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Do I Really Have to Go to Summer School? How to Get Students to Change Their Minds (Opinion)

Much hand-wringing is being done about the importance of getting students to attend summer school to accelerate learning because of the pandemic.

But how much time is being spent rethinking what it needs to look like so that students want to attend?

Years ago, I was interpreting for a colleague’s parent meeting. He was explaining that he was available after school every day for tutoring. The mother exclaimed, “Yes, but you teach him then the same way you did during the day when he didn’t understand you!”

Summer school must be different if we want it to be popular—and if we want it to be effective.

In this two-part series, educators will share their ideas on how to do both.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources on the “Summer Slide.”

‘Get Out of the Building’

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught secondary social studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. In 2013, she partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit working to create and support student-centered-learning environments that are inquiry-driven, project-based, and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the executive director and lead teacher for Inquiry Schools:

Summer school needs to feel like regular school—and regular school needs to feel like summer school. One of the comments I often hear about summer school is that the pressure for producing test scores is less prominent and allows for more student-centered, playful, project-based and inquiry-driven work. In my opinion, all school experiences need to look like that as much as possible—summer or no.

Summer school does offer some flexibility though that can be leveraged for even more student agency, projects, and inquiry. Ideas include:

1. Offer choice-based sessions that students opt into. These do not need to be incredibly complicated experiences, but they do need to be hands-on and student chosen.

2. Get out of the building! Take students into the community or nature as much as possible. Let the students realize that learning is not about a particular space but is truly all around them all the time.

3. Vary time blocks. Don’t make the summer school schedule feel like the school schedule. Vary the time blocks, making some shorter and others longer. Build in some flex time here and there. Be playful with the time, perhaps adding in a morning break for second breakfast, quick 15-minute experiences, longer blocks for involved creation.

4. Lower class sizes. Make every effort to get the class sizes down to 15 if possible. The summer experience will go fast, and allowing for community to develop quickly and easily needs to be a primary goal.

Again I posit that *regular* school needs to also try and incorporate these types of experiences as much as possible. But at the very least, summer school needs to embrace time for play, exploration, and choice.

‘Easier Said Than Done’

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in education, as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. Chandra is a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber:

To make summer school more enticing to students and more effective, schools should do two things: (1) Design a curriculum that is dynamic, interactive, and relevant to the students’ interests and needs and (2) Recruit passionate and skilled teachers who are experienced in engaging students and fostering a positive learning environment. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.

In every district in which I’ve worked, summer school is very short, usually 2-3 weeks. It is reserved mainly for those students who have not been successful on their state assessments and need to pass the test on a future administration in order to be promoted. Because of this, schools focus on test-prep materials for summer school instead of creating their own engaging curriculum based on their students’ specific needs and interests. Students are subjected to lessons that closely mimic the state exams and rarely experience project-based learning or real-world applications to make the learning more meaningful.

If summer school curriculum were more relevant and engaging, allowing students to explore areas of interest and develop new skills through different methods, summer school would be seen as less of a punishment and more of a beneficial time of learning.

Schools should also take steps to ensure that they recruit the most passionate and skilled teachers who are capable of engaging students who might not be very excited to be attending summer school. Teachers who are passionate about teaching and learning have a tendency to be able to connect with students in a way that others cannot. They intuitively know how to inspire students’ curiosity, and create a safe and inclusive learning environment for students who may not always feel encouraged to participate.

Being “invited” to attend summer school can already have a negative impact on students’ motivation, but making sure that the best teachers are there to guide these students can make a huge difference in the amount of effort they put forth.

Ultimately, making summer school more enticing and effective for students boils down to what curriculum schools choose to use and who delivers that curriculum. When engaging relevant curriculum in taught by passionate educators with high expectations, capable of motivating students, summer school becomes a lot more beneficial for everyone.

‘Flexibility’

Michelle Shory is a veteran language educator with 26 years of experience in five states. She is an ESL teacher and instructional coach at Seneca High School in the Jefferson County public schools in Louisville, Ky. Michelle also works as an adjunct instructor for Eastern Kentucky University and Indiana University Southeast:

First and foremost, it is crucial to shift the perception of summer school from being seen as a punishment to being viewed as an opportunity. Additionally, both students and teachers should be granted flexibility during this period. It is essential to acknowledge that although school is not in session, students and teachers still have responsibilities, such as work or caregiving. Recognizing these commitments will help create a more supportive environment.

Furthermore, summer school should be designed to be meaningful and relevant. If students and teachers invest their valuable time, they need assurance that the program is worthwhile. Emphasizing the practicality and applicability of the curriculum will enhance motivation and engagement. It is essential to convey to students that their participation in summer school contributes to their overall success and progression toward graduation. Additional support, such as optional tutoring sessions, can address individual needs and concerns, fostering a more comprehensive learning experience.

In addition, it can be beneficial to encourage creativity and experimentation to make summer learning more dynamic and engaging. Summer school allows teachers to explore innovative teaching strategies and for students to delve into fascinating and thought-provoking topics. Promoting choice and autonomy in project assignments and weekly tasks will give students a sense of ownership over their learning, leading to increased enthusiasm and commitment.

During the pandemic, I had the privilege of revamping my district’s high school ESL summer program. We recognized the need for a more flexible and supportive approach to accommodate students engaged in remote instruction. While these changes were initially necessitated by social distancing and remote learning, I take pride in the fact that many of these modifications have endured.

Flexibility was a primary focus of our revamped program. We transitioned from traditional in-person classes from 8 a.m. to noon, Monday to Friday, to a hybrid model. This hybrid approach included one-hour live online sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, conveniently scheduled at noon. Optional tutoring sessions were also provided on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Initially conducted online during remote instruction, these tutoring sessions were later held at our district’s ESL office when we resumed in-person learning in the summer of 2021. The remainder of the week allowed students to work on modules posted every Monday, with assignments due each Friday.

This self-paced structure empowered students to manage their time effectively while juggling other responsibilities, such as work and caregiving. Consequently, the program became more appealing to both students and summer school teachers, resulting in a higher completion rate. Previously, a strict attendance policy acted as a barrier for students without transportation or those with late work hours.

To ensure relevance, we streamlined the summer program by focusing on essential standards and two artifacts students would include in their district Backpack of Success Skills/ AKA a digital learning portfolio. By illustrating how the skills they acquired would contribute to a meaningful project shared with their summer school peers and comprehensive high school teachers, students were motivated to participate actively.

Moreover, we structured summer school as an accredited course, highlighting its significance in accumulating credits toward graduation. Additionally, the optional tutoring sessions allowed students to receive support for other projects and coursework, such as assistance with resumes.

Lastly, we recognized the challenge of captivating students and teachers during summer learning. By encouraging teachers to take risks and experiment with new strategies, we witnessed heightened engagement from both parties. Teachers were encouraged to provide choices in artifact projects and weekly assignments, fostering a sense of creativity and personalization. We hope this creativity extends beyond the summer program and influences their yearlong courses.

The perception of summer school should be transformed from a punishment to an opportunity, offering flexibility and support for students and teachers. Emphasizing the program’s relevance and practicality while providing optional tutoring and focusing on essential standards ensures that students see the value in their participation and progress toward graduation. By encouraging creativity and experimentation, students and teachers become more engaged, with teachers trying new strategies and exploring intriguing topics. I’m proud of the positive impacts these changes created.

Thanks to Diana, Chandra, and Michelle for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s post responded to this question:

What should be done to make summer school more enticing to students—and effective?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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