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Do students need summer assignments?

WASHINGTON, Aug 28: Did your teachers ruin your, or your child's, summer vacation? Since I am one of the teachers who gives assignments, I thought I'd examine some of the pluses and minuses of this policy. "Back in the day," there were no summer assignments. There were only four TV channels and no internet, so there were few distractions. My friends and I read during the summer because that's just what kids did. We didn't expect kudos or rewards. My best friend used to read under the covers by flashlight because it was considered an illicit late-night pleasure.

But before you begin to think of those as the "good old days," I should add that I doubt the reading I did was any more careful than the reading of today's students. I read because I liked it, and now students read because they have to - but one did not generate a higher IQ or better performance in life skills than the other. I went from Nancy Drew mysteries to John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger, but I don't think my reading of the "great" writers was especially critical or thoughtful. Like youth of today, I read for the stories.

Fast-forward to today's children. They say anything is ruined by making it an assignment, and they are right. But once it's done, they still have read that book whether or not they enjoyed doing it. When I "have" to correct papers, which is all the time, I dread them. I love my job, love writing, love students; I should love grading papers - but I don't. That's the way it is with "assignments."

When you have to get a memo completed or a report on someone's desk in 48 hours, it's a drag on your time and psychic energy. Even if you love the project or the subject being written about, you look at the task as an assignment that, in part, "ruins" your day. On the other hand, it's your job, so you don't complain. (At least not much.)

So it's my contention that yes, summer assignments "ruin" our children's summers, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Many worthwhile tasks in life are assigned, and dreaded, but we do them and are better for having completed them. Truth to tell, I'm that way about making dinner most nights. I moan and groan about having to do it, but really I like cooking and am good at it, so when it's all over, I'm glad to have completed that "assignment." All assignments are not bad things.

A message to my students: "1984" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" are due next week for all 150 of you. I know you haven't started them, and they've been on your nightstands for two months. But once you read them you will forever know what it means to have Big Brother looking over your shoulder, and also what it means to break out of a role society has squeezed you into. You will meet several characters who followed their own consciences, for better and worse.

Assigned? Yes. But the lesson is still immensely valuable. So take out those flashlights!

Erica Jacobs teaches at Oakton High School and George Mason University
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