Summer days with ‘Night’ and other worthy books

Written by Peter G. Sánchez

Summer reading. For youngsters who want three months in the sun without schoolwork, the words can precipitate a cold shudder.

However, Barbara Heyns’ oft-cited 1978 study “Summer Learning and the Effects of Schooling,” found that schoolchildren who did not read anything over the summer experienced reading skills losses equal to a full grade, and that those children who did read could maintain or improve their reading skills.

“There is no mandate for summer reading books, but we want schools to find some way for kids to stay active, keep their mental skills sharp during the summer,” said Bill Watson, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Camden.

“Our teachers and principals are always looking for creative ways to select books that interest and challenge students,” he added.

Scott Higbee, who has been a teacher at Absecon’s Holy Spirit High School for the past 41 years (and English teacher for the last 20), said he and his fellow teachers “want to make sure books are enjoyable,” as well as a way to teach critical thinking.

In the Holy Spirit English Department, students either have to complete an essay or take a test, or a combination of the two, on their summer reading when school resumes in the fall. While they are reading, students are asked to dig deep into the text, and reflect on themes, plot development, symbolism and character.

This year’s summer reading list at Holy Spirit ranges from well-known works such as Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” (freshmen) and J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” (sophomores) to Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” (juniors) and Elie Wiesel’s “Night” (seniors).

On the elementary level, required reading for K-6 students of Saint Mary School, Vineland, depends on each students’ individual Lexile score or DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) Level, which both measure reading ability. For seventh and eighth graders, book choices are the same for all students. All grade levels, though, are tasked with reading two or three books over the summer from a provided list, and one which is a “Catholic identity” book, with “themes that are in alignment with Catholic teaching,” notes Steve Hogan, principal.

As well, students must complete fun assignments that demonstrate their grasp of the text, be it a “Movie Reel” or “Paper Bag Book Report.”

Kristina Sergi, third grade teacher at Saint Mary, has incoming students read such books as Marc Brown’s “Arthur” series and Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” and asks them to write a summary and draw a picture of the story with the main characters, plot elements and lesson learned.

She stresses too that especially with the younger grades, summer reading success is founded on “parental encouragement,” an assessment Watson agrees with.

“In some ways, it’s not just about the content (of what students are reading), but the encouragement from family. As well, we want to strike the balance between giving students a book that is important, with them being able to complete the assignment on their own, without a lot of help.”

Joe Saffioti, principal at Saint Peter Elementary School in Merchantville, says he and his teachers assign books that not only “expand students’ vocabulary and demonstrate good writing and grammar,” but also ones that are “wholesome and relevant to the Catholic faith.”

During the summer, students are required to read one “literature” book (such as the first-grade level Biscuit Book Series) and one book on a saint (like the sixth graders’ requirement to read about the life of either Saint Benedict or Saint Helena and the True Cross).

“The older the students are, the more rigorous the assignments,” which include a book review and project, he says, adding that the “fictional stories have real-life lessons.”

Ultimately, South Jersey’s schools want to foster not only a love of learning, but a love of reading, while their charges are on the sand, on the swings, or anywhere else.