Every library worker has gotten that request for a strange, old book which is still somehow required at some school somewhere. Betsy Bird did a terrific take-down of those outdated list earlier this summer, and an attempt to “update” the choices for teen appeal backfired in South Carolina and Florida.

Yes, assigned whole-class summer reading can be problematic. The number of titles (and the page lengths) required seems to have dwindled over decades, and other supposed innovations including “read any one book from the New York Times bestseller list” has led to a scramble for the shortest books.

Instead we should concentrate on promoting free voluntary reading. NYPL has rejiggered the reading portion of their summer learning program to focus on time spent reading rather than particular titles, and researchers at the University of Rochester have demonstrated that elementary school students who select the books they want to read over the summer have significantly improvements in reading ability.

When I spent a week at a teacher workshop this summer, it struck me that many schools have already given up on assigning summer reading. From Massachusetts to Missouri, teachers weren’t even suggesting students should be reading particular texts in preparation for a new school year. Transience and not being able to supply books for students were cited as two barriers, but other teachers just realized the reading wasn’t getting done.

“It sets the wrong tone,” said Melissa Pouridas, English teacher at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Maryland. Students don’t even pretend to have done the summer reading and start the term with a bad grade, or else they cram just enough from Sparknotes to get by, which suggests that the class won’t require real effort.

Instead, Pouridas suggested that there be “first week of school reading.” In the flux of schedule changes, students can take a deep dive, together, into a text and establish a more rigorous reading pace for the school year.

It’s got to be better than finding Cliff Notes for Brave New World up on all the library computers, or that junior asking you to tell them the plot of Huckleberry Finn, both of which have been part of my back-to-school realities…

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