Summer Reading, pain in my…*

Summer Reading. We spend all year working on it. We can’t escape it.

I hate it. I hate summer reading.

But…but…it helps kids retain their reading skills over summer vacation!

You know why we even have a summer vacation?

So kids could spend the summer months helping out on the farm.

Wait…your kids don’t live on farms? They live in the suburbs? Or the city? Or even if they do live on a farm, it’s such a large farm that their meager help isn’t necessary during the summer months?

“Why operate on a calendar designed for the economy of the last century?” Kelly Johnson, communications coordinator for the National Association for Year-Round Education, asked Education World. “As we head into the 21st century, I don’t know of very many children who must work on family farms. So why do we continue to implement a calendar which has no educational advantages?

There’s no reason for summer vacation. Sure, it’s nice. Teachers love it, and probably want to punch me in the face right now. But really, why are we holding onto something that is nice but ultimately detrimental to our children and families? It has to be terribly difficult for working parents to find child-care for three months out of the year. I’m assuming a lot of kids just stay home unattended, or they get dropped off at the library for eight or more hours a day, without even a snack. Rarely will a child spend all of that time reading. Most of it is spent talking with friends, playing on the computer, or rolling around on the ground, rending his garments and crying “I AM SO BORED!”** Wouldn’t that time be better spent in school?

Are American schools serving up a quality education for all students? Although we provide students more years of formal schooling than any other nation, our school year is short, usually only 180 days. The world’s average is 200 to 220 days per year, and Japan’s is 243. (See “Give Kids More School,” USA Today, August 31,1992.) Over time, this difference can add up. [emphasis mine]

Further, in Chicago (where I live but do not work), our school days are among the shortest in the nation. We spend fewer days in school and even on the days we’re there, we’re not there for very long. And how many of those days are no more than an hour long?

Don’t worry about it, though! Summer reading will fix everything! Prizes from Oriental Trading and reading logs are an amazing cure-all for YEARS of educational neglect!

When a child is struggling with reading, I think the last thing s/he wants to do is spend the entire summer being forced by a well-meaning parent to read. Because that’s all it is– we give them a piece of paper or a database log-in and say, Here ya go! Read! Maintain your skills! What if Billy’s an eighth-grader and his reading level is only at the second grade? What good does it do for him to maintain that? How is he supposed to begin reading at his grade level without support, direct instruction, intervention–you know, SCHOOL?

The library is NOT school (no matter how many of my little patrons call me teacher), and most librarians are not equipped to teach children–or anyonehow to read, and I believe this is a major failing of most library school programs. How do we expect people to be invested in the library when they lack the one skill that makes it worthwhile? And even if libraries move away from storage and preservation towards content creation, how can we expect illiterate people to create content? How can we document community stories when the majority of the population lacks the ability to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end? If we’re going to be putting on this “program” that is supposedly going to keep kids from falling behind in school, shouldn’t we know how literacy is developed, how kids learn how to read, how adults learn how to read? How many librarians reading this right now have a clue as to how any of that works, and how to apply it in a library setting?

This doesn’t mean I am opposed to fun programs at libraries, especially for children. I love programming and telling stories, and filling the library with whimsy. I think decorations kick-ass. I just think that libraries should do that sort of thing ALL YEAR, and not just spend all of their time, effort, and money during the summer, when, frankly, most people are just there for the chintzy prizes. Kids that want to read will read, regardless of how charming and well crafted your summer reading program is. Children who can’t read and don’t like to read won’t read, and your posters, prizes, and logs won’t help them one damn bit.

Much like a Vulcan, I can’t stand things that I find illogical, and I find the Summer Reading Program, with its high minded, idealistic mission, to be a completely illogical artifact of the past. I also never participated in it as a child, so I don’t adore it slavishly out of misplaced nostalgia. Yet I am an above average reader and writer, so I guess the lack of summer reading really didn’t hurt me any, did it? And I was one of those farm kids who was so urgently needed on the farm during the summer, one of those bare-foot, dust covered urchins that summer reading was supposed to help so much. Perhaps all that time I spent listening to my father ramble on about hog prices and what the neighbors down the road were up to helped my literacy skills more than I knew.

In summary, I do believe that the average summer reading program is little more than a crutch for the failures of the average American school system. What do you think?

NOTES

School calendars around the world

This article has a ton of links at the end about school calendars, start times, etc.

*to the tune of “Summer Lovin’”

**This is only a slight exaggeration.

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18 thoughts on “Summer Reading, pain in my…*”

  1. I love that my library’s summer program’s official title can be abbreviated “MSRP” (as in Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price). Just like a retail product, the program is advertised to death, marketed to people who probably don’t need it or don’t want it, and is never, EVER questioned as to its effectiveness, cost/benefit ratio, or anything else.

  2. You make some great points and I agree with many of them. However, from my perspective, the Summer Reading Programs real benefit does not lie in reading level maintenance. That is more of a side effect. The benefit is that these kids now have time to read for themselves. They get the chance to read what they like. They get to read for pleasure. This is a huge deal.

    During high school, I HATED reading. Even with a librarian as a mother, I HATED it. The reason I hated it was the terrible crap the schools were forcing us to read. In addition to forcing us to read terrible crap, they forced us into ONE reading of the material. Anyone with an ounce of brain activity knows that reading is much like art appreciation. Everyone comes at the work with different perspectives and life experiences. This leads to different interpretations. Something that should be encouraged and discussed. However, in schools most students don’t get this kind of exposure. There is one answer, one way of viewing the material, and any other way of looking at it is a quick way to failing grade. This drove me to hate the act of reading . . . and it drives my teens to hate the act of reading every school year.

    Beyond the detriment of the current model our English classes emulate and the lack of pleasure reading is the simple fact that most children above the sixth grade are so heavily scheduled during the school year that there is no hope for time for pleasure reading. Many reading teachers have caught on to this and try to encourage pleasure reading with Sustained Silent Reading . . . but, as most of my teens have told me, they end up reading the books they are slogging through in English class.

    In order to create a reader, you don’t just teach a person to read. A child can be capable of reading and simply not wish to do so. Encouraging and fostering a joy of reading is vital to the development of literacy skills and the continued growth of those skills. The best way to increase reading comprehension, vocabulary, and cognitive development is not through English classes or remedial reading courses. The best way is to let the child read what they want to read. Let the 7th grade read Capt. Underpants if he wants to. Let that fifth grader read books at a second grade level. Studies, and my own experience as a librarian (not to mention my own childhood), have shown that a child will move onto more challenging stories and books when they are ready. Damn Lexiles, damn AR lists, and damn all the systems designed to treat only the cognitive portion of reading. They don’t work. The reading comprehension scores of our nation should easily tell you that. And throw those bloody tests out, while you’re at it. They certainly don’t help.

    The truth is our system does a lousy job of encouraging reading (especially for young boys) because we treat it from a distant and (seemingly) logical standpoint. Reading should be encouraged as entertainment. The best thing an English teacher could do to create higher reading skills (not to mention scores on those damnable tests) is to have their classes read what they would like. No restrictions. But they can’t. They are stuck dealing with those bloody tests just as much as their students and the curriculum must reflect that or those teachers risk losing their jobs.

    All of this leads me to the conclusion that the prime benefit of Summer Reading Programs is it encourages reading during a time when most children HAVE time to read. And what’s more, and probably even more beneficial, the things they read during the summer are pleasure reading. Just look at how the stats in your children and YA sections jump during summer. Give them the time to read what they want and they will. What’s more, they’ll improve.

    Does that mean I agree with clinging to antiquated school schedules? Hell no! Does that mean I love summer reading programs? Hell no . . . well . . . yes . . . I guess I have a love-hate thing with them. Does that mean I like bribing/rewarding my teens with a candy bar for reading 10 hours? Not in the least. But, if it encourages them to pick up a book and read, I’ll do it. It may start with the promise of that candy bar as a reward, but time and time again I have seen it become a simple love of reading. Because of these things, as long as we have summer, I will do all I can to put forth the most amazing Summer Reading Program I can. It isn’t because it is a stop gap measure; it isn’t because I want my kids to do well in school next year (though I do). It is because Summer Reading is a celebration of reading. It is a festival of pages, characters, words, plots and twists, and the simple joy of reading. Most of all, I will continue to do it because near the end of my High School career, someone badgered and bribed me into joining a summer reading program and that program lead me to a lifelong love affair with books, despite what damage the schools (however well meaning) had done.

    1. Great comment. Sadly, though, not every library’s summer reading program encourages kids to read for pleasure. Some libraries mandate that teens read YA books only, or otherwise restrict what they are allowed to read. (Some libraries are crappy enough to do this to adults as well.)
      In addition to children not getting enough time in school to learn how to read, the Lexile. AR, and other reading programs go a long way to destroying any love of reading that kids might have. I’ve seen kids dismiss, out of hand, any book that doesn’t have an AR test to go with it. I’ve seen parents take books from the kid because they were “baby” books or some other such derogatory term.
      I think summer reading can be an awesome thing, but I rarely hear it justified outside of the “maintaining skill levels” argument. Your attitude towards summer reading is, I think, the exception rather than the rule. When people ask about the summer reading program, they seem quite disappointed when we tell them what it is–that we give their kid a piece of paper and they keep track of their reading. I think a lot of parents realize their kids are struggling, and they are looking for help, for a solution. Why else does shit like “Your Baby Can Read” and Baby Einstein keep selling (and getting sued)? The only way to become a reader or a better reader is to read to and/or read (depending on where you are). That’s it. There is no magic fix.
      Illiteracy and alliteracy are two different problems that are closely intertwined. If a kid is already reading below his grade level, but being socially promoted, he’s not going to be very motivated to read, since the books he’ll be reading will clearly mark him as not as “smart” (which, while not true, is going to be the way he is perceived).
      I do think summer reading can have value, but I think it has gotten wildly out of control and doesn’t serve its purpose the way we think it should, or could.

      1. And here we are in agreement. I won’t deny that the CSRP may have lost its way. It is true many libraries don’t serve their readers, reluctant or otherwise, as well as they could. Well intentioned though they may be. It all comes down to fundamental flaws in the way our system believes reading should be taught. And the tools these systems provide their teachers are ineffective, something we both know as we decried AR, lexile, and the like.

        Yes, the stigma of being the “dumb kid” is huge. This is something that has a great deal to do with boys not reading, but that is another conversation. The key is to encourage the idea that reading, at any level, is okay. Hell, I love reading picture books! Perhaps if more teachers and librarians openly read the books we hide from our students and patrons. Many of us have a fear that what little respect we hold may be diminished if our students see us reading The Warriors series instead of Kafka or Twilight instead of Thoreau. Maybe if more kids and teens saw us reading some of the books we read for pleasure, they would feel more at home with their own choices.

        As you’ve said, there is no magic fix. The problem is multifaceted and complex. We can’t treat the symptom and ignore the infection. We can’t address the cognitive aspect and ignore the social. We can’t fix the scholastic side and leave the spirit to wither. We have to do both. And this is where public libraries and school libraries can bridge the gap. As you said in your original post, public libraries are not equipped to teach people how to read. But, we can encourage the development of a love and joy in reading. By doing so, we can make an impact on the students that come through our doors. Those students, who have had fun in our company and enjoyed books from our shelves, will bring their friends and so on. My entire YA population is a product of the glowing recommendations from one teen to another. This is something most schools are not equipped to do. A truth most noticeable with the myriad cuts to school libraries across the country. The schools foster a sense of books as work, learning, and research. The things all students see as boring and worthless. These things ARE a part of reading and very important, however they aren’t the whole story. We are positioned to promote the other side of that coin. And a summer reading program designed to emphasize the simple joy of reading through a book, any book, is a great way to do so.

        I won’t argue that the parents out there pushing their kids to read beyond their interest, “because her reading level is higher”, are terrible and make me want to slap them but hard. I won’t argue that there are parents who are angry that we
        choose to reward the simple joy of reading anything (even things these parents consider trash). However, maybe we could do a better job of educating these parents to the benefits of pleasure reading. Show them the studies that point to the benefits of being read to and reading the books that may be “below your level”. Perhaps the problem is we only target the children and teens. Perhaps we should smack some sense into the ever pushing parent – let them know the damage they are doing in the name of teaching their child.

        No, we can’t teach people to read. Nor should we, but that doesn’t mean we can’t educate and that certainly doesn’t mean we can’t better the literacy skills of our communities children, teens, and parents by encouraging them to read what they want.

  3. I’ve always been a big believer in keeping summer reading programs in their place (http://tinytipsforlibraryfun.blogspot.com/2009/12/stop-madness.html). They are a mere 8 weeks out of our total 52 week year and I like to give it just about that much respective planning/doing time in relation to the rest of our year. What I like about SLP is being with and working with a higher percentage of school age kids – my favorite demographic.

    I have tended to “solve” the SLP over-emphasis all along in my career – creating fun environments where reading and library use is encouraged but so is mellow visiting and booktalking. Mantra #1: work smarter; not harder. De-emphasize prizes (except for books) and make sure that staff has time and energy to interact with the kids. Make sure fall plans for programs and cool initiatives are in place so we can talk to the kids about cool events in fall (Scary Story Festival; Lego Building Club; Wii Wednesdays; Be a Star podcasting studio) and encourage them to take a leap of faith and fun with us during school time.

    We spend the rest of our planning time during the year creating ways to partner with our schools and daycares for outreach; partnering with other child-serving organizations; and discovering and implementing “think-outside-the-box” ideas from colleagues everywhere to bring here to delight kids and families.

    I present a fair number of SLP workshops and in each one I preach to those I hope to un-convert from SLP-mania: relax, enjoy and emphasize the pleasure of reading and books and summer and fun.

  4. Hi Julie!

    I’m not a children’s librarian at the moment, but I used to be…

    Brilliant post! My diatribe to the altar of summer reading (and preschool storytime for that matter) is here http://hedgehoglibrarian.com/2010/01/04/theres-got-to-be-more-to-youth-services/

    Most frustrating to me was that I’ve suggested and proposed programs on ‘something other than SLP” on the national level and I can’t seem to get traction at the conferences. And I do think we need that kind of nation wide push towards something else. Or maybe just getting ALA to not spend quite so much of the summer reading binders.

    :-p

    1. You know, it was actually that post that you link to that was part of my inspiration to begin my beginning reader storytime. I read your post and thought, Exactly! Why are we abandoning these kids when they most need us? It’s been so successful at my library that I want to start a 3rd-5th grade version, to help struggling readers.

      We should keep talking!

  5. I have been thinking about summer reading ever since I began working in a different library system and could compare it to my old place of torture, er work. At my old library, we went from having logs they could fill out but no prizes (just a certificate saying they finished 20 or whatever hours) to not even having logs. Instead, saying why in the world should we reward kids for something they should want to do anyway, we promoted our programs. And you know what? Our participation numbers went down every year. At my current library, we have a huge summer reading program, and are approaching a record number of signups (3500). Kids get a log, and prizes–the Oriental Trading trinkets at 10, 40 and 60 hours, but they get to choose a book after 20 hours of reading. So, I think I can safely assume that parents (who drive summer reading signups, of course) love it. I am totally against the giving of trinkets, and tried to persuade them to change that aspect, but no go. I love that the kids get to choose a book as a prize, and they love it too. The program is time consuming on the part of staff and couldn’t be run without teen volunteers who man the sign up/ prize givaway table whenever we can persuade them to come and help. It was like pulling teeth to get money to purchase the prizes. It took hours to persuade community businesses and destinations to donate gifts as prizes for the additional contests we insisted upon running. And yet, the parents here seem to eat it up. So, I think changing the program, which seems to exist mainly because parents want their kids to get prizes and the children’s department needs the statistics to prove our importance, would be difficult at best. Why change it if it “works”??? If by working, of course, I mean patrons are happy with it. Is that a bad thing? We do lots of things to keep patrons happy. I think that they would be very UNhappy if we didn’t give their kids an opportunity to earn a crappy gumball machine prize. Is this a good enough reason to have a SRP? At this point, reluctantly, I have to say my conclusion is yes.

  6. I completely agree that SRC has become one of those sacred cows in the library world. And while I’m all for the benefits (tons of research supports that) it’s true that an inordinate amount of effort and time is spent planning and preparing for summer. I often think that much attention to FUN and APPEALING programs should be spent in the fall, winter and spring as well. I see libraries that ‘come alive’ during the summer and fall somewhat dormant during the school year. Unacceptable!

    In our county- we’re working on ‘winter/spring’ reading club in the form of a mock Newbery. We want to keep that momentum of summer reading going and continue celebrating recreational reading all year long. Great post and I’m recommending my librarians read it before we get together again to chat about how this year’s summer reading club went.

    1. I am not exaggerating when I say that as soon as–no, BEFORE– last summer’s reading program ended, we were already talking about this summer. Which is fine, I guess, but it also makes me so frakking tired of the whole shebang that it’s hard for me to muster any enthusiasm when the program actually arrives. And if you read my comment below, when libraries do summer reading wrong, they can really cause harm to emerging and reluctant readers.

  7. As a children’s librarian for years, I ranted about the summer reading program – and then when I became a Senior Librarian in our library system’s Children’s Services dept, I ranted even more. Now, as Manager, I’m in charge of actually creating our summer reading program – and I find myself full of more questions than ever. Why SRPs? How SRPs? Do they do what we all swear they do? http://evasbookaddiction.blogspot.com/2010/11/dominican-study-valuable-but-not-enough.html

    I have always loved the idea of going all out with the “read for fun this summer” theme. Read whatever you want – comics, tomes, picture books, zines – and however you want – on big screens, small screens, and in-between. But yeah – my question has always been “how do you get those non-reading, non-library-using kids to come to the library and maybe do a bit of reading?”

    It’s a question worth striving to answer, summer after summer, even if we haven’t hit on any perfect solutions. Just – I could do with the frenzy being toned down just a tiny bit! Late-July burnout, anyone??
    Eva

    1. I read your blog post. It sounds like kids who participate in–and benefit from– summer reading are READING ANYWAY, regardless of programs or trinkets, and, more importantly, have active, involved parents who are also reading.
      I actually think summer reading programs should and will stick around–it’s fun to have a prolonged celebration of a theme, and it’s a library institution. Let’s just tweak it a bit. What I worry about the most is libraries who are doing it totally wrong–prescribing what kids read, demanding they read from certain areas only, restricting access, determining what is “good” reading and what is “junk” reading. Those are the libraries and librarians I am afraid of…and they’re out there, damaging kids and parents alike.

  8. I’m a school librarian, and I would *love* for the school year (and even the day) to be longer. Imagine what we would have time for – student interest based projects! Free reading time! Physical activity every day! And students who don’t otherwise get regular nutrition could have 2 meals a day they could depend on! And we could teach social skills, and have time to really meet students’ individual needs! Paradise! Of course, all of that would be expensive…but worth it.

  9. Yes, yes, yes. And sure, it might be expensive….but maybe if we spent more on schools now we’d spend less on prisons in the future.

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