Forget the “Summer Slide”

Jason Ablin

The Thud

The school year typically ends with the sound of a thud. It is the sound of an envelope or folder (usually manila), occasionally wrapped with thick rubber bands, landing on a student’s desk. Like an exhausted dock worker, the student sticks this envelope under her arm or in his backpack. The child emerges from the last day of school and climbs into the backseat of his car to a parent asking the hopeful and joyful question, “How was the last day of school, honey?” The student takes that manila package or folder out, like a messenger serving legal papers to the newly indicted, and drops it on the front seat of the car in disgust.

Parents pick up the plague-riddled object and have either one of two reactions: “Oh no. Another 10 weeks of needing to harass my child to do her work. When does it end? Isn’t it the summer?” Or, “Good, my child needs to be busy. This will keep him out of trouble. We are going to get this done!”

The idea of summer work has all types of good intentions behind it. We are trying to convince our children that learning is not just for school time, but year round. Why should we lose the gains of the school year during the 10 weeks of summer? Children should retain some semblance of the school “routine” so that the next year does not feel like a shock to the system.

So, we cram these envelopes with xeroxed sheets, math games, reading lists, even vocabulary flash cards (yuck) and summer writing journals, in which our kids are supposed to be moved by the moment and pour out a strange paroxysm of adjectives, expressing their deepest feelings about going to the neighborhood pool for swimming lessons.

Often, these packets are handed out by the student’s previous year’s teacher—a parting gift of love and affection. Who is going to look over all of this work? Not my concern, says last year’s teacher as they are closing down their classrooms. Next year’s teachers hand them out as a “welcome-to-my-world access pass” to the next grade. On that instructional letter there are veiled threats that the folder, the entire folder, needs to be completed or the first week back to school will be filled with doom. What a great way to start a new school year! Aren’t we all excited?

The Talk

The conversation regarding summer work and the infamous “summer slide” has as much to do with how we think and talk about school as it does with what a great summer of learning looks like. Much of the literature concerning summer loss describes the student’s school year experience in profoundly negative terms, as if kids have been in a coal mine for the last 10 months. Language regularly used in these articles to describe the school year include words like “burden,” “routines,” “rules,” “endless work,” “long hours,” “discipline,” “boredom” and my favorite, “drudgery.” Drudgery comes from an old English/French origin. A drudger is one who does farm work, separating seeds. It is repetitive work, appearing endless, and causes suffering. It is work to be endured. Why would any right-minded person want to do this? If school is the opposite of joyful, engaging, purposeful, meaningful and just fun, then, by extension, summer “work” issued by the school is a form of punishment and degradation. Let’s face it, educators: When it comes to summer assignments, we are persecutors.

In reality, our schools are full of important celebratory moments. Most students enjoy school. They love seeing their teachers and friends, they experience meaningful moments, and they grow in all sorts of positive ways. My own days as principal are spent experiencing smiling faces, silly jokes and students too engaged in thoughtful learning experiences to notice me wandering around. So where is the disconnect? How does this bifurcation of time, school-versus-summer, take place?

The Box

Our tendency in American life is to put everything in its proper box. This impulse is driven by our desire to create greater coherence and clarity. If Americans are anything, they are practical. Work is work. Vacation is vacation. Work is not fun. Therefore, if school involves working, it is not fun. As parents, we send this message to our kids constantly. Our children are bombarded with the constant intrusion of work into home and family life through technology, with mom or dad saying, “Wait, I need to answer this text or take this call… It’s work.” Work has so invaded our other life spaces that we have to go to great lengths to convince our kids that it is not the enemy and not a constant source of aggravation.

Our kids are shaped by the adults in their lives, and they model their behaviors based on the behaviors and attitudes of the adults around them. Do they know adults who express the joy in their work lives? Do they have parents who love their work because it is also a place for them of personal growth and engagement? Or, is work work (read: not fun) and play play, the opposite of work?

Herein lies the contradiction: If “drudgery” is our students’ experience of school, how can we also declare that one of the primary goals of schools is to build and grow learning minds? School is the platform for that developmental process. What we teach is that we learn. Learning happens everywhere, and everybody learns. Jewish day schools are places to show students how to learn well, to think deeply, to observe with thoughtful, and sometimes critical, eyes and ultimately how to express themselves as learners throughout their lives. If they work with purpose in school, they learn to become purposeful workers, laborers who have discovered their passions in their professional and avocational lives.

As parents and adults, we are not great modelers of this. Even though many adults turn their vacations and summers into moments of learning (trips to interesting and diverse places, summer cultural events and museum programs), do they make those connections explicitly with their children? Do they say that all of this learning is important and essential and part of the same experience? And, conversely, do they speak about the joys of work? About how much they have learned through their professional lives?

Is work like play? Absolutely not. That is not the point. Rather, we are looking for an overall approach that teaches kids to feel general satisfaction with what we call work. And in order to do this, summer work—as an extension of deep, meaningful learning in school—should reflect student interests and passions in a genuine and authentic way. The question is: How do we make it so?

The Web

Built into the rationale for summer work is that it is part of some kind of larger race and, if you do not keep up, you “fall behind.” Growth is marked and measured by simplistic notions of linear progress. This is actually not how children learn. True learning is not a staircase that, during the summer, students risk falling down.
We have come to realize only recently that student learning does not really follow the ladder of development outlined in Bloom’s taxonomy. How students acquire knowledge and engage with learning looks much more like a web of connections and representations that become more sophisticated and complex over time. When outlined and unpacked by researchers, these representational webs are unique to each learner, eventually developing complex neural connections reinforced and enhanced over time (Fischer and Bidell, Dynamic Development of Psychological Structures in Action and Thought in Theoretical Models of Human Development). The more educators know their students and understand their unique interests, expressions and experiences, the more we can shape learning to support this broader and more complex development.

Our goal of summer learning, then, is to strengthen the multiple pathways to learning and access points. How one child builds on knowledge is wholly distinct from another. If you work off of children’s interests and frames of reference, you are more likely to tap into their webs of learning. Student choice during the school year is an important strategy; during the summer, it is essential. Take away the structures and routines of school, and student desire and attitude regarding learning is essentially all you have left. Summer is a ripe opportunity to build thoughtful, happy learners.

The Engagement

If we want the summer to be a productive and engaging time for our students, then we need to end the school year differently, respecting our students and celebrating their hard work and growth over the preceding months. Structuring the final two to three weeks of school to include serious year-end reflection, coupled with teacher articulation for the coming school year, should also include students actually designing their own summers of learning.

Imagine a first grader sitting with her or his teacher or teachers and, through written assignments and oral portfolio review, defining what work made the year meaningful, what learning projects or assignments engaged him or her the most. Then the student could begin to build summer assignments that integrated various learning modalities and skills. Parents could be involved by filling out a quick survey about their family plans for the summer. Is there any way a family trip or experience could be incorporated into the student’s planning for the summer?

If done thoughtfully, this summer-planning process is also an excellent opportunity for the next year’s teachers to get to know and be introduced to their new students. An entire “step up week” could be planned, during which students meet, one on one, with their next year’s teachers and answer a series of questions regarding the summer and what they hope to accomplish. Instead of the relentless rush to complete curriculum, clean cubbies and lockers, or administer benchmark exams, the end of the year becomes part of an educational philosophy regarding student reflection, engagement and autonomy. Through such a process, every summer packet (or sheet, singular!) is uniquely designed for and by every student, depending on his or her needs and self-directed paths.

Students have plenty of thoughtful ideas and feelings about what they might accomplish during the summer. We just need to ask.

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