For many students, school-assigned summer reading is a thing to dread, something boring and time-consuming that interrupts the carefree fun of summer.
But the North Syracuse Central School District is trying to change that.
This summer, the district is launching a Community Read program, which invites kids in grades seven through 12, as well as adults and younger children, to read a book and discuss it together, making summer reading a more interesting and accessible experience.
Lisa Voegler, a reading teacher for the district who is acting as program coordinator, said past initiatives have limited students to specific books or authors from which they must choose.
“Our Community Summer Read is different from other reading programs because we want students, parents, teachers, grandparents, and any other community members to join us in reading a common book,” Voegler said. “However, the most important goal is to get kids reading something they enjoy and are interested in during the summer months.”
Because it involves the whole community, such a project lets kids see the value in reading.
“It helps them understand that reading is a pleasurable, meaningful, activity that can be shared with others,” Voegler said. “It lets them know that their thoughts and ideas are important.”
And it’s not just the students that benefit.
“Our community benefits from the shared experience of something interesting and positive we can talk about together,” Voegler said. “It shows the world that we are a community that cares about literacy and instilling that value in our youth.”
This summer’s program evolved from a reading assignment at the North Syracuse Junior High School. Students read John Green’s “A Fault in Our Stars,” which is about two young cancer patients who meet and fall in love. The book was recently made into a movie.
“As a teacher, I have never seen students talking about a book to each other outside of class the way they did this book,” Voegler said. “They were talking in lunch, in other classes, to each other, and to teachers. The whole school was talking about this book.”
Voegler said teachers wanted to take that passion into the community as a whole.
“We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we had a whole community talking about one book?” she said.
The school formed a committee to look into the idea and found that several community reads had already been conducted locally.
“The Syracuse area did one years ago with the book, ‘A Lesson Before Dying,’” Voegler said. “The idea to involve the community shows students that reading does not stop in school and gives them an opportunity to share thoughts with others about their reading.”
Then came the herculean task of choosing a book that would be appropriate for seventh through 12th grade, as well as adults. The district also wanted to have the option for younger kids to participate.
“[It] was no easy task,” Voegler said.
Ultimately, the group chose Madeleine L’Engle’s classic fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time.”
“Being the 1963 Newberry Medal winner, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is poised to be a title that older members of our community may remember with nostalgia, while also one that our students may not have encountered,” said an information release sent to district principals. “It’s a coming-of-age story with central roles played by both male and female characters, yet it also features important roles of adults. Additionally, the themes are timeless and it promises many entry points for discussion at all ages.”
But for those students who can’t get into “A Wrinkle in Time,” there are other options.
“Students are free to pick any book that interests them,” Voegler said. “We hope they’ll try ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ but no title can meet every person’s interest. The important thing is to read something.”
The district’s Community Summer Read link includes a number of reading lists and activities for students to choose from. They just need to click on the livebinder link at livebinders.com/play/play/1363439 where there are tabs to help.
This project is also innovative in that it doesn’t require a follow-up assignment once students return to school in the fall. Voegler said that’s because the committee wanted to emphasize the pleasures of simply reading.
“The typical assignments that follow typical summer reading programs tend to cause stress for parents, students and teachers and take away the pleasure and positive experience of reading in the summer,” she said.
As a parent herself, Voegler said she used to dread summer reading projects as much as her kids did.
“Scrambling to find the books on the list, nagging kids to read books in which they had little choice or interest and pushing kids to finish a project left everyone frustrated,” she said. “Then teachers have to deal with kids who did not do the projects. It really was no fun for anyone.”
The Community Read takes away that stress while still encouraging kids and adults to read, as well as interact with the material together.
“We decided to make reading about choice and interest,” Voegler said. “We are encouraging families to spend time reading a book together and engaging in thoughtful conversations about the book.Spend the summer reading energy in a positive way. ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is our suggestion, not a mandate. Read what makes you excited. It could be a magazine, a blog, e-books, non-fiction, or the newspaper. Then talk about it. That is what this initiative is all about.”
Copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” are available at the NOPL libraries, as well as the Salina Free Library in Mattydale. The Salina facility will also host an open discussion on the book at 6 p.m. Aug. 21.
For more information, visit nscsd.org/community summer read.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.