Summer Assignments: One Size Does Not Fit All

Today, words like “differentiation” and “multiple learning styles” are inextricable from the lesson planning processes. Accommodations, modifications and alternative modes of assessment are embraced by teachers who are thinking about their instructional choices and taking into account the neurodiversity in their classrooms. With summer homework, teachers should extend this same level of pedagogical flexibility or creativity to their assignments. If they do not, summer homework can end up being too broad and unscaffolded, or too time-intensive.

The distance of the student from the teacher, the potential isolation of the assignment from the year’s curriculum, and the long span of time for completion means that teachers must exercise an even greater level of scrutiny and care than usual when sculpting their assignments, taking even greater consideration of student needs. How well does a summer assignment engage the student? Can the student find meaning in the assignment? Is the student able to do the assignment independently?

During the school year, students have access to a lot of scaffolding and support. For long-term projects, there are benchmarks and check-ins that allow teachers to monitor student progress and students to feel comfortable seeking help. This is not the case for a summer homework assignment. Students with weaknesses in the executive function domain or with limited home resources are at a significant disadvantage. It is important to keep this contextual reality in mind. More time is not necessarily a blessing. Even without a specific diagnosed weakness, many students struggle with procrastination, time management and long-term planning. Thinking about the root causes of procrastination in relation to the assignment can help integrate those support structures into the assignment itself.

Teachers need to ask themselves the following questions when crafting a summer assignment:

Am I confident that my students have mastered the skill sets needed to complete this assignment?

Does the amount of time this assignment requires take into account the students who may struggle with time management?

Do students understand ways that the assignment can be modified to accommodate learning needs?

Do I clearly communicate the goals for this assignment?

Does the assignment allow for choice and tap into the multiple ways students move through this world?

Teachers should see the summer as presenting unique opportunities for students to stretch beyond the standard academic skill sets that are constantly demanded of them during the year. Summer assignments should be exciting and alluring. Teachers should assure that an assignment allows for choice and enables all students to tap into their talents and interests. Summer is a time when students who feel less capable in the academic realm can shine—whether at different types of specialized camps, family adventures, or even in mastering the 100th level of their favorite video game.

Summer vacation is an amazing opportunity to let the creative juices flow. One popular summer homework assignment at my school is given in AP US History. Students are asked to select one of four films based on history and watch it a few times. Then they are tasked with doing research and writing about the historical accuracy, or inaccuracies, of the film. They are given a list of sources and have the option to find more. This assignment is strong because it accesses multiple modalities of learning (film watching, researching online, reading, writing), and students can exercise choice in several areas.

There is no greater culprit to avoidance than a student’s lack of clarity of how to do a task. Therefore, summer is not the time for students to be trying to teach themselves new skills. Summer homework assignments should utilize skill sets they have been engaged with all year. For example, it is problematic to ask all incoming ninth graders to read and annotate the same text. Since ninth graders come from many different middle schools, their skill sets vary widely. Many may struggle with an assignment like this because they have not yet learned the skill of annotation.

Students’ motivation to engage in an assignment is deeply linked to their ability to find meaning and relevancy. Teachers need to be transparent with students about the reasons driving the assignment. At my high school, the driving force behind summer assignments is to create a thematic foundation upon which to build a curriculum for the entire year. Our entering twelfth grade English AP students, for example, must read and annotate Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which at 691 pages is a hefty assignment, one that students often find difficult to complete before the beginning of school. A more explicit articulation of the assignment’s relevance to the twelfth grade class and to ideas that high school students often grapple with would, I believe, help to tap into deeper levels of student motivation. Imagine how the assignment might be received if it was prefaced with the following:

Your summer reading book, East of Eden, is a vital foundation upon which we will build the Existentialism unit in both your Jewish Thought and English classes next year. In these classes we will explore questions like, Why is there evil in the world? and, How do people respond to evil? You will be asked to connect themes and excerpts from this book to the Jewish philosophical ideas you will explore in Jewish Thought. Read closely and annotate (tab, highlight or underline), taking time to absorb the work’s complexity and deep meaning. Note allusions (especially Jewish and Christian allusions), themes, connections to other texts you have read, character development, literary devices, and any questions and comments that arise as you read. You will rely on these annotations heavily in both classes upon your return to school on many writing assignments throughout first semester.

Finally, teachers should explore ways that enhance a student’s feeling of responsibility towards and ownership of an assignment. In classes, teachers sometimes utilize the “jigsaw” method, where students or groups of students are each assigned a different component of a reading or assignment. Without their engagement in the task, the whole cannot be completed. Would knowing that they would need to teach what they’ve learned to the rest of the class (who did not do the same reading) increase the student’s sense of responsibility?

Summer homework is not about keeping kids busy, and teachers should feel confident that their assignments are meaningful and worthy of student time. Embrace the individualization of the summer assignment, perhaps engaging students in crafting their own summer project (as others authors in this issue propose). Teachers need not feel defensive about summer homework. When they create summer assignments with sensitivity to the needs, talents and abilities of their students, then students are more likely to be excited about, find meaning in, and be invigorated about their learning endeavors.

Yael Krieger
Summer Homework
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2017