Click here

What Makes the Summer So Special

By Devin Clifford '99, M.A.T.

The unique ability of residential summer programs to foster academic success through social­ emotional development and community engagement

Summer School!?! Immediately many of our minds move to a classic image of a hot July day in a classroom packed full of students who, for one reason or another, are forced to be there. Tormented by losing their days of rest and relaxation, these students toil away at repetitive math and grammar problems, only to have their disdain for school further reinforced. The room is filled by the dull ticking of the clock that both the unengaged teacher and the unmotivated students watch, as the second hand seems to slow to a stop. Maybe the “coming of age” movies got to me, or maybe it was my parents motivating me by fear; this is what summer school was to me as a child.

To this day, summer school still carries such a negative connotation that many current academic summer programs (see what I just did there?) will go to great lengths to separate the two words in both their program title and their marketing efforts. However, times have changed. Our academic and professional world is increasingly more competitive. Research has increased our awareness around terms like “summer loss,” “summer slide,” and my personal favorite, “September sludge.” All highlight the loss of learning and skills when academics are put on hold for the summer. For the children reading this, “summer loss” is why, throughout the first weeks of school, your brain feels slower; you can have a hard time remembering basic facts; your writing hand usually hurts; and you find yourself perpetually tired. For the teacher, this is why your planning must include both communication with your students’ previous teachers and a good amount of review as part of your first month of lesson plans. In addition (for the teacher), if that review time does not match up with your pacing guide and you find yourself a month behind when you reach November, you are not alone. For the parent, this is why the beginning of the school year can raise the anxiety and stress in the entire household as your child struggles to catch up, even though the school year has just started.

Residential academic summer programs have evolved to address the growing needs of the modern student and to combat that classic image of “summer school.” A quick Internet search or an afternoon at a summer program fair will leave you in awe—both of the offerings and of the facilities that are now the standard in the summer academic program world. Images of robotics enrichment taking place in a state­ of­ the­ art STEM classroom; a fleet of kayaks, canoes, sailboats, and stand­ up paddle boards floating across a picturesque lake; and a student center complete with ping pong, foosball, air hockey, and shuffleboard make that stereotypical summer school classroom hard to imagine.

Furthermore, the typical summer classroom nowadays boasts a variety of advantages. Small class sizes can provide more individualized attention and differentiated instruction. Often, the summer classroom does not need to be a classroom at all. When crafting relevant, hands­ on learning experiences, often a “classroom” is the last place to be. To name just a few examples, I have seen public speaking in action across the soccer field, a biology lesson taking place in canoes, and a math class plotting directions for a tour of campus using coordinates and point–slope equations. Summer classes do not carry the stress of their academic­ year counterparts. A summer classroom allows student effort, progress, and level of engagement to be the main focus over a grade and summative assessment.

While beautiful campuses, excellent facilities, and innovative teaching make it easy to incorporate a high level of fun into an academic summer program, the real success is found in the ability to develop children both as more ­aware individuals and as more­ responsible members of a community. A focus on the social­ emotional development of the children on a summer campus gives them the tools to be successful both in and out of the classroom.

A mentor of mine once said, “Today’s workforce expects you to be able to not only do the work of more than one person but also work effectively as a member of a team. Therefore, we have to teach people to be effective and efficient as both individuals and teammates.” With bigger­ picture concepts like that in mind, a successful academic summer program depends not only on quality teaching and learning, but also on holistic design that focuses on the long­  term needs of the child. While there are countless examples of rhetoric used by various programs, here are some of my favorite campus norms that help craft such a culture. Since, after all, it is all about the kids, each example is followed by the kid­ friendly version in italics.

  • Be active and engaged throughout the program. Have fun.
  • Respect each other. Don’t take away from someone else’s fun.
  • Use your time here to push yourself to grow as an individual. Try something new.
  • Be responsible for your actions. If you make a mistake, ask an adult for help.
  • Use a growth mindset and focus on improvement through effort. Try to do it better next time.

Intentional programming around the academic schedule provides countless opportunities for children to practice and develop their social ­emotional skills. Living arrangements, dining hall setup and procedures, technology policies, free play time, open choice activities, and student performances all provide positive opportunities to find success through independence, industry, and healthy risk taking. One of my favorite examples of this combines a technology policy that does not allow personal devices...with an hour of free play. For roughly the first 15 minutes, this experience is incredibly difficult for many children as they begin to experience a sense of boredom. Without the outlet of a phone, tablet, or laptop to dig into, and no adults providing a curriculum or expectations beyond be nice and have fun, slowly children begin to reengage with free play. Before long, the field is full of various social interactions. A group from the same dorm sit in a circle and relax while talking about their day, small­ sided games of toss and other sports break out, and new games are invented with rules created organically as more people join.

During this time, children develop a sense of value and purpose. They gain confidence as individuals while receiving feedback on how to work well with others. While adults are supervise and assist with any more­ significant social struggles that might pop up, the conversations empower the children to dissect the issue and work together to create a solution that includes strategies for avoiding the same difficulty in the future. A residential academic summer program can provide countless opportunities for children to make their own decisions, encounter and solve problems, and work with others in a group as equals. All of these skills are key to a positive experience both in and out of the classroom.

Parents, when the notion of academics in the summer comes up, be aware that, although you have read the research and all you want is what is best for your child, he or she will most likely have a very different picture of summer school in his or her head. Go to the Internet and turn to the brochures to highlight all the pictures, videos, programming, and testimonials you can find. Couple these tools with the promise that, while spending time on academics in the summer can help make your child’s school year easier and less stressful, it will also provide an unmatched experience full of independence and fun.

Reprinted with permission from VincentCurtis Educational Register. (link to original article)