Sex, Death, and… Summer Reading

I am a self-proclaimed podcast junkie. My love of podcasts began about 2 years ago. I had just moved to Israel with my then-partner and I was struggling. The best way to explain it is like this: if English is my SuperPower then Hebrew was my Kryptonite. It completely disabled me. I struggled with the most basic of levels of communication. My friend Susy, who grew up in a home where both English and Hebrew were spoken, had a long, delightful, belly-gripping laugh when I told her about walking Floyd in the neighborhood and being asked by a fellow dog owner, “kelev or kalbah?” I stood there dumbstruck. What was this person asking me? I knew ‘kelev’ was dog. Every Jew who attends Hebrew school learns that one. But what the heck was kalbah? For the uninitiated, kelev is the masculine form of dog and, you got it, kalbah is the feminine. In other words, I was speechless at being asked whether my dog was a girl or a boy. Kryptonite.

So podcasts became my friends. Literally. Ira Glass, Guy Raz and Mignon Fogarty talked to me in English twice a week as I rode from the North of Tel Aviv to the heart of the city where I attended ulpan (Hebrew language courses). Now that I’ve returned to the states, podcasts remain my friends. I find listening to podcasts to be one of the best ways to pass time when I am commuting, working out or doing chores.

I love sharing what I’ve learned from my podcast listening with others. But, listen to enough podcasts and they all seem to run together. Which is what makes the May 15, 2015 episode of This American Life so remarkable. I cannot stop thinking about it. Here’s the description from their website:

 557: Birds & Bees

MAY 15, 2015

Some information is so big and so complicated that it seems impossible to talk to kids about. This week, stories about the vague and not-so-vague ways to teach children about race, death and sex…

Don’t worry. I am not planning to tackle talking to kids about sex, racism or death in this post. However, I strongly recommend that you listen to the folks at This American Life as they discuss those topics. But I would like to talk about another big and complicated topic: summer reading.

Yeah. Summer reading.

Most of us are well-versed in the research regarding summer reading. Middle-income kids make progress in the summer. Low-income kids slide. About two months. Every summer. Year after year after year. Doesn’t this mean that summer reading isn’t really about summer reading? Doesn’t this mean that summer reading loss is really about access to books? In other words, doesn’t this mean that summer reading loss is really about poverty? And, does that mean that we need to talk to kids about poverty? Because that topic feels big and complicated and I want to be able to talk to kids about poverty in the thoughtful, well-researched ways that Ira and company do. In preparation, I’ve added girls, social class and literacy by Stephanie Jones to my summer reading stack on Katy’s recommendation. (Thanks, partner!)

If you are looking for general ways to sell summer reading to your whole class, I recommend you read @clareandtammy’s recent Nerdy Book Club post.

But, what if you are seeking something more targeted and more specific? What if you want to reach individual students who you suspect will read if they have access to books and choice[1]? Then, I suggest conferring with those readers about their summer reading plans.

Here’s one way a conference about summer reading could go:

Set-up the conference: You could say, “I want to talk to you about summer. As we talk, I am going to take some notes in my notebook. I am setting up my notes into a t-chart. On one side, I’ll jot what I am learning and noticing about you as a reader. On the other side, I’ll jot any ideas or tips that I think might be important to share with you.” (More on open notes in an upcoming post by Katy.)

Research: You might begin your research by saying, “Tell me about your summer. What plans have you made? What else? Anything else?” If a student says that she doesn’t know what her plans are, you can ask about last summer and use that as a predictor of how this summer might go. For example, 6th grader Josh wasn’t sure about his summer plans and said ‘My mom said we might take a trip.’ When I asked about last summer, he shared that he spent part of every day in his room watching TV or playing Xbox and part of his day outside playing sports.

Follow-up: If the student mentions reading then follow up by getting detailed and specific. If the student does not mention reading, ask, “What about reading?” I did this by saying, “You know I’m a teacher, right? So I have to ask about reading. Have you thought about your plans for reading this summer?”

Teach: Then you could explain, “I’ll tell you why I am so interested in summer reading. Let’s take a look at this graph together.” Full disclosure: I used this graph as a visual representation of summer reading loss. I removed the title and did not talk about income. Rather, I talked about progress during the school year and what happens when some kids don’t read in the summer. After studying the graph with a 4th grader named Aidan he said, “It’s like a pattern. Every summer the line goes down a bit. Then every school year it goes back up.”

You’ll want to continue teaching by adding, “Here’s the good news: reading just 4-5 books during the summer is enough to prevent what some people call ‘summer reading loss’. And here’s even better news: It does not matter what you read. In fact, it’s actually better if you choose the books you want to read, rather than the books someone else wants you to read.”

Plan: Next you might ask permission to work together on a summer reading plan by saying, “So let’s get detailed and specific about how you’ll get those 4-5 books read. Ready?” Introduce the planning sheet and support the student as they think through specific titles that want to read. To do this, you might think back to the things the student mentioned during the research phase of the conference. For example, Aidan mentioned that he would be attending baseball camp in the summer and the he liked the “Who Was…?” biography series so we added Who Was Babe Ruth?” to his ‘Books I Plan to Read’ list. Or, you might study the reading log together and recommend read-alike books. “Oh, I see you read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I bet you’d love My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian. (Another shout out to Nerdy Book Club for this post on ten books for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.) Also, it is super helpful to have access to the internet during this conference. I’ve used my kindle, my goodreads account, and the overdrive app while conferring into summer reading plans.

After Aidan and I created his list, I asked, “So how will you get these books?” Without skipping a beat, he said, “At the library.” I asked, also without skipping a beat, “Do you have a library card?” Aidan did not have a library card, but after a bit more conversation he remembered that his grandfather and his friends, E. and S. go to the library so he planned to ask them to take him.

Finally you can map out the when and where parts of the plan on a calendar. Josh set the goal of reading 2 books per month so on the 2nd and 4th Friday of each month he wrote “Due” and the title of the book.

___________________’s Detailed and Specific Summer 2015 Reading Plan


  1. WHAT 4-5 books are you planning to read?
Books I Plan to Read
  1. HOW will you get these books?
  1. WHEN and WHERE will you read?
July 2015
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31
August 2015
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31 September 1 September 2 September 3 September 4 September 5

So that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Conferring with lots of kids about summer reading and helping them get detailed and specific about how they will read those 4-5 (or more!) books.

All this work reminds me of that starfish story. You might be thinking, “I can’t possibly make detailed and specific summer reading plans for each and every one of my students. I can’t put 4-5 books in each and every reader’s hand. I can’t even organize a field trip to the library!” Here’s what I say. Channel the old man on the beach and make a difference when and where you can.

[1] For the research-curious, I reread No More Summer Reading Loss (Heinemann, 2013) where I came across this goodie: “Guthrie and Humenick evaluated twenty-two studies designed to improve reading outcomes and found just four factors that explained almost all the variance in motivation and reading achievement. The two largest contributions to reading achievement were access to interesting books and student choice of the books that would read.”

10 thoughts on “Sex, Death, and… Summer Reading

  1. LOVE the idea of summer reading conferences and making reading plans together. Going to do my best to make it happen for as many kids as I can in the few days remaining. I did share my summer reading stack with them and we talked about reading in the summer. This takes it much deeper and makes it concrete for them. Thanks!


  2. My pleasure, Kathy. I must say the conferences are intense and energizing. I think you’re in for some wonderful conversations with your students. I’d love to hear back from you.


  3. Hi Shana!
    What an awesome idea!
    We talk to parents and teachers so much about this. When you put the ownership on the students also, it helps to seal the deal.
    One of my principal colleagues is asking her teachers to each follow a handful of kids across the summer to see how their summer reading is going.
    This same colleague of mine had beach blanket reading days at her school a few summers ago and kids would come to school with beach chairs and their books and just read together.
    One final idea that we’ve found success with is sending those robo-calls home every few weeks during the summer months to share “Did you know…” facts about summer reading and how it helps kids.
    Another great post!


  4. Hi, Tom. Love these suggestions–beach reading days and robo-calls. Thank you! No More Summer Reading Loss says we need to put books in kids’ hands, not lists. This makes me think about Bronx Community School where every child leaves for summer vacation with 6 self-selected books to add to their personal libraries. Year after year after year. They are actively re-making the pattern on that graph. So powerful.


    • Cool!
      We also have book shopping days where kids can take home bags of books from the school library too. We’ve also seen dramatic improvement in our reading levels upon return in September since these changes have been made.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for posting this, as it is always a huge support to see what someone else does, try that, and then tweak it from there. Although today was the last day of school in Palm Beach County (Florida), and we did write a short unit to support making reading and writing plans for the summer, I will definitely keep this one in my pocket for next year when working with teachers.
    As a district, we’ve also put together a wonderful webpage of resources for parents, and schools shared the page and list of resources with parents at their end of year literacy nights and celebrations. Just one more way to promote keeping literate lives through the summer!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy Summer, Stephanie! Your comment makes me realize that kids can “train” for summer reading during the smaller breaks from school during the school year. In other words, you might not need to wait for next Spring to try this out. 🙂


  6. So often we talk about putting time into our calendars for working with kids on summer reading plans but the specificity and step-by-step conference details reallty make it seem possible. Thanks for paving a clear road for teachers to do this.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s