Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

A Teacher's Summer Reflections

As my school year draws to a close and I pack the box to head over to another building and teach summer school, I've paused for a minute of reflection. So I'll share some of my thoughts with you. First, reflecting back on the school year is something that needs to be done. Too often (and yes, I'm guilty on occasion, too) we close the door, yell hooray and try to forget the past. After all, isn't that what summer's about? So we start fresh in the fall?

But reflection is a powerful tool and we need to use it. We grow as educators by being reflective. Through our collaboration and reflection, the librarian and I realized we needed to give the students a sample works cited page — an actual sample of how one really looks, not just samples of how each entry is individually put together. We'll be creating that. By looking at each assignment with a critical eye, I'm able to determine what worked, what didn't, and what I want to keep and what I want to change.

In addition, if you really want to have some fun, have your students reflect. I do this in the journalism portfolios my publications staff members complete and their reflections are powerful stuff. Many of them are truly able to begin seeing their own growth. I have my English students reflect in their journals. We do reflections after assignments and also at the end of the year. You can have your students reflect on what they've learned and their strengths and weaknesses. You can have them tell you favorite and least favorite lessons.

However, a hint of warning is necessary. You may want to tell them this is not a time to bash you or English or the class itself. I've had students think that reflection means a free-for-all to tell me how awful the class was, how much they hated their fellow students or something else like that. Basically, they often see reflection as a chance to channel all their aggression for life into a vent they direct at me and the school. While their ramble might make them feel better, really, neither of us gets much out of it as instead of taking ownership, the students instead pass the buck. So be sure to direct their reflections with specific, targeted questions that ask them to really think about themselves and what they personally can change, as that will help them most going forward. I ask such things as "Think about how you studied this year. How would you improve your study habits if you got a do-over?" or "Write down all the stories you remember you read and why you remember them."

Finally, as I turn to summer I think of summer reading. A few weeks ago I watched the honors kids get their summer homework, which for rising sophomores was Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. The boys were oh-so-thrilled with the selection. (Hear my sarcasm?) At a writing workshop a weekend or two ago, literary agent Donald Maass (author of Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction) came to talk about the writing process and story structure. He told us how he uses To Kill a Mockingbird in some of his other workshops. I thought, "Wow! I just taught that." Later, at dinner, the man across from me was talking about how he was tackling reading 100 classic novels so he had a firm foundation.

So, during my reflection, I set a goal to read one classic piece of literature I haven't tackled or to visit an old friend. I also want to read one of the novels of choice my students selected. To get you involved in the process, I'm going to give you some summer reading homework, which is to also read one classic and then do yourself a fun favor and read something modern and contemporary. I asked my English III students what they thought you should read. Here are their suggestions:

Number One on their list is Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. In case you've been living under a rock, this is the first book in the three-novel, dystopian futuristic series that includes Mockingjay and Catching Fire. Now with the movie, it's all kids talk about. To use hyperbole, everyone's read it. Katie said, "Being about a strong girl is very relatable and having to choose between two boys during a life or death experience an intriguing twist on the romantic part of the book."  Maddi said, "I don't normally read a lot and I couldn't put it down the entire time."

Another series is by St. Louis author Heather Brewer. Jake read the entire Chronicles of Vladimir Todd, which include titles from Eight Grade Bites to Twelfth Grade Kills. This time Brewer works on the slayers, and First Kill is a thriller/horror novel about Josh, a misfit who witnesses the blood being sucked out of his sister. Jake says, "I would recommend this book as it was just that good. It is a like a black hole. You just get sucked into it so quickly."

Cody got into City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, and he recommends this book as well as Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Cody said about City of Bones, "I would recommend this book to a reader that likes to read. It is hard to get into in the beginning and there are parts that are confusing. Eventually you learn each person's story. If you stick with it everything will make sense in the end. The reader will grow a new appreciate for the shadow hunters and their cause."

In the nonfiction realm my students were all over the place, but a popular choice seemed to be Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo. This is a story of a little boy's trip to heaven and back that took the publishing world by storm. Stephanie found it "a compelling and convincing book that will help you believe."

As I reflect and start trying to figure out what I'm going to read (as I've read The Hunger Games), I realize how proud I am that my students were all over the place reading. Katie loved The Last Lecture (Randy Pausch). Kara read Crank (Ellen Hopkins). Erin chose In His Sights (Kate Brennan). My students read Tom Clancy, Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson and Sarah Dessen, just to name a few. They read across genres: nonfiction, Christian, romance, horror, young adult, mystery, fantasy and sci-fi, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some. They read books like 127 Hours (Aron Ralston) and The Help (Kathryn Stockett), both of which became movies.

The main point is that they read. So read yourself this summer. Find something new, something you wouldn't have chosen before. And share your choices here in comments. I'll catch you in the fall.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 13th 2012, 8:23 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I thank you for providing the names of so many summer readable books. Surely these are recommended books as I see some one is reading a copy of the book somewhere now. When I go to library to choose some, I get confused which one to pick. So this will work as guide line for me.
And also summer reading habit is a wonderful opportunity to improve language proficiency.
Friday June 15th 2012, 2:03 PM
Comment by: Alison T. (Charlotte, NC)
I thought the main point was reflection. I got excited to read about providing a works cited sample page--great idea. Then the article turned into a summer reading list. I am also confused regarding a story about a boy who goes to heaven and returns being nonfiction.

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