After nearly 10 years in the classroom, I was confident about my teaching skills. But when I took a position teaching summer school for the first time, one aspect of the job gave me pause: the hours. As a high school English teacher, I was accustomed to structuring my teaching around 50-minute class periods. But for the next six weeks, I’d be with the same students for five hours a day. It was going to be an adjustment.
I planned plenty of activities but was still nervous as I faced a crew of teens early that first morning. They’d all flunked ninth grade English—and they were all mine until 12:30.
But by the time the session ended six weeks later, something surprising had happened. I’d discovered that those initially daunting long class periods actually held the key to success for my students. All that class time allowed me to give my summer school class the five things they really needed.
1. Individual Attention
My class was full of overlooked students—quiet kids who don’t cause much trouble (in many cases, because they so rarely attend class). For them, studying and homework take a backseat to an unstable home environment, an after-school job, or caring for younger siblings. What my students lacked most, I came to understand, was confidence. They’d failed so often that they honestly didn’t realize it was possible for them to complete an assignment and do well. During those long classes, I was able to work one-on-one with students in a way I never could during the regular school year.
2. Time to Write
My summer school students dreaded writing. Many lacked basic skills, the kind of material taught back in elementary or middle school. With the long hours of instruction, I could catch them up through a series of targeted mini-lessons, then give them the time they needed to write and revise right here in school—where they couldn’t avoid it. Provided with hours of structured time to write, my students applied themselves. “In my whole life, I never got an A before,” one girl told me, tearing up as she looked at the essay I’d just handed back. It was one of my most satisfying moments as a teacher.
3. Reading Aloud
Being read to increases vocabulary, builds a love of reading, and is just plain enjoyable. As a teacher, I know reading aloud is a surefire way of hooking students into a novel. But who has time to read three or four chapters aloud every day? Summer school teachers, that’s who. No one had read to my students for years, and they were surprised to discover how much they loved it. The kids always expressed triumph when they “persuaded” me to read just one more chapter. But their desire for more literature was the real triumph.
4. Time to Read
Despite the lure of our class novel, I knew my students weren’t likely to break the habits of a lifetime and suddenly begin reading for homework. No problem. With five hours of class time, I could easily set aside 45 minutes each day for silent reading. With no choice but to read, my students became absorbed by a book—some for the first time in their lives.
5. Community Building
Many of my students had never felt supported by their school. My mission was to create a community of learners, a goal made easy by the long hours we spent together daily—and by the fact that everyone was in the same boat. Here, with the steady encouragement of their peers, my students could begin to experience academic success. That positive, communal atmosphere was exactly what they needed.
I used to think that folks who taught summer school did it only for the money. After all, that’s why I signed up. With an old house to renovate and a baby on the way, I needed to stock away every penny. But teaching summer school didn’t just get my floors refinished. It also provided me with some of my best teaching memories.