Resources, best practices, cool ideas


Students’ summer reading reports go online in real time

Teachers find blogs useful to encourage sharing ideas about books

By Jane Roberts (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
Monday, June 15, 2009

MacKenzie Leake has finished “Pride and Prejudice” and is preparing for “Wuthering Heights,” Nos. 1 and 2 on the summer reading list for juniors at St. Mary’s Episcopal School.

Meridith Whitten is reading "The Poisonwood Bible" for her St. Mary's  summer assignment. Her school has set up a blog so students and teachers can discuss the book without waiting for fall.
Meridith Whitten is reading “The Poisonwood Bible” for her St. Mary’s summer assignment. Her school has set up a blog so students and teachers can discuss the book without waiting for fall.

This week, she’ll be posting her reflections in a wiki, a private Web site created by her teacher to hold all the photos, video clips and observations starting to pour in.

Georgian England and Heathcliff, meet Web 2.0.

For hundreds of students in Shelby County, it means no more summer reading reports due the first week of school.

No quizzes, no worksheets, no timed essay tests. The only paper is the pages in the books themselves, and with Kindle digital books, even that’s optional.

Instead, they are posting in blogs, combing newspapers and YouTube for modern examples of the timeless conflicts, or shooting their own videos. The Web sites are not only free but offer access around the globe, important if you go to a remote summer camp, for instance.

There’s Ning, an academic-oriented Facebook; Shelfari, a social media site for book lovers; , an online book annotation and conversation tool; and dozens more.

“Because I knew I was going to post, I paid more attention and highlighted some things in the book, which I usually don’t do,” said Rebecca McAlexander, a sophomore at White Station High School, posting to on “How to Read Literature like a Professor.”

“I think I like the online posts better (than writing book reports). You can sit down and get a couple done and think as you go,” she said.

Back at St. Mary’s, the English staff is having a hard time acting nonchalant. For one thing, they are amazed that students are on task so early in the break. For another, who knew that the responses could be so rich?

“Summer reading had gotten really dead,” said Caroline Goodman, AP English teacher and outgoing president of the Memphis Shelby Council of Teachers of English. “We as teachers weren’t really excited about it anymore, and the students weren’t either.”

Goodman’s assignments — dialectical journals and essays — used to force students to look for thesis statements and supporting evidence, including thorny and not entirely life-useful details like page numbers and character quotes.

When she went paperless last summer, the tone of students’ work changed.

“I had girls on all summer long writing about their reading, commenting on their classmates’ thoughts and ideas. We had a wonderful conversation all summer long that never would have happened without Web 2.0 tools.”

A side benefit is that she gets to know her students and see samples of their writing before class starts.

“That’s a huge advantage for a teacher because you get a real sense of their reading levels. It saves me time in the fall.”

For teenagers — native speakers of the digital language — tapping out character analyses of Catherine and Heathcliff stimulates deeper-level thinking and also doesn’t seem much like work.

Their interest is proving that reading for pleasure isn’t a lost passion, says David Jolliffe, who holds the Brown Chair in English Literacy at the University of Arkansas.

“What we discovered is students do read and love to get online with other students and talk about what the reading and writing they are doing.”

What has changed, he said, is that reading and writing are no longer solitary activities.

“What I think English teachers are realizing is that by the time these kids go to college, they will exist in a paperless world.”

To illustrate the east-west clash in “The Joy Luck Club,” Leigh Mansberg, chair of the English department at St. Mary’s, posted a video from “Britain’s Got Talent,” showing Indian men dancing to Michael Jackson.

“What generational conflicts can be revealed by studying this video and contrasting it to the novel?” she asked the students.

Because a ground rule bans “parroting others’ ideas,” she is grading on originality, quality of writing and students’ ability to “friend” 10 others in the class.

“You are not allowed to reject someone’s friend request. It’s rude,” said Mansberg.

She says that the success — how much the students enjoyed the change — won’t be known until they return in the fall.

“That’s the challenge.”

The other is easing worries for staff, many of whom are learning as they go.

“This is not how I was taught to teach. I’m 40 years old,” Mansberg says. “But if I’m going to teach 21st century children, I have to know their world. It’s not scary; it’s just different.”

St. Mary’s Reading List

Freshmen: “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand; “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Sophomores: “The Septembers of Shiraz” by Dalia Sofer; “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan; “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston.

AP and Honors:

“Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America” by Adam Cohen.

Juniors: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen; “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë.

AP: “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond . Honors: “Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600-1760,” by Jan de Vries or “The World that Trade Created” by Pomeranz & Topik or “Sweetness and Power” by Signey W. Mitz

Seniors: “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver; “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley; “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

— Jane Roberts: 529-2512


June 27, 2009 - Posted by | SUMMER READING |

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: