SOMSD Summer Reading Stresses Parents, Depresses Kids

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This article has been updated to include clarification about the suggested high school summer reading list at the end. 

As if dealing with the heated final days of school, finals, moving up ceremonies and hyper/exhausted kids isn’t trying enough, the South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD) recently changed the summer reading expectation for all students in grades 6-12.

Middle schoolers are facing a more specific assignment, while—in what is the most surprising shift—Columbia High School students have been encouraged to just read for pleasure. (The summer reading assignments for all grades can be found in these three links: Summer Reading MMSandSOMS-1Tasks By Grade Level-1Summer Reading CHS.)

Students entering grades 9-12 are not given a specific list of books or even a written assignment to complete before they return in September. The letter simply instructs them to read for pleasure and suggests some places to find the books they might love.  To quote: “…essentially, the assignment is to read for pure enjoyment!” (AP students aren’t so lucky – they do have specific summer reading assignments.)

Janine Gregory, the district’s Supervisor of English Language Arts for grades 6-12, predicts the question before it’s even asked: “Is this letting them off the hook?  We’ll see.”

A caveat: Gregory said teachers will definitely be asking high school students to talk about the books they read when school resumes in September.

“Teachers will expect students to engage in a candid conversation about what they read, what they thought about it, and discuss any notes they took if they have them,” she said. In other words, students can choose whatever they want to read, but it is required for all students to read this summer.

In response to the notorious achievement gap, she points out that research shows that kids who struggle with reading do not read well independently unless they pick something they find very interesting. She said she hopes students will seek out books that they want to read, and read them.

She has fielded countless calls and emails from confused and/or angry parents, and is developing an FAQ that she intends to disseminate online, post throughout town and make available at the library. When that FAQ is available, it will be posted on The Village Green.

Alas, Maplewood and South Orange Middle School children aren’t given the same freedom with their summer reading, and some parents and students are not thrilled. (One mother of a rising 6th grader at SOMS said her daughter’s reaction to reading the assignment was simply a loud groan.)

Instead of the same assignment for all, each grade 6-9 has a selection of books to choose from, and a specific written task to complete. This year’s book selections and tasks were changed to be a more effective gauge of each student’s reading ability and to better reflect the expectations and curricula of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Programme, the PARCC Assessments and the Common Core.

For all grades, Gregory stresses, the summer reading assignment is mostly intended to give the teachers an authentic sense of each student’s individual capability. For the middle schoolers, the tasks introduce them to the strategies they’ll be using in middle school and the titles selected deliberately span a range of reading levels. Most importantly for the stressed out among us? The work will not be graded.

“We can’t and won’t hold kids accountable for a grade on things we are not teaching,” Gregory said.

She also urges parents to hang back and let the kids try their best.

“My message to parents? Let your kids do it alone. Let this be the kid’s authentic work. Don’t help them,” she said.  “The tasks may seem fluffy and vague but they actually tell us so much. These tasks are deliberately designed to reflect the sort of things that IB, the PARCC Assessments, and the Common Core are emphasizing.”

“We have so much happening and no time to lose—we want to make it all inter-relate,” Gregory said.

Some parents are less than enthused about the assignments.  Some high school parents want more direction from the district, and some middle school parents find the tasks confusing and poorly written.

Gregory is trying to respond to everyone’s questions and complaints, she said. She hopes the FAQ will resolve much of the confusion.

Marcy Thompson, mother to a rising 7th grader, had one comment on the letter that might capture an ideal essence of summer reading for everyone, not just SOMSD students. Noting that Gregory signed off with her letter with the line “Enjoy a safe summer filled with rich reading experience,” Thompson wondered if maybe reading is precisely where you shouldn’t play it safe.

“We are always wondering about whether books are appropriate,” said Thompson. “How boring and unadventurous.  Kids need to take reading risks—to read outside their comfort zone, where discoveries can be made. Reading is where kids make connections, yes, but it is also where they can imagine what could be. That is pretty risky.”

Can’t Wait to Get Started? Some Suggestions for High School Students

Maplewood Teen Librarian Irene Langlois, along with South Orange Public Library librarians Keisha Miller and Michael Pucci are partnering to create a list of suggestions for students and expect to have it complete in the next week or so.  The Village Green will post the link when it’s ready.

In the meantime, since the district’s high school reading list suggestions allow for flexibility of choice, here are a few specific suggestions for high school students whose spirit is more Tracy Flick than Holden Caulfield:


Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Brewster by Mark Slouka

Reality Boy by A.S. King


The Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth’s Deadliest Natural Disaster  by Roger Musson

Hidden Girl: the True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown


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