Themes of diversity in kids’ summer reading

Schools assign books so their brains won’t take a break


Summer vacation isn’t necessarily a vacation from learning. School districts such as Hoboken, Weehawken, North Bergen, West New York, and Union City have given out either mandatory or suggested reading assignments to their students, some tackling tough subjects like slavery and the Holocaust.
“We don’t want students regressing in the summer, so it’s important to continue reading all the time,” said Francesca Amato, Weehawken Director of Academic Affairs and Innovation, Curriculum, Grants, & Anti-Bullying.

From Slavery to WWII

At a time where the federal government is cracking down on immigration, the Hoboken school district has been assigning books that look at diversity, fairness, and empathy. Superintendent of Schools Christine Johnson said, “These are attributes and qualities that make our students and school community so wonderful.”
Mandatory summer reading differs by grade level, but the books stress the value of life regardless of origin, skin color, religion, gender, or orientation.
“Our students are growing up in a beautifully diverse community and have access to friends from all over the world,” said Johnson. “We want our students to… recognize the value and beauty in all.”
Books include “Freedom in Congo Square” by Carole Boston Weatherford, a picture book about how slaves in 18th century New Orleans were permitted to gather in Congo Square on Sundays to fuse traditional African sounds with North American ones; “Rosa: My Story,” about Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement; “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai and Christine Lamb, a memoir about the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; and “Baseball Saved Us” by Ken Moshizuki, about Japanese Americans who were forced to live in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Weehawken middle school and high school students are assigned a variety of books. They include “Holes” by Louis Sachar, about a teen sent to a juvenile corrections facility in a desert after being falsely accused of theft; “Mythology” by Edith Hamilton, about Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology; “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, short stories about a platoon during the Vietnam War; “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer-winning series of comics about Spiegelman’s father’s experience during the Holocaust, and more.
Amato said that this year, the district is trying something new by allowing incoming seventh graders and high school juniors to choose their own novel.
“Our reading specialist and our principals feel that when students are able to read what they like and enjoy, they read more,” said Amato.
The district has suggested summer reading lists for its elementary school students in grades three through six. Books focus on a wide range of subjects, some just the lives of elementary school kids in different eras. Books include “Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” by Judy Blume, “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt, and more.
“Being solid readers is really the foundation of our educational system,” said Amato. “We can’t do certain math concepts, social studies, or science if we don’t have a solid literacy background. Everything is kind of tied together.”

Topics include false imprisonment, the Holocaust, slavery, and Japanese internment camps.


Math and reading tied together

This is also a focus in West New York, where educators want students to develop their analytical skills.
“Everything we do, especially in the summer, revolves around literacy,” said Anastasia Olivero, the West New York school district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. The district uses a number of literacy intensive programs, running concurrently from July through August, to keep students focused.
For incoming seventh and eighth graders, the JUMP initiative teaches students how to read through text, find ideas in what they are reading, answer higher order thinking questions, and respond to literature.
A summer mathematics program for incoming ninth graders gives considerable attention to honing students’ reading abilities. “Mathematics is no longer about computing,” Olivero said. “It’s about problem solving, and figuring out word problems. Focusing on academic vocabulary.”
For younger kids, West New York’s voluntary S.T.E.A.M (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) summer program improves literacy through various disciplines, featuring ample reading and writing sections, Olivero said. The program is for students in grades three through six.
The district has summer programs for kids for whom English is a second language, and for kids with special learning issues in K through high school.
Olivero said most of the programs are voluntary. “When we make reading mandatory during the summer, it’s a little more difficult for students to complete it,” Olivero said. “This way, the students are actually engaged.”
Students are encouraged to read at least two books on the district summer reading list, Olivero said.

“These are attributes and qualities that make our students and school community so wonderful.” – Christine Johnson


Partnerships for reading

Students in North Bergen don’t have mandatory reading assignments for summer, but there are several programs they can take advantage of.
“We’re trying to make it a fun thing for everybody to do,” said Superintendent Dr. George Solter. “We want the kids to read on their own.”
The district partners up with the North Bergen Free Public Library for reading programs to keep students engaged. The library has a summer math and reading program for first through eighth grade called “Score-Up.” North Bergen teachers select one-hour readings for attendees. They feature an interactive component in which students act out plays, in costume.
The library has also brought back its One Book North Bergen initiative, collaborating with the school board. During summer, participants are asked to read a list of books, six this year. It’s open to all ages. Throughout September, the library will hold separate discussions for each book, featuring prizes. This year’s selections include the “Pete The Cat” series and “Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult.
Library Director Sai Rao said that giving kids options during the summer can counter the summer slide—in which kids sustain learning loss during the break

Union City

Some Union City teachers, especially in the high school, give summer reading assignments, according to Superintendent Silvia Abbato.
According to the Union City High School website, a mandatory online summer learning program called “Study Island” features a series of four reading assignments for math and English. It’s a requirement for all high school students, according to the program’s page.
The district’s suggested summer 2018 reading inclues “The Adventures of Taxi Dog” by Debra Barracca, for kids entering second grade, and more advanced fare such as “Saving the Baghdad Zoo: A True Story of Hope and Heroes” for kids entering grades seven and eight.