Friday, July 12, 2013

Summer School

One teacher sat outside on the breezeway running through math flashcards, challenging his primary grade students to solve the problems.  To his left was a whiteboard on an easel, should he need to explain something with a diagram.  His students were riveted to his lesson.

Across the playground, another primary teacher supervised her students as they completed exercises in a workbook, fat pencils in hand.  Again, students were absorbed in their work.

On another bench, middle school students were playing a variety of games, prepping for their upcoming high school entrance exams.  The mood was lighthearted and fun.

Summer and school are bad words, language most foul, at least to students who want their freedom from the classroom for the balmy-to-ferociously hot days of June, July, and August.  In recent years, school districts and private school boards have flirted with lengthening the school year, or even daring to suggest eliminating summer vacation altogether.  This receives a decidedly mixed reception.  Some parents scream that this keeps little Joey or Mary from having a proper vacation.  Others bemoan the lack of child care during those long summer days when they are stuck at work while the kids are at home creating havoc, and therefore, these parents welcome a full school year.  Students complain about every minute in the classroom no matter what’s going on, so the volume only increases when someone suggests more school during the hotter months.

But really?  There is air conditioning.  And a break from school every summer is probably not in the best interest of students.

Summer school has traditionally been offered for deficient students who need to make up coursework.  Some programs also offer what are called enrichment courses.  A student wishing to excel and get ahead might enroll in such classes to pad the academic resume.

The students I observed were involved in what their school calls, “The Summer Bridge Program,” a way to keep skills sharp while also offering additional coursework to prepare for the next school year.  Teachers earn at least a little summer income—it is difficult to go three months without pay—and parents have a way to keep their kids busy while they are at work.  The students may complain initially, but on the day I observed, they were having a good time.  After the academics were over for the morning, the primary students played games involving physical exercise and lots of water from a hose.  Everyone screamed and shouted.  Middle school students made ice cream sundaes.

Summer school should be about exploration.  Students should have the chance to explore areas of the curriculum.  The emphasis might be projects that get students up and moving and following their own interests.  This might be the time to bring back shop classes.  Or, why not let students make their own films?  How about a three hour oil painting class?  Teachers should be challenged to come up with activities, not lessons.  This is the opportunity to set free the kinesthetic learner.  That is what impressed me about what I observed:  kids were moving.  They could shout, run, jump, freeze, roll, and dance as well as learn and explore.

We might even consider escaping the physical school building itself.  After a year of studying European history, is there a better way of cementing those lessons than a trip abroad to see the sights where history happened?  Summer is an excellent time to do an extended research project in biology for budding scientists.  I know of students on the college level who spend their summers doing just that, under the direction of a faculty member.  Others travel to Ghana to assist with building a water purification system to bring clean drinking water to local villages.  Still others travel to Nicaragua to work as medical assistants providing health care to rural populations.

This summer, I have been conducting writing workshops for incoming college freshmen.  All of my students are science majors, and most told me on the first days that they were not good writers.  I want them to feel comfortable with writing, so I let them be themselves on the page.  We focus on what is good in each student’s writing.  I use their awkward sentences and grammar problems anonymously to teach the class how to improve.  I help them understand how to write for an academic audience.  And I guide them into research.  Mainly, though, I want them to feel a sense of excitement, not dread, when they pick up a pen or open a laptop to write.  I don’t want them to fear writing.  There will be time for the full research paper, the endless textbook chapters, the long lectures and note-taking sessions come fall.

Summer school does not mean a loss of freedom.  It does not mean drudgery.  Summer school can involve ice cream, field trips, and running through the sprinklers with twenty-five of your best friends.  It is, however, necessary.  It should be a part of every summer.

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