Want Better Summer School? Less Testing, More Student Choice

My school did it, and yours can too.

How to Create Better Summer School

I’ve worked in two different summer programs during my 12-year teaching career, and I’ve always been struck by the differences between them. But maybe I shouldn’t be. There’s a difference in how this country treats students living in poverty versus kids from wealthier areas. And there’s a lesson to be learned on how we can create better summer school for all.

For several years, I did summer school at the Title I charter school where I teach. Attendance is required as part of an extended school year.

 

Our “traditional” summer school program had its benefits.

For instance, it got the kids out of their apartments for a while. For many of our students, especially girls who were more likely to be saddled with full-time care of younger siblings, that was a really important factor.

Perhaps most importantly, it was three weeks of the summer in which we knew food-insecure students were getting at least one decent meal per day.

 

But despite these social benefits, there weren’t a lot of academic ones.

The kids generally spent half of the four-hour day in English classes and the other part working on math. Testing was the focus. We reviewed the previous grade’s standards, previewed the next, and hoped some of it would stick in two months. It generally didn’t.

Eventually, I got frustrated and went to work at a $3,000, three-week private academic summer camp. Needless to say, it was a different world. Kids spent their summer doing project-based learning in classes they’d chosen based on their interests. They had individualized, rather than standardized, goals. And each class had a flexible curriculum to allow for student-guided learning. Although it was less explicitly tied to Common Core standards, there was little doubt that these students were getting a far more rigorous and useful academic experience than their peers.

 

This story has a happy ending.

After an administrative change at my school, we became a little more open to changing the way we’d always done things. Three years of experience at the fancy camp taught me that many—though not all—of its advantages could be easily imported into our summer program. Student choice, project-based learning, arts classes … all of these are cheap and easy. And they make the process more rewarding for students and teachers than working our way through 60 pages of a test prep book.

Our program looks very different than before. Halfway through, kids are still honing their close reading and textual evidence skills, but now they’re analyzing documents for a mock trial—Humpty Dumpty is suing the wall company for faulty construction. They’re improving their writing by putting together a script for a musical, which they’ll perform at the end of the program.  Math, science, and language arts are all components of the Create Your Own Restaurant class. They’re figuring out price points and site surveys for their bistros and food trucks. And we had to add extra sessions to the STEM Lab because it was so full.

 

A rewarding, rigorous, engaging summer program shouldn’t be limited to those who already have all the academic advantages.

Diverting our money from test prep books into slime ingredients, set supplies, and legal pads has changed our summer program. And I can already tell it has major payoff for the kids. They’re engaged, focused, motivated … and they still get that crucial school lunch every day.

Elizabeth Peyton

Posted by Elizabeth Peyton

I teach at a small urban middle school for refugee and immigrant kids. I spend all day with the most challenging, hilarious, exhausting group of people I can imagine, and I'm extremely grateful for it!

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