The truth is that this choice is difficult. So, where do you draw the line?
First, we need to consider if the line is even necessary. Do students need activities to do over the summer? The purpose of such activities is to stop the gap that develops over the course of the summer. Keeping the academic side of the brain active is important, especially when students are going to be asked to college-level work upon their return. A recent study cited in an article from Utah's The Salt Lake Tribune shows that students lose an average of one month of learning over the summer. For students on an alternating day schedule, that is one-half of a marking period. For students on an everyday 7-period day, that is three-quarters of a marking period. For students on an everyday block schedule, that is an entire marking period. And some of my colleagues wonder why students don't take the final quarter seriously.
So, keeping students active academically in the summertime is important. How do we honor their lives as people, too? we provide them the choice of how to exercise their academic muscles. I am going to detail my summer assignment for AP English Language and Composition below. I am sharing this assignment to show how I respect students' time over the summer and still get them to practice good academic habits.
Requirement 1: A Writer's Notebook
Students are asked to keep a notebook about their lives over the summer. They are asked to place one entry per week of the summer in the journal in any form they wish. They can write about what they are doing in any form from poetry to prose. These entries are used later in the first quarter to talk about different modes of writing.
Requirement 2: Rhetorical Note Cards
I provide students with a list of rhetorical terms and logical fallacies. Over the course of the summer, students are asked to define each term on a flashcard. Then, they must provide an example of each term from something they've read. This leads me to the final requirement.
Requirement 3: Reading
Student must read one age- and ability-appropriate fiction and nonfiction piece over the summer. I use part of the final weeks of the year (you know, the post-state-testing lull) to introduce incoming AP students to rhetorical analysis. Students must analyze both texts rhetorically and write a brief essay explaining the big differences in analysis of fictional and nonfictional texts. I provide the students with some options of fiction and nonfiction texts, but ultimately they decide what they read and then get approval for their choices. In this way, I can join them in their discovery of new texts through the recommendations they make.
All in all, students do the following over the summer:
1. Write one paper
2. Keep a journal with a minimum of nine entries
3. Read two books: one fiction, one nonfiction
4. Create some note cards
Thus far, that is the best I have devised in terms of respecting my students' lives over the summer while still getting them to practice their academic skills. What I would like to see happen is something like this summer assignment with one-on-one academic counseling for ALL students. According to the article from The Salt Lake Tribune, students from lower socioeconomic brackets "don’t catch up during the summer, and they lose more ground the next summer. Over time, that loss is cumulative, and it’s really hurting [them]."
Imagine if teachers were given eleven months of pay instead of ten. The extra month would account for an every other week open academic "camp" for students whose families cannot afford to send them. AP students, those with the most academic ability, are being given an advantage that would really help lower-income students; however, they would need guidance and an accountability system to ensure that they show up. After all, schools are failing lower-income students everyday, why should they believe that a summer program would actually help them?
These are just some ideas about how to address the summer gap. I am going to get my hands on a copy of that report from The Salt Lake Tribune and see what they have to say. In the mean time, here is the electronic copy.
What ways do you stimulate student learning over the summer? Do you believe there should even be summer assignments? Would you support summer assignments with direct instruction for all students?
McCombs, J. Sloan, C. H. Augustine, H. L. Schwartz, S. J. Bodilly, B. McInnis, D. S. Lichter and A. Brown Cross. Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children's learning. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1120. Also available in print form.