Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Here’s to Summer Vacation.

A recent TIME magazine lamented the lazy days of summer for children, observing that a two-month reprieve from books, classes, and testing is a sentimental and archaic throwback to the agrarian age when the planting schedule dictated a need for extra farmhands to bring in the corn and cabbage. I am not so sure, however, we should ring the bell on summer vacation.

The TIME author correctly notes that many children, who often languish unsupervised at home or in urban areas without benefit of summer school, campfire ghost stories, reading, or family trips to the Cape or mountains, do lose some of the academic progress they have made during the school year. In fact, some analyses have suggested this is especially true for students with certain learning disabilities who require frequent repetition and instruction to keep up with their peers. And there is some evidence that students, regardless of race, background, or socio-economic status, may lose ground in math, perhaps because there are fewer opportunities for children in all grades to practice or discuss math and mathematical concepts in July and August.

But should we extend the school year into July, plan on a few weeks off after the 4th and return in early August? I’m not convinced. Time off in June, July, and August may be a throwback to a an earlier age, but the opportunity for children to get away from the routine of school to vacation, attend camp, visit with distant relatives, or just loaf in the backyard still makes sense, even in the high stakes environment of the 21st Century.

On the other hand, an extended school day for all children does make sense today, especially if we wish to engage students in a rich and diverse curriculum as well as teach them how to work together, problem solve, and create. Even an additional 30 minutes a day would provide needed time for students to deepen their knowledge and extend their learning. But keeping them in stuffy classrooms until mid-July seems like a loss rather than a gain.

Kids need some unstructured time to play, relax, and daydream. Summer vacation is a great time to continue learning and growing by making new friends, reading a book, or hiking a trail. The structure of the contemporary school day and the after school regimen of play dates, athletics, religious school, and music practice mean that most of our young people are “on” all the time with little chance to slow down or even try something new. Summer vacation provides relief from the routines and an opportunity to explore.

One of my friends brought his 13 year old son and another boy to work with him a couple times recently and gave them money for a Charlie Card and told them to stay in touch by cell phone but encouraged them to visit the New England Aquarium, Beacon Hill, and Harvard Yard. The boys, routinely programmed during the school year with classes, homework, and a host of other guided and supervised after school activities, were eager to be off by themselves, exploring on the T. They had a great time! Sure they got off at the wrong stop a couple times and had to ask directions and double back. They even had to figure out how to use a payphone when their cell phone died. But they had the freedom of a summer’s day to take it all in and learn a little bit about Boston, friendship, and having fun. Not a bad way to spend a couple July afternoons.

We certainly need to get it right and lengthen the school day to ensure we have sufficient time to assist children to learn a challenging and innovative curriculum. But let’s make sure we don’t wipe out summer vacation and all of its opportunities for young people to grow, explore, and, yes—even to learn.

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