Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer Fun and Fall...Boredom? - One Education Reform Topic

To monitor a teacher's Twitter feed during the summer months is to see a steady supply of posts and pictures showcasing himself or herself at locations far and wide participating in conferences, edcamps, and trainings of all shapes and sizes. They are learning new concepts, partaking in motivational keynotes, and collaborating with peers from across town and across the globe.

In short, they are having a ball doing what they love.

What's more, many of these teachers also spend hours with their kids throughout the pivotal mid-year months in what has become a popular way to help close learning gaps and/or provide much-needed exposure to academic content:
Photo: Albuquerque Public Schools
From what I can gather, many of these "summer school" opportunities hold very little resemblance to traditional "school" environments. Since many of the kids involved are what we call "at-risk" students, most of the programs operate under a different vision compared to their September-June counterparts.

Traditional schools spend the fall-spring months talking about engagement and innovation and catering to students' wants and needs; however few of them ever deliver the kind of opportunities that summer programs do.

This begs the question...If the structure of summer programs is engaging and effective, why does school not look that way year round? What is the disconnect?

(Before I get too far, let me address the notion that summer programs close all gaps and level the playing field for all students. Simply put, it is not necessarily true. Researchers have found no definitive correlation between summer learning programs and increased student achievement. As is the case with most learning, it seems, student motivation and high quality instruction are the bedrocks of academic achievement. In other words, good teaching is good teaching and kids who want to learn will do just that.)

This blog post is written to neither support nor condemn summer programs as they affect kids' learning. Rather I am writing it as a way to shed light on a summer philosophy, let's say, that seems to imply that summer learning is fun and innovative, while fall-spring learning is meant to maintain its more traditional structures.

Stop me if you've overheard this at a summer school planning session:
"These kids did not get it the first time, so it's pointless to teach it the same way twice. Let's try reaching them another way."
Therefore summer programs all the way from preschool to fifth-year seniors treat their students to field trips, hands-on projects, live performances, and exposure to resources and software normally unavailable during the normal school year. With grants and funding from federal, state, and local government - as well as generosity from regional and local businesses and corporations - participating students experience a rather posh academic lifestyle for a few weeks out of the summer.

However, when September rolls around again, these same "at-risk and struggling" students are back to sitting in rows being subjected to mind-numbing lectures and grappling with tedious and often pointless worksheets.

To steal a phrase from the classic movie Grease:
Oh, oh those summer school days! (
"Summer Schoolin'
Had me a blast.
Summer Schoolin'
Happened so fast."
My plea is meant to be added to the chorus of others wishing for a particular aspect of education reform. That is, if innovative and fresh ideas are what the doctor orders for summer school participants, why are similar structures too often met with resistance from teachers and administrators alike?

The means of perpetuating the idea of "cutting-edge" and "Student-Driven" instruction is found amongst the current supply of education buzz words:

Student Voice and Choice
Project-Based Learning
Inquiry Learning
Hands-On Activities
Real World Problems
Creation and Production

My contention is less about the implementation of these or any other kind of program or learning framework. Rather it is more about the answers to these (and many other) questions:
  • If Maker Spaces, for example, are great for kids in summer programs (or after-school environments) why are more districts not taking steps to incorporate them into weekly school schedules?
  • Robotics programs (and others like them) are valuable for teaching math and science, along with any number of success skills, but why are they not found as regular options for kids during the school year?
  • Summer School students often get to go on relevant field trips as a major portion of their summer learning, but why from September to June does it become problematic to send kids out into locations both local and regional?
  • Cross-curricular units are all the rage in summer programs, but once September hits, why do teachers revert back to closed-door, I'm-the-expert proceedings?
  • Genius Hour or 20 Time give students free, yet scaffolded time to explore their own interests and passions, but where do those hours (well more than 20%, most will say) go during the school year?
While the answers to these questions will continue to evade some educators, there are select groups across the academic landscape that have found success - at least to some degree - in making them work within whatever confines they operate under. If the issue is time and schedule, there are plenty of institutions that have adjusted and tweaked to make things work. If funding is the hangup, there are plenty of examples of places doing more with less. There is no excuse for writing it off as unfeasible.

Interested parties must continue to keep the conversations alive with administrative personnel, community members, parents, peer teachers, and - most importantly - the kids.

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