As summer days stretch ahead, many high school students will participate in what can be looked at as a rite of passage — the required summer reading list.
But this year, there’s a bit of a twist.
The Gainesville system is tweaking its expectations to tailor the texts to help students become more “college and career ready,” according to Tonya Aiken, the high school’s academic coach.
“Instead of just doing literature, we’re trying to focus more on informational texts,” she said. “That’s what Common Core really calls for, and one of our top focuses is college and career.”
Common Core is a set of standards adopted by Georgia for math and English/language arts classes. The standards place a focus on “complex texts” that are both literary and informative, according to the corestandards.org website.
Aiken said when told to read a book, students automatically think of a fictional piece. Now they’ll be encouraged to read opinion pieces, memoirs and newspapers to better reflect what’s asked in the standards.
A provided list of examples suggests opinion pieces in the New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or Scholastic’s online magazine.
“(The pieces) kind of focus more on arguments, different viewpoints of an issue,” Aiken said. “A lot of what they will do is read different blogs from various viewpoints but still on the same topic just so they can kind of pull those together and do a comparison.”
After reading a text of their choice, students will write a letter to the teacher detailing their reading experience. The letter must be turned in the first day of school, and count as extra credit.
There is still required reading for honors students at all grade levels, including books like “The Lord of the Flies” by William Goulding and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.
“All of the classics are still there for your honors classes,” Aiken said. “But we’re just trying to really incorporate the nonfiction, which would include current issues, blogs, research papers, journals, diaries, things like that.”
Both city and county school systems, along with United Way and government officials, are emphasizing the importance of staying intellectually engaged over the extended break.
Information from the National Summer Learning Association states research shows students “typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation.” Students lose around two months in math, while low-income students may lose more than two months in reading achievement.
United Way hosted Celebrate Literacy Day on May 16, delivering book packets to many preschool and elementary level students to promote early childhood learning. And both school systems will have “bookmobiles” — buses outfitted with shelves and reading material for all levels — roving through local neighborhoods this summer.
Some schools will open their libraries at designated times over the summer, and many have the brightly colored Little Free Libraries outside.
But school officials say it can be difficult to enforce summer reading, especially for older students. Summer reading is not required for Hall County high school students, though it’s “recommended” according to Terry Sapp, Hall County’s high schools school improvement specialist.
“Suggested titles are made available to students,” she said. “(But) there is no requirement for high school students.”
The county system used to require summer reading for high school students, with teachers giving some sort of quiz or assignment on the first day of school.
Sapp, who said she was not in her position when the changes were made, said there were multiple reasons why reading was not required, many coming from parents.
“One of the arguments ... at that time came from parents who said that the school year was 180 days, and summer was not included in those days,” Sapp said.
“Another argument was that new students enrolling on the first day were penalized since they never had been informed of the summer reading.
“Without question, that practice is unfair to those students,” she added.
Aiken also said some students have difficulty with the more strenuous literature, and would benefit more by waiting until the school year so they have access to a teacher to guide them.
“Why are we giving them literature to read over the summer that they would have to come back into class and still need the teacher support to basically understand it?” Aiken said. “Our goal is just to keep them reading and understand(ing) what they’re reading, not to have them learn classic literature on their own.”
Gainesville High Principal LaCrisia Larkin said when kids read books they enjoy, they’re more apt to pick up the more difficult, academic books.
“And many of the (Advanced Placement) courses require reading to be done over the summer, so they’re ready for those courses in the fall,” Larkin said.
But ultimately, it seems the trend is to take a step back from the classic literature and replace it with more contemporary texts.
“We need to make it relevant,” Aiken said, explaining it’s all about making the students “college and career ready.”
“Because of that, we are incorporating more of a variety of texts. We know that students need to struggle, but we also need teacher support for those types of texts as well.”