Becca_Circle.jpgBy Rebecca Bauer

Teachers assign summer reading. Parents nag their children to complete it. Students begrudgingly obey. I’ll always remember the summers I spent resentfully slogging my way through dense and difficult reads from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Teaching challenging texts is an integral part of a high quality education, but is not necessarily an essential component of summer work.

What if summer reading instead aimed to help students develop a voracious appetite for literature and connect them to their communities? While schools may not be thinking in terms of these more innovative summer reading goals, many libraries are.

When I was home from college one summer, I interned at the summer reading program at the Montclair Public Library. I noticed the program did a lot more than simply promote literacy, here were a few of its impressive characteristics:

Inclusive of the Entire Community

Whether you were 2 years old or 92 years old, you were invited to have a summer reading book log of your own. Library staff encouraged parents to sign up even their youngest children and keep track of the number of books they’d read together as a family. In addition, the program intentionally targeted teenagers, an age where students are known to be particularly disengaged in school, by offering a slightly modified program with age appropriate prizes and a free copy of the Hunger Games to each participant.

Opportunities for Children to Practice Goal Setting

When a person enrolled in the program, they were required to set a summer reading goal. Prizes were awarded after you read your first book, got halfway to your goal and when you met your goal*. While some might expect participants to choose easy goals, I often found the opposite to be true. I watched with amusement while a child selected a goal of 100 books and his mother looked on nervously. Sometimes children would plug along doing their best to reach their goals, but other times they chose to reassess and modify their goal to be more realistic. Both paths send different but equally valuable messages.

Learning Beyond Books

The book logs and prizes were enough to draw families in, but the library also offered a robust calendar of events. From music shows and magicians to read alouds and art projects, the library provided engaging opportunities for children and families. Why does this matter? The opportunity gap that exists between socioeconomic classes is not just about academics. While storytimes and children’s concerts may be only a pit stop for some children on their way from music lessons or soccer camp, the free library activities might be another child’s primary source of engagement for the day.

As Community Schools and After School programs begin to pick up steam, it seems that we’re finally realizing that learning isn’t (and shouldn’t be) confined to the classroom. Let’s also turn our attention to all that public libraries have to offer.

*The 11 Principles does not support the use of extrinsic rewards in the long term. However, in situations like this they can be useful in motivating students to get started, with the idea that eventually they will discover that reading is its own reward.