7 Things Summer School Teachers Do That Work Year Round

Summer school simplifies learning to make the most of limited time

The small town of Ellensburg in Washington state holds a summer school each year where kids hop off the buses each morning excited to learn. Really. They can’t wait to come to school—in the summer!

Do these summer school teachers have a secret? What are they doing to motivate and inspire students that we can carry out through the rest of the school year? Here’s what they had to say:

1. Build relationships, no excuses

Summer school is just for 10 days. This makes it challenging to build relationships, but we don’t use time as an excuse. Students come running off of the buses each morning to greet their teachers who are excitedly waiting with smiles, hugs, cheers, and high fives. The positivity is palpable. At summer school, students are the center of the learning.

The first class project we work on is Heart Mapping from Georgia Heard. By choosing this project, students get the idea that they matter. Each day we celebrate students’ small successes and shower kids with positivity.

We use some of the ideas from Gravity Goldberg’s book, Mindsets and Moves. The idea of using what she describes as an “admiring lens” guides teachers’ observations of students. Instead of teaching to students’ deficits, we teach to their strengths to meet their needs. What can we admire about each student?



2. Build opportunities for creativity

At summer learning camp, our common mentor texts were The Dot and Ish by Peter Reynolds. These books were selected to help kids identify with characters who demonstrate a growth mindset.

Students and teachers explore growth mindset through studying the characters in these stories. In The Dot, Vashti, the main character, thinks she is not good at painting. Students make connections to these same feelings. Vashti is encouraged by her teacher to just make a mark on the paper and see where it takes her. In the book Ish, Ramon is devastated when his brother makes fun of his artwork. He later discovers his sister has been saving his discarded artwork. She reminds him that things don’t have to look perfect.

Creating opportunities and time for students to explore, write, draw and paint opens up doors for students who may struggle in other areas. They are able to freely express themselves in a non-judgmental environment. This helps build their confidence and increases motivation.


3. Make time for conversations

Children need time and space to engage in conversations. This was a focus during summer school that gave teachers the opportunity to see the value and impact this has on student learning. In a short time, students who were normally quiet were asking questions when they didn’t understand something.

Too often we are in a hurry to cover the content or get to the next thing and skip over taking the time to engage each student in meaningful academic conversations. At summer school these conversations become the content.

Academic Language is used across content areas for tasks like comparing and contrasting, inferring, describing, and synthesizing information. At summer school, we were intentional about creating opportunities to have group discussions focusing on academic language. We used Trevor Bryan’s Art of Comprehension and the Access Lenses to give all students access to the meaning of text through looking closely at details in illustrations. This tool gives teachers and students a visual as well as a common language when looking at describing mood, theme, and how stories and characters change.


4. Read a story aloud daily

At summer school, teachers read aloud daily to build community, model fluent reading, and promote the joy of reading. Read-Aaoud isn’t just considered something extra we do or something to fill in time—it gives students a reason to want to learn to read.

In Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins book, Who’s Doing The Work?: How To Say Less So Readers Can Do More they break down what makes read-aloud important. Here are a few of the reasons: Read-aloud allows all students to:

  • Focus on the meaning of the text
  • Develop social imagination
  • Broaden perspective
  • Build community
  • Gives them a reason to work hard to become better readers


5. Less is more

At summer school, one of our mantras is less is more. Our limited time has helped us reflect on what will have the most impact on students. What can we give them in 10 days that will stay with them for the rest of the summer, school year, and beyond?

This mantra has freed teachers from feeling overwhelmed by trying to gather resources that may end up just being busy work that has no real impact on a student’s heart or mind. This mantra has given more space for the things that do have an impact. Things like relationship building, read aloud, and discussion.

Less teacher talk gives more room for students to do the talking and questioning. Less teacher direction gives room for more student choice and voice.  When we strip away the unnecessary clutter of busy work and focus in on a few key ideas that allow teachers to respond to students’ strengths to meet their needs, what we find is we give and get more from students and ourselves than we can even imagine.


6. Give students a purpose

Students had a purpose when they practiced reading a poem, song, or chant. That purpose was to perform and teach it to all of the other classes at the end of each day. Not only was this fun but it was highly motivating for students to practice so they could do their best for their peers. Students who were shy at first were, by the end, enthusiastically participating in singing, chanting, or acting out poems.


7. Slow down to notice the details

One of our goals was to give students time to notice details in illustrations to increase their comprehension. We also focused on using the outdoors as a way to demonstrate the power of observation skills. We used our senses to notice and investigate the world around us.

Students began tuning into interesting words like expert, investigate, and habitat. In a short time, they began using these words in their discussions and writing. We need to be intentional in slowing down and creating opportunities and experiences for children to discuss, explore, notice details, and investigate the world around them.