Unit 7: Independent Reading and Writing

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Unit 7: Independent Reading and Writing

Welcome to our seventh and final writing unit of the school year. Below, you will find a description of each element and an invitation to put them together to help guide your students to learn on their own now, during the summer, or even in the fall when a new school year — whatever it may look like — begins.

With schools shut down across the world this spring, independent reading and writing is now perhaps more the norm than the exception. But we’re hoping this summer will still offer your students some freedom — if not to travel where they’d like to physically, at least to explore what they want intellectually.

We hope our annual 10-week summer contest can help. Every year since 2010 we’ve invited students to read The Times and choose anything they like — whether an article or an essay, a photo or a graphic, a video or a podcast — then tell us briefly why it got their attention. At the end of each week, judges from The Times newsroom choose their favorites and we publish them here.

The fun of the contest, for students and for us, is the range of results. Here’s what Nancy Wartik, a 2016 judge, said after a summer of reading what teenagers sent in:

What struck me about the submissions was how wide-ranging the topic choices were! It didn’t so much surprise me when students wrote about Pokémon Go or how exercise may help with studying. But there were essays about insecticide’s effect on bee sperm; disappearing sea ice; a new art museum in Paris; the death of a young woman jogger in New York; hunting lionfish; sexual assault in South Sudan; the Oklahoma City Thunder and lots more.

It impressed me to find young people tackling so many different subjects.

You can read much more, below, about how the contest works and why parents, teachers and students like it, but we also have many other resources to help:

  • A list of Learning Network lesson plans and other resources on independent reading and writing, all of which link to excellent Times articles and essays on literacy.

  • A guided practice students can follow on their own that uses the work of 14 teenage winners of our past summer contests as mentor texts to encourage students to read what they want and think about it critically — then sound like themselves when they compose a response.

  • A recently updated list of 70-plus additional contests, journals and websites to which teenagers can send their writing and art if they’d like.

To learn more, and to hear from a teacher who assigns our Summer Reading Contest and a student who has enthusiastically participated, join our May 6 webinar.

It is our job at The Learning Network to scour The Times daily for the best, most useful pieces for teaching and learning — and then turn those pieces into lesson plans, writing prompts, quizzes, contests and more.

For instance, the illustration at the very top of this post is from a recent Times series “Be a Better Reader in 7 Days.” It can walk you and your students through choosing the right reading material, making a reading plan, learning how to read more deeply and critically, and sharing one’s thoughts socially — all skills our Summer Reading Contest emphasizes, too.

Because we have created so many teaching materials over the years on the subjects of reading and writing, we’re listing below our most useful general resources, each of which draws from and links to rich Times articles and essays on literacy.

As you probably know if you’ve been following our writing curriculum all year, we offer daily opportunities during the school year for students to make their own choices about what to read and how to respond.

For instance, many teachers let students choose from our nine weekly writing prompts (five Student Opinion questions and four Picture Prompts) and respond to them online. Every Thursday, we round up our favorite comments in our Current Events Conversation column, which functions almost like a mini Summer Reading Contest. So invite your students to craft a few comments and post them to the prompt of their choice before the school year ends. Our contest begins on June 12.

And if you’d like to introduce students to what The Times has to offer before you turn them loose with it this summer, we have resources for that, too:

  • We know your students know that our paper reports the news, but “21 Things Teenagers Can Do With a New York Times Subscription” can also show them how to play games and watch videos, listen to music, learn a skill, hear a podcast, find recipes and work out. It’s a quick introduction to corners of NYTimes.com they might not have known existed.

  • A 2017 post, “10 Ways to Teach With The New York Times Today,” offers a scavenger hunt for introducing students to the various sections of NYTimes.com, as well as all kinds of other advice for connecting The Times to your curriculum.

We offer four steps for writing comments that are richer, more analytical and, well, just more fun to write (and read). The guided practice walks students through how to:

  • Make an interesting personal connection

  • Read critically and show their thinking

  • Reference specific details or quotes

  • Write in their natural voices and experiment with style.

To demystify the process, each of these steps is illustrated with examples from the work of previous student winners. Your students will read a poignant personal story about a lifetime of feeling “awkward,” a funny essay about eating bagels in California and a sharp analysis of how the media reports on Beyoncé, among other responses.

We hope they’ll see that there’s room on our site for all kinds of genuine, thoughtful reactions — including theirs.

Every year since 2010 The Learning Network has invited teenagers around the world to add The New York Times to their summer reading lists and, so far, over 60,000 have.

Though our goals are similar to those of many educators — honoring student “voice and choice,” helping teenagers become more aware of the world and their place in it, learning how to navigate sophisticated nonfiction and practicing writing for a real audience — we also hope that students will realize that reading the newspaper can be fun. They can choose literally anything they like that was published on NYTimes.com in 2019 or 2020. We don’t care what they write about; we just care about why they chose it.

Maybe the most compelling reason to assign this contest, however, is what participants themselves say about it. Reflecting at the end of the summer of 2017, a teenager named Emma Weber, from London, told us:

Prior to this summer, the only writing I did was for school assignments or Google searches. And if I did get around to it, I never reread what I wrote. That’s why, as the weeks went on, I surprised myself when I began double and triple checking my comments for mistakes, of which there were far more than expected!

Another transformation is my newfound interest in the news. I used to be the kind of person who opened a newspaper and went straight to the puzzles section, and though that may be unchanged, I now feel compelled to read a few articles that catch my eye too. In return, exposing myself to current affairs has fine-tuned my political opinions, and through consistent writing I learned to express them in a way that accentuates them.

The result? I feel grounded in my views and understand what’s going on in the world. It’s amazing what a change 1,500 characters a week make.

From a big national arts contest to a small online magazine devoted to teen comedy writing, you can find a variety of possibilities to keep your students creating all summer long.