Design Thinking

Design Thinking and Choice in Summer Reading

April 24, 2017 Updated April 15, 2017

Summer reading assignments are a hotly debated topic this time of year, especially when it’s tough to reconcile the workshop model’s foundation of student challenge and choice with something like a required reading program. What’s a teacher to do?

It’s a given that students need to read over the summer. When teachers and students have built a culture of reading over the course of a school year, it is essential to capture that momentum and carry it onwards in order to avoid the dreaded summer slide, but it’s also equally important to balance student choice.

Our school implemented PLCs this year, so we have “late-start-Wednesdays” during which small groups of teachers meet and plan around goals we set in the fall. My PLC focus is around student reading goals, and yesterday we posed a question to each other about how we could celebrate the progress our students have made over the course of the school year.

Individually, they are better readers than they were in September.

As a group, they have helped to foster a school culture of reading that is more robust than it was in the fall.

Some examples: our school library’s circulation numbers have dramatically increased over the school year, and students are regularly overheard “book talking” favorite titles or asking about each other’s next reads lists.

This change is worth acknowledging and celebrating, no doubt.

As a PLC, we also have a concern that once they are out the door in June, some of them will forget what it’s like to enjoy a healthy reading life, so we want to make a plan for that.

What we want to avoid is something like the summer reading programs from when we were kids, the well-intentioned ones that we remember our local libraries promoting. Remember the t-shirts and sticker charts? The programs that encouraged extrinsic rewards rather than finding focus in the intrinsic motivation that arrives when students discover favorite titles, authors, and genres?

I think those old-fashioned reading programs are the result of too many adults trying to figure out what kids like. Yes, kids like puppets and lollipops and popcorn. But those extrinsic rewards won’t turn kids into life-long readers.

So we put it to the students to create an authentic, student-led celebration of the school year and a summer reading kick-off.

We decided to get one or two class representatives from each of our classes who are nominated by their peers, and who are passionate about their reading lives. Students who genuinely care about summer reading.

These students are going to use the design thinking process when designing the celebration and kick-off.

Students will design and implement a plan for student choice in summer reading. 

The idea of “tethered choice” is essential. Some of our students are signed up for AP classes in the fall, and those classes traditionally have summer assignments attached to them. As teachers, we aren’t willing to give that up, but we are willing to be flexible. So we will provide the students designing the program with a few limitations (for example, maybe a certain percentage of the summer reading should be something from an AP suggested titles list).

Yes, it is possible to be creative and also to have limitations. That’s life.

Back in February, I posed a question in response to @pennykittle‘s Twitter post to @plthomasEdD regarding summer reading assignments, and his answer has helped shape what we are going to ask our students to do over the summer:

"Summer reading has the best chance of being effective if it is enhanced by tethered and informed, purposeful choice by students. Instead of assigning a work for all students as an assignment for AP, gather students at the end of the academic year in order to provide them with opportunities to examine what goals they have for summer reading…"

Our student representatives will gather this spring to examine goals they have for summer reading in order to make purposeful choices, and then provide an opportunity for the rest of the student body to do the same. 

The goals for students will vary.

Some will realize the need to choose some books from the AP suggested titles list.

Others will find topics that have piqued their interest and go with that.

Others will think about where they are traveling over the summer and find titles about place.

The opportunities are boundless.

This plan is all about student challenge and choice. It’s about creativity, and tapping into what kids actually want.

But we don’t yet know what the plan will be, because the students are at the wheel. We teachers will be there to mentor and support, but they are taking the lead on this project.

They’ve just come off of a trial run of independent reading in the form of spring break. They were challenged to set reasonable goals, and to create accountability groups or partners, and to come back to school ready to share out about what they read and how it went.

I’ve written before about the fact that students need to develop independence, and that they can’t count on teachers to keep them accountable as readers. I firmly believe that we have to foster not only independent reading, but also independent readers.

Spring break was a good trial run for many of my students: they discovered just how independent (or not) they are as readers, and it gave them something to run with as they plan for the summer. So students will reflect on their spring break reading experiences as they set their summer goals.

What I like about our plan is this: AP students will still need to do some summer reading, and the idea of challenge and choice is still essential for them. I believe their needs will be accommodated.

Students not enrolled in AP courses should be reading over the summer, too, which is sometimes overlooked by schools. With the help of their peers, they will develop a reasonable plan to do so.

I think we are responding positively to the challenged tweeted out by @KyleneBeers:

"Summer reading begins w/ "Let's make a plan for what you WANT to read this summer" not "Here's your list of hard titles you MUST read."

Instead of teachers making the plan, the students will make the plan. Maybe some students will choose some hard titles, but that’s up to them.

I’m not counting down the days until summer break, but I am excited to see what our students decide to do.

Originally published at

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Design Thinking
  • Student Voice
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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