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Summer reading remixed

Far too many of our students enter as ninth graders reading woefully below level. Part of the problem, we believe, is due to the Matthew effect. The gist of this theory is that kids who struggle with reading for whatever reason avoid it all costs, causing them to fall even further behind. And of course, the farther behind they fall, the more they avoid reading.

As a result, our school’s English department has set out to create a culture of reading. We envision a school full of students who read for fun and engage in informal conversations with each other about books as readily as they do about last night’s basketball game. Students who would talk about the film version of a text and proclaim the book was way better. By focusing our efforts on creating such a culture (rather than on, say, scripted remedial curriculum), we hope that students will enjoy reading more and then read more.

One of the first things we changed to this end was our summer reading, as summer reading loss among inner-city students is well-documented. Previously, each grade level had an assigned text to read over the summer. Students would read the book and then write an essay or create a project that they would submit upon their return in the fall. As well-intentioned (and plagiarism-prone) as this was, it did not create the culture we wanted.

So last year we gave students more choice. We created a list of books with a few selections per genre. Students were given a packet that featured the cover, a brief synopsis of the premise, a simple approximation of difficulty, and page count for each book. After a week, they submitted their top three choices were then assigned one of those titles. Over the break, students completed a log in which they had to summarize and annotate each chapter and create a few discussion questions. In the fall they took part in discussion groups in their English classes with others who had read the same book.

Of course, things weren’t perfect. One thing we learned (i.e. were told by students) was that we needed more sports-related selections (we’re in all-boys school). We’re also going to encourage all faculty members to read at least one of the books from the list, and we’re considering creating cross-grade level reading groups.

But overall, I liked the results. Some students claimed it was the only book they had ever read all the way through outside of class. Others cited their summer reading book as their favorite book on my beginning of the year survey. And I had numerous old students stop by to talk about how great their book was and did I have the sequel for them to borrow. By these indications, I think we’re getting there one page at a time.

What does your school’s summer reading look like? Do you have any recommendations for books that should go on our list this for this summer?

Randy Ribay About Randy Ribay

Randy Ribay teaches high school English at an all-boys charter school in Philadelphia and is a regular reviewer for The Horn Book Guide. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Colorado and an Ed.M. in Language & Literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes (Merit Press, Oct 2015).



  1. Teddy Kokoros says:

    Great Article Randy: Just curious, being at an all boys school did the students seem to gravitate towards fiction or non-fiction? I feel like the stereotype growing up in my teen years was that girls read fiction and boys were supposed to read non fiction usually having to do with sports as mentioned above and was wondering if that held true. That being said, here are a few possible hip hop related books that your students might be interested in. I have read them all and while most are not specifically YA books, I feel like they are written in accessible enough format for a YA audience)

    ‘The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas (this focuses on the business side on the rap world; especially how the Jay Z, Dr. Dre’s and Sean Combs of the world make their money; it might be especially interesting now because Dr. Dre is about to make a million dollars selling Beats Headphones to Apple)

    Decoded by Jay Z and Dream Hampton (essentially Jay Z breaks down the meaning behind his song lyrics)

    LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal by Randall Sullivan (as you probably can guess by the title, this is all about investigating the Biggie and Tupac murders)

    The Gospel of Hip Hop: The First Instrument by KRS-One (this is crazy long; I don’t think I actually finished it but it is a good one for skipping around the text and reading different parts of it)

    ‘Bling: The Hip-Hop Jewelry Book by Gabriel Tolliver, Reggie Osse (this one has lots of pictures to go along with the text; )

    BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family
    by Mara Shalhoup ( This is like a hip hop version of Goodfellas; technically the focus of this is about Big Meech who was a real life drug king pin but he actually helped bank roll some music artists careers.)

    The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop–and Why It Matters
    by Tricia Rose

    Grace After Midnight: A Memoir Paperback
    by Felicia Pearson (Author), David Ritz (Author) (this actually is a YA book by Felicia Pearson aka Snoop from The Wire; some of her stories of growing up in Baltimore could have been Wire plotlines)

    ‘When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life As a Hip-Hop Feminist, by Joan Morgan

    Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood
    Book by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The acclaimed writers memoir about growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s)

    ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,’ Jeff Chang, DJ Kool Herc

    The Rose that Grew from Concrete
    by Tupac Shakur (Tupac’s high school poetry published; it is a surreal read at times especially the poems directed toward Jada (aka Jada Pinkett) who Tupac went to High School with briefly,)

    The Wu-Tang Manual,’ The RZA, Chris Norris (similar to Jay Z’s decoded, this breaks down Wu Tang lyrics and other Wu related mythology)

  2. Thanks, Teddy! I’ll definitely use some of those. As for my students’ preferences, though many do tend to prefer anything about sports, there is another significant chunk of them that really enjoy sci-fi and fantasy.

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