So you’ve assigned a book you love (or maybe a selection of several) to your students for the summer, and soon enough they’ll be back to share their takeaways. But maybe this year you want to hear from them through a form other than the traditional summer reading essay. You want to kick things off with creativity, and also push them to think beyond any internet summary and commentary they may have perused alongside the book. Today on the podcast, I’d like to share four easy alternatives to an in-class essay.
You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Today we’re going to explore four easy options to help students share their key takeaways from the reading in a way that sets a creative tone for the year. Each activity can easily be completed in a day, and can also lead into a larger class discussion of the text. Plus, they’re more fun to grade than a stack of 100 essays. Is an in-class essay on the summer reading a valid choice? Sure! But if you’d like to change it up, here are some ideas.
The Open Mind Characterization Project
I love the open mind as an inroad to characterization. It invites students to choose their favorite character and really think about what’s going on in their head (perhaps inviting a bit of introspection about the state of their own mind too). This activity allows you to see how carefully your students have read, but it also gives them a chance to express their creativity and leads easily into a whole class discussion of the book.
Here’s how I’d set it up.
Inside their “open mind,” invite students to include:
- At least 3 adjectives to describe your character
- 2-3 key quotations that help define your character
- Desires and dreams
- Strengths, weaknesses
- Personal history and background information that helps define the character
- Analysis of how the character grows/changes/transforms throughout the text
- Key connections and relationships to other characters
- Interests, passions
Then, if you wish, go a step further to incorporate visual and written expression of these ideas.
- How can you use colors, shapes, or types of text to help highlight what’s inside your character’s open mind?
- Can you make use of imagery and visual symbolism to help showcase key elements?
- How might you play with the sizes and locations of various elements to highlight their importance or show their relative lack of importance?
(This project is in The Lighthouse in the Projects for any Novel section, or you can find it on TPT here if you’d like my version).
Although hexagonal thinking is a collaborative activity, you can easily have students write individually to explain key connections from the group web at the end of the activity, then grade that explanation as evidence of their work on summer reading.
When you invite students to consider how the key characters, themes, and quotes you choose relate to current events, pieces of history, and other texts you choose to include in your deck, you start the year off with collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity (gotta love those three Cs.)
If you’re new to hexagonal thinking, you can grab this free kit which will walk you through everything you need to get started. And if you’re wanting to go the extra step with hexagonal one-pagers, you can find out how to do it right here.
You know how much I love a good one-pager for helping students hone in on the essentials of a text. One of my favorite recent twists on a basic one-pager is the theme one-pager, which helps students focus in on what they think are the key themes from the reading. If identifying and exploring thematic statements is an important part of your class, this activity will get students started immediately considering themes.
For my theme one-pager, I like to get students thinking about the biggest ideas they noticed from the text first, then move them into finding moments where the big idea they find most interesting is explored. As they write and draw these moments, choosing the best quotes to show how the idea comes through, they have a chance to really see how the theme shines through the text.
(This project is in The Lighthouse in the Contemporary Indigenous Lit section, or you can find my version on TPT here).
Wishing you could just have a conversation around the summer reading without a ton of pressure, but worried that some students may not feel comfortable diving in to participation right off the bat? A silent discussion gives everyone a chance to participate in their own way, without a spotlight on them. It can be a nice way to have everyone see immediately that every student has ideas to share, even if they don’t necessarily jump into class discussions.
There are many ways to go about a silent discussion, but for your summer reading essay, I’d suggest getting kids up and moving around the room with questions posted on giant sheets of paper or those big post-its on your wall. Students can go to each question, read the responses, and then either respond to a response or write their own commentary based on the question. Either way, ask them to include textual evidence when possible to support their ideas and ask them to sign their names.
This activity leads well into a regular discussion, because you’ll give students plenty of time to think about your big questions before they need to say anything out loud. You can give everyone a participation grade, though it’s not ideal for a major grade in your gradebook.
Sharing fabulous summer reading books with students or a summer reading booklist for them to choose from can be a great way to encourage some time with books over the summer, but you don’t always have to cap it off with a summer reading essay! I hope you’ve found some creative alternatives here that you can try out when an essay doesn’t feel right for what you’re trying to accomplish with your program.