Our first year of experimentation was very exciting – and a lot of work! With the help of some ELA teachers, I developed a list of 15 books for 7th and 8th graders. The books were in four categories: realistic fiction, science fiction/fantasy, mystery and historical fiction. We chose high interest books like Gym Candy by Carl Deuker, So B. It by Sarah Weeks and Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer along with some award winners like When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and Rules by Cynthia Lord. We tried to have a variety of books in terms of male/female protagonists, reading level and length of the book; the only rule was that every book had to be available in paperback because we planned to buy the books for our students. I had already read all of the books on the list except for one, which I quickly skimmed.
Next I took time during my 6th grade Library Skills class to book talk each of the books and invited each of the 7th grade classes to the library to book talk classes, as well. After hearing about all the books, discussing it with friends, etc, students were given a sheet of paper where they could check off the book they wanted for the summer. Thanks to our PTO, a generous discount from our local Barnes & Noble and a bit of money from the district, we were able to purchase a book of choice for every 7th and 8th grader in the school. When the books arrived, student library volunteers sorted them by ELA teacher and put the original order form from each student in the book with the name sticking out. Students received their books in their ELA class during the last week of school—there was palpable excitement as students walked around with brand new books. Students were told to read the book, enjoy it and come back to school ready to talk about the book with their ELA class in the fall.
In the first year, teachers reported that around 90% of students reported having read the book and the vast majority really enjoyed their selection. In the library, circulation of the summer reading books and their sequels jumped significantly. We knew we were on to something. Every classroom was different for what they required; some classes asked students to sit in groups and chat about the books they read. Other classes had students create a visual of some sort and present to the class on their summer reading book. Overall, we were pleased with the end result: students got choice in their summer read and it created a buzz about books that continued into the start of the school year.
Over the next two years, we tweaked things slightly each year. One year we had over 20 books on our choice list (which was a nightmare when creating the order for Barnes and Noble); another year we dropped a few less popular books from the list to get the list down to a more manageable 12. This past year we made our most dramatic changes, both in terms of the book list, which was a complete overhaul, and our requirements upon the return to school.
In the last two years our school has added both a literacy coach and a reading specialist to our school staff. These positions never existed before and it has been awesome to be part of the Literacy Team at my school, which meets once a cycle and plans everything from an annual Family Literacy Night to our summer reading program. The literacy coach, reading specialist and I are completely on the same page in terms of valuing student choice in free reading. This past year we decided to create an entirely new summer reading list (lots of reading for me!), buy books for all the 7th and 8th grade teachers, including special education teachers, and move to a discussion format for our culminating activity in the fall. In the second week of school this September, students and teachers in 7th and 8th grade reported to different locations all over the school to meet with other students (and one or two teachers) who read the same book. All the groups responded to five prompts such as “Who was your favorite character and why?”, “What was the theme of this book?” “What other books would you recommend to someone who liked this book?” Students were also given a short three question survey. I met with a group of 7th graders who all read Fourmile by Watt Key -- students were extremely enthusiastic about the book. Not all groups were as successful, however.
Overall, we think we are on the right track with this change, but there were some challenges. For one thing, students were allowed to switch books over the summer so our predicted group sizes weren’t accurate on the day of our event. Next year we plan to give students more time to choose their book, including time to actually flip through the books, look at the back cover and read the first few pages (a summer reading book buffet of sorts). Then students will be required to stick with the book they choose. Another problem was that teachers did not pick books based on the books students chose. Teachers chose at the same time as students so we had to scramble to rearrange some groups so there would be enough adult coverage; some groups had 10 students and one group had over 100! Another challenge were the locations. Some of the groups were in the cafeteria and/or the library. Teachers requested that next year groups be limited to 25 per group and that they only be located in classrooms. We also plan to do the discussions before open house next year so we can create a visual display of books that students read and loved from summer reading. Finally, we plan to give a longer survey at the conclusion of the book discussions.
Two final elements we added this year were a book swap and book ladders. The book swap allowed students to turn in their used summer reading book and select someone else’s used book. Only about 20 students participated; many students really wanted to keep their book and other students weren’t interested in selecting any of the other summer reading books. We are planning to do a general book swap in January and let students swap out any books from their homes.
The book ladders were built by the Literacy Team and some ELA teachers; these were shared with all ELA classes. We have a book ladder for each book from last year’s summer reading list. For example, we suggest that if you like Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Jacobsen you might like So B. It by Sarah Weeks, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan or Paper Things by Jennifer Jacobsen. You can see all our book ladders here. Next year we plan to have book ladders available when we discuss the books to further enrich discussions and start students’ On Deck Lists, which we are promoting in all ELA classes. From now on, we plan to have a new list of 10 books every year for 7th and 8th grade and starting next year we plan to offer choice to our incoming 6th graders, as well. We are starting to build those lists on Google Drive as we read books this school year. I feel fortunate to work in a school that values choice and free reading, as well as risk and experimentation. We continue to learn from our summer reading experience.
Laura Gardner is the Library Teacher at the Dartmouth Middle School.