Friday, August 16, 2013

Summer Reading Goes Social with Schoology

This is the fourth year I have been part of a summer reading program which ditched the traditional assignment for a more connected approach. Utilizing a tool, like Schoology as we have, to provide a platform for ongoing communication regarding the reading has had a truly transformative effect on a traditional assignment.

Reading & Learning
The reason we assign summer reading has much to do with reading and learning, of course. The fear of "summer brain drain" is at the forefront of our minds as we send our students off to a much needed, yet much removed, break from school.  Through summer reading, students stay close to their recently acquired skills, drawing inferences, forming connections to previously read works and life experiences, annotating for comprehension, etc. Beyond this, however, summer reading offers the opportunity to begin the school with a shared learning experience, and the right selection of works can also mean starting the year with a unifying theme which expands far beyond the discipline of literacy to provide a compass for a successful school year full of integration and connectivity.

The problem is...summer reading can be a true downer! By the time we hit the end of June, everyone is exhausted and even teachers need a break from learning. Several years of assigning and assessing summer reading taught me that the same strategies we use during the school year to provoke interest, motivation, and learning don't necessarily work well over the summer when the connection to the student is lost. Even relevant, engaging, project-based assignments still, in the end, feel like school work.

Cue the new format for summer reading...the social connection. Part of human nature is our innate need for connection with others. Socializing is subsequently a very natural motivator; in fact, one could argue it is the primary form of motivation in life. Acceptance, awareness, validation, fun, visibility, and friendship are all things we desire in heavy doses even as adults, and for teenagers, they form the very substance of daily happiness. Why not capitalize on this innate need to enhance a learning experience, transforming the potentially dull (no matter how great the book!) and individual exercise into a fun way to connect and an ongoing impetus for peer discussion?

Connections & Friendships
Most students begin the summer ecstatic beyond words to be free from school, but all students I know are as or more ecstatic to return by the time August rolls around. As much as I would love to claim they miss the enthralling learning we provide (which is true to some extent, surely), I believe they mostly miss each other...and even us. Running discussions throughout the summer allows for a flexible ownership over learning as students can just jump in when ready, but it also provides a joy factor when a friend sees another friend appear in the same space after a while apart. This year, we even had one student who graduated last year pop into a discussion to say "hi" because she "missed being on Schoology with everyone".

Our Summer Reading Group in Schoology has also been the start of some wonderful new friendships. Last year, we had two students who had never met discover they were in Morocco together, both posting to Schoology far from Mandell and New York City. By the time school began, they were already the best of friends. I witnessed the same happen this year when one of our younger middle school students asked to be introduced to an older student during our Pinkberry book club gathering because they had had such great exchanges about their reading and figured out they had a great deal in common. Mentorships and friendships like these cannot be constructed with a more authentic outcome.

Modeling & Practicing
Two essential components of effective classroom management are modeling and practicing. In a digital classroom space, this is no different. Expectations must be established and the correct form of interaction modeled. Once students begin school, they will have several virtual classroom spaces, one for each discipline. This can be overwhelming to students, so it's important that we take the time to wade into the waters before diving. Using our Summer Reading Discussion group has allowed us to create this safe, smaller dress rehearsal in preparation for the big show. We are very confident that the foundation of confidence, digital citizenship, and tech savviness will now be in place as we kick off the school year.

Love of Reading & Learning
As an English teacher, I've spoken the words "My main teaching objective is to foster a love of reading and a love of learning" countless times. And yet, I've witnessed my own children lose some of their love for reading and learning through tedious summer assignments. The closer we can get to love through learning, the closer we will get to actualizing a life-long love of learning in our students. Our students genuinely love one another and their teachers, so helping them stay connected and experience the joy of friendship alongside summer learning is a true benefit of exploring new tech-enriched frontiers.