By Suraj Sait
We are well into August. For many middle and high school students, that means it’s time to buckle down and get busy with their assigned summer reading. In past years, for EG students, that meant reading that one book that every other student in the grade was reading. Think Great Expectations, the Dickens classic.
Not so fast.
This year, the middle school and high school English teachers decided to overhaul the summer reading list, replacing newer classics like Hatchet and time-tested ones like Les Misérables with a reading list centered around different themes, depending on the grade. For sixth graders, they are expected to read Refugee, by Alan Gratz but they also get to pick a second “survivor choice” book from a list of more than 20 selections, some old and some new titles.
For high school students, the theme is injustice and the list includes both fiction and nonfiction titles.
“The impetus for our summer reading overhaul arose from casual conversations with juniors and seniors at the high school,” said EGHS teacher Karen Izzo, head of the English Department. “We understand how ancient our canon is. Everybody feels the same way. The summer reading revamp was inspired by students.”
Izzo also credited Michelle Steever, the EGHS librarian, for aiding in the summer list revision. “Were it not for the enthusiasm and herculean work of Michelle Steever,” noted Izzo, “we’d still be in the summer reading dark ages.” Steever came up with the book list, provided ebook and audiobook links, and developed a new website for the EGHS library.
Students seem happy, or at least neutral, about the new reading list.
“I thought it was pretty good,” said a rising senior who read Brazen, an option on the new reading list. “It was kind of empowering.”
“I am neutral,” said Sami Gangji, a rising junior who read Internment. “It was OK, but it was cheesy and it was a very predictable book. [I] would have liked a book with more to it.”
Other students believe that the list could use improvement.
“I wish there could be some older books,” said Brant Wei, a rising senior who read Hillbilly Elegy. “I understand that they want books that we can relate to, but I want some diversity.”
Wei suggested some books of his own. “I’d suggest Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” said Wei, “[or] Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Though not all students are completely satisfied, the district’s English teachers were completely on board.
“The high school English department was unanimous in embracing the revisions,” Izzo said. “When I presented Cole ELA teachers with our plans, asking them to make similar summer reading changes for the following year, they didn’t want to wait.”
She said the new choices weren’t a rejection of the classics.
“We don’t see student choice for summer reading as triggering a trade-off that sidelines the classics, as our core curriculum is so packed with such literature. Having said that, it’s certainly time for the traditional canon to make room for culturally and ethnically diverse writings,” she said. “While East Greenwich students should hold deep appreciation for Hugo, Shakespeare, and Dickens, they likewise should have at least equal exposure to, for instance, the beauty of spoken word, magical realism, and culturally and gender-diverse heroes.”
With the start of school just weeks away, the district’s teachers will find out soon how students like the new reading lists.
“We’re excited to learn how students enjoyed the summer reading,” said Izzo. “The emails we’ve received so far have been almost celebratory in nature.”
You can check out the new summer reading list here.
Suraj Sait, a rising senior at EGHS, is an intern at EG News.