For the Love of Books

For the Love of Books

American author of children’s fiction Kate DiCamillo once stated, “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore, a duty. It should be offered as a gift.” Award-winning children’s author and illustrator and Associate Professor of Literacy Education and Children’s Literature at Arizona State University Dr. Frank Serafini noted, “There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.” Finally, American author and poet, singer, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou affirmed, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his or her deep and continuing needs, is good.”

One of the most effective ways of improving reading achievement levels in students is by offering them engaging and comprehensive reading materials. Increased time spent reading can improve comprehension and vocabulary, writing and spelling, and help develop the understanding of complex grammatical structures. In other words, writing is a valuable skill and reading is the exercise that helps strengthen it. When schools close for the summer the routine of reading is often set aside and resumed again in the fall. A successful reading experience, however, can help develop literary proficiency, motivation, confidence, and most importantly enjoyment. Summer learning loss or setback, or most commonly known as the “summer slide,” can be hurtful to academic achievement. It is therefore critical to develop consistent and strong summer reading habits that can combat summer learning loss and provide a foundation for renewed academic success.

The summer reading program at Suffield Academy promotes an extension of the school’s diverse educational experience. Suffield encourages its students to read outside of the classroom and beyond the school year and values the shared experience of all faculty and students reading an annually selected common text. The program provides opportunities for students and faculty time to reflect on and explore ideas outside the Suffield community. At a minimum, students are asked to read the community text in addition to one to two books from the school’s annually updated summer reading list. This past summer’s chosen community text was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and will be continually used in support of the 2020-2021 school theme of empathy.

Our goal is to inspire reading for its intellectual and personal growth and not because it is a required part of our academic curriculum. We wanted to find a better way of engaging our students and make their summer reading experience more successful.

Holding the position of Children’s Laureate from 2013 to 2015, British writer Malore Blackman commented, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” Coates’ Between the World and Me is written as a letter from the author to his teenage son about being black in America. It pivots between personal and historical, focusing both on America’s racial history and current civil rights crisis. As many have seen again poignantly this spring, systemic racism in America devalues black lives. Racism diminishes, demoralizes, and dehumanizes. Suffield planned to use this text in addition to a series of programs to help its students and faculty engage in the realities of systemic racism and help strengthen its community and the world.

While Suffield’s summer reading concept is quite traditional and not new to the school’s programming, its design and execution have changed significantly since its revised model implemented last year. Students were previously provided a list of required summer reading and formally assessed on their reading comprehension within the first two weeks of starting school. Assessments ranged from written essays to multiple-choice quizzes to a combination of both. The program was successful but somewhat archaic given the modern-day alternatives to adaptive learning. Dean of Academics and Faculty Sara Yeager therefore envisioned an evolution to the program and saw room for improvement.

“We had been thinking about this program for a few years and set up a committee of students and faculty to brainstorm ways of revising it,” explains Sara Yeager. “Some of the best prep a student can do for college is to become a skilled reader, if not a passionate one. We initiated the new format last year and kept it because the students loved it. It is one thing to require summer reading but it is an entirely different phenomenon to inspire engagement in reading on its own. We discovered that our students did not necessarily want to be told what to read but instead wanted more freedom in what they could read. So, we opened the selection process up to the faculty and asked for recommendations of titles covering a wider range of topics including but not limited to mystery, adventure, history, autobiographies, athletics, romance, finance, or even science fiction. Our intent was to remove the program from the classrooms altogether and encourage the pleasure of reading on its own.”

The concept of removing the summer reading program from the classroom sounds innovative and interesting, but how does it work? Prior to the implementation of its revised format, students were assessed in the classrooms and Sara’s committee aimed to challenge that process. They instead envisioned the program in the style of a book club rather than the seemingly daunting hassle of a formal, written assessment. “If we want our students to truly enjoy reading then we needed to find a different way of promoting it,” explains Sara. “Our goal is to inspire reading for its intellectual and personal growth and not because it is a required part of our academic curriculum. We wanted to find a better way of engaging our students and make their summer reading experience more successful.”

As a result, the updated format does not task students with a formal in-class assessment. Instead, students are divided into groups based on their book selection(s) and invited to meet with the faculty advisor who nominated that book. These meetings are more appropriately considered informal gatherings or talks often held at the faculty advisor’s campus residence. Sara notes, “We surveyed our students and it is widely acknowledged that these small gatherings help provide a great start to a new academic year. They love being in faculty homes while sharing food and chatting about what they read. It has allowed the summer reading program to be less academic and the overall experience more personal and inclusive.”

Book’s suggested by faculty members Beth Krasemann (history teacher and Coordinator of Curriculum and Faculty Development) and Tom Dugan (Chair, Department of Performing Arts) were the most popular among the titles provided last summer and demonstrate the revised model is an improved success. “I offered a musical book entitled Dear Evan Hansen by Steven Levenson that the students were really excited about reading,” explains Tom Dugan. “They could relate to it as teens and many already saw it on stage or knew the music. This format encourages them to engage in discussions and talk about the story and all the characters. It allows students to read books that resonate with them on a personal level rather than being forced to read books they did not choose themselves. Dear Evan Hansen is a popular show on Broadway that many of our students have seen in New York. It is a powerful piece of musical theater and the book is very well done.”

“The purpose of summer reading is to encourage students to continue reading outside the Suffield community, and I think this format makes more sense overall,” says Beth Krasemann. “We all prefer the freedom to read what we want and this book club styled program invites that. The power of choice empowers students to select a book they find interesting, and this has been a positive way of supporting our summer reading program. Over 70 students chose one of my science-fiction selections last year: Ready Player One by American author Ernest Cline. This year I suggested a book I love entitled Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a 2009 best-selling ethnography written by American author and journalist Christopher McDougall. I also offered How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi because I think it is especially relevant right now and important for everyone in our community to read. I hope it promotes responsible, robust discussions in the fall.”

Suffield’s summer reading program promotes an extension of the school’s diverse educational environment and encourages reading as a lifelong habit. It is a shared experience by students and faculty and strengthens the school’s community, a place where students grow independently as individuals and collectively as responsible, global citizens. German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once stated, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Famed American children’s book author and illustrator Dr. Seuss quipped, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Beloved writer and journalist Ernest Hemmingway fashioned, “There is no friend as loyal as a book,” while the pioneer of the American animation industry Walt Disney offered, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.” Finally, it was the French poet and novelist Victor Hugo who romantically stated, “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled is a spark.”