Summer School Playground

There is a different vibe when it comes to the summer school classroom. The building smells different. The pace is a bit slower. In buildings with no air conditioning, everything is pretty much sticky. The sounds of those large airport fans can be heard in all of the hallways. The building staff looks at you a bit strange, as if there is something wrong with you being in the building during July and part of August. That old corny teacher joke about July and August will often get thrown in your face by a well intentioned staff member. And, yet, there you are heading into a classroom to teach summer school. Some look at this as a negative experience before they even start. You’re meeting kids who “obviously” aren’t good students and have to teach them things “all over again”.

Yet, these eight weeks could be the most rewarding for a kid who really needs an academic win. And, they have the potential to be a time that allows you to evolve as an educator.

My first official teaching job was actually a summer school position. Right after finishing up all of my requirements and student teaching, I had thoughts of kicking back for the summer because that’s what teachers are supposed to do, right? After all, I was fortunate enough to get hired for a full time position in September and figured I was set. The harsh reality of a 22 year old is that things like a car, gas, and all of that isn’t free. So, I opened up a newspaper and searched the want ads. For the younger readers, this is the paper equivalent of a job board or Linkedin. I found a middle school teaching position posted and called. I was given the job over the phone and told to report on Monday.

I met with the summer school principal who gave me the district curriculum and told me to make it my own. Basically, I was told to give the kids “another crack” at passing the course before they would move on to high school. I went home and picked the books I was familiar with and wrote out an eight week curriculum that included vocabulary tests, daily reading quizzes, and a whole lot of reading. I was new and didn’t know better. I would learn quickly.

I entered the room the next day and met a group of 12 kids, mostly boys, who weren’t all that excited to see me. I handed out my shiny new syllabus and told them that we would have some fun and get through it together. They perked up a bit with the word fun and genuinely laughed when I quoted from the movie Happy Gilmore. But, then a kid raised his hand and asked me the tough question.

“Why do we have to read The Outsiders again? I did that already.”

And, I responded with the dumbest answer you could possibly give.

“Well, you obviously didn’t do it well the first time so we’ll get it right this time.”

Yup, that’s a way to lose a class within the first 15 minutes of the summer. I just made 12 kids feel like losers with one sentence.

Needless to say, that summer was rough. I was the rawest of raw teachers who could hook a class with some pop culture references, but I was plodding along for a lot of the summer. Finally, in a moment of frustration, I broke down.

“Guys, you aren’t dumb. What can I do to actually get you to do the work?”

What followed was a 45 minute discussion about things they liked and didn’t like about English. They wanted to read new stuff that they were interested in. They wanted projects and something creative. I had kids telling me that they would do work and they were actually telling me they would be interested. So, I stayed after the session and worked in the classroom on a project that would carry us through the last two weeks. The 90 minute sessions were broken down into three parts. 30 minutes of reading something that I picked, 30 minutes of either creative writing or analytical writing, and then 30 minutes of working on a project that had them working as competing companies where they had to create a product, a marketing campaign, and then pitch it to a group of potential investors. Each group had to submit a written proposal and do research as to why their product would be needed. Looking back, I was doing argument writing before argument writing was a thing. Sometimes being “young and dumb” can allow you to stumble into good ideas too.

Those last two weeks were actually fun. Kids liked what we read because I was choosing some edgy stuff, like excerpts from Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall or some poetry by Countee Cullen and Biggie Smalls. They wrote because they were interested in the literature we were reading, although looking back there wasn’t a whole lot of depth to my writing instruction. That comes with experience, I guess. And, their projects were tremendous. I invited the principal to be a judge of their presentations and he came away impressed.

So, the lessons I learned from that first year of summer school were ones that I have taken with me and held on to for the last 20 years. No kid wants to fail. No kid wants to sit in a class, even in summer school, and be miserable. And, sometimes, you have to look past curriculum to get kids to be interested. As long as you are teaching the skills that the standards are dictating, the vehicle that gets you there shouldn’t matter.

I taught summer school for the next 19 years, giving it up last summer because of other district responsibilities and, well, it was just time to pass the torch. During those 19 years, I was able to share a classroom with some great kids, many of whom I had in class in later years. Summer school does not have to be a miserable experience. It can help ignite a love of a subject for a kid who didn’t succeed during the year or, at the very least, it can show them how to successfully navigate the subject so they don’t have to spend future summers in school. And, it can actually improve your teaching. If you go in with a mindset of wanting to help kids and making the summer session engaging, new, and rich, so many great things can happen.

Use It As A Testing Ground

Have a new idea or a new approach you’ve been wanting to try? Summer school is the ideal laboratory for this. One of my goals for each year is to do something different. Summer school was always my testing ground. One year, I had been hopped up about the Paideia Socratic Seminar Method. So, I did all the research, attended a seminar, and then spent the summer working on it with my summer classes. I was honest with the kids that I was trying something new and I told them that I wanted their feedback.

This accomplished two things. First, it accomplished my goal of having them do something that they didn’t experience during the year. If a kid feels like he/she is simply going to have to do the same thing that he/she failed already, they aren’t going to be engaged all summer. Secondly, and most importantly, asking for feedback validates that they are important. Part of the stigma of summer school is that kids feel like a failure. Some may show it with some false bravado, but when you break it down, they feel like failures. It’s my job to change their mindset. So, asking them for their feedback and actually using it shows them that I value them as people and don’t look at them as failures. It is the direct opposite of what I said to my first summer school two decades ago.

In other years, I have experimented with different writing workshop models, different literature circle setups, and different project based learning activities. All of that time made my regular year classrooms better and more engaging. The only true way to find out if something in a classroom works or not is to do it. Summer allows for a true test ground.

Focus On Mindset

As stated, students heading to summer school already know they failed. They already have a negative feeling towards the subject matter. If we are using summer school properly, this is the one area that we must focus on. How can we make kids feel more positively about themselves as a person as well as within a subject? This is where the longer periods of summer sessions really help. In 90 minutes, I can talk with each student. In later years, I had developed my writers workshop model that I use now. So, each day, we would meet about their writing. I would make sure to highlight all of their strengths. For some kids, it was the first time they had heard something positive about their writing since elementary school.

I remember one young lady in particular. She was in the ninth grade summer school program and she brought up a piece of writing about her family. She handed it over and said, “it isn’t really good. I’m don’t like writing, but here.” I sat and read. Now, there were grammar issues, but there was, more importantly, a tremendous story about her mother working three jobs, yet always “welcoming me to the breakfast table with a smile as if I was the only thing that mattered in the whole world. She was my sun and I was her earth.”

Ok, seriously? That was written by a kid who failed English. So, I told her how beautiful her writing was and I highlighted that sentence from above. I told her I would never forget those words (I obviously didn’t) and that she should share it with her mom. She started to tear up. I told her she was a writer and that she should continue to write and that I would love to read her work. The next day, she handed me a notebook filled with writing. She told me she never showed it to anyone. I was honored. And, with that, I knew she would do well in her English classes. It was the last time she was in summer school.

Summer school isn’t about content as much as it is about mindset. If the purpose of summer school is to get kids back on track then we must focus on developing skills, not specific content and, most importantly, focus on developing a sense of self, confidence, and pride within a student. You can do that in summer school.

Prepare Them For The Future

I developed this later in my summer school teaching career. It really goes along with creating a mindset for them. If I was teaching a ninth grade summer class, I would put English 10 on all of the headings. Instead of focusing on what they failed, I would focus on the goal of success for next year. Because our focus was on skills and not content they already were exposed to, I flipped the script and set the course as preparation for September. This took the word failure away from them. We weren’t going backwards, we were looking ahead. We would learn from the past, but then move on.

The first week would include some writing about things they did well, things they felt they were treated unfairly on, and things were they own the responsibility of not doing well. Those writings led to some great individual and whole class discussions. The mindset went to what habits can I control so I am successful next year? That’s a pretty powerful mindset for a kid who just spent the whole year and wound up with the label of failure.

Do I Really Need To Say This?

No homework. Zero. Absolutely none in the summer.

Just as I need time to recharge so I don’t start September burnt out, kids need the same thing. They are already in school for the morning. There is no need to take up more time. Remember, we are building mindset. Plus, I think there is some pretty good debate about the virtues of homework during the regular school year.

Closing Thoughts

Just like we have been rethinking our regular school program and approach, we must approach summer school differently as well. In fact, an argument can be made that summer school is critical as that is the place where we can get a group of kids on the right path. We must evolve and allow all kids the opportunity to meet with success and to develop life long habits that will allow them to do so.

Even in summer courses that culminate with a state exam, mindset and skills should be the primary focus. There is enough time to work on all of that during a summer session. And, I’m willing to bet that if a student has a more positive mindset, feels more valued as a student, and is armed with skills, they will meet with better success on state exams.

No student wants to fail. No kid wants to sit in any classroom and be miserable. It is up to us to give kids every opportunity, change their mindset, and arm them with every skill possible in order to set them on a better path. We can do that in summer school. And, we, the teachers, can learn some cool stuff too.