Summer reading assignments aim to keep Wichita students engaged

When Wichita students head home after their last day of school Thursday, the homework will be just beginning for many of them.

Summer reading assignments for high school and college students have become almost as commonplace as lakeside mosquitoes.

“We’re trying to send students the right message about what college is about, that it’s about learning,” said Greg Eiselein, director of K-State First, the first-year experience program at Kansas State University.

“It’s about engaging with a variety of intellectual perspectives. It’s about … feeling like you’re informed, aware, knowledgeable, and you have the wherewithal to be engaged in meaningful discussions.”

As part of its university common book program, which began five years ago, K-State is encouraging students to read “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates” before they return to campus in August. The University of Kansas, meanwhile, has selected Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” as its common book.

Both colleges will distribute copies to freshmen during campus orientation visits, which begin next month, and will urge upperclassmen, faculty members and others in the community to read the books as part of an effort to spark conversation and foster intellectual common ground.

“You know (how it is) when everybody’s watching the same TV program or everybody’s gone to the same movie, and everybody’s buzzing about what they think of this character or that character? We’re trying to create something similar around a book,” said Eiselein, an English professor and specialist in American literature and culture.

“They read it over the summer, so when they come back they have something to talk about.”

Similarly, high school teachers say summer reading assignments keep students engaged in learning over the summer and allow them to begin discussions on day one of a new school year.

Students in the International Baccalaureate program at East High School have had required reading over the summer months for more than a decade. More recently, teachers of Advanced Placement literature or language and composition classes have assigned specific titles to students enrolled in those courses as well.

And it’s not just English teachers anymore. At Andover Central High School, juniors enrolled in AP U.S. History have been assigned to read one fiction and one non-fiction book from a prescribed list. The titles include “Flyboys: A True Story of Courage,” “Hiroshima,” “Truman,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “The Worst Hard Time” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Howard Graham, associate director of academic programs in the Office of First-Year Experience at KU, said common books – at universities or elsewhere – are more about creating a common experience for students than testing them on the book’s content.

Last year, when KU’s common book was Laura Moriarty’s “The Center of Everything,” the university hosted book talks with the author, an evening at the KU Natural History Museum and a dance featuring music from the 1980s, the time period when the book was set.

Events being planned to coincide with “A Farewell to Arms” likely won’t include bringing Hemingway back from the dead, Graham joked. But they will focus on the university’s connections to Hemingway and to World War I, as well as an ongoing, campus-wide commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the war.

Over the summer, Graham said, KU students will be encouraged to join Google hangouts to talk about the book and to post thoughts or questions about it on social media using the hashtag “#KUCommonBook.” Last summer, students posted photos on Twitter and Instagram of themselves reading at the pool, lying in a hammock or posed near landmarks in their hometowns.

“We want to draw students into social media spaces where they can communicate with other students and people who are reading the book at the same time, which is really cool,” Graham said.

“The other benefit is, if students express concerns about something they read, that gives us an opportunity to respond immediately and draw the student into a conversation that can be productive.”

Tara Coleman, chairwoman of the K-State Book Network, said this year’s common book – the story of two men from Baltimore whose lives go in different directions – should inspire discussion that will be especially meaningful to college students.

A young-adult adaptation of the book, “Discovering Wes Moore,” will be helpful to middle- and high-school teachers in Manhattan and elsewhere who want their students to be part of the common book experience as well, she said.

“It raises a lot of difficult questions,” said Eiselein, the English professor. “I don’t know that it gives us any easy answers, but it does make you wonder about how people’s lives turn out.

“Were there certain decisions or moments that have you going in a bad way or a good way? And what would have happened if something else had happened instead?” he said. “That’s powerful … particularly if you’re not reading in isolation, but you have the chance to talk to others about the book.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

Required reading

We asked Wichita-area high school teachers what books their students would be assigned to read over the summer.

The most popular title by far, particularly for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, is Thomas Foster’s “How To Read Literature Like a Professor,” which teaches readers how to recognize and explore the deeper meaning of a literary text.

Here are some other titles local high-schoolers will be reading and analyzing:

▪ “1984,” George Orwell

▪ “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain

▪ “Alas, Babylon,” Pat Frank

▪ “The Art of the Short Story,” Dana Gioia

▪ “The Awakening,” Kate Chopin

▪ “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley

▪ “Cannery Row,” John Steinbeck

▪ “The Catcher in the Rye,” J.D. Salinger

▪ “Chains,” Laurie Halse Anderson

▪ “The Collected Poems,” Sylvia Plath

▪ “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller

▪ “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury

▪ “Great Expectations,” Charles Dickens

▪ “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer

▪ “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

▪ “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding

▪ “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka

▪ “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde

▪ “Purple Hibiscus,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

▪ “Reservation Blues,” Sherman Alexie

▪ “Rashomon: And Other Stories,” Ryunosuke Akutagawa

▪ “Snow Falling on Cedars,” David Guterson

▪ “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Robert Louis Stevenson

▪ “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien

▪ “Tuesdays With Morrie,” Mitch Albom

▪ “Unbroken,” Lauren Hillenbrand

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