.C. Public Schools, is the founder of Stu­dentsFirst, a non­profit ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to en­sur­ing that ev­ery child in Amer­ica has ac­cess to great teach­ers and gre

As they do for many peo­ple across the coun­try, the warm days of July bring me back to those mag­i­cal early days of sum­mer va­ca­tion. The op­por­tu­nity for fun and ad­ven­ture al­ways seemed end­less, and the com­ing school year felt a life­time away. Af­ter months of struc­ture and learn­ing, it was a welcome break to spend days out­side rid­ing bikes and ex­plor­ing the world.

But one thing that sapped my en­thu­si­asm was the dreaded sum­mer read­ing list.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved school, and I loved learn­ing, but the re­quired books my teach­ers as­signed rarely grabbed my at­ten­tion. The books on their lists al­ways felt like a te­dious chore.

Sum­mer read­ing lists were at least par­tially a re­sponse to re­search in­di­cat­ing that stu­dents gen­er­ally lose at least a month of learn­ing ev­ery sum­mer; for stu­dents from eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged en­vi­ron­ments, the re­sults were even worse. To­day, we know that chil­dren who don’t read over the sum­mer can lose up to three months of read­ing progress each year and that kids from low-in­come fam­i­lies who don’t read ev­ery sum­mer can lose up to four years of read­ing skills, cu­mu­la­tively, by the end of high school.

Look­ing back now, I un­der­stand how im­por­tant it was to stay con­nected to learn­ing. Like many other stu­dents, I re­gressed over the break, and had the sum­mer read­ing list been more en­gag­ing, I might have found more value in it and started the school year a bit stronger. I found it dif­fi­cult to con­nect with the plot of books like “Anne of Green Gables,” and strug­gling to make it through the pages seemed to turn me off from read­ing rather than build­ing a pas­sion for learn­ing that I could carry on with me into the com­ing school year.

The po­ten­tial of sum­mer read­ing as­sign­ments to boost stu­dent out­comes is promis­ing when it’s done right — but do­ing it right isn’t al­ways as easy as it sounds. For­tu­nately, a lot of to­day’s schools are start­ing to change their model, help­ing to keep stu­dents en­gaged and learn­ing in a way that works for them.

One re­cent study pub­lished by Richard Alling­ton and his col­leagues demon­strated that al­low­ing low-in­come stu­dents to se­lect their own books “pro­duced as much or more read­ing growth as at­tend­ing sum­mer school.” And stu­dents in the very low­est in­come group ex­pe­ri­enced twice the read­ing growth they would have by at­tend­ing sum­mer school.

As a for­mer teacher in in­ner-city Bal­ti­more, I know that not all kids have ac­cess to books over the sum­mer. Many ed­u­ca­tors would also agree that ev­ery stu­dent is unique, which makes it es­sen­tial that young peo­ple have op­tions and can choose books that keep them en­gaged. It’s im­por­tant that schools, dis­tricts and com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions work to give teach­ers the sup­port they need in im­ple­ment­ing suc­cess­ful sum­mer read­ing pro­grams that pro­vide these choices.

In some places, this is al­ready hap­pen­ing. For ex­am­ple, the non­profit literary or­ga­ni­za­tion Read­ing Is Fun­da­men­tal has cre­ated “Books for Own­er­ship,” which dis­trib­utes free books to dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents. Lots of public li­braries also have sum­mer read­ing pro­grams — like the D.C. Public Li­brary’s Teen Sum­mer Read­ing pro­gram (which, no­tably, of­fers not only ac­cess to books but also the chance for one lucky par­tic­i­pant to throw a pie at a li­brary staff mem­ber).

I’ve seen the im­por­tance of sum­mer read­ing as a teacher and a school dis­trict leader, but even more, I’ve learned what it can do first­hand. As amo­mof two teenage girls, I see my kids con­stantly plugged into tech­nol­ogy — their phones, their iPads and the com­puter. Sum­mer read­ing is a great chance for them to take some ini­tia­tive, choose a book that’s mean­ing­ful to them and un­plug for a few hours. And I’ve no­ticed that as they’ve had more choice in their sum­mer read­ing as­sign­ments, my girls have be­come more in­vested in com­plet­ing those as­sign­ments. I’ve watched as their love for read­ing has grown, and they’ve be­come stronger read­ers than I ever was at their age.

In this In­ter­net era, there’s still some­thing pow­er­ful about open­ing up a phys­i­cal book— slow­ing down and tak­ing the time to think, re­flect and learn, with­out the con­stant need to re­spond to a text or check your e-mail. And the abil­ity to do that doesn’t come nat­u­rally when you’re im­mersed in this fast-paced, tech­nol­ogy-driven cul­ture of ours. That’s why, even be­yond its power to fuel aca­demic achieve­ment for our kids, read­ing is some­thing in­cred­i­bly valu­able that we can share with the next gen­er­a­tion, and sum­mer read­ing is a great tool to help us do that. So let them choose!


Michelle Rhee, for­mer chan­cel­lor of D.C. Public Schools, says re­quired books can make sum­mer read­ing a chore.

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