Champaign high schools now require summer reading

CHAMPAIGN — If you're going to a Champaign high school next year, you already have an assignment: Read a book and write down your thoughts about it.

And, yes, it's required.

This is the first time the high schools are requiring summer reading of every student, although in the past, some honors or Advanced Placement students had to do so.

The thought of getting an assignment in May for a class that starts in August may seem like a drag for some students, but it has a purpose. Their teachers are hoping it will help students maintain knowledge during the summer, identify what they like to read and give teachers a peek into their reading and writing levels at the beginning of the year, as well.

Incoming freshmen are being asked to read a book about identity, sophomores will read books set in non-American cultures or by non-American authors. Seniors will read about realizing one's individuality within a larger institution. Betsy Su, teen librarian at the Champaign Public Library, wrote with a list of suggested titles these students can choose from, although they can read a book from off the list, as well.

Incoming juniors, who will take American literature next year will read either "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" or "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Native American author Sherman Alexie. The library will stock extras of these copies or students may be able to borrow a copy from the schools if they can't afford to buy one.

Students will then answer three or four questions about how the book relates to the theme.

Research shows that students who don't read during the summer are more likely to backslide during their time off, said Central instructional coach and ninth-grade English teacher Scott Filkins.

In the past, the schools could never provide enough copies of books to require everyone to read, especially if it planned to require the same book of all members of one class.

Enter the public library, which is ordering 181 books with the hopes that Champaign high-schoolers will check them out for the assignment this summer, Su said. She hopes to keep the books in one area, so students can easily access them, and they can also check out books for the assignment at the Douglass Branch of the library in Champaign, as well.

Su said the books were purchased with money from Champaign Public Library Friends, who raise money for the library with the sale of used books at the library's FriendShop, which is on the lower level of the main library and open every weekend afternoon.

Su said she worked hard on the lists, to come up with books that fit the themes and a variety of reading and levels. She got help from school librarians and looked into listing some of the library's book club books, because the library already owned multiple copies. (Access copies of the lists by going to http://bit.ly/CPLlists.)

"You can never write a list with something for everyone," Su said, which is why it's good that students can read titles not on the lists. She and Champaign's English teachers are encouraging students to read something they like, which may lead to students realizing they actually enjoy reading.

"The most important thing is emphasizing reading and including every single student," Su said. "They really need it, and they don't know they need it."

Plus, while Su and Filkins talked to eighth-graders about the assignment, Su took a moment to tell them about the Teen Summer Reading Program, which rewards students leaving fifth through 12th grades with prizes for reading. She's also hoping students who aren't familiar with the library will come in and learn more about the resources available there, she said.

The idea of letting most students choose what they read this summer echoes a change in curriculum in freshman and sophomore English classes, where students read one core text and choose other books on the same theme.

"The timing has been right for it," said Central English content area chairman Gary Slotnick.

It's also designed to get them excited about required summer reading, rather than rolling their eyes and trying to slog through a book they're not interested in or doesn't fit their reading level.

Filkins and Slotnick also hope that parents will get involved in the selection of the book, especially with younger students. They also hope parents and students will discuss the book, too.

The students are expected to have their responses to the questions about their books written by the first day of school, and the high schools will post the lists of books to their websites. A reminder will also go out in registration letters this summer, as well.

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