Summer reads, required and not so required. (By Amy Joyce)

The summer I graduated from college, I read more books than I had read in the previous eight years combined. I read constantly. I will never forget the pure joy of sitting on the beach reading “Tender is the Night” simply because I felt like it. To this day, any mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald reminds me of beach chairs and the Jersey Shore. I read my first foodie book, “Heartburn,” by Nora Ephron and wondered if I would ever need her carbonara recipe. That was also the summer I became obsessed with Larry McMurtry, dragging my friends to nearby Dairy Queens in a curious search for the kinds of people described in “The Last Picture Show.”

That summer after graduation I had been set free — free from laboring through college textbooks and the assigned novels of my formal education. Free to read for the pleasure of it. Those memories are still so vivid I’m surprised by how easily I forgot their lesson.

I hate to admit that in the past I’ve allowed my kids’ summer vacations to be consumed by the drudgery of assigned readings. At first, I was thrilled they had been assigned summer reading. I took it as a sign that they were growing and getting a quality education. But over time, I began to see it differently. I saw my kids choosing not to read at all. Reading something other than their assigned books created feelings of guilt, not pleasure, and so they avoided reading altogether.

My constant nagging to get that summer reading finished or my questions about whether a book in their hands was on the approved list was not helpful — at all.

We struggled along until I made a simple change to our summers, and it has worked amazingly well. We use the following plan, and it has transformed my kids’ reading habits for the better. It gets the summer reading finished, but also allows for the lazy freedom of reading whatever looks good on those hot summer afternoons.

3 Steps to Completing Summer Reading Assignments

Step One: Understand the Assignment. We make sure they know what books are assigned and if there are any projects to go with the reading that are also assigned.

Some questions we keep in mind are:

  • Is there a specific way the novel should be highlighted or annotated?
  • Can it be read on an e-reader or must the book be the print version? Given the choice, we always chose print.
  • Will there be a test or quiz on the first day back to school?  In other words, does it need to be fresh in their minds, or can it be finished earlier in the summer?
  • Will the summer reading be used as the foundation for a project that begins the school year?

Step 2: Break It Down. After we have a clear idea of the books that need to be read and what assignments go along with the summer reading, it’s time to do some math. We talk about how many pages per day they think they can read. My job here is to keep it real. Back in their middle school days, my guys would try to convince themselves they could read 100 pages in a day to get it finished faster. They learned, though, that they didn’t have that kind of reading stamina, and they eventually realized that they did better with shorter bursts over a longer period of time.

Next, we figure out how many days they will need to do the project that goes with the reading. Again, my job here is to keep plans realistic. For example, it’s not good to write a rough draft and a final draft in the same day. Also, sometimes projects require arts-and-crafts supplies that will have to be purchased, and they will need to factor in enough time to do that.

Step 3: Put It on the Calendar. Finally, we schedule the entire project from buying the books, to reading and highlighting, to creating any final products. We put summer reading on the calendar, just as we do summer camp and the back-to-school doctor’s appointment. The idea is to schedule the assigned reading and contain it so it doesn’t hover over our entire summer like a black cloud of doom.

This summer my daughter has scheduled her assigned summer reading to be done July 18-21. It is off my nag list, and importantly, it is off her worry list.

Even better, far from avoiding any reading until then, my daughter has already read four books, and she still has a stack she can’t wait to dive into. She is enjoying reading whatever she likes, and her volume of reading has increased as a result.

She is reading for the joy of it, and I’m not being a nag. I call that a summer win.

Maureen Paschal is a freelance writer, tutor, teacher, librarian and a mom to four. She blogs at Raising The Capable Student

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