Education

Time to Unwind

A little summer learning goes a long way

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For most of us who parent and teach school-aged kids, July stands alone – pristine summer perfection, entirely unsullied by formal schooling. Kids are happily enjoying not doing homework and not worrying about grades – and parents share that pleasure. It’s lovely to say, “Hey kid, what’s shaking?” in greeting to my children rather that barking, “Have you done your homework?” (That had become my rote greeting for most of the school year.) I do not miss that at all. Likewise, teachers are appreciating freedom from homework grading, lesson planning and the relentless focus on their students’ intellectual development. For many teachers, July is a time to engage in intensive professional development and to savor the unique pleasure of thinking uninterrupted thoughts.

Some argue that a summer break is an obsolete hangover from a mainly agrarian society. We don’t need to keep our kids’ days free to work on the farm. Indeed, a long break from school during the summer does not make much sense nowadays. Viewed through the lens of the well-documented phenomenon of summer learning loss, our current extended school summer vacations jeopardize academic achievement, particularly among struggling students and English language learners. In response to the threat posed by so many weeks away from formal learning, many summer programs feature some core area subject support, and families are encouraged to make sure that children read and practice math skills. Some kids will come home with a folder of worksheets meant for keeping their heads in the school game and most will have a summer reading list for optional or mandatory summer- time consumption.

Oh, those summer reading lists languishing on our kitchen bulletin board, now obscured by camp schedules and Iggy’s Doughboys coupons. My kids disdain those summer reading lists. Those books, thoughtfully and lovingly chosen by librarians and teachers, are roundly ignored. The cleverest thing I could do, really, is to hide the damn lists and artfully leave the books in our home’s lounging and leisure spots. (Note to self: you could still do this; it’s not as if the kids have actually looked at the lists.) Then my children may well read some of those books because reading per se is not a problem. They read plenty, sometimes even voraciously. They are easy readers, these kids. What they are not, in the summer, is the least bit interested in being told what to read.

These children are generally compliant and often enthusiastic students during the academic year. But when summer vacation starts, they are wildly resistant to the intrusion of anything with the whiff of formal education.

Instead, they are learning all kinds of things in ways that the frantically paced school year doesn’t permit. In camp, they learn archery and art. At home, they read when and what they want to. They learn to skateboard. They take piano lessons, with enough time and space in the day to get into a good routine of practicing without a lot of other competing demands. They work on their fantasy baseball teams and play plenty of real baseball games. They are planning a backyard party for their friends that will be, I hear, epic. They are allowing their minds to settle where they may, which, at least for a few weeks of the year, seems right.

Chats with friends – all full-time working parents like us with elementary and middle school aged kids – have yielded fairly similar responses. All of us agree that a little bit goes a long way during the summer. Some kids actually love the summer reading lists and rip through them, often encouraged by programs that provided prizes and recognition for the most prolific readers. Many parents spoke highly of regular library visits and the Providence Public Library Summer Reading Program; its theme this year is “Dream Big, Read!” which sounds excellent. You can visit a library branch or the Providence Public Library website for more. Others are experimenting with online learning. We’re doing that. With our kids, we have been having fun with math learning on the Khan Academy website.

And of course, what’s right in the summer is different for every family and every child. One friend mentioned that her kid, who has ADHD, needs a little more structure, which she provides by saying, “Let’s get half-an-hour of reading done before you watch television today.” Another friend has kids in a dual-language elementary school and wants to keep the parts of their brains engaged in Spanish language learning up to speed, so she plans to work on that.

What all of us are looking forward to the most is time to hang out with our kids. An unrushed (except perhaps by the need to evade mosquitoes) picnic dinner in the backyard, with s’mores made in a firepit; this cannot be beat, and cannot be had with any regularity during the rush of the school year. We’re making memories, and I think that counts for a lot.