I Haven’t Forgotten About You: Honors Students and the Summer Reading Essay Anxiety

Amid the torrent of myths about gifted and talented students – they don’t need special attention, they can get the content on their own, they cannot function in a heterogeneous society – lays the accurate claim that, from a socioemotional perspective they can be strong-willed and often aim for perfection. This is a well-researched and well-supported claim, but the writing teachers of gifted and honors students only need to assign a writing exercise to see this in action.

These are the students who revise three, four, and five times. They revise until they are beyond positive that they are handing us their best work. They sit outside our classrooms in the morning because they aren’t thrilled with their conclusion and they wonder if they can come in during lunch to work on their counter argument.

Of course, we do a mental dance (alright, sometimes we just dance right in front of everyone) and we shout, “Yes! Yes, come in during lunch. Come in after school. I’ll cancel my dentist appointment so we can work on the transition between your first and second paragraphs. These cavities can wait!”

The Problem

Unfortunately, a problem has arisen for me this summer. In our push to add rigor to the

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Honors English 10 summer reading, the team of sophomore English teachers created a horizontal text set that offered students the choice of one of four novels to read this summer. As they read, they will complete metacognitive logs that ask them to identify critical moments, or “golden lines,” in the text and then to react to the text by connecting the moment to their own life or another text. For example, some students chose to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and have been making excellent connections between this text and To Kill a Mockingbird. No spoilers, but their reactions to Scout at age twenty-six are more than worthy of the character Ms. Lee created for us.

When students return in September, they will be asked to write a literary analysis essay that focuses on the function of the setting in their chosen novel. This information was given to the students before they left for the summer as we all aim to maintain as much transparency in our choices as possible. Their purpose and goals are clear and they will return to school as mighty sophomores ready to tackle their first literary analysis essay of the year…or so we’d like to think. But we can’t forget that these are gifted students. They care deeply about the quality of their work and they love to show the best versions of themselves, usually as a first impression.

Email Concerns

In the last two weeks, I have received emails containing the following questions and concerns:

  • Will I have time to work on the essay at home?
  • What if I don’t finish my essay in one class period?
  • I’m struggling to see the connection between the setting and the main character.
  • Will this be put into the grade book?
  • Can I use my book for the essay?
  • How can I know if I am understanding the novel before I write the essay?

An Open Letter

So, being inspired by Jay’s brilliant post on the open letter and using this post as my soapbox…

Honors Students,

I haven’t forgotten about you. I know you skipped Tyler’s pool party because you had to

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read Thirteen Reasons Why. I, too, stayed up until 3:00 a.m. reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close when I had to work in the morning because, yes, your teachers reread the texts that you are reading. Every year.

So I feel you. I feel your nervous fingers turning the pages as you write in your journal about man’s inhumanity to man or a character’s rejection of her own agency. In fact, I know that we start school in less than a month and you might have 150 pages left to read. You’re anxious and concerned about what I’m going to think about your annotations. Your writing is an extension of your brain, and if I don’t like your writing then that means I don’t like your brain which is basically everything you are and ohmygoshMr.G.thisrunonsentenceiskillingme!

But here is what I need you to do for me: breathe, read, enjoy, repeat. I haven’t assigned this assignment to hurt you. This assignment is designed to deepen your love for reading. These books are fantastic and I’m gifting them to you. Because, after all, when I assign anything for you, I’m doing it because I see the purpose in it. It’s my gift to you.

When you walk into my classroom on the first day of school, I’m not going to mention your summer reading assignment. I’m going to smile, shake your hand, and ask you how your summer was. Did you go anywhere exciting? Did you see any life-changing movies? Did you do anything awesome that I might have done, too? I’ll ask these questions because, although I don’t yet know you, I care about you as a person. I’m going to spend the first month of school getting to know everything there is to know about you. And I’ll even give you small gifts of knowledge in the form of poems and short stories.

Then, when you walk into my classroom in the second week of school, we will finally open our summer reading books. We’ll look at each other’s annotations, and we’ll work in groups to discuss the characters, the setting, and the themes. After four days of engaging with the texts and your annotations, we’ll talk about the purpose of literary analysis and the jobs of the writer as well as the reader. On Thursday, we’ll talk about thesis statements and hooks. By Friday, you’ll get to draft (yes, draft) a rough outline of what your essay might include. And then, my gift to you, I’ll ask you not to work on your essay over the weekend; I want the thoughts to marinate for at least 48 hours. On Monday, I’ll show you a sample essay and we’ll discuss its merits. I’ll do a think aloud and mark up the text to model what a good analytical reader does before you do the same to a classmate’s draft. You’ll get to the writing and revising stages soon enough. But we are going to get there together.

So from now until Day 1, breathe, read, enjoy, repeat. We aren’t here to judge you or to cause you stress. We’re here to help you become a better reader, writer, thinker, and person. I don’t know you yet, but I do know that you will make huge strides this year and I’ll be here guiding you and, more importantly, cheering you on. You’ve got this and I’ve got you.


What message do you have for your gifted and talented students? How will you calm the “first paper jitters” this year? You can connect with me on Twitter @MGriesinger or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

– Matt

1 Comment

  1. Love this. Your letter is especially meaningful to me as I head back to teach eighth-graders who are apprehensive about any assignment (read: what grade they will get).

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