Rethinking Summer Assignments

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Ahh…Summer reading…

For some of us, summer reading means lounging by the pool reading something that isn’t school related. Maybe we’re soaking in the rays and the books that, if you’re like me, have been piling up on our dressers all year long while we reread Gatsby for the 100th time. (If you’re looking for a great summer pleasure read, I have to suggest Daisy Jones and the Six. It was fantastic. Definitely listen to some Fleetwood in the background while you read the novel.)

For others of us, summer reading means sitting down with our arsenal of sticky notes and highlighters and InkJoy Gel Pens to catch up on some professional reading because, you know, we spent the year rereading Gatsby for the 100th time. Gotta love that green light and the bae across the bay plotline! (If you’re looking for a solid professional summer read, I highly suggest Why They Can’t Write. It’s prompted some interesting conversations and some thoughtful reflections for me.)

I plan on partaking in both kinds of summer reading – the more traditional for pleasure books and the I can’t stop thinking about teaching for pleasure books.

For our students, however, I wonder how many of them look forward to their summer reading. I wonder how many of them find value in their summer assignments besides the assignment just being a hoop to jump through.

I do think there’s value in summer reading assignments. Summer slide is real, and I like my classes to come in to the first day with something more to discuss than the syllabus. I also teach at a highly competitive magnet school, and summer work is one of those unstated expectations for AP classes.

So all of these ideas were running through my mind when thinking about my summer assignment for AP Seminar – a new course we’re offering for the first time next year. I knew that the students were expected to complete something over the summer. I knew that I wanted their assignment to have some choice involved. I knew that I didn’t want the assignment to take all summer, but that it should be meaty enough that we could start discussions at the beginning of the year. A lot of boxes to check. The brilliant Hattie McGuire came to the rescue. She posted her ideas of offering a summer writing invitation instead of a summer reading assignment. After talking with her, I tweaked some of her ideas to fit my environment.

Here’s the assignment:

I wanted my students to continue to think critically and inquisitive about the world around them, to take stock of their surroundings and experiences and to try to push their thinking further by asking themselves, “I wonder…” until they couldn’t wonder (or in some cases, wander) anymore.

So in an attempt to spend part of the summer writing and to cultivate a researcher’s mindset, each student will create 42 entries in a “Curiosity Journal.” Each entry will catalogue an observation/problem/question about their day and an attempt to take that observation/problem/question as far into “I wonder territory” as possible. We’re calling this part “further implications.”

A sample entry might look like this:

I observed that the extremism of Marie Kondo’s method of cleaning was very cathartic for me personally, and the house does feel less cluttered, but I wonder what good I’m truly doing by donating all of my unwanted junk to Goodwill.

My further implications for this observation might be: In participating in this behavior and in giving my stuff to Goodwill, I’m making the assumption that other people want my junk. I wonder if I’m doing good with my leftovers. This makes me think of disaster relief efforts and how often we send out crappy sloppy seconds to people who are truly in need. We do offer our stuff because doing so makes us  feel better, makes us feel useful, but I wonder if it’s actually useful for those people in need. I also wonder if it’s better to just throw all of this stuff away in a landfill. I wonder if there are other, better options for donation besides Goodwill. I find that the trend of minimalism goes against the consumerism of American society – it’s counterculture but it’s also pop culture, which is interesting. We’re overwhelmed by our stuff, which should make us question why we have all of this stuff to begin with in the first place. I also wonder how long I can keep up this minimalism streak until I’m back in Target buying another throw pillow. I also notice that there’s a lot of privilege present in even being able to KonMari my home. I wonder what the implications and effects of this privilege are?

So after a run of seven observations, students will choose one problem or question to pursue a little bit further by finding one external source that deepens their understanding of the issue, offers another perspective, or adds to their further implications. They’ll write about this new piece as well.

We’ll begin our first day of class discussing our favorite observations and, hopefully, the rabbit holes our observations led us down, maybe sparking a conversation about research and questioning. I’m hoping to find trends in the kinds of problems/questions/observations my students noticed that could begin to facilitate a conversation about what all of this says about who we are as people or how society works. I plan on using their Curiosity Notebook as a jumping off place for our individual introduction conferences that will happen during the first two weeks of school.

Mostly, I’m hoping that this assignment will keep students writing and reading and thinking over the summer about ideas that they’re interested in.  I’ve linked the assignment here if you’re interested.

Happy reading – whatever you’re reading, I hope it’s good!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language, AP Seminar and Film as Lit in Middle Tennessee. She’s currently enjoying her first summer as a married woman, spending her time travelling with her husband. You can follow her @marahsorris_cms.

 

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking Summer Assignments

  1. ckiley4 June 13, 2019 at 7:56 pm Reply

    I hate to be critical, but I tend to agree with Gary; this seems fairly intensive for summer work.

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  2. Gary Anderson June 13, 2019 at 12:40 pm Reply

    This looks like an interesting experiment. Although I don’t know your student population, I wonder what will happen to students who are new to your school, busy with other projects in the summer, or simply don’t do it. The rubric seems to indicate that they will get hammered with a low grade and “a working lunch” until they do it. Are you concerned that this big assignment will color the way they view the new AP Seminar course? Do other classes at your school have assignments that require students to do something significant every day “for at least 6 of the 9 weeks of summer”? Like I said, it’s an interesting experiment that strikes me as fraught with accountability issues.

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